Saturday, December 25, 2010

words were said

Many were upset by the Pope's recent claim: "In the 1970s, paedophilia was theorized as something fully in conformity with man and even with children."

Here's some unsolicited advice from yours truly: ignore passive-voice statements. Translate them as "blah blah blah," and then say, "Well, that's meaningless, so I can ignore it." You'll throw some babies out with that bathwater, but most of them will be baby trolls.

WHO theorized it? A bunch of priests? An academic? Some guy selling porn? Most ideas have been theorized by somebody. It's been theorized that the world is flat. It's been theorized that I shit five-dollar bills.

Seriously, just ignore statements like that. They have no content -- just not-very-good rhetoric pretending to be content. Same goes for "there's a school of thought that..." and "it's been said that..."

Tell me who said it and what his qualifications are. Or shut up. You're wasting oxygen.

what exactly does a guy like Julian Assange want?

On a forum I frequent, someone wrote: It does raise an interesting question -- what exactly does a guy like Julian Assange want? What does he want that someone, anyone, can give him? Not celebrity, not money, not power ... What is left?

That, to me, is an extraordinary question. And, by that, I don't mean it's a stupid one. It's actually an elegant, pithy wording of a common attitude -- one that's diametrically opposed to a less common attitude. The part that kills me is "what is left?" It's like a knife in my belly.

An even pithier version is "Looks like someone has too much time on his hands." I've complained, on Metafilter and other places, about that phrase. I hate it. Like Assange, I have a lot of oddball interests (luckily for me -- and I really mean "luckily," because there but for the grace of God... -- hacking isn't one of them), interests that have nothing to do with power, money, notoriety or sex. I spend hours and hours on those interests, and so I get "Looks like someone has too much time on his hands" a lot. To be honest, my response (which I generally keep to myself) is "up yours, you soulless fuck!"

But I understand that, for many, those urges are pretty much all there is, except that I'd replace "celebrity" with a the larger category of social cache. According to this view, we do what we do for love, friendship, respect, money, power and sex. And that's it. Everything we do should be traceable (if not reducible) to one of those fundamental drives. So if I spend two years building a lego tower that I never show to anyone, I'm acting in an inexplicable way. I have too much time on my hands. I am doing stuff "for no reason," because when you take those commonly understood reasons, "what is left?"

What's left is working through a system, completing a project, learning a new skill, experiencing a particular sensation or ritual... not for any of those common purposes -- not so you can impress people, get girls or whatever -- but, as the famous Everest climber said, "Because it's there."

Sticking steadfastly to some political ideal is the same urge. Ultimately, it's aesthetic. It's working a system through to its logical ends, insisting on dotting every i and crossing every t. To that mindset, a system is pointless unless it's perfect -- or unless its experienced perfectly. This is the same drive that propels nuns to take vows of silence. It drove Jackson Pollack. It makes Stephen Sondheim say that every tiny word in a song lyric is vitally important. It makes computer programmers -- some of them -- spend hours coining names for variables.

(Amateur programers think the whole point is making the program work. It will work just as well if a variable is named hs as if it's named highScore. Pros know that getting the program to work is just part of the point. It should be readable, self-documenting and elegant. So highScore is a much better choice. Or should it be playerHighScore? Or humanPlayerHighScore? ...)

One of my obsessions is directing plays. Yes, I do it partly because it's a way for me to hang out with my friends. Yes, I do it because I like the praise. Yes, I do it -- or I did it -- to meet girls (I married an actress). I would happily do it for money, if only someone would offer me some.

But if you told me I'll never get paid (which is likely), that I could only direct actors I don't particularly like, that no one will ever see my plays, that (assuming I was single), girls wouldn't give a shit... Well, I'd be upset, but I'd still direct plays. That's right: I'd direct plays even if I had to act them out myself, in an otherwise empty room, for an audience of myself. And if you don't understand why I'd do that, you'll never understand "what's left." Because what's left is the process of working on the play. That can't be reduced to sex, money, power or social needs. It's its own need.

Friday, December 24, 2010

more bullshit

"He who questions training only trains himself at asking questions."
"When you doubt your powers, you give power to your doubts."
"We are number one! All others are number two, or lower."
- The Sphinx from "Mystery Men"

By now, I should expect bullshit from academics and critics. Maybe I should be charmed by it: "whatchagonnado?" But I'm not. I can't seem to lose my innocence. I assume educators and writers are trying to communicate something that makes sense. Yet when another apple from the nonsense tree bops me on the head, I'm shocked and angered again, as if it was happening to me for the first time.

In this piece on Edward Hopper, Morgan Meis, who "is currently finishing his Ph.D. in philosophy at the New School for Social Research [and] teaches undergraduate philosophy courses at Eugene Lang College and at various other institutions ... throughout the city, including Columbia University," launches into the bullshit almost immediately: "Is he a cliché? That's the question you keep coming back to when you look at the paintings of Edward Hopper." No, it's not. It's not a question I have ever even once asked myself, while looking at any painting by Hopper or anyone else.

There's no such thing as a universal cliché. "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" is a cliché to me, as it probably is to most adult English speakers, but to someone who has never heard the phrase before, it's potentially a strong, witty and vivid metaphor. Clichés are subjective. And, as the owner of his subjectivity, each person instantly know if something is cliché to him or not. He may not be comfortable with the word "cliché," but he knows whether something affects him in a visceral way or if it's so blunted that it bounces off him. He's either affected by it or he isn't.

Sometimes I hear people say, "I know that's a cliché, but it still makes me cry." Then it's NOT a cliché -- to you! What you probably mean is this: "I know many people consider it a cliché. But I'm moved by it. And since I know most people aren't -- since I know most people think folks like me are sentimental fools -- I'm embarrassed. I'm ashamed that I'm moved. I hope no one finds out. Or I hope I can figure out some way to prove to everyone that they're wrong -- that it's not a cliché." I wonder if this is Meis's real concern. Is he embarrassed that he likes Hopper paintings?

When he asks, "Is he a cliché? That's the question you keep coming back to when you look at the paintings of Edward Hopper," I wonder what will happen to him when he's finally able to answer the question. If he like Hopper but figures out that, yes, he's cliché, will that knowledge suddenly make him stop liking Hopper? "Big Macs taste terrible!" "Oh, they do? Thanks for clearing that up for me. Now I'll know not to like them any more."

Meis is fond of talking about "you" and "we" when he means -- or should mean -- himself:

"We may have to accept the fact that Hopper painted the sad clown smoking a cigarette in the café because he felt it to be a poignant scene."

"Still, we wonder. Did Hopper stick to his guns for all the right reasons?"

"We know that there is an entire universe of interiority unfolding within that person as she does what she does."

This is such an old bullshit trick, most people probably don't notice it. It's a rhetorical device that's supposed to make a personal observation sound universal: "It's true and you know it's true!" No, I don't. "When we think about our childhood, we yearn for our innocent pasts." No, we don't. Just be honest, Mr. Writer. Write, "When I think about my childhood, I yearn for my innocent past." I know that doesn't sound as profound as a universal statement. And that's because it's not. Sorry. Saying "we" doesn't make it more profound or universal. Just tell the truth, which is about your experience. It might be mine, too. Let me decide. Don't tell me what I think. Or, if you're really brave, try writing things like this: "When we see a small child, we want to pick up an axe and chop her head off."

Of Hopper's painting "Soir Bleu," Meis writes: "We may have to accept the fact that Hopper painted the sad clown smoking a cigarette in the café because he felt it to be a poignant scene. He was so moved by the depressed clown that he went and painted one of the silliest paintings of the era."

Well, I keep looking and looking at the painting, which is not one of my favorites, either, but I'll be damned if I see a depressed clown.

What I see is a clown with a rather neutral expression. He COULD be sad. He could be pensive, bored, concentrating, tired, constipated, whatever. I have absolutely no problem with Meis or any other viewer thinking of the clown as sad. I make up stories about paintings all the time. (I think the Mona Lisa owes me five dollars.) But the clown is not necessarily, universally sad to all viewers. There's no information in the actual painting that forces or urges the viewer to see the clown as sad.

"He didn't want to be an abstract painter. His mind was not blown by Cubism. He did not succumb to the excitement of any avant-garde. How many of us have ever shown that kind of resolution?"

Presumably, any painter who knows about the existence of non-realism and yet continues to paint realistically shows that kind of resolution.

"The fact that so many of Hopper's paintings make good postcards and prints makes the worry about cliché even stronger."

Why is Meis so worried about it? When he looks at Hopper's paintings, what is his actual experience? "Oh, dear... this might be cliché. If it is, what are we going to do?"

"His most famous painting, 'Nighthawks' ..., the one with the people sitting in a diner late at night, has become global kitsch. ...The accessibility and near-universal appeal of that painting, like so much of Hopper, starts to make a person suspicious."

Very, very odd. Meis can't tell, for sure, if something is cliché or not. To him, cliché is a sly trait that an artist can sneak into a painting. You might be innocently enjoying it, not knowing that it's cliché! How embarrassing! Can't you just see all those sophisticated museum-goers, laughing behind your back, while you're standing there, looking at "Nighthawks," with a tear running down your face?

I'm also not sure what near-universal appeal has to do with cliché. Sounds a bit snobbish to me.

Not content with his own nonsense, Meis wheels in Clement Greenberg, "the great American critic of postwar painting and the champion of the Abstract Expressionists," to spout some of his own: "Even though Hopper is a terrible painter, Greenberg famously remarked, he is a great artist."

What does that mean? Hopper makes paintings that move people, but you'd be crazy to hire him to paint your living room?

Then Meis makes this baffling statement (which sounds clever if you don't think about it): "Hopper seems to have been fascinated with the fact that all people can really know about each other are what they show on the surface."

Well, all people CAN know about each other is what they show on the surface -- AND what they say. But since paintings are silent, they always -- the figurative ones, anyway -- only show people's surfaces. This is as true of Davinci's and Carravagio's paintings as it is of Hopper's. It's a really boring, obvious thing to say. Yes, a figurative painting can't show you what someone is thinking, unless it includes a comic-book thought balloon.

"Hopper was dealing with people and places as surface. Everybody is nothing more than what they look like, how they behave. And yet, we know that to be human is to inhabit our own interior, to be in our own head, to feel a million different emotions every day that we never get the chance to express fully, even to ourselves."

Since WE know that humans have inner lives, it sounds like Meis is saying that Hopper doesn't know that -- or doesn't agree with it: "Everybody is nothing more than what they look like, how they behave." How do his paintings convey that idea? Even though I have no idea whether the clown is sad or not, to me, it looks like there's something going on in his head. I assume he has an inner life. So if Hopper's goal was to get me to feel or think the clown is entirely surface, Hopper failed.

"Hopper ... paints individuals of great inner depth with the full knowledge that that inner depth itself can never be painted."

I really hope all painters (and all non-painters) have that same knowledge.

"Because he is painting people as surfaces, he is going to flirt with cliché constantly."

So I guess all figurative painters flirt with cliché constantly. Because they all paint surfaces.

"When he gets it wrong, when he tries to be too evocative, too objective, the whole thing falls apart."

What does "too objective" mean? It sounds like the opposite of "too evocative." It sounds journalistic. But I'm not really sure what "too evocative" means, either.

But maybe I'm guilty of the crimes I'm accusing Meis of committing. Maybe I'm projecting my subjective beliefs onto other people, specifically my belief that it's impossible to paint a realistic picture of someone's inner life. Meis certainly disagrees:

"[Hopper's painting] 'New York Interior' gives us a woman wrapped up in the process of acting and doing and thinking and dreaming all at once. We don't even have the faintest glimpse of what could be going on in her head, where her thoughts have wandered as she sews her dress. But we know that she is going somewhere, mentally, that her thoughts are wandering."

Here's the painting:

Yes, her thoughts may be wondering. Or, as Meis says, contradicting himself, she may be "heavily involved in the process of what looks to be the sewing of a dress ... as she concentrates."

Well, we don't have to debate it. We know for sure that her mind is wondering, because "we know that she is going somewhere, mentally, that her thoughts are wandering. It is in her gesture, in the absent-minded way she pulls the thread."

I'm really trying to see her gesture as "absent-minded," but I just can't. What I see her doing is what someone has to do when sewing by hand -- pulling the needle away from the cloth.

Like me, Meis loves the painting: "It is a great painting because it hovers so very close to being a cliché without ever crossing that line." But we disagree about cliché. I don't think something can be kinda cliché or almost cliché. Cliché-ness is a binary property. Something is either cliché or it's not.

I'm sorry to be so hard on Meis. He's just doing what countless academics do: he's using rhetoric to make vacuous statements sound like profundities, personal feeling sound like universal truths and nonsense sound like logic. He's also trying to express his visceral response to a painting in the form of a logical proposition, and this is an activity generally doomed to failure.

Meis is playing the game. He's playing the game that countless students and teachers and pundits and critics play out many times each day. I am being unfair in that I'm criticizing the player and not the game itself. I'm saying "How dare he make a forward pass," when, in fact, that's what you do when you're playing football. So I'll end by saying this: go to a museum, look at an painting, have an experience. If it affects you, it affects you; if it doesn't, it doesn't. If you have something truly interesting to say about the painting, by all means do so. If you don't, shut up! Don't add more blah blah blah to a river that's already overflowing.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

required classes

Someone emailed me, asking why I am against required classes. Here's my response:

Regarding school, most people are stuck in a mental rut. I was, and it took me years of reading, thinking and debating to claw my way out of it. Thinking clearly about school is like imagining alien life. It's really hard -- impossible? -- to imagine it without picturing human, animal or insect forms. One's mind grasp a few other possibilities (e.g. giant gas clouds), but it's mostly stuck thinking in terrestrial terms. Earth forms are all we know. Worse, Earth forms seem inevitable, as if having-two-eyes is writ into the rules of the universe.

School, for most of us, is like this. We started experiencing the sort of schools we have when we were very, very young, and we went on experiencing them for many years, maybe twenty or more. So when I make a claim that schools should be very different from them way they are, people have a viscerally unpleasant reaction. That's natural. But, if they want to think clearly about education, try should try to figure out why they're uncomfortable. Is it because my idea is bad or is it because I'm rocking a foundational boat? When boats rock, people get seasick.

I get frustrated when people argue about school, because it's usually like hearing people argue about whether Camel Lights or Marlboro Lights are least likely to give you cancer, instead of saying, "Hey, let's just quit smoking."

I hear people fight about whether we should use this textbook or that textbook, but not about whether we should or shouldn't use textbooks at all; they fight about whether kids should be tested via essay questions or multiple-choice problems, but not on whether kids should be tested at all; they argue about whether or not teachers should lecture about Creationism or Evolution, but not about whether lecturing is a useful pedagogical tool; they argue about whether kids should or shouldn't listen to music while they do their homework, but not about whether or not they should be don't homework at all. They argue about whether this or a particular class should be required, but not about whether classes should be required at all.

I'm not suggesting, at least in this paragraph, that we should do away with textbooks, tests and requirements. What saddens me is that people's minds just refuse to explore these foundational questions. For most people, they aren't questions. Of course kids do homework! Homework like the sky or rocks. It just exists, right?

Yet I insist that if we're going to have textbooks, tests, lectures, homework and requirements, we should have them for a good, logical (at best empirical) reason -- not due to inertia, not because they're the defaults.

Because people cling to what they know, when I say, "I don't believe in requirements," they picture their high school, as it was when they went to it, but with no required courses. They picture themselves in sixth grade, all the sudden being told they don't have to do anything they don't want to do. They say, "Oh, man! If I wasn't forced, I would never have learned ANYTHING!" What they're not picturing is a child who has grown up, from preschool, with a totally different sort of experience.

I spent many years working with young children in a daycare center for preschoolers, with a summer program for older kids. So I was with two-through-five-year-olds year round. Then, my students would graduate and move on to public or private elementary schools. But I'd see them during the summers. I saw what school did to them, and it gibed with what I remembered from my own schooling.

Children are born as learning machines. No one has to force them to learn. They have a drive to do it that is at least as strong as the sex drive in adults. Then, gradually, school beats it out of them. School teaches them that learning is work, not fun -- that learning is something you do at someone else's pace, not your pace. Gradually, most kids forget that they used to love to learn. As adults, all they can remember is the school sort of learning, the forced sort. They know it was painful, but they value what they got out of it. They can't imagine it not being painful (because they can't remember their early childhood), so they naturally assume this is important, worthwhile pain, and that the alternative is ignorance.

I also spent years teaching adults. I taught computer classes to people whose companies were forcing them to use computers. They always said the same thing: "I'm not a computer person. I just don't get this stuff." What I learned, from talking to them and observing them in their workplaces (and, frankly, from talking to my family and friends) was this: these people didn't have trouble with computers; they have trouble with learning anything new, because they haven't had to do that in years. They "aren't computer people" because it just so happens that computers are the only things they've been forced to learn as adults.

Most professional people work from rote. Even highly skilled professionals, such as GP Doctors and non-trial lawyers. They learn their skills to the point where them becomes automatic, freeing them up so they can get a paycheck by just going through motions.

I now make my living as a computer programmer. Every day DOES involve some real problem solving, but about 80% of my work is just plugging in boilerplate solutions. Many of these are solutions that "laypeople" couldn't employ, which is what makes me highly skilled. Still, once I worked them out for the first time, it took no skill to employ them a second or third time.

Most adults do little learning or problem-solving at work, and when they get home, they watch TV, talk to their friends and family about light-hearted, unchallenging stuff, do mindless chores and go to bed. What they don't do is read Shakespeare plays for fun, do math problems for fun, learn foreign languages for fun, etc. Why not? What happened to that LUST for learning they had as kids?

It's possibly that this desire naturally falls away from people as they get older, but I don't believe it. It's telling that kids who didn't go through traditional schooling -- kids that were allowed to keep learning in a natural way, following their own instincts -- tend to never lose this lust. In their 80s, they are still challenging themselves, for no other reason than because it's the most fun they can possibly have. So I believe that the reason most people stop learning (when they don't have to) is that school teaches them to associate learning with pain, boredom and forced labor.

By the time a kid is halfway through elementary school, the damage is already done. It only takes a couple of years to replace "learning is something I naturally do and love to do" with "learning is something I have to be forced to do," so of course people wind up thinking, "Thank God Mrs. Wilson forced me to learn grammar! If she hadn't, I never would have!" They're right. They're right because school turned them into that sort of person.

"If we didn't require people to learn to read, some of them would never learn!" That's the most common objection to dropping requirements, so let me address it.

First of all, note that we don't force people to learn to read. In fact, it's impossible to force anyone to learn anything. What we do -- when we require certain subjects -- is to force kids to go to classes. We force them to spend a certain amount of time in certain rooms with certain teachers. If doing that doesn't end up with a particular kid learning to read, we shrug and say, "Well, we did our best." A lot of the reason we force kids it to absolve ourselves. "Hey, we tried!"

Note that whatever we do, a certain number of kids (because they don't pay attention or "apply themselves") will not learn. A certain number will not learn if we have requirements; a certain number will not learn if we don't have requirements.

So the issue shouldn't be "if we don't have requirements, some kids won't choose to learn to read." The issue should be (a) what will produce MORE literate kids, a system with requirements or a system without it, and (b) what will produce more kids who have a lifetime LOVE of reading, a system with requirements or a system without it?

The truth is, no one wants to be illiterate. By the time a kid is eight (or perhaps younger), he already is very upset if he can't read. Our culture is full of things that need to be read. So naturally everyone want to be able to understand those things. It's not that people don't want to read: it's that people don't want to go through the pain of learning to read. If we took the pain away and said, "Hey, learn when you want to -- here are the resources," most people would learn.

"Here are the good resources" is key. If we're going to drop requirements, we also have to drop boring, incompetant teachers. We have to put kids in environments full of rich materials, full of lusty art and enticing scientifi experienets. We need teachers who ratiate enthusiasm. We need a world that says, "No one is going to force you to go to the really fun party if you don't want to." Which is why dropping requirements won't work in a standard elementary school or high school. Of COURSE kids won't choose to go to Mr. Boring's Algebra class or Mrs. Nasty's English class!

You asked about books that turned me on to this way of thinking. The main one was "Summerhill" by A. S. Neill.

Warning: it was written in 1960, and it contains some offensive (e.g. sexist, homophobic) writing that was a product of the way many people thought at the time. (Though I linked to an "updated" edition, so maybe that stuff has been removed.) If you read it, I urge you to try to look past that crap to the ideas underneath.

Summerhill was (maybe "is." I don't know if it still exists) a school in England -- elementary-through-high-school -- with no requirements. Kids weren't even required to go to class. That's right, they could run around outside all day if they wanted to. No on forced them to do anything.

The result? Most of them -- almost all of them -- chose to go to class. When kids transfered there from other schools, naturally they said, "No one's going to make me go to class? SWEET!" And they spent a couple of months goofing off. Then they got bored, got the rebellion of of their systems, and started going to class.

The school produced many successful people.

I don't expect you to come to the same conclusion as me about this subject. But I am thrilled it's something you're thinking about.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

my response to a YouTube video defending modern art

Response to One day, Pablo PIcasso was on a Train... (A Defense of Modern Art):

"You cannot just dismiss an entire movement simply because it doesn't look like art. That's the whole damn point of the modern-art movement. You don't get to say what is and what isn't art. Because you don't know. No one does."

So there's a thing called "art"?

How do we know this thing exists? The philospher doesn't say.

Well, how do we usually know something exists? We go find it in the world. How do we do that? Well, we have a description of it, which may or may not correspond to reality, and we go looking for something that matches that description. (We form a hypothesis that object X is a thing in the real world that has properties A and B, sometimes C and never D. Then we go looking for objects that match that description.)

It's worthless and pointless for me to say "There's an object called a "blurg." Does it exist?"

"What's it like?"

"I don't know. But, still, I ask you if it exists?"

That's what he's doing. He's saying, "There's something called 'art' that exists. I'm not going to define it or describe it, but it exists. Given that it DOES exist, I'm really upset that some asshole is claiming some specific objects are not 'art.' I can't define 'art'; he can't define 'art'; and yet he has the AUDACITY to say that certain items are not art!"

Actually, now that I type that out, I see he's right about that in a very literal way: you can't say that a paperclip is not a blurg, because you don't know what a blurg is! No one does!

(I should pause here and make clear what I mean by "it exists." I doubt the philosopher believes there's a thing called "art" that you can touch and smell. Rather, I assume he believes that it exists as a mental construct -- as a category in the mind.

By building on top of that construct -- by using it in sentences and deriving other ideas from it -- he's giving that construct credence. He's saying something like, "This is a USEFUL construct." He's also saying, "This is a construct we share, just like we all -- or most of us -- share the concept of 'red.'"

But whereas it's actually possible to define "red" -- in terms of wavelengths or whatever -- he doesn't even try to define "art."

"It's a concept we all share, and I'm assuming we all mean more or less the same thing by it. I can't define or describe it, but how DARE you say something I don't like about it.")

I think the complicating factor here is that though no one has a definition or description of art that is even close to universally accepted, most of us have a profound FEELING that "art" exists. I would love to analyze where that feeling comes from and what it means, but I'm not sure that's possible.

I suspect it arises from many forces acting in concert over many years, but two of the main ones are...

1. Looking (listening, etc) to certain objects can make one have profound feelings (of some sort). And it's easy to notice that, throughout life, certain objects tend to trigger such feelings over and over.

(There's a lot of fascinating stuff to say about that. One is the fact that having a visceral reaction to something is different from categorizing something, though having the reaction might lead one to categorize.

For instance, when Fred first sees "Starry Night," he might be overwhelmed with feeling. He might recognize that that he's had similar responses before, and, generally, when he's had them, he's been focusing his attention on something people tend to call "art." And so he categorizes "Starry Night" as art.

There's nothing wrong with that. But let's say that he buys a print of the painting and puts it up in his living room. He looks at it every day and, gradually, it stops affecting him. He gets to that point where it becomes part of the background. Even if he wants to, he can't recapture the feeling he once had. Yet, if he's like most people, he still categorizes the painting as "art." It's rare for people to move objects OUT of categories.

I still see nothing wrong with what Fred is doing. People are free to categorize things however they want. But it's interesting to note that "Starry Night" went into the category because it ONCE affected him in a certain way and now it's still in that category, even though it no longer affects him that way.

Given that, does the category have any meaning to Fred, other than an arbitrary grouping of objects? I suspect we can give it a useful meaning: it's a set of things that ONCE affected Fred in a profound way -- some of which might still affect him that way -- and which are likely to affect other people in similar ways, if their aesthetics are similar to Fred's.

I think that works, but it's much more complex than it seems on the surface.)

2. The feeling that something is "art" can also happen because one is TOLD that something is "art." A child might not know what art is, but he knows it's something important -- that is he's aware that people say the word "art" with reverence (or anger or bafflement or pleasure or whatever -- some extreme reaction). So, even if someone feels nothing when he initially looks at The Mona Lisa, if he's told it's "art" -- and he's "told" that by virtue of that fact that it's in a museum -- he may have a profound feeling that it IS art.

It's easy to scoff at this and talk about people who can't form opinions of their own, but we're social creatures. We're built to accept other people's categories, and what's interesting to me is that it's not necessarily just a matter of acceptance.

Fred MIGHT feel like "Okay, since it's in a museum and everyone SAYS it's art, I guess it's art. Whatever. Glad that's categorized. Now I can move on." But it's also possible he might feel like "Wow! It's art? I didn't know that! Man, now that I DO know it, I feel really moved when I look at it."

We tend to look at herd behavior as unthinking -- and maybe it is -- but it is rarely unFEELING. The question "Does Fred REALLY get a profound feeling when he looks at The Mona Lisa or is he just aping what other people say" is, potentially, really complicated and not binary as the question suggests. He might be getting a profound feeling BECAUSE he's aping what other people say.

And, of course, these two forces -- one's initial response to the object itself AND one's social response -- can interact and strengthen each other.

Those two forces can also be at odds, which, I think, is why we get into some of these aesthetic debates: Fred is told that object X is "art," so it's already in the "art" category. But when he looks at X, he feels nothing. So is it art or not?

Though there may be some profound (and profoundly oppositional) feelings here, there really isn't a debate. There are some facts:

1. People generally categorize X as art.
2. Fred cares about the way people categorize X.
3. Fred doesn't have strong feelings when he looks at X.
4. Fred generally doesn't feel comfortable putting items in HIS personal "art" category unless they affect him profoundly.

There's no contradiction here, but it's easy to see why Fred feels uncomfortable. The general category called "art" is smashing up against his personal category called "art".

We can get rid of this problem by giving the two categories two different names. But we don't. We call them both "art," and because they have the same name and are similar, we get confused and think they're the same thing. And then when we notice differences between them, we think that ONE thing contains contractions or that certain people are wrong about that one thing.

The philosopher is mad because some other guy claims Pollack paintings aren't art. Let's see if we can get rid of the problem (or reframe it).

1. Fred notices that many people put Pollack paintings in a category called X.
2. He has a similar category, called Y, which but it doesn't include Pollack paintings.
3. X and Y are similar but not identical.

That's fine. North-America and USA are similar, but it's not a contradiction that one contains Ontario and the other doesn't.

If Fred claims, "People do NOT put Pollack paintings in category X," he's wrong. He's just wrong. They do. (Many of them do.)

If Philosopher clams that Fred is saying Pollack paintings aren't members of X, Philosopher is wrong. Fred is NOT claiming that most people don't put Pollack in X. He's claiming that he doesn't put Pollack in Y. (Fred is not claiming that OTHER people don't think of Pollack as art. He's claiming that HE doesn't think of it as art. And that is an ambiguous statement. What does it mean to say he doesn't think of it as art? We don't know. Since we don't know, it's silly to say Fred is wrong.)

If Philosopher is claiming that Fred is "wrong" to not put Pollack in Y, Philosopher is behaving oddly. He's saying something similar to, "You're wrong to not like broccoli." Fred is equally odd to claim something about the world outside of his own brain. If he means that Pollack is NOT art to anyone, he's just wrong. Clearly Pollack IS art to many people. If he means it SHOULDN'T be art to those people, he's being as nonsensical as Philosopher. Why not, Fred?

Fred can make up any reasons he wants, e.g. "Because it doesn't take talent to make Pollack paintings." Okay. Why should I care if something takes talent or not? Why should someone NOT care if something takes talent or not?

Finally, I'd like to say something about statements like, "You can't judge modern art without understanding its historical context." Taken literally, that statement is at worst meaningless and at best it's untrue. You CAN -- and maybe do -- judge modern art without understanding its context. Perhaps the philosopher means "You shouldn't."

Why not? I assume he doesn't think it's morally wrong to do so. Surely he doesn't think Fred is causing serious harm to anyone by judging Pollack without knowing its context. If the philosopher DOES think this is morally wrong, then his ethics must be really complicated and it must be really easy -- in his ethical system -- to sin all the time. Children sin just by not-having-yet-learned a bunch of stuff. The urge to judge comes way before the acquisition of contextual knowledge.

Here's how I can give meaning to "You can't judge modern art without understanding its historical context." I canrephrase it like this: "If you dismiss Pollack without understanding its context, you are missing out on a profound experience." In other words, if you spend some time learning some stuff and training yourself in certain specific ways, you will have profound feelings and thoughts when you look at a Pollack painting, and I'm sad for you that you're not willing to do that."

(There is a way ethics enters into it here. If an art critic -- or someone else who has influence over others' behavior -- dismisses a work without understanding its context, he might be robbing others of a profound experience.)

One question pops into my mind here: how do I know this will happen? How do I know that Fred will have a profound feeling if he learns the context? I don't. What I know is this: *I* had a profound feeling after I learned the context. Furthermore, I know that many other people did, too. I'm assuming that Fred is similar enough to me (and these other people) that he'll have the same feelings if he goes through the same steps. But I may be wrong. As yummy as it is, there are people who don't like chocolate.

(At some point, the philosopher calls a certain work "undeniably art." Interesting. Why is the fact that it's "art" undeniable? What if I deny it? Are there certain foods that are undeniably yummy?)

I suspect there ARE aesthetic universals. And I suspect they can be studied in the lab. I'm guessing that if they exist, they are really basic. Maybe people are genetically built to prefer shade-of-red X over shade-of-red Y, and it's impossible for any non-damaged human to prefer Y over X. But it's hard for me to swallow that there are universals of a higher order, e.g. that all people necessarily prefer "Hamlet" to "Macbeth."

We might be able to make really complex statements like, "If you have had events A, B and C in your childhood and educational moment D, E and F, you are likely to respond to Pollack painting in the same way that I do."

Professor McArtHistorian tells us that Painting X is "art." We read that it's "art" in ten books. We hear lots of people refer to it as "art." We have a profound "art-ish" experience when we look at it. Our friends have that same experience. All of these facts entrench us deeper and deeper int he conviction that X IS "art."

Then Fred comes along and says it isn't. It's natural to respond to him as if he just said "two plus two is not equal to four." But what he said is actually much more complicated. What is our basis for calling him "wrong"?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

the anti me

Response to:

Hi. If you look at your negative space, you'll see me. Your article for "The Smart Set" about "Freedom" clearly stated the opposite of some of my core views about fiction. It was antimatter to my matter. If you and I touched each other, I think we'd explode.

We do agree on one thing: there's no canon. The idea that one "should read" certain books is absurd. I am sorry you even have to write that, but since schools exist, I guess you do.

The following sentences, in a brilliant cloud of pith, could be said by me on Opposite Day: "I have always been bored by mysteries after I’ve figured out the ending, the who-done-it. The mystery of Freedom is solved: It’s a masterpiece. And so I’m bored." What you're doing here is caring more about the critical consensus about a book than the contents of the book itself.


Do you avoid "King Lear" because most people agree it's a masterpiece? Do you think, "Well, since the critical reception of Shakespeare's plays is a done deal, what's the point of reading them?" Do you always read to Have An Original Opinion about a book, or do you ever read for the experience the book will give you -- the sensual experience, which no one can have for you, even if many people have had similar experiences.

Have you seen the film "Metropolitan"? In it, a character discusses Jane Austen before admitting that he hasn't actually read any of her novels. He says, "I don't read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists' ideas as well as the critics' thinking." You and that guy could have a great discussion about "One Hundred Years of Solitude" without bothering to read it.

This part of your essay confused me: " hit all the right notes at exactly the right moments, but one could always feel the creator manipulating things behind the scenes. OK, now I need the viewer/reader to cry, so let’s get that swelling music going/kill off the only character portrayed with any sympathy. I cried, but I was resentful about crying, and I was suspicious about the crying. It wasn’t the spontaneous, oh my god sobbing I had in the last moments of a film like The Lives of Others. These were cultivated tears. Franzen had planned for them."

But... you cried! You sound like someone who is really suspicious about just letting herself feel something. It's like you're looking over your shoulder, worried someone will accuse you of being a chump. "Aha! You fell for Franzen's confidence tricks. Wanna buy the Brooklyn Bridge?" If this is the case, I'm sorry. It's also possible you're just way more sophisticated than me. I don't shed regular tears and cultivated tears. I just shed tears. Or I don't. If I do, it means someone or something made me sad.

I am not saying you're wrong. I don't believe reactions can be wrong. If you enjoy relating to novels more via the debris that orbits them (or via your suspicions about what the author is trying to do to you) than via the contents of the works themselves, then that's exactly what you should do. It's just bizarre to me. Why do you care so much about "the build-up of attention, everyone in the literary world pretending that Jonathan Franzen on the cover of Time..." As you say, "surely one should just get over it, read the book so that one can make an informed opinion on the matter." Well, one shouldn't read the book unless one wants to. But discussion about a book is not the book itself.

If I were in your shoes -- if there was a book I didn't want to read -- I would just not read it. I can't imagine not reading it and then writing an article about how I didn't read it. There are tons of books I haven't read. There are tons of book I will never read. Some of them are probably bad; others are probably good. But I haven't read them, so I'm not going to write about them. And I'm not going to write about why I'm not reading them, because not having read them, what could I possibly have to say except, "I judged the book by its cover," which is what you did -- or, rather, you judged the book by its coverage.

"Whereof one cannot speak, one must pass over in silence."



Saturday, September 11, 2010

my hell

A: you're wrong.

B: no, YOU'RE wrong.

A: no, YOU'RE wrong!

B: no, YOU'RE wrong!

ME: this isn't solving the problem. You've both used rhetoric, appeals to emotion and (sometimes) sound logic to try to convince each other, but neither of you is budging. A, I think you're just going to have to live with B believing what he believes. B, the same with you for A.

B: Stop siding with A!

A: Stop siding with B!

Me: I'm not taking sides!

A: Well, you should! B is wrong. If you don't see that, you're as bad as he is.

B: If you're not with me, you're against me!

Me: but you guys have been fighting forever. Meanwhile, puppies are dying. Do you WANT the puppies do die?

A: Hey, I'm not the one killing the puppies! That's what B is doing.

B: Don't pin that on me. You're the puppy killer.

Me: B, I have to admit, I have felt the way A feels many times in my life. I'm not saying he's right or wrong. But it's a very powerful feeling. I wasn't able to just get over it, and I doubt A can either. He's probably always going to feel that way.

B: Oh, so it's MY fault?

Me: No. I'm not saying that. I'm just saying A -- right or wrong -- is probably going to feel the way he feels. Just as you are going to feel the way you feel.

B: But A is WRONG!

Me: We've done that already. Puppies are STILL dying.

A: And it's B's fault.

Me: I know you think that, and I'm not saying you're wrong. But try to understand that B was abused as a child, and...

A: Oh, so that gives him a free pass?

Me: No. It's not about free passes. But the fact that he WAS abused as a child makes him the way he is now, and...

A: STOP excusing him.

Me: I'm NOT excusing him. I'm just explaining why he's the way he is. If you're right, then there's no excuse for the way he's acting. Fine. You have the moral high ground. You're right and he's wrong. But where does that leave you?

A: If he's wrong, he should admit that he's wrong.

Me: But he's NOT going to admit that, because he doesn't think he's wrong.

A: But he IS wrong.

Me: Not to him, he isn't.

A: That's not my problem.

Me: You're right. But puppies are still dying.

B: Because A is KILLING them!

A: Because YOU'RE killing them!

Me: do you see how you're at an impasse? A, what if you just assume that B is wrong but there's no way to possibly get him to see that. View his wrongness as a force of nature. B, think of A the same way. Okay, you have opposing views, and neither one of you is EVER going to convince the other one he's wrong. That's just a fact. That's life on Planet Earth. Since "that's the way it is," shouldn't we accept that and work to figure out a way to co-exist DESPITE our differences?

A: No, because B is WRONG...


At some point, I realize that A and B just want to fight with each other, that they need to fight with each other, or that they don't know how to stop fighting with each other. Sometimes you just have to let people fight.

The fact that they're fighting is just as much of a force of nature as their two views. So if I take my own advice, I have to just accept living in a world in which their conflict is eternal.

I try to take that advice, but I fail, because doing so forces me into such a bleak view of human nature, I don't want to live on this planet any longer.

Also, I think it's false. SOMETIMES diplomacy works. Sometimes. It's rare, but it happens. So if I quit putting myself in this position, I risk failing to solve something that can be solved.

But I have a hard time figuring out which conflicts are solvable and which aren't. I really WANT to fall into a belief that they're either all solvable or all hopeless, because either of those beliefs would make my life so much easier than the messy, complicated truth.

Or I wish I could just join a team. For all their fighting, both A and B are much happier than I am. Much more confident. But I am not a team player. I can't root for a team just because it's my team. I don't know how to do that.

Friday, September 10, 2010

suspend THIS!

So I've been discussing with various people the challenges of bringing a Irish pub alive onstage -- coping with laws that don't allow smoking in theatres and dealing with ways to fake beer so that (a) it looks real and (b) it has low-or-no alcohol content, so the actors can actually get through the play without falling over.

I've gotten lots of great advice. But -- inevitably -- I've also gotten this:

"The audience knows they're at a play. There's some suspension of disbelief there already. I know you want to make it as realistic as possible, but give your audience a little credit. No one's going to stand up and yell, 'Hey! He's not really drinking/smoking that!' any more than someone is going to stand up and yell, 'Hey! We're not really at a bar in Ireland, are we?!'"

My least favorite phrase int he English language is "suspension of disbelief." Please people STOP using it. It's usually an excuse for shoddy work. "Oh, we don't need to go to all that trouble, because the audience will suspend their disbelief..."

When I hear that, I have an overwhelming desire strap the person who says it to a chair and refuse to release him until he answers some questions: "Explain to me EXACTLY what you mean by 'suspension of disbelief.' Explain the mental state of the person before he suspends his disbelief, explain to me exactly HOW he does suspends his disbelief, and explain his mental state ONCE he's suspended his disbelief... Go on. I'm waiting...

"And do you mean that, after he suspends his disbelief, he actually BELIEVES the fake-looking beer really IS Guinness, or do you mean he thinks, 'Oh, well, it's just a play. That's obviously fake, but I don't blame the director for that.'?

"Because I don't care if the audience 'blames' me or 'understands why I can't use real cigarettes.' I'm not looking for sympathy. I'm not trying to get the audience to understand the challenges I'm up against. In fact, I would much prefer it if they didn't think about that.

I'm trying to tell a story here. If they're thinking, 'Well, I don't blame the director... what else could he do?' then they're thinking about me and not the story. My goal is for them to actually believe that what their watching is real -- as much as is humanly possible.

"I'm not doing The School Play. I know that when you go see little Johnny perform in 'Oklahoma!' you don't really care that he has a mustache drawn on with magic marker. You even think that's cute. That's because you don't really care about 'Oklahoma!' You just care about supporting your kid.

"If I asked you to suspend your disbelief and actually BELIEVE that the mustache is real, could you do that? What if I offered you $1,000 if you could do it?"

I think you're reading the phrase too doesn't mean you actually believe. It just means you've temporarily silenced the skeptic inside your mind and dont care. Or even notice.

It's fine if you don't care, but my question is "Why don't you care?" I totally get it if you don't notice. Of course you don't care about stuff you don't notice. But if you do notice the beer looks fake, there are only two possible responses as far as I can see:

1. you notice and you care.
2. you notice and you don't care.

If you NOTICE a flaw -- a telephone pole in a movie set in 1343 -- and you don't care, what does that mean?

I think it can only mean, again, one of two things:

1. When you noticed the flaw, you weren't in a dream-like state of belief. If you were, you'd experience cognitive dissonance. Huh? How can there be a phone pole in medieval France? Rather, you were watching the movie completely (or partly) aware of the fact that it was a fabrication. Being awoken from a dream isn't painful if you're not dreaming to begin with.

2. You WERE in a dream state, and the flaw did wake you up, but you don't mind that experience. Maybe the dream was a bad dream, so you're actually happy something snapped you out of it. Or maybe you enjoy meta-dream stuff, so while you liked the dream, you enjoy thinking of the mechanics behind the dream just as much.

Those are fine ways to experience stories, but they aren't MY way. Most people who view stories that way are either academics (or were trained, in school, to think like academics) or folks who don't take stories all that seriously to begin with. Stories, to them, are just bits of fun to pass the time.

I have no problem with those people, and I don't think I'm superior to them, but I'm not like them. I watch movies, read books and see plays to BELIEVE. To DREAM. And if you wake me out of a dream, I can't just will myself back into it. That takes time and trust.

It's not a conscious decision, so don't notice is more accurate than don't care.

Clearly sometimes audience-members are aware of errors and sometimes they aren't. I know that they sometimes aren't, because I've pointed out errors in movie...s and heard people says, "Really? I didn't notice that." On the other hand, obviously sometimes people DO notice.

So if the guy is claiming people will suspend their disbelief and you're saying that means they won't notice certain things, you're right -- sometimes. It's obviously a gamble.

Which is why I don't get my director friends who say, "Oh, it's okay if the gunshot doesn't sound right. The audience will suspend their disbelief." If, as you suggest, they mean, "the audience won't notice," how do they know? It's much more likely that some audience members will notice and others won't.

Also, if you mean "We can get away with X because the audience won't notice," why not say that? "Suspend their disbelief" is much less clear -- if that's in fact what it means.

It's hard to nail down. It's like finding something to be funny. You can't always explain why joke 1 makes you laugh but joke 2 doesn't.

I agree it's hard to nail down. I think that's because there are so many variables involved. Bob, Jane, Mike, Mary, Ed, Amy, Phil and Marcus all see the same movie. It's set in World War II, and yet at some point you see a cell phone in one... of the actors' pockets.

Bob isn't bothered because he doesn't notice.

Jane isn't bothered because, though she doesn't notice, she at the movie more to hang out with her friends than to take it seriously.

Mike notices, but he likes seeing mistakes like this. He imagines the guys on "Mystery Science Theatre 3000" poking fun at it and that gives him pleasure.

Mary notices, but she likes to think about the director while she's watching movies. She sort of rates him and she goes. She praises him for some things and blames him for others. She finds minor gaffs excusable. Since her pleasure is mostly about a relationship, she isn't bothered by small, excusable human errors, the same way you wouldn't be bothered if you went to a party and noticed the hostess had forgotten to dust a tiny spot on the table.

Ed is thrown by the cellphone, but the next ten minutes of the movie are awesome. He generally has an easy time falling into dream states, so he quickly forgets all about that moment when he was jerked out of the dream.

Amy is an academic. She's used to thinking about symbolism, themes, comparative studies, etc. She isn't bothered by the cell phone, because she doesn't much care about being caught up in plots or caring about characters. In fact, she can justify the phone as some sort of post-modern effect.

Phil is a mixture of all the above types, depending on his mood at the moment, and depending on the movie.

Marcus watches for plot and character. He wants to believe. If he's lucky, he just won't notice the cellphone. If he notices it, he's going to be troubled by it. In which case, someone might tell him to suspend his disbelief (people have told me this many times!). How is he supposed to do that, exactly?

Thats why I think humor is analogous. You can't choose to laugh at a joke you don't find funny.

So perhaps the real problem is when people add 'willing' in front of 'suspension'

Yeah, I think you've nailed the problem. Of course people DO wind up believing all sorts of unrealistic things while watching movies -- that's part of the fun. But it either happens or it doesn't. You can't force it.

You CAN, perhaps, influence it in certain ways. If you go in all grumpy, you'll probably find more problems than if you are in a good mood. So maybe there's some way you can go in with an open, positive mind. But that's affecting your reaction in a gross way. You can't -- or at least I can't -- affect it moment-by-moment, especially when I don't know what's going to happen next.

It's not like I can say, "I know that cell phone is coming, so I'll put myself in the right frame of mind for it..." At least I can't do that the first time I see the movie.

If we're going to take "willing" out of play, then "suspension of disbelief" is a useless term, except as a description of what sometimes happens to people. If you can't will it, it's pointless to tell people to do it. It's also pointless for storytellers to expect people to do it -- or to assume they will.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

you are the owner of your actions

In an online discussion about free will and determinism, someone wrote he didn't much care about whether people are to blame for their actions, because "I'm not much of a blamer, myself."

He also wrote "You are the 'owner,' of your actions, even if they are predetermined. (Even if you were determined to do them, you still did them. No one else did.) So why aren't you the moral owner as well?"

My reply:

I am curious about a couple of things you wrote:

1. "I'm not much of a blamer myself."

I understand the sentiment. I'm don't consider myself a judgmental person. I certainly don't walk around thinking (or saying) "he's a bad person ... that's all her fault ..." constantly. And I have surrounded myself, for many years, with friends who are generally kind, loving people, so it's not like I have tons of opportunities or reasons to blame.

But that's just luck. If I saw someone stab a child, I would have no problem blaming him. Isn't that true for you? Or are you really saying, "If I saw someone stab a child or push his brother off a bridge, I wouldn't blame him. I'd have neutral feelings about his actions"?

Unless that's the way you feel, I'd say you -- like me -- are just lucky that you haven't run into many extreme situations lately. You and I also avoid having to think about such things, because we aren't employed as cops, judges or lawmakers.

2. "You are the 'owner,' of your actions, even if they are predetermined. (Even if you were determined to do them, you still did them. No one else did.) So why aren't you the moral owner as well?"

Let's imagine some form of free will exists in the world, at least for the following thought experiment. Now, imaging these two guys, Bill and Mike:

Bill sees some money on his friend's coffee table -- a big stack of bills. His friend is in the bathroom. He is tempted to pull a $20 bill out of the stack and pocket it. His friend won't realize it's missing for a long time, and by the time he notices, he won't be able to link the theft to Bill. Bill knows it's wrong to steal, but he really wants the money. He considers the wrongness of it vs. his desire. In the end, he thinks, "Why not? I haven't done anything selfish in a while. And it IS my birthday next week!" And so he chooses to take the money.

Mike is in the same situation as Bill. He sees a pile of bills on his friend's coffee table, and his friend is in the bathroom. He is tempted to steal a $20. He is unable to feel that doing so is wrong, because when he was a baby, he had a small brain tumor, and it destroyed the part of his brain that halts such impulses. Without even thinking about it -- or being able to think about it -- he reaches out, grabs a $20 and pockets it. He doesn't even remember doing it afterwards, because it's such a reflex action. Later, he finds an extra $20 in his pocket, but he doesn't remember where it came from.

Now, imagine Jane. She somehow knows what the two guys have done. She says to the same thing to both of them: "You fucking thief! You stole from your friend! Your FRIEND! That's a horrible thing to do to anyone, but it's worse to do it to someone who trusts you. You should be ashamed of yourself! You are a bad, bad person!"

Now, do you have any sense, as I do, that Jane was somehow unfair to Mike -- moreso than she was to Bill (if she was unfair to him at all)? I really want to say to her, "I understand why you're angry, but he couldn't help taking the money..."

It's not that I feel Mike should just get a free pass. There may be murderers who can't help murdering, and that sucks for them, but we still need to lock them up -- just to protect the rest of us. But I don't feel like they're on par with someone who cold-bloodedly chooses to kill his child. I at least feel some sympathy for the guy who can't help killing -- but none for the guy who CAN help it but chooses to kill anyway.

This is where things get complicated if free will doesn't exist. In a universe without free will, there really isn't much difference between Bill and Mike. Though it seems like Bill had a choice, he didn't. He is just as trapped as Mike, even though he didn't have a brain tumor. He is just trapped by some other internal phenomenon. There is no possible way he could have not stolen in that moment, just as there's no possible way Mike could not have stolen. If I really come to grips with that, it seems just as unfair to chastise Bill as it does Mike.

Hopefully, we don't blame people for being gay or black. That's beyond their control. Why do we blame people for choices? Because we (a) tend to believe in a mind-body separation (we don't think of the mind as physical, like skin color) and (b) we think that choices ARE under people's control. But if free will is an illusion, they're not.

Now, this whole conundrum is odd in a way, because it assumes that the blamer (e.g. Jane or us) HAS free will. Most discussions of free will and ethics make this mistake. And many people have a really hard time even seeing the mistake or realizing they're making it.

When I ask someone "If free will doesn't exist, do you think it's okay to blame people?" I suspect he models my question this way:

Imagine that we have free will, but we discover an alternate universe where the inhabitants are fully determined. We have a magical telescope that allows us to view that universe, though we can't touch it or talk to it. We can just watch.

In that universe, we see "clockwork" citizen Bleep killing "clockwork" citizen Bloop. Should we blame Bleep for killing Bloop, even though we can clearly see that he was manipulated to do so by the "cogs and gears" of his universe and that he couldn't possibly have chosen otherwise?

[b]Should we CHOOSE to blame Bloop?[/b] Should we exercise our free will by choosing to blame him? Should Jane have chosen to blame Bill and Mike? Should we choose to blame thieves and murderers? All these questions assume we have free will, and that the free-will/determinism debate is about OTHER people -- not us. (We don't ask "Should rain fall?" because we know it has no choice BUT to fall.)

Even when it's about me, I tend to split myself into two people. "Since there's no free will, is it really my fault that I stole that money?" What I really mean is, "Since there's no free will, should I really CHOOSE to blame myself for stealing?" Which we can simplify to "Since there's no free will, should I make a choice?" Which is absurd. It's a contradiction. If there's no free will, then I won't make a choice. Or at least I won't FREELY make a choice.

If there's no free will, it's silly to ask if we should or should not blame criminals -- or if we should or should not punish them. (Again, that implicitly posits a universe in which criminals don't have free will but we do.) If there's no free will, we will or we won't blame or punish criminals depending on whatever we're determined to do.

do I have to do EVERYTHING?

I work closely with people who are not systematic workers.

Broken televisions would bamboozle them. I mean, what do you do if your click your remote and the TV doesn't turn on? Here's what I do: I think about the components in the system, which are me, the remote control, the TV, the power cord and the wall outlet.

First I check me. Am I actually pushing the right button on the remote? Yes. Okay, so maybe it's the remote. Maybe its batteries are dead. So I pop some new batteries in (maybe after first testing them in some other device). Darn! The TV STILL won't turn on. Okay, I check the TV itself: is there anything covering the remote-signal receiver? Can I turn it on WITHOUT the remote? Nope. Hmm... maybe it's the power cord...

Now, if I keep checking these things and get all the way to the wall outlet and confirm it works, then I'm screwed. I've tried everything I can try, and now there's nothing for it but calling in a repairman. But I can do so knowing that I've tried everything I'm qualified to try. When I hire the repairman, I won't be wasting money. I'll be hiring an expert when an expert is needed.

I know some people are better at thinking this way than others. The fact that I'm good at it is, perhaps, one of the talents that helps me program computers. People who are bad at systematic thinking aren't stupid or bad -- but some of them are LAZY!

Say my broken-TV-analysis steps never occurred to you. Fair enough. But say you call me on the phone, complain that your TV is broken, and I ask you about the outlet, the chord, the TV itself, the remote and whether or not you're sure you're pressing the right button... and you say, "Whatever. I can't be bothered to check all that stuff"?

That's fine. That's your right. But you're not paid to watch TV. What if you WERE paid to watch TV and still refused to go through my steps AFTER I pointed them out to you?

At least once a week, something like this happens at work. And though I complain a lot about my current job, I've noticed this same thing at other jobs.

I'll finish my part of a project and hand it over to whoever is supposed to work on it next. Let's say it's some guy named Dave.

I've written this complex program that Dave can control with a little text file that contains instructions. My program follows his instructions. For instance, if he wants my program to run every day at 3pm, he's supposed to add "startup=3:00pm" to the text file. Maintaining this file is Dave's job, not mine.

Inevitably, Dave will come to me and say, "I made some changes to the text file and now nothing is working." I ask what he means by "nothing is working." Usually, he says something like, "All I see is a blank screen."

I ask, "Well, did you see a blank screen before you made your changes?"

"No. Before I made them, everything worked fine."

"Okay, so the problem must be in one of the changes you made."

After a long pause, Dave says, "I made, like, a hundred changes. I don't remember everything I did."

At which point I really want to say, "And this is my problem because...?" But I don't. I say, "Well, here's what I would do in your shoes. I'd remove every line from the text file and then add them back in one by one. Keep doing that until you get a problem. Then you'll know exactly what line is causing the problem."

Dave just stares at me.

I go back to work, and an hour later, Dave says, "It's still not working."

I ask, "Did you do what I suggested? Did you try the lines one by one?"

"No. That would take too long."

No, it WOULDN'T take too long. If he'd started doing it when I asked him to, he'd be done by now. In any case, it takes the time it takes. If I skip checking the remote control and the problem happens to be in the remote control, I'll never solve the problem. Too bad if it "takes too long" to check the remote control. Life sucks sometimes.

The Daves of the world always look at me incredulously when I suggest they delve into a problem systematically, as if there MUST be some other way. As if they suspect that I have access to some sort of magic power tool that I'm hogging all to myself.

But I do this sort of systematic problem-solving every day. Sometimes several times a day. If I didn't, many problems would go unsolved and I'd lose my job. Sometimes it sucks to have to check everything, and sometimes I don't feel like doing it, but them's the breaks!

The Daves in my life are usually designers and managers. I feel for them somewhat, because they don't have to be systematic (in this way) in most of their work. But they're asking me to build complex systems for them, and they want to interact with (and control) those systems. And -- sorry -- when you have a problem with a complex system, you HAVE to be systematic in your attempts to fix it.

But they just WON'T. So in the end, I have to do it. And I know they think I SHOULD do it -- even if it's not my job -- because, after all, I'm a programmer and it's my area of expertise. Except that's bullshit! Checking-everything-carefully is no one's (and everyone's) area of expertise.

It's fine to pass the buck to someone else because you're not qualified to carry it. It's not fine to pass the buck to someone else because you're lazy.

Friday, September 03, 2010

are determinists irrational, wrong or both? or are they right?

Here's my response to this video:

This is my understanding of Stef's argument: he is trying to discredit Determinism by assuming it's true and then showing that its logical conclusions are nonsensical or impossible to swallow.

1. Given: The future is set.
2. When you argue, you assume you can change the person's mind.
3. If you can change a person's mind, then the future is not set.
4. Therefor, your assumption that you can change someone's mind is wrong.
5. Therefor, you will never achieve your goal of changing someone's mind.

I think there's a troubling truth buried in what he's saying. But before I get to that, I'd like to examine some of his premises.

2. When you argue, you assume you can change the person's mind.

Is this always the case? I don't think it is with me. Sometimes I'm arguing almost as a reflex action. I know Stef is talking about a rigorous, logical debate -- not chest-beating. But if you've used logic for years, you can often employ it without thinking too hard about doing it or why you're doing it.

I often argue to work through something. I may not care about convincing you as much as I care about figuring out something for myself. You become a tool to help me do that.

However, those are minor objections. In general, I agree with you that people who call themselves Determinists (myself included) often argue with the goal of changing someone's mind.

3. If you can change a person's mind, then the future is not set.

This is not true. Here, Stef is (maybe unintentionally) playing on ambiguity in the word "change." Just using that word sounds as if we've already rejected Determinism. If someone chooses to change his mind (based on listening to your argument), he must have free will. But notice how I slipped the word "chooses" in there. (To be fair to Stef, he didn't use that word. I am claiming it's implicit in his argument.)

Change occurs whether free will exists or not. Stef likes to bring up rocks. So imagine a rock rolling straight down a hill. If you try to predict its course, you'll say it's going to land roughly parallel to where it started, but at the bottom of the hill instead of at the top. But what if another falling rock hits it on its way down. That second rock may "change" the first rock's course. All "change" means in this sense is that objects can affect each other. The first rock veered to the left instead of going straight down BECAUSE the second rock hit it.

Now, if the universe is determined, it also means that our original prediction was just wrong. We predicted that the rock would end up parallel to where it started. We did that because we were unaware of the second rock. Truthfully, the second rock didn't change anything. It didn't alter history. It just did what it was determined to do which led to the first rock doing what it determined to do. There was NO chance that the first rock could have EVER landed parallel to where it started. In fact, the concept of chance is meaningless.

In a determined universe, it's NOT true that a specific coin has a 50% chance of landing on its head or on its tail. We may have a 50-50 chance of GUESSING how it was determined to land*. But if it lands on its tail, that's how it was "fated" to land. If we could rewind the universe and watch it land over and over, it would always land on its tail.

*In a determined universe, it's more accurate to say that 50% of our guesses we're fated to make will wind up accurately predicting the way the coin will fall.

But it's still true that the rock went left BECAUSE it was hit be the other rock. Why? Because (a) the other rock hit it and (b) rocks have certain properties that cause them to be affected when they are hit by other solid objects. (If a rock hit a cloud, the cloud probably wouldn't change course.)

Humans are "built" to be affected by certain inputs. Those include "arguments" from other humans. Rocks aren't built to be affected by those same inputs. Stef says it's crazy to yell at a rock. That's correct. But the reason it's correct has nothing to do with free will or Determinism. It's correct because rocks have no internal mechanism for receiving or processing arguments.

My computer is a Deterministic device. But it can't respond to me waving at it.

So Stef's clam (or my rewording of it) that "If you can change a person's mind, then the future is not set" is nonsensical. You can CAUSE a person's mind to do certain things by doing certain things to that mind. No one -- free willer or Determinist -- is arguing that human minds can't receive and process inputs, and that they're not changed by those inputs.

Now, here's where I think Stef is onto something: even if it's possible for one person to cause another to reach some conclusion, in a deterministic universe, the causal person is himself caused. In other words, I'm not really arguing with you "to change your mind."* I'm arguing with you because I'm determined to argue with you. And though the sounds I make will likely cause some sort of behavior on your part, you're ultimately going to do what you're going to do -- just like the coin.

*My desire to change your mind might be a causal factor that makes me argue with you. By saying "I'm arguing TO change your mind," I am stacking the deck. Alas, our language is full of traps that assume free will. What's true is that (a) I have a desire to change your mind; (b) I'm arguing with you. Maybe (a) caused (b).

Stef is right that Determinists often assume everyone is determined except them, which is wrong. You most often hear that argument in this form: "If Determinism is true, should we punish people who commit crimes?" What that really means is "If Determinism is true, should we freely CHOOSE to punish people who commit crimes?" Of course, if Determinism IS true, we will or we won't punish people who commit crimes, depending on what we're determined to do. The question creates a world view in which everyone is determined except for the questioner. I agree with Stef that's absurd. (It's also a common mistake.)

I believe we (including me) are determined. When we argue, we are determined to argue. And when the clockwork universe causes us to argue, the sounds and gestures we make often cause various behaviors (and internal states) in the people we're arguing with.

Finally, I'd like to look again at (my version of) Stef's argument:

1. Given: The future is set.
2. When you argue, you assume you can change the person's mind.
3. If you can change a person's mind, then the future is not set.
4. Therefor, your assumption that you can change someone's mind is wrong.
5. Therefor, you will never achieve your goal of changing someone's mind.

Let's assume that we completely agree with this. Okay, well then it proves that Determinists are irrational. That's fine, but that doesn't prove anything about whether free will exists or whether the universe is deterministic. If I say "Rocks fall downhill because invisible gnomes pull them down," that's irrational, but the fact that it's irrational does not change the fact that rocks fall downhill.

At most, Stef is saying something interesting about Determinists (they can be inconsistent). He is not saying anything about whether the universe is deterministic. He is not giving a shred of evidence for free will. Saying that believers in something tend to be (or even MUST be) irrational says nothing about whether the thing they believe is true or false.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

marcus's rules of order (for himself)

I, Marcus, swear to abide by the following rules to the best of my ability. It is my belief the they lead to civil, intelligent discussion in which the goal is to seek truth, rather than to win points, mock, humiliate or dominate -- all of which I consider ignoble wastes of time or worse.

I invite you to call me on my own hypocrisy. If I violate any of the following rules, drop me a line saying, "You just violated rule 03!"

I also invite you to follow these rules. I believe they will pay off great dividends for you and for this the world in general.

Finally, I invite you to suggest changes and amendments to these rules.

01. I will never engage in ad hominem attacks. An ad hominem attack is an attack on the arguer as opposed to his argument.

It's pretty easy to understand that "You're an asshole!" doesn't add anything to the argument except bile, but most ad hominem attacks are subtler than that. They piggyback on legitimate points.


"Don't be an idiot! In a democracy, everyone gets a right to vote!"

"What you obviously don't understand is that History is not a science!"

"For the fifteenth time, not all forms of punishment are equally bad!" (It's a little hard to spot the personal attack in this example. "For the fifteenth time" implies "You are so stupid that you can't understand something, even if I say it over and over again!")

These combo statements are bad because they send a mixed message. Refuting someone's point with logic says "I want to have a rational discussion with you." Adding in some form of "You idiot" says "I want to humiliate you." And the stealth (slipping the insult in with the valid point) makes the play for dominance all the more horrible. If the person on the other end only responds to the logic, he's letting himself be insulted; if he only responds to the insult, he's ignoring the logic. If he tries to do both, he waters down the discussion.

02. I will never give as good as I get.

This is the hardest rule for most people to follow, and many people disagree that it even should be a rule. But if I care about promoting real discussion and ridding the world (as much as possible) of chest-beating shouting matches, I'll swallow my pride and take the high road. If someone calls me an asshole, they are violating rule 01. Sorry, but if I call them an asshole back, I am also violating rule 01. As Mom said, "Two wrongs don't make a right."

I have two honorable options: (1) ignore the insult and just respond to the debate points -- if there are any debate points. Or (2) opt to leave the debate. If I make this choice, I may explain why, without insulting the insulter. I can say, "I am sorry, but I have a personal policy against participating in debates that include personal attacks. So I'm going to leave now."

After I leave, the insulter will almost always claim victory. I need to live with that. He's claiming victory because he believes that's the whole point of the debate -- for someone to win and for someone else to lose. I need to remember that my point was to seek truth. He and I are not playing the same game. Let him win his game. It's not my game. Whatever I do, I should never play his game. If I do, he wins by default.

Bonus points: give one warning but don't leave. It's fine if I leave after the first insult. But sometimes it's worth staying long enough to say that I will only stick around if there are no more insults. People are imperfect; they get defensive despite their best intentions not to. (It happesn to me!) Sometimes an insult will slip out. If I feel I am up to it, I should give people a chance to apologize and I should accept their apology with grace.

If, after that, they insult me a second time, I should opt out.

03. I will never say, "You can take anything to extremes," because that's never a meaningful answer.

If someone says, "If we take your logic to extremes, we wind up with Nazi Germany," there are three meaningful responses:

1) "You're wrong. If you take my logic to extremes, you actually wind up with X," X being something other than Nazi Germany. You then need to explain why you wind up with X instead of Nazi Germany.

2) "You're right. You've made me realize that I need to qualify my claim. I don't dismiss it. It's still a valid claim under many circumstances, but I can see how it's problematic when..."

3) "You're right. I never fully considered the ramifications."

04. If I concede a point, I must always fully and opening concede it. And I am never allowed to mix conceding a point with changing the subject:

Example of the wrong way to do it:

Me: The problem with our educational system, is that it forces kids to do things they don't want, and forcing people is wrong.

You: So you think it's wrong to stop kids from playing in traffic?

Me: Okay, not that, but my point is...

WHOA! "But the point is" is changing the subject. What I should have said is...

Me: You know, you're right. I said you should never force kids to do anything, but now that you bring up the dangers of playing in traffic, I realize that I don't really think things through. You're right about that. (Pause.) Okay, let me try to rephrase what I believe. I do think you have a point, but I don't think MY point was completely wrong. I just need to refine it. You see...

05. I will either stay in the discussion or bow out gracefully. It's never someone else's fault that I'm leaving. I will never leave by saying something like, "Since you can't discuss this rationally, I'm outahere!"

It's okay to say, "I have a personal policy against taking part in flame wars, but it's also hard for me to resist insulting you the way you're insulting me. So rather than violating my principals, I'm going to leave." It's also perfectly fine to say, "You know. I'm tired, and I just don't feel like discussing any more." I will separate my leave-taking remark from my argumentation. It's never okay to use a good-bye to get "one last dig in."

06. I will never assume intent or mindset.

I will never say, "You obviously think you're always right" unless someone has said "I am always right." I will never begins a sentence with "people like you always say..." It's fine, acceptable and good to ask questions about mindset. "You say you're a Republican? The Republicans I know want low taxes. Do you want low taxes?"

07. I will never use sarcasm as a weapon.

"You're quite right. NO ONE should EVER have to go to SCHOOL! If no one went to SCHOOL, we'd be living in a PARADISE!"

If my message is "you're really stupid," then I'm engaging in an ad hominem attack. (See point 01.) If my point is "School is a good thing," then I need to make that point and explain why.

08. I am not allowed to fall back on bad behavior when all else has failed.

"You know what? I tried reasoning with you. I explained things to you really clearly. In fact, I explain things FOUR TIMES. You never listen. You know what? At this point ... fuck you!" I need to either stay in the discussion and keep trying or opt out gracefully. (See point 05.)

09. I will never say, "You're missing my point," "You're still not hearing me," or any variation of those phrases.

No matter how clear I think I'm being, if the other person isn't responding as if he heard me, there are two possibilities: either he's not thinking clearly or I'm not speaking clearly.

I am not the one to judge whether I'm speaking clearly or not. No one is objective enough to do that. Which is why writers need editors. In any case, "you're missing the point" is gratuitous information. If I'm debating Creationism, debate THAT. I shouldn't waste time discussing whether or not someone is missing my point.

If I feel that someone is missing my point, I should explain it again, switch to a different point, ask questions to see if I can figure out the cause of the confusion or opt out. (See point 05.)

Bonus points if, in stead of saying, "You're missing my point," I say, "Maybe I wasn't being clear. How about we look at it this way..." A little humility goes a long way.

10. If I feel frustrated and need to vent, I will either leave the discussion and vent elsewhere or I will stay and discuss my feelings without blaming anyone else for them.

If I blame someone else (even if it is "their fault") my goal has changed from truth-seeking to something else -- maybe to righting a wrong or criticizing. Sometimes that's inevitable. But at least I should be fair to the people I'm talking to by making the new game clear: "You know, I need to stop for a minute. I can't go on discussing the Middle East situation right now, because I'm hurt by what you said..."

It's also okay to say, "I am really frustrated right now." What's not okay is to engage in any of the bad behavior (ad hominem attacks, sarcasm...) outlined in these points.

11. I will never nitpick at minor points that have nothing to do with the main thrust of someone's argument.

If someone says, "You think that technology is perfect? That's what people said about the Titanic in the 1920s," it adds nothing to the discussion to retort with, "The Titanic sank in 1912!" The person was making a point about the hubris of claiming a technology is perfect. My goal should be to agree with him about THAT or to disagree and explain my reasoning -- not to win points.

(It's okay, at a time when it won't derail the conversation, to say, "Oh. Just a note. The Titanic sank in 1912." Conversational ninjas can even say this immediately, as long as they phrase it like this, "Well, the Titanic sank in 1912, but I take your point that...")

12. When (not if) I violate any of these rules, I will apologize.

It's hard to argue fairly. Even if I start with the honest goal of seeking the truth, people will push my buttons (and I'll push my own buttons), and sometimes without even knowing it, I'll bark at people. Unwittingly, my goal will switch from truth-seeking to winning. This is natural. It happens to everyone. I must have the humility to accept the fact that it will happen to me. The honorable thing is to admit it and fix the problem.

If I find you can't do this -- if apologizing is deeply painful or irritating, so much so that I can't bring myself to do it -- then I should at least note I've you've completely quit seeking the truth. My argument is now totally about ego. Again, that's not a horrible sin. It means I'm human. Sometimes humans have to withdraw and lick their wounds. It's honorable to take a break, even a permanent one if I must.

If I choose to continue, I should say "You know, I just realized I made a personal attack" (or whatever you did.) "I'm sorry. That was wrong of me." I should pause after doing that, making sure to never combine an apology with a change of subject, or it will sound like I'm fleeing from the apology. I should never say, "I'm sorry I attacked you, but my point is..." Instead, I should take a deep breath, find some humility, look the other person in the eye and say, "I was wrong." Full Stop. Then let him speak. After my mistake has been dealt with, I am free to continue making my argument.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

the unopenable door

Thought experiment: you move into a house and discover there's a locked door in the basement. It's a super-strong, steel reenforced door -- like a bank vault. You try everything you can to open it but nothing works. You call in an engineer, and he tells you that the door must remain closed. If you try to bash it open somehow, you'll bring down the whole house on top of you. (I realize this is silly. There's ALWAYS a way to get a door open. But please accept this unopenenable door -- as magic if you must.) Question: once you realize you can't open the door, how would be feel about continuing to live in the house?

I ask this, because some people seem to be much better equipped to deal with mystery than others. This is far from the only thing that leads some people to become mystics and others to become skeptics/scientific thinkers/atheists, but I believe it's one key ingredient.

(There's a great TED talk by J.J. Abrams, the TV producer, in which he talks about how his grandfather gave him a box from a magic shop. It has big question marks painted on it. He's kept the box for decades without ever opening it. He feels it's vital that he has this mystery in his life. I told this story to my wife and she just about blew a gasket. She wants to kill J.J. for not opening that box. She wants to kill him even more for adding that mystery to her life without giving her any tools to solve it.)

I'm betting some people read my unopenable-door experiment and thought, "I could live with it." Others thought, "It would drive me BATSHIT INSANE! I would HAVE to move." Still others thought, "I'm sorry, but even in a story, I can't accept the idea of an unopenable door. So in spite of your request that I take that as a given, I simply can't. There IS a way to open it, and I will keep trying!" Others thought, "I'm going to assume that what's behind the door is _____," and you can fill in the blank with God or some other fantasy. (For a fun evening with friends, pose the door story to them and see how they react. You will learn a lot!)

Despite the name, mysticism tends to deny (or solve) mystery. Why does it rain? Because the rain God wants it to. Etc.

It's always fascinating to me when a theist asks me, "Well, if God didn't do it, how do you explain X?" Embedded in that question is the idea that "I don't know" is not tolerable. That it's better to make up an explanation (or accept one someone else made up) than live with mystery.

We tend to categorize people as theists and atheists, but I think this relationship to mystery transcends those categories. I've noticed that there are scientists who are very uncomfortable with mystery. They may have BECOME scientists because, though they can't just trust bullshit like so many theists do, they cling to the idea that, given time and work, all will be known. A mystery, to them, is just a question that doesn't YET have an answer.

But if you really confront the truth, we simply don't know if all questions can be answered or not. And it's a certainty that all questions (even most questions) won't get answered in your lifetime. You will die with mysteries. How does that make you feel? I think that's a KEY question. How do unsolved and UNSOLVABLE mysteries make you feel?

(Many animals are compelled to explore their environments. Presumably this helps them make sure there are not lurking dangers. An unexplored nook or cranny might contain a tiger. When we ask people to give up mysticism and theism, we need to understand the ramifications of our request: learn to live with some possible tigers that you'll never be sure about.)

I've also noticed that many scientists (and scientific types) are troubled by axioms. To me, the most challenging thing that theists say to us is "You take things on faith just like we do." The answers I hear most often are "Yes, but we do that as little as possible" and "Yes, but we're always willing to revise those axioms."

I agree with both those statements, but I also note how quickly scientists (many of them) tend to change the subject when their faith-based beliefs are even brought up. I suspect, again, this is because the existence of axioms implies mystery. Yes, we may one day understand the human brain and the nature of black holes. But will we understand what causation is? Maybe, but it it seems distinctly less likely. (Unless you're one of those people who cling to the "religious" belief that, given time, we'll understand everything. Now THAT is an article of faith!)

If I'm right about this, it all leads to a big question that, alas, I can't answer: why do different people have different tolerance levels for mystery? Is it a genetically encoded personality trait? Is it learned? I have no idea. I would love to see this tested in the lab. I would love to see if we can detect differing tolerances for mystery in infants and other primates.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

school is abuse

Someone online posted about a school that gives students DAILY assessment tests. I remarked that this sounds like hell to me. A few people countered that it's much better than leaving kids to do homework and only occasionally checking in on how they're doing.

I had to admit I'd been glib, and so I broadened my remark by saying, "Homework sucks, too. A school has failed when it has our kids captive for EIGHT HOURS A DAY, for TWELVE YEARS, and that's not enough time to teach -- when it needs to force kids to do even MORE work at night, when they finally get to go home. Good LORD! What is happening during those eight hours?"

To which I got this...

It's school. It's not something you necessarily need to like. If I had my way I never would have gone and played Nintendo all day instead.

"We will probably never agree about this," I said, "but learning should be fun." Learning IS fun when we're small children. When we're babies, learning is FASCINATING. Then something kills this fascination for many people. I would argue that "something" is school -- traditional school (with homework, tests and requirements) as it exists in America and many other countries.

I would also argue that school needn't kill the joy of learning (and that the fact that it does so, for so many people, is extremely damaging to mental development). It sickens me when people treat school as a Force of Nature: "Whatcha gonna do. That's just the way it is."

I understand (and sympathize) with this feeling, because it's how most of us experience school. It's certainly IS something that "just happens" to us. Everyone we know goes through it; Our parents went through it; our children went through it. It seems like a natural part of life, like teething and going through puberty. But it's worth remembering that this is an illusion. Whether you agree with me or not that school sucks, it's not natural -- it's a human construction.

When a ritual becomes this embedded in culture, it stops being open to debate for most people. Not because they're close minded. But because ... who debates whether or not trees should have leaves? Good or bad, school becomes a rite of passage. It may be crap, but it's that crap we all have in common.

And questioning school is dangerous. If there's something fucked up in our upbringing -- in years and years and years of it -- that means, on some level, our parents abused us (generally unwittingly), and who wants to think of their parents that way? It means we're abusing our kids. And who wants to think of ourselves that way? I probably damage my own point by even suggesting that or by using the word "abuse." The knees are GOING to jerk.

But fuck it. Stunting someone's mental development; making them spend twelve years of their life in a crappy environment ... I don't know what else to call it.

Well, I could call it "just school" or "that's how it is" or "I went through it and I turned out okay." All the platitudes that usually tumble out...

When something is embedded in our culture, it also tends to make us very unimaginative -- at least when it comes to that thing. You can't change a rock or a tree. They are the way they are. Same with school, right? Institutions are institutions because they are institutions. The Post Office may be fucked up -- but it's the Post Office!

Please argue with me and tell me what school is fine (or the best we can expect it to be) and that it does little damage to people. Or that it's great and it helps people. But BEFORE you do that, please read everything you can about education (including the hundred-years-worth of literature on alternatives to what we do now), as I've tried to do over the last 30 years. And please spend 20 years in the classroom as an active thinker, as I have done. During that 20 years, make sure you question the institutional defaults EVERY DAY. Don't (necessarily) reject them; QUESTION them. Isn't that what you're teaching your students to do -- to question?

Read Vivian Paley's books; read "How Children Fail." Read about Summerhill in England. Read reports of adults who went through non-traditional schools and see how they fared in life and how they look back on their school experiences. Do all that, and then, using logic, reject those books and experiences. I'll be waiting and I'm open to be convinced.