Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Week 32: Oprah's Book Club

Oprah's Book Club
On science and religion, and why scripture should know the value of its place.   

"Life is..." is a very different statement from "Life can be described by..."  This is because we can never say what life is, with absolute certainty; we can only infer life from its descriptions.  

Stated another way: We can never teach what life is; we can only describe how life works. Across these descriptions, patterns begin to resonate from which the true nature of life can then be inferred, albeit with varying degrees of uncertainty.  

From an infinite complexity of life arises infinite ways to describe that life. The two most commonly (mis)understood frameworks are, of course, religion and science. 

The former offers anecdotal descriptions based on scripture passed down incompletely from one generation to the next. The latter offers theoretical descriptions based on conclusions drawn from quantitative data passed down incompletely from one measuring device to the next.

Both frameworks paint incomplete pictures of life, but only science acknowledges that its pictures are incomplete.

Religion speaks in absolutes of what is and what should be; whereas science offers only theorems: statements that can never be proven true—only false.

Science accepts uncertainty as its central premise, and is in fact driven by this uncertainty to explore further, to understand better—to live more. Uncertainty, in a sense, is what gives life meaning: life as an end in and of itself.

Religion, on the other hand, is never uncertain. Uncertainty does not win followers, and without followers, there can be neither political support nor financial gain: Religion would go out of business. 

And so religion sells the false certainty of ritual and form, perpetuating an ignorance that does not explore, does not question, and simply obeys. "Look no further; ask no questions; do as you are told; and in the next life," religion promises, "you shall be rewarded." The promise of future rewards is what gives life meaning: life as a means to an end.

Religion gives people answers to questions that they aren't intellectually prepared to ask yet, and in doing so, shortcuts their journeys—straight into a ditch.  After all, why bother trying to learn new ways of understanding the world if some all-powerful deity is ultimately the answer to every question?

Some would argue that this isn't so bad: some people just aren't equipped for a lifetime of struggle. I can accept this. Self-imposed ignorance is OK with me.

But the hatred, discrimination, and violence that is often a product of this ignorance—not okay. And the only way to achieve self-imposed ignorance without the trifecta of hatred, discrimination, and violence is to free scripture to DESCRIBE truth, and stop forcing it to BE truth.
Scripture at its best functions like the greatest of literature: offering descriptions of life that while far removed in place and time, still resonate in the here and now through some shared and eternal struggle.

In this sense (setting my obvious biases aside), scripture does have a place in the modern world. But then again (biases reasserting themselves), one could also join Oprah's book club.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Week 31: The Gospel of Uncertainty (2/2)

The Gospel of Uncertainty
How modern physics learned to embrace uncertainty as the only absolute, and why if we would only "argue semantics" more often, we wouldn't have to fight and kill and blow-up and fly planes into tall much.  (continued from last week)  

Grappling with mysterious phenomena that couldn’t be explained through a classical lens, a group of physicists battled their preconceptions and struggled through their spiritual biases to give the world a new framework for understanding the universe: quantum mechanics.
Quantum mechanics led to a modern understanding of the universe whereby the intrinsic nature of matter is understood to be both wave-like and particle-like, simultaneously; but where we humans, because of our limited ability to perceive the universe in its entirety, can only see one or the other (wave-like or particle-like) at any given time—never both. 

In other words: what we are able to "see" depends entirely on our perspective, and since we can't "see" it all at once, we can only assume that "it" is too large for us to "see" in its entirety.

So what do we "see" then? What is reality?
The concept of wave-particle duality suggests that the intrinsic nature of the universe extends beyond our human ability to fully perceive it. And that we can only perceive 3-dimensional slices of a potentially infinite-dimensional universe at any given time.

This in turn suggests that human knowledge of absolute truth is an illusion, and that the only thing we can be absolutely sure of is that we can never be absolutely sure.

It suggests that the reality versus perception dichotomy is a false dichotomy; that there is no reality versus perception, only common versus uncommon perception—coupled with varying degrees of uncertainty.  

Universists accept this uncertainty as a part of the human condition, and are in fact driven by this uncertainty to seek out new ways—new 3-dimensional slices—in which our infinite universe manifests itself to us.

They meditate on the distinction between the English verbs “to be” and “to be described by.”

They realize that descriptions are the parts from which they can infer the whole. And though they can never be absolutely certain that that which they infer is that which is, they have faith—and spend their entire lives in search of new descriptions to reinforce this faith.

An excerpt from The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston:
After I returned from my survival test, the two people trained me in dragon ways, which took another eight years. Copying the tigers, their stalking kill and their anger, had been a wild, bloodthirsty joy. Tigers are easy to find, but I needed adult wisdom to know dragons. 'You have to infer the whole dragon from the parts you can see and touch.' The old people would say. Unlike tigers, dragons are so immense. I would never see one in its entirety.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Week 30: Wave-Particle Duality (1/2)

Wave-Particle Duality
How Thompson's electron shattered Newton's apple, and why we shouldn't try to pick up the pieces. What modern physics can tell us about the meaning of life. 

I just watched this clip from AC360 about a burgeoning new "religion" called Universism. Universism is about learning to accept the uncertainty that governs our universe. They are anti-faith, where the Universist definition of faith is "letting other people think for you."

At a typical meeting, they sit around and discuss everything from politics to life to love. There is no preacher, pastor, pope, imam or cleric to tell them: this is how you live your life, this is what you believe and this is how you love. Instead they share and listen and learn about what life can be like and how great love can be. 

They look closer and what they see is not a single orbital path but a fuzzy cloud of possibilities.
At the end, Tom Foreman, a hint of derision in his voice (because he is an asshole), describes the practitioners as—"a diverse group of disaffected souls, heading out into the world with the gospel of uncertainty." 

But is this so bad?
Consider that it was a new “gospel of uncertainty” that transformed the study of physics in the 20th century. The transition from classical to modern physics challenged all notions of an absolute order in the universe, demanding that we embrace a “gospel of uncertainty” in exchange for deeper insights into the nature of nature.
Classical mechanics, first expounded by Sir Isaac Newton in the 17th century, is the mathematical framework through which humanity caught its first glimpses of a rational order underlying what was previously a chaotic, capricious universe. 
Where you are, where you have been, where you are going, how you will get there: such questions were the bread and butter of classical mechanics, and Newton’s framework allowed for these questions to be answered with absolute certainty.
Classical mechanics was an adequate tool for probing Newton’s human-scale universe. But a macroscopic apple falling from a tree is very different from an infinitesimal electron zipping through a cathode ray tube, and as humanity began pushing beyond the limits of our five senses, Newton’s world—and the classical understanding of physics that it was based on—began to break down.  

The cracks really began to show at the turn of the 20th century. Up until then, electricity was understood classically as a wave-like phenomenon—described as a kind of fluid through which energy flowed. 

But in 1897, J.J. Thompson conducted an experiment that proved otherwise. His conclusion: electricity could only be described as a particle with negative charge moving through space—an electron. 
The classical view held that everything in the universe was either a particle or a wave; matter or energy—but never both. The descriptions were mutually exclusive: matter couldn’t be energy, and energy couldn't be matter (kind of like how men can’t be women, and women can’t be men).
And yet here was evidence to the contrary: Electricity was both a wave, and a particle! Both descriptions of electricity were accurate, and both provided wonderful new insights into the phenomenon, but they both couldn’t be right, could they? 
The nature of light soon came under new scrutiny, and when physicists looked more closely, they noticed the same thing! Depending on how you observed/measured it, light could be described as either a wave, or a particle!
The “reality” of light seemed to change depending on how physicists chose to “perceive” it!
But how could that be? How could there be more than one reality? 

Tune in next week! 

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Week 29: Ink Blots

Ink Blots
with Ink Blots there's more
than one or two or three.

these Ink Blots they hide--
a great Infinity.

What casts this one shadow
here on the wall?

the narrow light too blinding,
to ever see It all.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Week 27: The Things Reflected In My Eyes

The Things Reflected In My Eyes (瞳に映るもの)
Why photographs lie, and what beautiful photographs of ugly men can tell us about the nature of truth.

To be photogenic means to photograph well. It means that when four dimensions of space-time are flattened into two and much of your essence is lost, your physical attractiveness—at least—is preserved, captured in a photograph for posterity. 

Through Facebook, I find an endless supply of photogenic individuals at my fingertips. 

I often spend hours browsing through photos, indulging the horny little teenage girl in my mind who delights in filling in the gaps left by all the things not preserved, the dimensions that don’t photograph well.
This one with the strong jawline and caterpillar eyebrows? He seems like the tall brooding type, a quiet intellectual that finds solace in books and writing, but who can also carry himself well in social situations, and happens to love math!
When I meet them in person, and they turn out to be even more than I imagined, I hold my breath and pray for the day when all Californians can get married. 

More often than not though, Mr. Photogenic turns out to be anything but what I inferred from his strong jawline and caterpillar eyebrows. When this happens, it strikes at the core of my faith in mankind: How can a man so orgasmically beautiful be so heartrendingly stupid?

The fact that universally photogenic men can manifest so inconsistently in person is a testament to our multifaceted existence: We are not one-, two-, or even three-dimensional creatures; the essence of man spans so much more.

As beautiful as that sounds (yes I am aware of my tendency to gloss over ugly details), the fact is that there are some dimensions better left to the imagination: Sometimes, man’s essence can look like Maladora (exotically beautiful), but also smell like Maladora (pungently corpse-like).

I am sure photographers imagine their art is like a crucible. They frame the world through a camera lens, searching for that perfect angle, that perfect moment to crop out all irrelevancies and allow them to capture only what is important: the truth, as they see it.

But of course, multivariable calculus teaches us that 2 vectors cannot a 4-dimensional basis make. 

Photographs lie, and photogenic men can turn into the beastliest of boys, precisely because 2-dimensional images can only ever hint at the full nature of infinite-dimensional truths.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Week 26: Why Creationism is Dumb

Why Creationism is Dumb
How multivariable calculus helps us cut through complexity, recognize universal patterns, and thus discover our own truthsand why this scares the Pope.  

I met up with a new client at Cafe Flore today. She's a grad student at Cal taking multivariable calculus (scary!) over the summer.

I warned her that my multivariable calculus was a bit rusty, that I might not always be able to speak from a position of authority, that our relationship might have to assume a more egalitarian formthat we might have to work through this together. 

She seemed okay with it. 

Today's lesson dealt with the concept of basis, which is just a fancy mathematical way of saying coordinate system, or to generalize even furtherframe of reference.

In multivariable calculus, where you begin working in more than just one- or two- or even three dimensions, a basis helps you make sense of a quantitative world that extends beyond the realm of sensory experience. 

I think NYU Professor Morris Kline (1908 - 1992) put it best:
"No one can visualize a four-dimensional, non-Euclidean world, but those who insist on visualizing the concepts with which science and mathematics now deal are still in the dark ages of their intellectual development. Almost since the beginning of work with numbers, mathematicians have carried on algebraic reasoning that is independent of sense experience. Today they consciously construct and apply geometries that exist only in human brains and that were never meant to be visualized."
In one of her problems, my client was given 7 different vectors (think of an arrow), each of varying magnitude and orientation, and then asked to find a basis. 

I explained to my client that the 7 different vectors were like sets of unidentified fingerprints lifted from a crime scene: one from the bedroom doorknob, two from a champagne flute, several taken from a bloody butcher knife...and so on.

To proceed with the investigation, she needed to determine if those 7 sets of fingerprints belonged to 7 different suspects, or if really there were only 1 or 2 or 3 unique suspects.

It was up to my client to eliminate redundant sets of fingerprints (i.e. those belonging to the same person) until only a unique set remained: to find the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The problem reminded me of a Star Trek episode, “The Measure of a Man” (TNG: 2x09). In it, Captain Picard offers this closing argument in the trial over Commander Data’s status as a Federation Citizen:
"Your honor, the courtroom is a crucible; in it, we burn away irrelevancies until we are left with a purer product: the truth, for all time."
To solve this problem, my client needed to find a basis—a frame of reference—that would allow her to cut through the complexity and see fundamental truths, to "burn away irrelevancies" until she was left with a purer product.  

And so she did.

She used the tools of multivariable calculus to slice away at those 7 random vectors, cutting through the redundancies, the extensions, the overlapsthe linear combinationsuntil only 3 remained, each pointing in a unique "direction."  

Out of a dense fuzz of complexity, a simple pattern of only 3 variables emerged. Here was the basis, the coordinate system, the frame of reference: the truth, for all time. 

The discovery is so spiritually uplifting that Pope Joseph Ratzinger himself is roused from his transcendent slumber and, in nothing more than his pointy Prada shoes, quickly issues a papal bull accusing multivariable calculus of molesting little children.   

The full text of Theodore P. Olson's Captain Jean-luc Picard's speech:
"Your honor, the courtroom is a crucible; in it, we burn away irrelevancies until we are left with a purer product: the truth, for all time. Now sooner or later, this man [Commander Maddox]—or others like him—will succeed in replicating Commander Data. The decision you reach here today will determine how we will regard this creation of our genius. It will reveal the kind of people we are; what he is destined to be. It will reach far beyond this courtroom and this one android. It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom: expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others. Are you prepared to condemn him [Commander Data] – and all who will come after him – to servitude and slavery? Your honor, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life: well, there it sits! Waiting." 

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Week 25: The (Gay) Butterfly Effect

The (Gay) Butterfly Effect
An urban planning perspective on Prop 8, on what it means to walk, and on the crazy shit that happens when we stop.

The history of mankind is a history of unexpected connections, of chance encounters between people and ideas that pushed the envelope of human understanding and opened our eyes to more of our limitless potential.

This history is inextricably linked to our cities: great urban spaces where people from all over the world and from all walks of life came together, collided, and every so often, gave off a random spark that grew to illuminate the world in a whole new way.

And so I walk, because I know that walking can change the world. I walk because I know that, contrary to what Einstein believed, God does indeed play with dice.

Of course, I also walk for other—less noble—reasons: bumping into acquaintances, ogling cute boys on the street, or overhearing some juicy tidbits about who did what with whom last night.

Walking was all this to me, and more. But then Prop 8 blew into town.

The first few days after losing a constitutional guarantee are always the worst.

I remember sharing a narrow sidewalk in Concord, California with a portly, flaxen-haired office worker the day after Prop 8 passed. I was walking to lunch; she was walking back. I looked at her as we passed, and came to the unsettling realization that, statistically speaking—she probably voted yes. 

The realization unleashed a floodgate of raw emotions. Old wounds from the night before bled anew, the delicate scabs bursting beneath the pressure of a heart that seethed with anger.

I stopped walking.

The public space was supposed to be a forum for building trust. But now, all it did was to remind me with each chance encounter that this country had betrayed me—that it had betrayed itself.


I stop walking altogether, and because I stop walking, I stop trusting. Because I stop trusting, love has no foundation, and so when love finally dissipates—I am left without a community.

I take refuge from the world in an isolated gay enclave, stewing in the idea that they all hate me. Sequestered away in my homogenized homosexual bubble, I stop interacting with heterosexuals, and quickly forget that they aren't all like that. 

Over time, the isolation and ignorance breed fear, which festers until from it emerges an uncompromising hatred.

This hatred goes on to fuel a radical gay minority whose modus operandi involves strapping explosive devices to their bodies and blowing themselves up in the middle of straight nightclubs busy with the activity of breeders, many of whom—ironically—support same-sex marriage.

In a flash of flesh-rendering light, I depart from this world. The physical body dies, but my legacy of hatred—my ideas—live on, inciting still more disaffected and marginalized gay men to martyrdom.

The senseless indiscriminate violence of a radical minority shifts national opinion against the moderate gay majority. Discriminatory and draconian new laws are passed in a new populist uprising led by Sarah Palin; and San Francisco and New York, those bastions of guppydom (like yuppies but gay), respond by seceding from the Union. 

The civil war that follows will be known to future generations as the Great Betrayal: a reference to the large contingent of Bible-thumping Republicans who turn out to be closeted gay men and either defect or are psychologically overwhelmed by their own hypocrisy.

The decidedly un-civil conflict in the US helps to enhance China's standing in the world, allowing them to establish a new global hegemony through which the Middle Kingdom rises once more: English falls out of favor, supplanted by Mandarin as the lingua franca of global capitalism; South Korea re-integrates Hanja into their education system; Taiwan is peacefully reunified with the Mainland; and Vietnam successfully petitions China to become the 23rd province of 南越

Chinese citizens begin immigrating to Israel en masse and, with the tacit backing of the Middle Kingdom, quickly declare statehood. The new state contracts Lee Kwan Yew to serve as enlightened despot, and he—through a combination of social engineering, arranged interfaith marriages, market-based incentives, and the threat of capital punishment—finally establishes a lasting peace in the Middle East. 

...all because a bunch of gay butterflies were never able to flap their wings in California.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Week 24: In Defense of Traditional Marriage (Part II)

In Defense of Traditional Marriage (Part II)
Why the tradition of marriage is dead, and how we can bring it back to life. (continued from last week)

In the battle over California Proposition 8, nostalgia won.

Nostalgia, masquerading as tradition, fooled us all into believing that the ritual and form of white weddings and heterosexual love were timeless and universal truths. 

But dig deeper, and we find that weddings are not always white, the participants not always so pure (or heterosexual, for that matter), and that the love binding two individuals together is so universal a truth that no grammatical modifier can or should ever be used to limit its meaning: There is no gay love or straight love. There is just love, love.

Love awakens us to our common humanity, enabling us to work together and achieve more collectively than we ever could as individuals. Without love, we become destructively independent, and communities fall apart.

Love forms the bedrock of our society, and marriage—at its core—is about love.

It is love that allows two biologically distinct entities to create a single life together: to learn together, grow together, and then to pass on their values, culture, and experiences to the next generation. This description—stripped of all superficial ritual and form—is the true tradition of marriage.

Does same-sex marriage really break with this tradition? What meaning is there in the love between a man and a woman, that is absent in the love between two men, or two women?

Some would argue that marriage isn't about love; that it's about having procreative sex that produces biological heirs to their worldly fortunes. Marriage, they argue, is about sex.

But how can this be right?

Sex is base. It is animal. To define marriage based on sex is more in line with modern day Satanism (which encourages one to indulge the pleasures of the flesh) than with Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or any other major 'system' of belief.

If marriage is about producing children (i.e. making babies), then that means sex is paramount to the union, and love need not be involved.

But if marriage is instead about rearing children (i.e. raising responsible adults who don't get angry at the world for their own failures and then channel that rage into senseless acts of violence that cripple the community), then really, love is paramount, and sex is irrelevant.

So which is it? Which is more important: producing biological heirs to inherit all our worldly fortunes, or producing spiritual heirs to inherit all our cultural wealth?

Love or sex? Which is paramount?

I think the answer is obvious: Marriage—this sacred institution—must be about love.

Marriage has always been about love. The tradition of marriage is the tradition of love, and to deny same-sex couples the right to marry because they can’t procreate is to redefine marriage as it has existed for generations. It is to cross over from tradition and into nostalgia.

Today in California, as a result of Prop 8, the phrase “Defending Traditional Marriage” is a misnomer. There is nothing left to defend.

The tradition of marriage is dead. The people who voted to defend their “traditional” definition of marriage were fooled, and Californians have been split into two well entrenched, self-destructively independent groups of thought as a result.

We have abandoned love in favor of ceremony, sown mistrust into our communities, and allowed blind faith to make a mockery of our Constitution.

Marriage has no meaning now to a true traditionalist—a true conservative. It will have meaning again only when we stop worshiping the ritual and form of marriage, and allow it to evolve with time and place.

It will have meaning again when we recognize that there is a difference between love and lust, and that when we practice abstinence we never learn to distinguish between the two.

It will have meaning again only when we remove all traces of nostalgia from our timeless founding documents, abandon the restrictions we have placed on love, and embrace the true tradition of marriage once more.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Week 23: In Defense of Traditional Marriage (Part I)

In Defense of Traditional Marriage (Part I)
On the critical distinction between tradition and nostalgia, and why we shouldn't eat lobsters. 

Architect Peter Calthorpe believes in traditional neighborhoods: small streets, town squares, and walkable districts. These old, traditional built forms enable the effective interchange of new ideas via the formal and informal networks of a community that, by design, make efficient use of limited natural resources.

In contrast, the “new” cities of today, lined as they are with gas-guzzling SUVs and tract McMansion housing, enable only isolation, ignorance, and wasteful consumption.

And yet Calthorpe is criticized for his traditional beliefs. For believing in human-scale neighborhoods populated by small, local businesses supporting a balanced diversity of life; he is accused of ignoring present-day realities—of indulging in nostalgia.

What the critics miss, Calthorpe maintains, is the critical distinction between tradition and nostalgia.

“Tradition,” he explains, “evolves with time and place while holding strongly to certain formal, cultural, and personal principles. Nostalgia seeks the security of past forms without the inherent principles.”

In other words: Tradition perpetuates meaning through space and time; nostalgia perpetuates ritual and form after all meaning has been lost. It is a subtle, but important distinction. 

Left unchecked, nostalgia grows increasingly destructive, destroying historical meaning and leaving future generations without links to their past. This is because nostalgia does not dig deeper: it does not ask why. Nostalgia simply accepts—blindly.

Like literal interpretation of the Bible, nostalgia clings fiercely to the practices of a bygone era, suffocating all meaning beneath a blanket of ritual and form. If nostalgia permeated our legal system today, we would be executing the handicapped, stoning the acne-ridden, and condemning to death those who eat clams, crab or lobster—as the Bible literally commands—without ever asking why.

But where nostalgia accepts, tradition questions. 

Tradition asks "why" because it has a faith in the universal. It has faith that there is meaning behind the ritual, and realizes that to seek out and understand this meaning is to pay homage to and celebrate the wisdom and knowledge of our progenitors.

This is what it means to uphold tradition. This is how our ancestors live forever.

Take the issue of shellfish: Nostalgia obediently denies itself the pleasures of eating shellfish, as commanded by the Bible—no questions asked. Tradition on the other hand, understands that shellfish are bottom feeders that consume dead and rotting flesh, and so freely chooses not to eat these abominations. 

In understanding why shellfish are abominations unworthy of human consumption (i.e. because they eat some nasty shit), a two thousand year old observation, largely ignored and forgotten by even the most devoutly Christian, is made relevant once again.

Tradition, like a great library, protects and guides future generations, spurring life forward upon a solid foundation of timeless wisdom.

Nostalgia, like a fire set upon that library, destroys such wisdom—leaving future generations to flounder about in the dark.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Week 22: Don’t Know Why [I Didn’t Come]

Don't Know Why [I Didn't Come]
There is something remarkably transcendent about the fact that we speak so many different "languages" but still end up saying the exact same thing.  

From Week 21: 
All my revulsion over literal interpretations of religious texts the world over, and the mental slavery such readings impose; all my contempt for a “people’s movement” that perpetuates the superficial form of marriage over the real tradition of love, simply because “that is how it has always been;” all the weight of the world comes into sharp focus over the head of an unsuspecting 8 year old boy…who promptly bursts into flames and dies a shrieking heat-death.
From Theodore B. Olson, representing the LGBT community in the trial over their fundamental right to choose who they want to marry: 
The latest words from the...proponents [of Proposition 8 are], "We don't know. We don't know whether there is going to be any harm [in allowing same-sex marriage]."
[I would argue that] "we did it because we don't know" is the same as saying "we don't know why we did it."  And I would submit that "we've always done it that way," that "it's a traditional definition of marriage" the same [as saying] "because I say so."
From Jean-Luc Picard, representing Commander Data (an android) in the trial over his fundamental right to choose his own destiny:
"Commander Riker has dramatically demonstrated to this court that Lieutenant Commander Data is a machine. Do we deny that? No, because it is not relevant – we too are machines, just machines of a different type. Commander Riker has also reminded us that Lieutenant Commander Data was created by a human; do we deny that? No. Again it is not relevant. Children are created from the 'building blocks' of their parents' DNA. Are they property?
From Marilyn Manson:
Those who move beyond the album's title and the most blatant aspect of what I do, will then understand what I am trying to say.
From Vexen Crabtree, the minister of the London Church of Satan:
Any Satanists who actually worship the Devil, rather than revering Satan as an abstract value, are immature, unstable, and nothing to do with us.
Through which we can infer:
Any Christians who actually worship Christ, rather than revering Christ as an abstract value, are immature, unstable, and the reason why people like Becky Fisher (of Jesus Camp fame) should be jailed for pedophilia. 
A sentiment echoed by Origen Adamantius, an early Christian scholar and theologian; and Paul of Tarsus, the Apostle to the Gentiles:
Origen: Christ crucified is teaching for babes.
Paul: But when I become a mature man, I put away childish things.
Finally, from the lovely Emily Dickinson:
As by the dead we love to sit,
Become so wondrous dear,
As for the lost we grapple,
Though all the rest are here,--

In broken mathematics
We estimate our prize,
Vast, in its fading ratio,
To our penurious eyes!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Week 21: Tell Me Why [Ain’t Nothin’ but a Mistake]

Tell Me Why [Ain’t Nothin’ but a Mistake]
Billy becomes a mere proxy through which I air my grievances against the world. Is it fair for me to project my own frustrations onto him? Am I asking too much?
“What’s nine times eleven?” I ask.


“Use the eleven-trick.”


“And nine times twelve?”
Billy starts counting on his fingers, but quickly gives up after realizing that 9 x 12 is too unwieldy a summation to subdue with fingers alone. He can’t remember, and doesn’t understand multiplication well enough to realize that 9 x 12 is just a hop-skip away from 9 x 11. And so he gives up, head collapsing into forearms crossed in quiet resignation on the table.

This has become an all too familiar scene, and it leaves me feeling as trapped and hopeless as he does. We spent weeks learning about what multiplication means. Why doesn’t he get it? Am I pushing him too hard? Is it my fault? Am I a bad teacher?

Or is it him? Is he incapable of learning? Have his parents and their liberal Waldorf approach to education spoiled and coddled Billy into a state of un-teachable complacency?
“Okay, shake it out.” I tell him (“shake it out” is our code word for “empty your mind and start over from the beginning”). He lifts himself from the table, shaking his head and flailing his arms vigorously. “Good. Now, again, what is nine times eleven?”

“Ninety-nine.” he answers.

“Good. Why? Why does nine times eleven equal ninety-nine?”

“Because of the eleven trick.”

“Wrong. The eleven trick helps us remember that nine times eleven equals 99, but it doesn’t tell us why nine times eleven equals ninety-nine.”

“Oh.” He nods in feigned understanding. But I know better.

I ask him to open up his journal and read the entry from a few weeks ago when we first started learning about multiplication: “Multiplication is an addition shortcut. It is an easy way to add the same number over and over again.”
Something about his recitation strikes a nerve...

All my revulsion over literal interpretations of religious texts the world over, and the mental slavery such readings impose; all my contempt for a “people’s movement” that perpetuates the superficial form of marriage over the real tradition of love, simply because “that is how it has always been;” all the weight of the world comes into sharp focus over the head of an unsuspecting 8 year old boy…who promptly bursts into flames and dies a shrieking heat-death.
“So why does 9 x 11 = 99? If you tell me it’s because of the 11-trick, I’m going to throw you out the window.”

Billy giggles a disarming giggle: “No you won’t!”

“Okay come on, I’ll help you.” I write 9 x 11 and its lengthy vertical addition form on a piece of paper. “9 x 11 is the same as 9 + 9 + 9 + 9 + 9 +… 9—how many of them?”

“11 of them!”

“Right. And 9 + 9 + 9 + 9 + 9 +… 9 is equal to 99. That’s why 9 x 11 = 99. 9 x 11 is the same as adding 9, 11 times, which is the same as 99. Now watch what happens when we add one more nine.”

I add an additional 9 to the vertical addition problem. “Now we are adding 9, 12 times. Do we really need to add 9, 12 times?”

“Yes..?” he offers meekly, studying my face for clues.

“No!" I snarl, slamming my fist down on the table. "We know that 9 x 11 = 99, so we can just skip all the way to the end here, and add just one more 9 to get 108. 9 x 12 = 108. This is why multiplication is called an addition shortcut. It’s okay to memorize your times tables, but it’s not okay to forget why. If you don’t know why 9 x 12 = 108, you don’t really know anything.”

I write the word “why” in his notebook, furiously tracing dark blue circles around it with my pen. “If you don’t know why,” I repeat, jabbing the paper repeatedly with the tip of my pen, “you don’t know anything!”

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Week 20: When Change Changes Everything

For Ian Choo  

When Change Changes Everything
On the arbitrary foundations that make up our worldview, and the limits of reason:  Do we have ten fingers because the universe is base-10, or is our universe base-10 because we have ten fingers?  

If you can count to ten, you can count to a hundred; and if you can count to a hundred, you can count to a thousand; and if you can count to a thousand, you can count to ten thousand—and so on. 

But it all starts with ten. “If you can count to ten,” I explain to Billy, “you can count to anything, even infinity."

We play the infinity game for a while: him asking me how big infinity is, or infinity plus one, or infinity plus infinity, followed by infinity plus any finite quantity his puny mind could come up with ad nauseam.

I wish he would have asked something cooler, like “Why 10?” What is so special about the quantity described by the number ten (henceforth referred to simply as “the number 10”) that we base our entire mathematical system and almost all of modern society on it?

10 isn’t some fundamental constant of the universe; it doesn’t embody some transcendental truth. I think it’s safe to say that our choice of 10 as a quantitative base was an arbitrary but natural result of evolution: we just happened to have ten fingers that were perfect for counting.
Of course, if I were more Biblically inclined, that previous paragraph would have read like this:
10 is a fundamental constant of the universe; it embodies the transcendental truth of God. It’s safe to say that our choice of 10 as a quantitative base was not arbitrary, but decided for us by God: He designed us in His own image to have ten fingers for counting His ten transcendental quantities. All Base 2 systems (and hence our entire digital revolution) are the work of the devil, and all Base 5 systems (such as those used in Southeast Asia) are rooted in godless Theravada Buddhism.
But what if we didn’t live in a base-10 world? What if we evolved 12 fingers (base-12), or decided to use both fingers and toes (base-20), or just the fingers on one hand (base-5)? 

What if instead of fingers we evolved demonic hooves (base-2)?

When I’m alone, I like to fantasize about life in a world that isn’t base-10. I am never able to explore these realms in any depth. The foundation of my worldview is so strongly grounded in our base-10 system that my head spins and it becomes physically and mentally anguishing to try and imagine anything else. 

I think this is my brain trying to tell me that it too has limits: that it is not infinitely adaptable to change. When pressed, my brain becomes like a union worker threatening to strike: I will stop working (and you will suffer immensely) if you keep pushing me!

And thus have I come to understand the pain of a shattered belief system. This pain is why Europe was embroiled for centuries in wars over religion, and why separation of church and state is so important today. It is what pitted a Union against a Confederacy in the American Civil War, and it is why today we fight bitterly over the form of marriage even though we all fundamentally agree on its function. 

It is why people still cling to their Bibles, and cling even harder when you try and take them away.

Change is hard. Change is painful. Change is another crack in the foundation of your worldview—the foundation of all that is just and good and moral—that must be repaired. 

When someone wielding a giant sledgehammer comes knocking on your door, you batten down the hatches and prepare for the fight of your life. When pressed, you can commit acts of atrocity never before seen upon your fellow man: better to go down with your ship than to abandon it.

When change changes everything—you have nothing left to lose.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Week 19: Black Magic

Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law of Prediction states that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." If we can assume that all technology has its basis in electromechanical algorithms, then Clarke's Third Law can be restated as "any sufficiently advanced or complex algorithm is indistinguishable from magic.

To illustrate, allow me to read your mind:
1. Pick a number from 1 - 10.
2. Multiply that number by 9.
3. Subtract 5 from your answer.
4. Assign a letter to the number that you get. (A=1,B=2,C=3,etc)
5. Think of a country in Europe that starts with that letter. 
6. Take the second letter in that country's name, and think of an animal that starts with it.
7. Are there really elephants in Denmark? << Highlight this magic row of text.
My 3rd grade teacher mystified my entire class with that "magic" trick. Here are some other useful spells (taken from Pat Gilliland's Book of Black Arts) for all you young witches and warlocks out there practicing your times tables!  

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Week 18: Iron Chef

In Week 6, I explained to Billy that quantity:numeral/place value as time:hour/minute as place:city/street/house. I taught Billy the relationship between quantity and place value by drawing analogies to other abstract concepts and the social conventions that we use to describe them. 

My hidden agenda in all this, if not obvious by now, is to develop in Billy a keen sense of form versus function, so as to "emancipate" him from the "chains of mental slavery", as Bob Marley would say. 

But at the same time, I am wary of getting too abstract, of teaching him everything except what is pertinent.  While I can see a distinction between the concept of quantity and the social convention of numbering, I doubt that Billy, at the tender young age of 8, is able to appreciate or even care about such a nuance. It's simply not relevant to someone who can barely read numbers as it is. 

So today, rather than wax philosophical about the biochemical orgy that ignites in my brain when thinking about number systems based on anything other than the quantity described by the Hindu-Arabic numeral 10—I teach Billy to cook.
How to Make a Number
Step 1) Find the Recipe: To make the number 512, you first need to figure out how many of each ingredient to add. Each place value represents one ingredient, and the number in that place value tells you how much of that ingredient you need. So in the number 512, you need 2 ones, 1 ten, and 5 hundreds.

Step 2) Prepare the Ingredients: The preparation process requires two tools which you have already mastered the use of: addition and multiplication. Use multiplication first to measure out enough of each ingredient: (5 x 100), (1 x 10), and (2 x 1).

Step 3) Combine the Ingredients: Once you have measured out enough of each ingredient, use addition to combine them all together: (5 x 100) + (1 x 10) + (2 x 1).

Step 4) Reduce the Ingredients: Reduce all the ingredients until you end up with a single number: (500) + (10) + (2) = 512.

Step 5) Garnish and Serve: Check to make sure everything reduced correctly, and serve!
Pretty damn concrete, right?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Week 17: Each Ecstatic Instant

A rustic still life of blue cheese and red wine is randomly printed on the cover of Billy's notebook. It sits next to a passage from the Bible that, I presume, encourages one to meditate on the profundity of life's simple pleasures. And so Billy answers the call.
"What is wine?" he asks, eyes fixated on the notebook cover.

I ponder his question, trying to decide how to best explain fermentation to an 8 year old.

"Well," I begin, "there's a teeny tiny mushroom called yeast, and it loves to drink grape juice. When you leave grape juice out, this yeast starts to grow inside, swimming around and drinking all the juice."
"Whaaaat? A mushroom?"
"Yeah! Weird huh? Now what happens when you drink a lot of something? What do you need to do?" I ask.

"Right. After you drink something, you pee. After this mushroom drinks all the grape juice, it needs to pee too, so it pees in the bottle, and that's what we call wine. Wine is mushroom pee!" I conclude triumphantly.

"Eww why do people drink mushroom pee!?!" Billy asks in a fit of giggles.

"Because it makes them happy." I answer simply.

"But why does my mom say drinking wine is bad, if it makes people happy?"

Because a wise woman once wrote:
For each ecstatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ratio
To the ecstasy.

For each beloved hour
Sharp pittances of years,
Bitter contested farthings
And coffers heaped with tears.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Week 16: Hyperbola

"How do you say [   ] in math?" Billy asked in Week 15. 

"That's a good question." I giggled, before replying:

one step.
two steps.
three steps four—

with each step
move closer
to great Heaven's door.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Week 15: The Third Rail

Today, in the middle of a multiplication lesson, some words printed on the cover of Billy’s notebook catch his eye. They are taken from a passage in the bible, Philippians 4:8: "Think about all you can praise God for."

The words seem to call out to him. He stops paying attention to me, deciding that now is as good a time as any to practice his reading comprehension. Proceeding staccato like, he reads each word aloud, leading with his fingers.
“Think...uh-bowt….all…you…can…praise…gaw—” He pulls his finger back, recoiling in disgust. The rhythm is broken. 

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“That’s Christian. That’s for Christians. I’m not Christian.”
A sharp hiss cuts the air. (Did it come from me, or his mom?) I feel my heart palpitating. The Accenture instincts are kicking in: we call this the red zone—the forbiddingly red third rail of client relationships.

His mother is in the kitchen, within earshot, preparing a refreshing couscous salad that has always been the highlight of my afternoon tutoring sessions. I consider what might happen if this dialog were to continue: she might stop feeding me; she might feed me poison; she might bury me up to my neck in the hot desert sand and throw jagged rocks at my face. Instinct can sometime breed irrational fear.

But I want this so bad. I bite my lip; heart racing, I reach for the rail. Instinct can sometimes breed irrational courage.
“Billy, what does ‘x-squared plus y-squared equals one’ mean?”

He furrows his brow in thought. “It’s math language for circle.”

“Right. How else can we say circle? What other languages do we know?” I draw a picture of a circle on a blank sheet of scratch paper and then, next to it, ask him to spell out “circle” in English and "yuvaruj" in Turkish. As a final touch, I add the Chinese character and the mathematical equation for circle. 

“These are all different ways of saying the same thing, just in different languages.” I explain. “It’s the same with the word ‘God’. It doesn’t (or at least it shouldn’t) matter whether you say ‘God’, like in the Christian Bible, or ‘Allah’, like in the Muslim Qu’ran. They are just two different ways of saying the exact same thing.”

“How do you say it in math?” Billy asks.

"That's a good question." I giggle.