New Blog

My blog has moved! It now lives at The migration is still taking place, so some things (especially images, but also the commenting system) may still be a little off. Regardless, I will now be publishing there exclusively, and the contents on this site may disappear without warning in the future.
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In Defense of a Public Digital Life

I am a private person, but you wouldn't know that from looking at my online presence. I have a fairly active Twitter account, which is entirely open to the public. A lot of my tweets are inane, sexual, often potentially offensive and trigger-warning-y. This content is also mirrored on Facebook, although on there it's visible only to friends of friends. And, of course, I keep a blog, which stretches back a good number of years and has covered the same range of topics as my tweets, if about slightly more personal topics and in more words.

I am about to enter the job market and, despite common sense and advice, am seriously considering keeping all this content online and public (and searchable through my shared user name). I am well aware that employers often look through applicant's social network activity to help get a picture of them as a person, so this may lead to my unemployment later down the road. But, I also have reasons for wanting these aspects of me to be up, and I want to defend that here.

One reason is that I think we judge others in a biased way. Imagine you are choosing between two people for a job as a high school teacher, A and B, who are otherwise equally qualified. For A, you can find nothing about them on Facebook - let's say it's because their privacy setting is too high. For B, you can look through their profile, and in a couple of minutes of browsing, you find a picture of them mugging for the camera with a beer in each hand. Instinctively, what you want to think is "Jeez, high school students are going to think this person's an alcoholic, so let's hire the other person."

The problem with this conclusion is you haven't considered what you haven't seen: given that this is Facebook, that there are no pictures of B passed-out-drunk in their own vomit is probably a point in their favor. More disturbing is that you have seen no evidence about A whatsoever; you know strictly more about B than you know about A and that B has a lower variance around what is normal Facebook behavior, and yet they were punished for giving you that information. To make an online dating analogy, this is like focusing on the fact that someone likes My Little Pony and thereby deciding not to message them, when the rest of their interests look compatible; but then turning around and messaging someone who wrote very little on their profile, but has listed no obvious clashes with your interests. (Raise your hand if you're guilty; I am.)

There are several cognitive biases reflected in this example: biased selection of information, leading to the availability heuristic, neglecting the base rate of compromising pictures on Facebook, and the preference for risk taking when the outcome is negative. The bottom line is that knowing more about a person is a good thing (provided there are no, say, pictures of them abusing animals), and all else being equal, the rational thing to do is to choose what has a less chance of being bad (or a higher chance of being good). I want my online activity to stand as indicators of me as a person, and I want this post to prove to the hiring committees that I'm smart and I know what I'm doing and that they're biased in an undesirable way.

That's the somewhat snarky, condescending reason, but I have a more idealistic and constructive reason as well.

As someone looking to go into teaching at the college-level, I believe that the learning experience extends beyond the classroom. This is (one of) the reason I'm hesitant about Udacity and Cousera and edX and all the other Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). I think it's a good thing that people are putting course material online, and that they are organized in ways that force interaction and engagement, but if you ask me whether a student online will learn as much as a student on a brick-and-mortar campus, given the same level of instruction, I will say no, hands down. It wasn't until recently (today, in fact) through a conversation with a friend did I understand why: it's because, deep down, I think that university education is more than about the knowledge learned in a class, and even more than the relationships you develop. It's about developing students into someone who enjoys, and is still continually, learning.

And you can't teach that over the internet.

Well, no, you can, but not in hour-long videos one hour a week for fourteen weeks and, I suspect, not even through seven years of irregular blog posts. What I learned from that conversation is that I believe this requires exposure to an atmosphere, a culture of learning. This means that students need to feel the energy of people excited about things, to have conversations with people only tangentially related to any course topic, to ponder questions where not only the answer, but also the path to that answer, is unknown. All these things are made exponentially harder when conducted through the medium of text on an online forum, especially not with teaching assistants whose focus is on answering questions about the course material and nothing more. I would argue that most of these things are not present even in physical classes, unless the participants are willing to digress; most of the absorbing of culture occurs in third places around campus, and requires a community open and dedicated to such exploration of topics. And while there are education startups that try to create such an environment - the company about which the article that started the conversation was written, Minerva, physically co-locate their students - having a culture where such learning is commonplace and expected is much harder to cultivate.

This is why I want to keep my tweets and my blog posts online and public, because I think it is part of the culture of education. My tweets may often be inane, but I think there is an undercurrent of curiosity, and it serves as a reminder to be observant of the world - I ask questions of social idioms, connect ideas from disparate fields, and comment on the nature of research. The very fact that I spend time writing short essays for my blog is evidence that I spent personal time on (somewhat) academic pursuits. While I wouldn't consider these things an essential part of my academic persona, I do think it is a core part of who I am, as well as a part of the culture that I want students to take part in. In the past, these tweets and blog posts have led to interesting discussions with both friends and students, and this is possible only because these artifacts are publicly linked and searchable. To make my tweets private and to take down my writings would mean losing this opportunity for conversation, and that is something I do not want.

Perhaps it is arrogant of me to put such importance in my own ramblings - more so for telling hiring committees that they're biased - but I think, too, this gives a very concrete picture of who I am.

This is who I want my students to be, and it's worth the risk of being judged if I can achieve that.

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The First Rule of Rock Climbing

  1. Do not talk about climbing.
  2. Just stand up.
  3. Stop sucking.
  4. Grip harder.
  5. Be strong.
  6. Don't be weak.
  7. Don't be not strong.
  8. Be taller.
  9. Go up.
  10. When in doubt, skip.
  11. When in doubt, dyno.
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Don't Shoot the Symptom

The usual disclaimers about not seeing outside my life experience apply.

This is my last rant on social issues. I find it amusing that I feel compelled to put the warning above, even though it's almost tautological.

I saw the latest James Bond film (Skyfall) several months back, and was afterwards surprised to find that there's some backlash on the blogosphere. Not because the film was badly made - most critics praised the cinematography - but because the women in the film were disposable Specifically (spoiler alert):

  • Bond seduces the sex slave Severine, with full knowledge of her past
  • Bond fails to save Severine due to bad shooting, despite a minute later overcoming his captors
  • M (played by Judi Dench) is killed, and is replaced by a man
  • Moneypenny is reduced from an active agent to a desk job

Now, these things (especially the first one) are certainly bad things to portray, but I wonder how out of the ordinary they are. That is, because the film is a work of fiction but set in a close-to-real world, these events in themselves may not be misogynistic, although the selection of their portrayal might be.

Let me try to make this idea more clear. The events in a work of fiction, which is set in the real world, could be representative while still being misogynistic. We could, for example, write a fictional book with the vilest, most sexist human trafficker as the protagonist, and have them get away scot-free at the end. The events and characters in such a novel would certainly be misogynistic, but they would also be realistic (as in, such people exist in the world). The question is, is the work as a whole misogynistic?

I think the underlying question - which applies not just to feminism, but also to heteronormativity, stereotypes, and so on - is the act of criticizing people for being realistic. Back to Skyfall, 27% of senior positions in six US intelligence agencies are held by women; 22 of the Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. That is, if the writers of Skyfall had wanted to determine, at random, whether the new M should be male or female if the statistics of reality were followed, three out of four times the new M would still be male. The other portrayals are less defendable, although again there is a question of whether it was unrealistic.

Moving outside of fiction, complaining about realistic sentiments is actually quite common. I caught myself doing it for a couple weeks, when I noticed how infrequently the asexual perspective is brought up. I was started to get annoyed at this, until I remembered that asexuality represents maybe 1% of the population. Even if this is an underestimate, sexual people are still in the vast majority, and I should not expect to find the two be represented equally frequently.

This asexuality example is not particularly compelling one, but other, less politically-correct examples are everywhere. One such case is the struggle between meritocracy and equality in, for example higher education (this is also an issue for Silicon Valley). In the ideal world, universities would like to select their students purely on the basis of their academic achievements. The problem is that, since education opportunities are not equally given to everyone, those with the most "merit" tend to be Caucasian and, to a lesser extent, Asian. This means that if we attempt to continue with meritocracy, the student population at the most prestigious universities will no longer resemble the demographics of the country at large. Note that this is not due to the universities being actively discriminatory, but that as a result of societal/structure issues, the result is a discriminatory one. For universities, the solution is often to ignore pure meritocracy and instead accept students based on a mix of merit and equality. Silicon Valley, on the other hand, has no pressure to make this change, and as a result has increased the economic inequity in the Bay area.

Here's an even more contentious example. "In 2008, the [homicide] offending rate for blacks (24.7) offenders per 100,000) was 7 times higher than the rate for whites (3.4 per 100,000)." If we take this seriously, that means all else being equal, the black person you just walked pass is seven times more likely to be a murder than the white person you just walked pass. If we were to take precautions against murder based on the estimated likelihood of being the victim of an attempted murder, we should be more cautious when around a black stranger. But this is, of course, entirely inappropriate (and possibly unethical); as with the meritocracy case, the resulting action is discriminatory even if the logic that led to it, and the statistics that the logic is based on, are both sound.

I could continue to list examples, but instead I'll highlight the lesson. The point here is not that we should stop caring about these issues, but that we need to separate the realistic reaction to an undesirable circumstance, from the undesirable circumstance itself. Sometimes these are not separable - the reaction may itself further perpetuate the circumstance (think victim blaming and rape culture) - but often the reaction is merely a symptom of the underlying problem. This is especially important for people who want to fix the undesirable circumstance, as removing the reaction would not solve the problem. For everyone else, separating the symptom from the cause will maybe help quell your frustration.

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On Vulnerability

I think a lot of times we use words without really understanding what they mean. I don't mean this in the "here's a new word let's use it" way, but that often the use of a word has more meaning than might be found in a dictionary. "Vulnerability" is one such word.

I started thinking about this word over the summer, when I was having a conversation with a friend. I was sharing a personally-meaningful quote with them, when they told me that I'm making them feel vulnerable. I didn't pursue it at the time, but afterwards I thought it was strange: since it was me who was saying something personally meaningful, how was it that they felt vulnerable?

The dictionary definition of (psychological) vulnerability is the feeling of likelihood of being hurt. While this seems correct on the surface, it is also insufficiently nuanced. We do not, for example, feel vulnerable while succumb to a disease, nor when facing a tiger. (Granted, not having experienced either, I can only speculate; but these scenarios doesn't evoke the description of vulnerability to me.) At least, it's not the disease or the tiger, in and of itself, that leads to the feeling of vulnerability.

I started thinking of instance where we might describe the feeling as vulnerable:

  • discussing personal trauma
  • giving a sincere compliment
  • sharing a secret

Of these three, the second one about compliments needs elaboration. Imagine a friend who has gone through a rough period. You meet up with them after being out of contact for a couple years, and find that they have moved, with a new job and a circle of friends; they seem to have moved pass their previous difficulties. You want to them that you're glad that they're okay, and more than that, that you're proud that they've managed. The latter, in particular, seems to evoke feelings of vulnerability.

Weirdly enough, the breakthrough came for me from considering whether there were people who would never be vulnerable. Specifically, I was thinking those with impaired affect: the sociopaths, the schizoid, and so on. It was a hunch, but it seemed to me that the stereotypical emotionless sociopath wouldn't feel vulnerable, not because they don't feel things, but because they don't care about the reaction of others.

If my hunch is correct, it would mean that vulnerability is not so much about the fear of getting hurt, but about the fear of indifference to some strong emotion. This is what connects the three examples above: it's that the person feels strongly about the subject (trauma, compliments, or secrets), and they fear that this feeling might be dismissed as unimportant.

A more recent experience of mine seemed to confirm this explanation. I was meeting a friend for dinner, someone whom I used to have a crush on; she knew this, but I was rejected, and I eventually got over it. A couple days before, I suddenly learned that her boyfriend (who I also knew) was visiting, and would be joining us as well. Upon learning this, I was suddenly ambivalent about the whole thing, which puzzled me. It wasn't exactly romantic jealousy, since I no longer desired a relationship with her. Eventually, though, I realized I was feeling vulnerable about the dinner and, by the above definition, I figured out that I was afraid she would somehow downplay my previous feelings for her by, for example, openly making out with her boyfriend. Nothing of that sort happened, of course, but I felt better knowing the source of my feelings.

That, I think, is one of the best reasons for figuring out the true meaning of words: it lets you more quickly understand what is going on when you are tempted to describe yourself with it. I'm not sure if this is really a subfield of philosophy or linguistics - the study of semasiology or lexical semantics comes close. Regardless, I've been thinking a lot about what people mean when they use different words (also on the list: "true", as in this "expresses something true [about people]"), and I thought people would be interested in my thought process.

PS. I'm aware I never finished the story about my friend; this is deliberate, as the quote I shared reflects as much about them as it does about me. This makes it somebody else's secret, and not my story to tell.

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A Rambling on Effortlessness

There's a quality that's been popping up in many places, and I want to take the time to, if not nail down what it is, at least feel its edges.

There are many guises to this thing. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, it's called Quality. In The Timeless Way of Building, it's also called quality. Abraham Maslow calls it self-actualization. Both the Kingkiller Chronicles and the Sword of Truth series call it rare, or at least, that someone who has it is a rare person. In Finite and Infinite Games, that person would be called a player of infinite games. Buddhists and Taoists would probably call it mindfulness or presentness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi might call it flow. For the lack of a better word, I will call it Effortlessness, because it's most recognizable in that form.

Think of your favorite athlete, or artist, or dancer. Imagine them doing their work: while they're focused, what they do always seems effortless. There's a simplicity and elegance in their movement, and they act as though what they're doing is the most natural thing in the world.

Except that effortlessness is not quite the word for it, in that it's not correct. Take the best climber, say, Adam Ondra. Here he is climbing one of the world's hardest routes. Except for the crux, he looks effortless - as exemplified by the need to have a disclaimer that "no adjustments have been made to the speed of the climbing". We all know that Ondra spent a lot of time and effort to get to this stage; Bill Ramsey calls it the box of pain, which is to say, you're choosing between the pain of failure or the pain of training.

There's an old joke about how, to be a great painter, all you have to do "make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally" (I stole this wording from Zen and the Art). Part of the joke is that being perfect is harder than being a great painter. To paint "effortlessly" is not, in fact, effortless; it may be effortless in the moment, but much effort is put in to make it look effortless.

That's the first hint about the nature of effortlessness. Effortlessness is never something that the participant feels in the moment; I doubt Ondra thought the route was effortless while climbing it. He might, however, think that it was easy afterwards. Psychologists call this the remembering self, as opposed to the experiencing self. I suspect it's the same reason I feel protected. I often know how much time I actually put into research, but afterwards it always seems like it's nothing. When I first realized this, I tweeted, "For someone with a pretty huge ego, I tend to trivialize my accomplishments."

We've all had moments where we're so focused on something we forget about time passing, and only afterwards can we look back and think, "that was awesome!" I had one such experience at Red Rocks last year, climbing this 5.6 crack. Usually, after I climb something, I can replay most of the moves; on that particular route, I just remember feeling awesome coming out, and have no recollection of what happened on it.

Here, the idea of effortlessness intersects with that of flow. I personally think that it's the same thing as presence - because all your energy is focused on what you're doing - but that seems contrary to what Buddhists call mindfulness, which instead brings to mind an inherent meta-level of conscienceless. I'm not trying to be mystical here; take this passage from Zen and the Art:

But the biggest clue seemed to be [the bad mechanics'] expressions. They were hard to explain. Good-natured, friendly, easygoing - and uninvolved. They were like spectators. You had the feeling they had just wandered in there themselves and somebody had handed them a wrench. There was no identification with the job. No saying, "I am a mechanic." At 5pm or whenever their eight hours were in, you knew they would cut it off and not have another thought about their work. They were already trying not to have any thoughts about their work on the job. In their own way they were achieving the same thing [my friends] were, living with technology without really having anything to do with it. Or rather, they had something to do with it, but their own selves were outside of it, detached, removed. They were involved in it but not in such a way as to care.

Of course, Pirsig here was trying to get at what he called Quality. Somehow, the internal description of "caring", of attachment and presence, shows through to observers. Pirsig also raised the example of someone who does something for amusement - and to that person's surprise, other people notice these small things. There's a sense of playfulness to this, drawing in the idea of games. This is why, I think, you cannot teach someone to be effortless. You cannot tell someone to be playful - or as Karse would put it, "to allow for possibility whatever the cost to oneself", as opposed to seriousness, which is to "press for specified conclusion."

It's curious that Maslow has listed all of these ideas under what he calls the metaneeds of the self-actualized. By this definition, the self-actualized desire effortlessness and playfulness. Despite this connection, it's unclear to me how these attributes are all connected. There is a certain je ne sais quoi about them, in how they cannot be taught and cannot be described. I think the point of this post is just to mention all these related concepts, so I can find them again as I keep thinking about these ideas.

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Two Ambigrams

Earlier this year I tweeted that I was excited about something that I couldn't reveal at the time. The something is actually an ambigram, which I design on occasion. I first learned of the idea from Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, in which ambigrams played a major role. Incidentally, the ambigrams in that book were designed by John Langdon, who commented on my previous post about ambigrams and psychology. I designed my first ambigram back in 2004, and have done several more since, mostly as gifts to people.

My best work up till the beginning of the year was a birthday gift I made for my friend Emily.

One interesting thing about this design is that there is no i. The m flows directly into the l; the i is an illusion created by the tittle above the last stroke of the m. I actually made a version with the i, but it isn't as elegant, and I stuck with this version.

The ambigram I made earlier this year was a going-away gift for my friend Laura, who moved to join her boyfriend Neale in Philly. Neale had moved there about a year ago, but I failed to make a gift for him then. The idea was therefore to make a gift for each of them. Having a complexity addiction, however, made me wonder whether I can make the two gifts interact somehow, to represent their relationship.

Long story short, here's the result:

It's actually very difficult to see what's going on; it's better to show each one separately:

Individually, each half-circle isn't anything special: it's just their names in some fancy typeface. Together, however, is where the magic happens. The more observant of you will have noticed that the letters in laura and neale are not independent. In fact, they share all but the middle letter: the ra in laura turns into the ne in neale, and the le in neale forms the la in laura. Here is the combined circle again, with some highlighting: laura in red, neale in blue, and the overlap in purple.

The r/n were easy to merge; the crux of the design was in the a/e. It had to look good enough as both for each name to be readable; this was mostly done by adjusting the length of the closing stroke and of the swash. neale presented an extra challenge: if the e's can be read as a's, then what should happen to the remaining a? I was lucky in that a has two variants. Having used the single-story variant for the merged glyph, in the end I created the double-story variant from scratch, making a Frankenstein glyph from various bits of different letters.

The final part of this is the presentation. As you saw, the combined circle is hard read, which meant that each half-circle would have to be independent. I hit on the solution of printing each on a transparency, then put in a cardboard frame for sturdiness. This way, each card would individually show a single name:

But when stacked and aligned, it shows the full ambigram:

Typographically, I still like my emily card more, but in terms of the final product, this surpasses the former by far (which I had simply printed on cardboard). This is not just because you can fiddle around with the cards until they align, but because the re-interpretation of the letters is so unconscious. None of the few people I tested the ambigram on realized that the a changed to an e (or vice versa) until I pointed it out to them, despite them moving the cards into position and reading back out the individual names. This goes to show how powerful our preconceptions are in interpreting what we see.

I do not have any future ambigrams planned, although I do have a different art project in mind. Maybe I will share that when I'm done.

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