September 26, 2003
Those old tenured playboys
Just one two final thoughts for today, but my brother is doling out such irresistable topics, and I couldn't contain this in a little comment post. For one thing, the preposterousness of the acclaim accorded to celebrities is not confined to athletes nor to the present day. Leave Hollywood aside for the moment; just think of Descartes, most trenchantly described by one of his biographers as a "parasite on his family." One could probably make a universal claim about the inversion of our values in according fame and prestige, but that doesn't interest me all that much. Much more interesting and amusing to me is that people who spout off that old saw about teachers and athletes rarely mention that only a miniscule proportion of athletes are millionaires, probably only those competing in less than 20 leagues in various sports worldwide. One way of re-imagining the teacher-athlete dichotomy, in fact, would be to note that the worst teacher makes far more than the worst professional athlete. Aside from those privilaged few in the MLB, NFL, NASCAR, et al., professional athletes in general would probably be hard-pressed to match even a grade-school teacher's wage, let alone that of a tenured professor. Of course, the principal difference lies in the fact that sports leagues have a substantially differentiated pay-scale based on achievement, which stands in stark contrast to the educational system, except insofar as being a member of a teacher's union constitutes an achievement. But oh wait, I was forgetting about those tenured professors. Colleges engage in bidding-wars for celebrity professors just as fierce as those of squabbling European soccer clubs. In fact, I would be willing to bet that Stephen Hawking, Cornell West, Stephen Jay Gould, etc. have a higher income than all but a handful of professional athletes, but interestingly I have never heard a hew-and-cry against Harvard for paying West, who probably teaches only one class a year, if that, six times the salary of an elementary school teacher in D.C. working 50-hour weeks.
Athlete Compensation and the Color Purple
I was reading about Emmit Smith's comments in support of Maurice Clarett over at Off Wing Opinion and I couldn't help thinking that Clarett's situation is likely to cause a bit of confusion among certain segments of society. On the one hand, Clarett is a young black man who The Man is trying to prevent from entering the NFL (and collecting untold riches). On the other hand, he's eventually going to get paid millions to run around with a ball under his arm while other people try to hurt him.
The compensation that athletes get is a sore spot for a lot of people, since people who do much more society-enhancing jobs, like teachers, get paid far less than athletes. I'm not going to engage in this particular normative argument, but would rather like to dispell certain myths surrounding this issue. First and foremost, this disparity in compensation between athletes and teachers is often trotted out as evidence of the shallowness and irresponsibility of Americans and the supposedly materialist American culture. While it is true that the high compensation garnered by athletes in America is a function of the aggregate values of Americans, it's folly to suppose that it is only American culture which promotes this sort of thing. In fact, in every country I can think of, athletes are better compensated than teachers. Certainly this is true throughout Europe, as evidenced by the amount paid to soccer stars like David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane. It's also true in Africa, as we can see from the preferential treatment afforded to members of the Nigerian national soccer team or runners like Hicham El Guerrouj or South Africa's elite rugby players. In Asia, we need only look to Pakistani and Indian field hockey or cricket stars, Japanese baseball players or any number of other examples. Even in Communist countries, which supposedly have values diametrically opposite to the stereotypical "American" values, world-class athletes, be they Cuban baseball players, Chinese gymnasts or Red Army hockey players from the old USSR, receive special attention and special perks. Of course, in many of these countries, the disparity between athlete compensation and teacher compensation is less, but then again in most of those same countries teachers are more poorly compensated than they are in the US.
My point is not to say that athletes ought to be paid much better than teachers, but rather to point out that virtually every society known to man does exactly that. So complain about it all you like (or better yet, do something about it), but don't chalk it up as another example of the stupidity of Americans.
Since I'm sure two sports-related entries in a single week are proving disconcerting for some of my audience, here's a more stereotypical blog entry:
One other thing that I realized today, but which doesn't really merit a separate entry, is that the color purple seems to play an integral part in my life. Through what I think is a series of coincidences, both my bike and my skis (probably my two most valuable possessions in terms of original purchase price other than my computer) are purple, and the primary school color of my undergraduate university was purple. I purchased both the bike and the skis used; in each case the only suitable model available at the time came in purple. And I never even thought about school colors in deciding where to attend college. Still and all, these sorts of coincidences are unnerving.
I don't know why (certainly not procrastination--I'm done with class for the week), but I am going to wade a little ways into this matter despite knowing far less about the issue than my brother. However, two things seem apparent to me. One is the current and ongoing superstition among scientists that they are somehow immune to superstitions, which seems more and more ludicrous to me every time I hear of some new fad theory like superstring theory or, apparently, "sync." These generally fall either under the category of "so obscure that they cannot be understood, let alone proved" as in the case of superstring, or a series of blindingly obvious observations all swept up in some grandiose-sounding concept, as seems to me to be the case with this new theory of "sync." The most cuttingly insightful example of this grand theory which is supposed to wrap together biology, chemistry and physics, et. al is that fireflys can coordinate their flashing by observing each other? Imagine! At root, are any of these sort of theories really more substantially grounded than Leibniz's theory of monads? Anyway, I think the more important point is that these kinds of wildly presumptuous theories are more or less inevitable when the natural world is essentially perceived through a mathematical lens, because the discipline is predicated upon discrete, quantitative relationships between all the elements. And empirically also, talking about "spontaneous order" and logic in nature is to some extent simply tautological, as all of our empirical concepts of order and reason are based upon the the structure we perceive in nature and human society. Or as Hegel said back in 1821: "What is rational is actual and what is actual is rational...since rationality...enters upon external existence simultaneously with its actualization." Far from rendering math obsolete, this "sync" theory seems to demonstrate to me the current dominance of logical systemizing over the particular subject to which it is applied. I think in general we pay far too little attention to the ways the contents of our thoughts are shaped by the means of communication we use. In my opinion, the content of our conscious thoughts is simply the articulation of our inchoate feelings via language, and if anything divides our conscious selves from other animals, it must essentially be language itself. Anyway, the point I am making is that when a physicist uses numbers as a language to describe natural phenomena, that description will be limited and defined by the structure of the language, of math, just as an English-speaker or a Russian-speaker are constrained in the contents of their thoughts by the language of their thoughts. Therefore, I do not honestly understand how anyone could hold that math is inapplicable or unuseful in studying something like this theory of "sync", whatever it is, which is essentially based on the observation of numerical relationships in nature, i.e. is mathematical in nature. Anyway, I am sorry for ranting for so long, but I find myself constantly confounded by the dogmas in our society of those who argue about math as if it were some sort of philosophical object or concept rather than what it is, a sort of symbolic language which imposes a filter through which everything which it is used to describe must be perceived. I believe this is true even in the theoretical realm, as number-systems could not simply have been dreamed up a priori as a speculative-imaginative exercise, but rather serve to represent and correspond to quantities of ojects observed in the world.
September 25, 2003
That being said, I take some objection to Doss's comments and some of those made by Tim in response to the post. Quoth Doss:
So if those researching Sync want to have success when it comes to thinking, subjective creatures, they'd be best advised to, as Alfred Marshall suggested, "burn the mathematics."
And Tim rather sarcastically adds:
Also, I'd like to see the equation that represents humans evaluating a widget based on their subjective preferences. Please email me that when you get a chance.
In both cases, I find myself more in agreement with another commenter on Doss's post, Paul Philip, who contends:
I disagree with your automatic dismal of mathematics. Mathematics is just a tool, the problem is with the application. Alfred Marshall once said that biology was a better method than physics for the study of economics, the problem was that biological toolkit was too incomplete. Economists imposes the metaphor of a machine on economic activity because the toolkit was more complete at the time. The real problem is that the machine metaphor is very limited. There are problems in the science of self-organizing systems which require some complex mathematics. The results will be useful to the degree that the model encoded in the math fits with reality.
However, there are problems where math is the right tool. (Again, the problem in neoclassic economics ISNT the use of math, it is the limited metaphor imposed by the math - it is the inappropriate use of tools).
In fact, I might go even further than he does. First of all, I'd like to point out that, according to Strogatz, the study of spontaneous order is a subset of complexity theory, an offshoot of chaos theory. Now, I'm by no means an expert on chaos theory, but it is, without doubt, a field with heavy-duty mathematical content. Absent the tools of statistics and, oddly enough, topology, chaos theory could hardly have gotten off the ground (an excellent introduction to the ideas of chaos is Ian Stewart's Does God Play Dice?; note that even though it is introductory and intended for the non-specialist, Stewart's book has heavy mathematical content and an even stronger, invisible mathematical foundation -- and, of course, Stewart himself is a mathematician). So, to me, the notion that a study of spontaneous order can divorce itself from mathematics is absurd. Furthermore, I just want to point out that what is being called "mathematics" in these objections to mathematics is, primarily, statistics and calculus. Mathematics is a much broader field than these two particular areas and many would argue that statistics, while it uses mathematical tools, is actually a separate field. The fact that Statistics and Mathematics are different departments in most major universities is an exemplum of this idea.
Incidentally, I'd also like to point out that the Austrians' claim to be divorced from mathematics is totally absurd. Now, I am by no means an expert on Austrian economics, but, although the Austrians may dispense with the rather tedious and twisted equilibrium calculations that are the trademark of neoclassical economics and econometrics, I would contend that the Austrian approach is actually very mathematical. In fact, as noted by Philip above, neoclassical economics is actually more similar to physics, in my view, than it is to mathematics. After all, mathematics is decidedly not empirical. Mathematicians and Austrian economists, as I understand the field, argue a priori, starting with certain axioms and hoping to deduce certain theorems from those axioms. In fact, this deduction takes place under the auspices of logic which, though not always recognized as a part of mathematics, was certainly demonstrated to be equivalent by Russell and Whitehead. In any case, I think both Austrian economics (despite its flaws) and mathematics can be seen as a kind of meta-system, a way of thinking rather than a particular approach.
And, as I read it, evolutionary psychologists like Dawkins (ev. psych. is closely related to spontaneous order) do something similar. For example, in The Selfish Gene, Dawkins is largely examining certain phenomena (like charity) and and then trying to postulate simple principles which, if adhered to, would eventually evolve into the complex observed phenomena. These principles, though not axioms in the mathematical sense, have certain similarities.
My point is not to demonstrate that the study of spontaneous order is a mathematical discipline, nor that it should be. Rather, I just want to make the point that it has certain similarities to mathematics and, of course, will necessarily need to use mathematical tools in many instances. In fact, though I admit to not knowing nearly enough to be able to have any insights, it seems like mathematics, especially areas of study like graph theory and networks, might be able to shed some light on some of the applications of spontaneous order mentioned by Strogatz:
"In addition to the shear wonder of knowing why crickets chirp in sync or how the cells in your heart keep in step for three billion beats in a lifetime, there are applications in medicine and communications. For example, maybe you want to understand cardiac arrhythmias or how the brain works. There are also applications in super conducting and wireless communications,"
Is it clear yet that I'm procrastinating?
I apologize for the total lack of content this week; I've been absolutely swamped with work. And thanks, bro, for filling the vacuum a bit.
Anyway, have fun making your own slogan.
September 24, 2003
A killer idea
Screw "Seeing Paris on a budget" or whatever the latest tourist guide-book trend is. I want to write guidebooks for the world's great cities entitled "Seeing _______ while hungover." Since this is the manner in which a substantial number of the world's tourists experience the cities which they are visiting, it opens up a whole wealth of information which standard guidebooks only address in an offhand or accidental way: what cities have the least and the most offensively blaring lights? Which have the traffic most likely to hit you while you lurch across bridges and so forth? Which have metros with directions utilizing at least three different senses for the temporarily impaired? Venice, for example, is a beautiful city to visit but a wretched one in which to go drinking (as I know all too well). It is not only because a rum-and-coke costs $6 there, but also because of the total lack of any form of transportation other then one's feet, the byzantine and identical-looking alleys throughout the city with no directions posted anywhere and the distant-yet-constant risk of falling in a canal. Anyway, this is what I think people really ought to know, because the somewhat fuzzy scenery of the disheveled faces of unemployed ex-deodorant testers staring incredulously at them while they lie prone outside "Les Deux Magots" is probably the sight they will come to know best. This may not be a profitable idea for me as the drunken expatriates wandering through the backalleys of the world's great cities are probably the least likely people on earth to solicit anyone's advice, let alone in guidebook form.
September 23, 2003
I was going to write about the virtues of the nocturnal lifestyle (which I wholeheartedly embrace), but there are really no objective advantages to it. In fact, there are some distinct disadvantages, as the nocturnal worker often finds himself working while others are sleeping or partying, which both limits your ability to collaborate and puts a cramp in your social life.
Nonetheless, the best job I've ever had was the research job during the summer of '02; it didn't matter when I worked, so long as I did. Needless to say, I was usually going to bed as the sun was coming up and often had to set my alarm to make sure I could make it to my daily 3:00 meeting. Of course, that meant that my social life was pretty much restricted to talking with other night-owls on IRC, but I needed a good introverted summer, anyway.
I haven't quite been able to duplicate that experience since, though having no teaching responsibilities this year means I don't ever really need to get up before 11:00, so I've been staying up until 3:00 or 4:00 most nights this fall. Of course, I'll be expected to start teaching next fall, which means I'll probably get stuck with a bunch of 8:00 recitations. I'm not sure how well I'll adjust to the diurnal lifestyle.
September 22, 2003
Weird Link of the Day
On the other hand, this guy kicks ass.
September 21, 2003
The ability to edit any and all of the comments made on this blog is, at times, extremely enticing. I just want you all to know how much restraint I'm exercising here.
Salary Caps and World Domination
Okay, I don't think anybody that reads this is much of a football fan, but lack of interest has never stopped me from ranting before. When you live in Philadelphia, you tend to become pretty hyper-aware of how the local sports teams are doing, especially the Eagles and especially when they're playing poorly. Not having watched either of their games this year, I have really no idea what is wrong with the Eagles, but I suspect part of the problem is that they're playing too many young, inexperienced players, especially in the secondary and on special teams.
The problem of young players is an age-old one in sports, as younger players tend to be faster, more athletic, more explosive, but also tend to be less mature, less experienced. The problem with a lack of maturity and experience is that it tends to lead to mental mistakes that can be costly: not recognizing a pattern, not knowing how to fight off the block, losing one's temper in a close game, not knowing when to conserve one's energy and when to give total effort. The tradeoff involved with having younger players filling important roles on a team is why most sports teams try to achieve a balance between youthful athleticism and veteran wiliness and leadership.
In the NFL (and most other sports leagues), this tradeoff is about more than just achieving that ideal balance with no constraints. After all, teams have the Collective Bargaining Agreement to deal with. The CBA is the agreement between the NFL Player's Association (union) and the league (owners). Within that agreement, everything from expansion to team size to meal allowances are spelled out in detail. Not least of the components in the agreement are the minimum salaries and the Salary Cap (what's linked to is the old CBA; I don't know if the new one is online or not, but I imagine it's similar. The language of the CBA itself is pretty intimidating; I recommend this Salary Cap FAQ). Now, those two components, acting in opposition, do much to determine a team's mixture of youth and experience.
Why is that? Because of this is the minimum salary structure for players on a team's active roster for the 1999 league year (again, the 2003 structure is similar, though there is an additional level for 10+ year veterans):
Length of Service
Less than One Credited Season $175,000
One Credited Season 250,000
Two Credited Seasons 325,000
Three Credited Seasons 350,000
Four Credited Seasons 375,000
Five or more Credited Seasons 400,000
What this chart makes pretty clear is that employing a rookie for punt coverage and backup secondary duties (a position likely to earn near the minimum) is significantly less expensive for a team than employing a five year veteran for the same job, which is important when one considers that each team's spending on salaries is capped. In fact, when you consider the fact that any player with at least four "Credited Seasons" is eligible for the NFL pension plan, a five year veteran is substantially more expensive to employ than a rookie. Now, I've highlighted some of the deficiencies of younger players, but it almost goes without saying that, when contracts are being negotiated, a general manager is going to have a hard time justifying the notion that a five-year veteran is almost three times better than an otherwise comparable rookie. After all, you can't quantify experience in the same way that you can speed or agility. The general manager might regret his decision after the season when the team comes up short in the playoffs due to the rookie inadvertantly touching a live punt (subsequently recovered by the opposition for the go-ahead touchdown mid-way through the fourth quarter), a common rookie mistake.
So what's my point? My point is that the way the minimum salary as structured in the CBA is detrimental to teams (and, incidentally, to marginal players: is it any coincidence that the length of the average NFL career is 3 1/2 years?). Teams have a strong financial incentive to employ rookies over veterans, yet it is the inexperience of rookies that time and again is decried by teams and sportwriters for a team's failure. Young players are likely to only have a couple of years in the league, not because they don't have the ability, but rather because they are forced by their own union to demand a higher salary than they are worth (if we suppose that a competent though unexceptional defensive back is worth $300,000, then such a player will become obsolete after only two years, even if his play does not decline).
This is typical of established unions, which tend to favor policies that do one thing: ensure the continued profitability of the union. In the case of the NFLPA, this means adopting policies that serve the above-average veteran player. Such players tend to be team leaders, so their support of the union is crucial. The young and marginal players being screwed by the CBA are unlikely to be influential voices in the locker room and, at any rate, are never around long enough (due in part to the minimums enforced by the CBA) to have any effect on the popularity of the union.
So, the moral of the story is, the next time your team loses because some no-name rookie got called for holding on a punt return, you might want to consider taking a moment out of the time you devote to questioning his parentage to toss in a curse or two for the self-serving NFLPA.
None of this is to say that owners and general managers are devoid of blame personnel decisions, but they get blamed all the time. The NFLPA deserves a few fingers pointed its way, too.
I think I'll hire some of the former NFLers screwed by the CBA to be my bodyguards when I achieve world domination; they're likely to be large, strong and have bad attitudes. Needless to say, I'll be sure to follow these handy tips along the way.
September 19, 2003
I Have to Go
I don't know about "I have to go", but the standard translation of "You wanna go watch a movie?" was "Let's go hook up" at Sewanee.
And now...further sociological cant
Apparently my brother was disappointed at not getting a response to his response, so to speak, in our little ethics debate, but as should be clear we are not really disagreeing about the central issue. I say that it is natural for humans to make moral distinctions in their relationships with different people; he says that the law should not be used as a surrogate morality to enforce those distinctions; I agree but feel that the individual may have obligations in this regard that go outside or even in opposition to the law. So there you have it. Now for my own question about domestic violence issues: why is "I have to go" always the cue for sex in movies? Does "I have to go" tacitly mean the same thing as "no" under our byzantine rape laws? Is Hollywood therefore endorsing a pretty lethargic form of sexual abuse? Is this ("I have to go") a line that would actually work at parties?
Let me tell you, grad school is a humbling experience. Even when you're pretty on top of things, it's a lot of work. Which, in math at least, means a lot of staring at a sheet of paper covered in undecipherable symbols, wondering what the hell you were thinking. Or staring at the chalkboard in your office, subconsciously hoping that if you stare intently enough, the symbols will rearrange themselves into the proper order.
But, on the other hand, it's also exhilerating. After all, someone came up with these things, figured them out, passed the knowledge along. Which is really pretty extraordinary when you consider just how abstract it all is.
September 17, 2003
And Yet More
Since Petya's guestbook seems to be broken, I'm posting this here and hoping it gets noticed.
From Petya's latest:
The main concern, voiced by most of the people participating in the discussion, is that in its efforts to push for equality, feminism often creates a bias which favors women.
Just thought I'd point out that this is actually not a good form of critique. Suppose that, in fact, feminists, through their actions, have created biases favoring women in certain situations (like the military example that leo and I have discusses). This is quite different from saying that feminism necessarily creates these undesirable biases.
In fact, the stipulated biases may be results of misapplications of feminism, excessive zealousness or misunderstanding. If that's true (which I think it may be), then those problematic biases will likely be corrected with time as more thoughtful people start to question them. In any case, demonstrating that, at times, feminists or those influenced by feminists have created undesirable situations is a far cry indeed from saying that feminism necessarily engenders undesirable situations. If we could demonstrate this last, then we might be justified in tossing feminism out the window.
But nobody, to my knowledge, has done this. In fact, if we suggest that feminism is about equality, then I think it would be impossible to show this, as any demonstrable inequality, even one created by feminists or those they influence, would be contrary to the ideals of feminism.
(Just as an aside, even were it demonstrably true that feminism entails undesirable biases, it still might not be justified to toss it out the window, since it might create fewer or less severe biases than any alternative system)
Right Back At Ya
I was initially going to post the following response to Curt as a comment, but decided to make it a separate post.
I absolutely agree that it is natural for people to feel more strongly for their loved ones, to be more opposed to harming them than harming others (e.g. a "good" mother would never steal from her children, but might steal for her children). However, that doesn't mean the law should necessarily punish harming one's loved ones more than harming others. After all, as you point out, law and morality are two distinct things. In fact, saying that law should punish domestic violence more harshly than other violence because morally we have a stronger obligation not to harm our loved ones than others is to run the risk of falling into the trap of trying to duplicate morality with laws, to equate law and morality.
Now, I understand, since most people feel a stronger taboo against harming loved ones than harming others why a majority might favor laws that reflect this feeling, but my question is not why we have domestic violence laws (because a majority voted for them, probably), but what purpose do they serve? It seems, upon this analysis, that they only serve to make people feel better. Now, you might argue that this is a legitimate function of law, but I think that's a dubious claim.
Honestly, despite a general willingness to hold forth on almost anything, I usually have little inclination to weigh in on issues like domestic violence, at least in public forums where sensitive issues like this are likely to quickly degenerate to the level of general abuse. But when I read my brother's post (I admit to not having read the other opinions to which he is responding) it struck a chord with me, perhaps because after a month of reading Kant and Hegel I am perhaps a bit more oriented towards a general consideration of the intersection of the law and morality. The general question which I think is implicit in my brother's query is why and for what reasons extrinsic factors like race, gender or personal relationship between people should affect one's intrinsic obligations either to the law or moral duty. Or more simply, how can the same action be judged differently under different circumstances? I know this is unfair to his specific point, because one can be sensitive to the role of outside factors in general in evaluating the relative merit of an action without necessarily accepting the ones under particular consideration, such as the domestic relations between two people, racism, sexism, etc. This is certainly true, and must be addressed to evaluate the merit of a particular body of laws, such as the domestic violence laws. But I think my brother, as well as anyone with an inquisitive bent, will eventually be led to a consideration of the broader issue which I have posed above. My intuitive feeling is that the reason that laws like the domestic violence laws, laws which make particular provisions for certain groups or particular situations, rather than simply imposing the sort of general obligation for which they seem more suited, is that the moral sense of most people inevitably leads them to personalize moral obligations. One's behavior towards the members of one's family are simply more important to most people than one's behavior towards a stranger on the street, and I for one think this is entirely natural and eminently defensible. I feel that the ties of family or intimate friendship creates a greater obligation among two people than simply their shared humanity, and I have always been very critical of moral systemists like Kant who level these distinctions by elevating moral abstraction above human relations, who advocate the imposition of moral obligation as a logical principle while ignoring our best impulses of love and pity. I think the state of the laws reflects that feeling among the majority of humanity, although I certainly do not equate the law with morality nor do I even think they have or should have the same goals. The law is not the proper place to enshrine these distinctions; it exists to maintain stability within society, and hence is probably the best place of any to formulate abstract, universal duties. However, for a moral individual within society, the situation is somewhat different; it is within the particularities of the individual's own life that he or she must consider the particular implications of their actions and the ways in which their personal existence must deviate from abstract principle. There is a Hebrew word for this, for the proper relation of the individual towards his legal and moral obligations: it is called chesed. It means a loving sense of obligation towards others which may sometimes bend the law or specific moral injunctions, but always honors their spirit. May all of us try to act in the spirit of chesed.
Actually, though, what I want to discuss is not so much the justification for feminism, but rather the endgame. Is there a point at which feminism becomes irrelevant? Or is it an important part of culture for all time? If we view feminism as a social movement struggling to achieve equal rights for women, then it would seem like, once women have equal rights, feminism becomes irrelevent. On the other hand, if we view feminism more broadly, as a "belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes" (Dictionary.com definition one) or, in Brooke's conception, as "freedom of choice", then we tend to the second option.
However, this second definition seems to me troublesome. Why use the gender-specific term "feminism" if we're talking about a belief in gender equity or freedom of choice? Lexically it makes little sense. Historically, of course, this is because the term was first coined to describe a social movement. That is why, I think, most people, when they hear "feminism" or "feminist", think of a social movement rather than a belief system. Words, after all, have no objective meaning; they mean exactly what people think they mean. Which is why it's silly, outside of formal arguments wherein precise definitions are imperative, to argue over what a word "really means"; when it comes right down to it, that's a rather mindnumbing and ultimately pointless exercise in demographics. Thus, despite the fact that I think all individuals ought have freedom of choice and ought be treated equally under the law, I wouldn't call myself a feminist (and not because I'm afraid of emasculating myself were I to do so, incidentally).
However, I've strayed from my original point, which is to ask what the endgame is for feminism (or if there is one). Thad asks an excellent question in Petya's guestbook (check out leo's interesting comments there as well). Ultimately, I think, his question is pointing to the question of whether feminists would be better served trying to end some truly horrible situations in places like Afghanistan or China rather than trying to make American women a bit wealthier. As usual, I see merits to both sides of the discussion. On the one hand, practices that all but the most Neanderthalic of Americans would find downright barbaric still exist in other parts of the world (widow-burning, anyone?); isn't preventing death and assault more important than improving the wage gap for people that are tremendously wealthy, relative to the rest of the world? On the other hand, I think that perspective neglects certain realities, like the fact that things like "rights" and "equality" are pretty irrelevant when one is malnourished. Also, there's a case to be made that one ought practice what one preaches (a.k.a. "Clean up your own mess before you start sticking your head in others' "). I find that less persuasive, since Utopia is impossible, but it's not unreasonable to think that emulating success is easier than creating it anew.
There are a number of things I'd like to go into, such as "economic equality" (which is, at best, a very poorly defined term), but I think I'll leave those for another time. One thing I do want to talk about, though, is domestic violence laws. Petya, Brooke and leo all mention them and I must say that I, personally, am not entirely certain what the best answer is. It makes me uneasy, though, for a special class of crimes to be created when the actions they govern are already illegal under the existing laws ("hate crimes" legislation falls into this category, too). Assault and battery are already illegal, so why is it necessary to single out a certain class of assault for special attention under the rubric of domestic violence? Is beating your wife worse (under some moral metric) than beating random strangers on the street? An argument could be made that it is, since it represents a breech of trust, but the same could be said for beating one's friends or co-workers, yet friends and co-workers can't claim domestic violence. Another argument could be made that domestic violence impacts not just the husband and wife (or boyfriend and girlfriend, or boyfriend and boyfriend, or girlfriend and girlfriend), but their children (if any). But, again, this seems a somewhat hollow critique, as many criminal cases (and virtually all civil cases) take into account a crime's impact on uninvolved parties. So, again, I have to ask what the point of domestic violence laws is. Just for the record, I am totally opposed to domestic violence, but I simply don't understand why special laws are needed to prevent it when it was already illegal under existing laws (incidentally, I've just remembered that in many societies it was not illegal for men to beat their wives, as the wife was considered property, to be disposed of as the man pleased, but rectifying that situation requires, it seems to me, changing attitudes (to recognize women as equals) and then applying pre-existing laws more consistently). I'm honestly puzzled by this issue. Care to help me out?
Anyway, I've rambled long enough for one night.
September 16, 2003
I know I haven't updated in a while; my life is extremely hectic right now. Hopefully I will get settled into a routine soon and updates will be more regular.
September 13, 2003
The Triumph of the Bill by Al-Curtizini
As most of us are aware by now, tensions have recently escalated between the entertainment-media conglomerates who wish to make all consumers pay for use and the consumers who nevetheless side-step around this archaic and monopolistic supply-model through a dizzying array of proxy vendors, with no resolution in sight except a long string of lawsuits. I am speaking, of course, about the used-textbook market, and the shell game between textbook manufacturers and students willing to go to great lengths to avoid using their hamsters as collateral in order to come up with $130 for an intro. psych. book. Hence the used-textbook market, which, for those of us sensuously connected to our books, presents rather a dilemma. There is little inherently desirable about a used book. The notes are generally rubbish, good for nothing except practice for future archaelogists. Defaced pages, cracked spines, the absence of any but a soured book-smell--these books seem more like dilapidated, graffitied temples, and I far prefer my rapport with a brand-new book, pristine, which has saved all its special secrets for me alone, or at least me first. I would not call this expereience priceless: it has a very definite price, generally between $30 and $50 over the price of a poor degraded Used, which, when I am not paying for my textbooks, can even in me awaken the bee which but rarely troubles my bonnet, which I sometimes call a conscience. Therefore, I demand an armistace in the textbook war: I demand that textbook publishers stop preparing new editions every single year, resulting in a line of succession longer than the Bourbon dynasty and even more incestuous, so that when reading Hegel's "Philosophy of Right" I am not forced to decipher the dialectic of the finite Will through and around a hand-written scrawl entitled "Fifty variations on the word 'echinacea'"
September 12, 2003
How uncool became cool
As my brother so graciously introduced me, I am his brother, Curt, also known by my Arabic nickname al-Curtizini (that should get a few hits from the Justice Department-viva Google!). This I think is important to note, lest my brother be slanderously accused of saying all the things that appear under his imprimateur. I must say, after I learned that he had started a blog, the first thing that came to my mind was the question: "Yeah, but does it have lots of cool text links?" This, to me, was the real mark of authenticity, the thing that really elevates a blog beyond a simple online diary and makes it a portal of information on the Internet. But what actually is the point of these links? I have always been struck, when I think about them consciously, by the degree to which the very different functions of pseudo-advertising, helpful reference and tacit boasting of cultural literacy have become fused in the form of links on most sites of reasonable sophistication. This is hardly a new phenomenon; in academia, where the sophisticated use of texts is one of the pre-eminent signs of achievement, scholarly citations, in greater or lesser degrees of formality, have long performed a similar mulitiplicity of tasks. Of course, the difference lies principally in magnitude and content. Scholarly prowess has always had a limited appeal, and not only among those who cannot construct a decent syllogism. An air of unworldliness enwraps the library, and a sort of hushed attitude towards knowledge is cultivated there. The Internet is another thing entirely, and its users as well; they seem somehow more engaged with the world, partly because they encounter a much more heterogenous portion of it on the Internet than readers do in a library. If researchers at the Library in Alexandria had had to sift through shelves full of porno to discover Euclid's treatises (well, maybe they did) academics might have been spared millenia of Swiftian barbs. For a truly discerning and perceptive congnoscento of the Internet, few in my experience will dismiss such as him as either pedantically abstract or intellectually shallow. He seems in fact, to have mastered the librarian's virtues, the scholarly corraling of information, while at the same time interacting deftly with a very wide swath of humanity, for practically everything in the world has its surrogate in digital media today, as pieces of information, and so the skills of the librarian are no longer just for the ghost-world of the library itself, but for the world-represented-as-a-library which is the Internet. This all makes me think of a story by one of our greatest librarian-artists, Borges, called "The Library of Babel," which depicts the entire world as, quite literally, a library, where different nations occupy different reading-rooms and the most intrepid explorers are librarians who venture to distant shelves searching for profound books with unnamable words in them. Anyway, the effect of such a fiction by Borges, who synthesizes an incredible array of various forms of media detritus and scraps of information into a dizzying and grand structure, would perhaps, though greatly different in degree, not be so different in kind from the effect produced by an urbane, widely ranging blog. And there you have my rough equivalence principle, as well as my own rather archaic form of boast/reference/advertisement, via allusion: Borges=Shonkwiler.
Let's face it, when you're studying mathematics in graduate school, you tend to acquire something of a geek vocabulary. You start getting excited about things like diffeomorphisms, quasi-manifolds and R-modules. Actually, though some of the new terms you pick up are pretty unusual, what will really throw you for a loop is the specialized meaning attributed to otherwise commonplace terms. For example, words like continuous, ideal, normal, integral, field, group, extension, map, graph, module, knot, domain, range, compact, open, closed, picture, braid, and smooth (among many others) all have specialized mathematical definitions that may or may not relate to their usual definition in some way.
And even when they do denote something similar to what we would expect, such is hardly obvious from the definition without specialized knowledge. The knots that knot theorists study, as an example, are recognizably similar to the normal conception of a knot, but they are defined to be "continuous embeddings of the circle in the 3-sphere".
That's really the uninteresting case, though. After all, some of these definitions seem totally arbitrary, leading to this inevitable comparison in junior-level algebra: "Ideals are basically just like normal subgroups, but for rings". I wish some confused English major had wandered into class just at the moment I heard that phrase sophomore year, because, as the professor said it, all of us in the class were nodding our heads, saying, "Oh, okay, that makes sense". The look of horror on the poor lad's face would have been priceless.
All of this leads me back to a conversation I was having the other day about language. I won't get into the details, but at one point I asserted that what we call things affects how we think of them, asking the hypothetical question "Would Social Security get the same kind of funding if it were called 'State-mandated Ponzi Scheme?' " But I don't necessarily think that the same reasoning applies to totally abstract concepts like those studied in mathematics. Would it make any difference for comprehension if we called it a "norring" rather than an "ideal"?
I, for one, am glad that mathematics has co-opted so much everyday vocabulary. If it hadn't, my Russian topology professor could never have said this yesterday: "If it's infinitely smooth, we just say it's simply smooth". Henceforth, then, I demand that we call Barry White simply smooth, both because that's the preferred nomenclature and because it sounds less intimidating (though my girlfriend asserts that Mekhi Phifer is much smoother than Barry White).
September 11, 2003
I've extended co-author privileges to my brother, so be prepared in the future for a few posts originating in his unusual mind.
September 08, 2003
Well, I knew it had to happen sometime. Today, this site was referred by some unusual searches on Yahoo. Specifically, "buying speak elvish tapes" and "how people respond to selling cocaine in philadelphia". Now, I am constantly amazed by the fact that people still don't know how to formulate a search query (and that anybody still uses Yahoo! Search, but that's another story), but I'm further amazed that this site somehow ended up near the top of the search-engine list for those queries. Neither is anything I've talked about, and I've only mentioned Elvish and cocaine in passing, but the Googlebot moves in mysterious ways.
Hmm...that sounds like a theology for the Internet Age. The Googlebot as God (or maybe just Google...the Googlebot could be like the Holy Spirit), blog as confession, comment pages as penance, and getting your first name in the top ten on Google as heaven. Hey, there are even oracles. I'm convinced we could attain tax-free status if we just pushed this thing as an official religion.
September 06, 2003
Pizza and Music
There's a pizza place downstairs from my apartment. Now, that might seem like a dangerous situation, especially for someone who loathes cooking as much as I do, but I had never actually been in the place until tonight. You see, once again, I neglected to go grocery shopping today, preferring to spend 6 hours finishing up The Name of the Rose.
Anyway, I want to talk about the pizza place, not my neglected domestic responsibilities. The weird thing about this particular joint, which is otherwise a totally typical takeout pizza parlor, is that there was no music being played. This wasn't something I immediately noticed, but rather came to realize as I was sitting by myself and waiting for my three slices to be cooked. It's a small thing, surely, but most bars/restaurants/take-out places have some sort of music playing in the background, so long as we include terrible instrumental versions of bad pop songs being played at barely-audible levels within our definition of "music". Whether that's good or bad is a personal judgement, but it was mildly jarring to experience the exception to the rule.
Actually, the pervasiveness of background music throughout our culture is, I think, an odd phenomenon. What's the point of music that nobody pays attention to or, often, even hears? I'm inclined to think that background music (I guess "ambient music" is probably the preferred nomenclature) is popular because without it, people are more truly alone with their thoughts, which can be a scary thing. I'm sure some modern naysayers have already written at length about this subject, decrying the modern disinclination to indulge in personal thought and contemplation. I often side with this perspective, as I've never been particularly inclined to have background music playing while I'm working, writing, or reading. Since I don't pay attention to it, it seems sort of pointless or, at worst, distracting. I do find that I think better without any extraneous noise in the environment.
And, in some cases, background music can become downright annnoying. When it's really bad, for example. Or even when it's good, but in excessive quantities. Like when my girlfriend was spending several hours a day in a coffee shop that played the same Norah Jones CD on repeat all day, every day. Despite liking the CD, it quickly went from "nice" to "extremely annoying", though that eventually gave way to "totally ignored" (incidentally, from her experience working at a coffee shop, she claims Brazilian jazz is the most easy-to-ignore music).
But I can understand the positive side of background music, too. After all, it tends to cover up the conversation of others, which are usually inane or incomprehensible, but still fascinating, since listening feels voyeuristic and vaguely naughty, given the social norms against eavesdropping. And so, given the lack of background noise, I found myself overhearing the conversation of the people working in the pizza place and thinking that, perhaps, it might be a good business move to turn the radio on and cover up the rambling of the workers. For example, the female cash register worker was telling her (I'm assuming) manager that she finds it disconcerting to talk to him while he's sitting and she's standing, since she always envisions him as being above her, not below. Which was probably the innocent observation of a bored worker, but it might not play well to the segment of the market that looks for subjugation of women at every turn.
Yet again, I've run off on a tangent. In any case, the main point is, I'm used to not having background music in my apartment, in class and in my office, but almost anywhere else it's a bit disconcerting. And now that I've devoted so much thought to it, I'm sure to be hyper-aware of ambient music (or lack thereof) for the next week or two. Hopefully I'll have forgotten this obsession before I need to go to an airport, because being hyper-aware of background noise when you're sitting for two or three hours is a good way to drive yourself insane. Brian Eno apparently had a similar thought in mind when he made Music for Airports (which LaGuardia actually played in its Marine Terminal for a while). Fortunately, I've never had much reason to pay attention to such things in airports, as I usually either spend the whole time with my nose in a book or head for the nearest bar.
September 05, 2003
As of right now, this page is the first one listed by Google if you look up "shonk". I'm so proud, especially since I'm sure thousands of people search for that particular string every day.
Also, I've added an icon to the page, so if you add me to your bookmarks (or "Favorites" for you IE people), you can see my little orange-and-white concoction. Okay, it looks sorta crappy, but nobody ever accused me of being an artist.
For some reason, I just haven't felt much like writing this week. Or, really, since I got to Philadelphia. I blame it on not having any work to procrastinate about. Which will probably change very soon, so we'll see what happens (of course, with my luck, I'll end up with so much work that I can't even procrastinate about it).
September 03, 2003
I went to my first graduate class today, and I'm pleased to report that I actually knew what the hell was going on. I'm sure at some point in the near future (like tomorrow) the concepts will start flying over my head and I'll get that underwater-with-no-air-tank feeling. You know, the one where you don't know if you're ever going to understand what's going on and start questioning your motivations, your career goals, the personal and financial implications of failing out of school and so on. No doubt, I will soon be checking out the webpages of economics, philosophy and linguistics departments around the country in hopes of finding something less impossible, but I think that sort of thing is normal, probably even healthy. After all, doubting the path you've chosen, but ultimately sticking with it shows a greater level of dedication than never having doubted at all. Plus, it means you're challenging yourself (or that what you're doing is too easy, I suppose, but I tend to doubt that will pertain).
I think that attitude is why I tend to have more respect for the likes of St. Augustine than of the stereotypical Benedectine monk; Augustine experienced the (enjoyable) things he ultimately rejected, whereas most monks in Medieval times were raised from birth with the expectation of becoming a monk, never having been very far outside of an abbey or convent and not having much exposure to the things they vowed to abstain from. On the other hand, modern monks typically have been exposed to what were once called "secular aims" and chosen to reject them with full knowledge of what that rejection implies. Which might explain why there were significantly more monks in medieval days than there are now (even though population has increased by a few orders of magnitude).
Okay, that was a bit off on a tangent. Needless to say, I didn't start writing this with the intention of delving into religion and monasteries, but it seemed appropriate at the time. And I think The Name of the Rose is affecting my brain.
September 02, 2003
Back to the Grindstone
And no, you can't see the pictures. I haven't even seen them yet.
NOTE: My Sept. '01 - Aug. '02 Reading List is now available in a permalink to the right.