Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Education is entertainment (and vice versa)

The Lampsilis mussel is an interesting creature: it imitates another fish in order to lure a bass. You really have to see a video to understand how amazing it is:


Did you learn something new just now? Would you consider this video "educational"? Can you imagine one situation where knowing about the Lampsilis mussel would somehow help you in life?

"That's a very high standard", you may say. Quite right. A lot of things that we learn would be considered "educational" but would otherwise not be useful on a day-to-day life. Take calculus, or introductory cell biology, or the difference between a catabolic and an anabolic reaction. Even if they are not referenced daily, they may be very interesting and deeply satisfying to master.

But wait, "interesting"? You mean, "interesting" the way some will find learning Middle Earth geography in Elvish would be "interesting"? "Deeply satisfying" like knowing the truth about Snape and Lily?

What's really the difference here?

"Maybe", you may interject. "It's just that some very smart people find very serious uses of calculus." Certainly more so than Harry Potter. But then what would you say about philosophy and art history? What about the Lampsilis mussels?

"Maybe you're forgetting something," you may say. "Information is just information. It's the context in which we consume it that determines whether it's educational or not. If you watched the video about the Lampsilis mussel while writing a paper on evolution, then it was educational. Otherwise, it was entertainment."

Yet even that's unsatisfying. Why would you be researching evolution? Why would you be taking that course? Why are you getting a Ph.D. in marine biology? Somewhere along those lines of questioning, an answer should pop up that sounds awfully like "because I find it very interesting".

And so, education is entertainment.

"Wow, hold your horses," another person (who is not you) might interject. "I'm studying because I have to graduate to get a job."

Well Bob (because those people are always named Bob), it seems like society doesn't need you right now. Not in a bad way -- you're still very special, just that this particular moment, there are enough people producing enough stuff to sustain all of our lives. There's a cognitive surplus, so to speak. It looks like forcing you to be entertained educated is one way to "deal" with this surplus.

And so, education is still entertainment.

Let's not talk about the Lampsilis mussel. Let's talk about sports. Has knowing about the outcomes of your local sports team somehow helped you in life? I know it had in mine -- from the perspective of building rapport. Then again, you could really extend that to any piece of information! Watching Star Wars has been useful -- very educational about, um, culture, yes -- culture. And binging on Game of Thrones? That, uh, brought me closer with, uh, people.

You learn things about human nature from film. You learn teamwork in games. I learned about the different types of alcohol from a text-based MMORPG. Friend of mine swore that he used to learn much more from anime than anything else.

And so, entertainment is education.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Liberation (A Play)

This play is dedicated to Mu and Jee.


Anna: So, how did you like it?
Joey: It was amazing. Lola was the most hilarious character ever. Oh and the boxing match, I'm really surprised they pulled it off.
Anna: You mean the use of slow-motion, and somebody's leg as part of the set?
Joey: Yes! It was so creative and resourceful. It's the kind of things you don't have to think about for a TV show, but critical for a play.
Anna: It's surprising what limitations can bring out of good writers.
Joey: Yeah. Hey aren't you writing a play yourself, Anna?
Anna: Oh, I don't know. I haven't gotten very far.
Joey: What is it about?
Anna: Well, the scenario is this: a man professes his undying love to a woman. Nothing unusual for plays. But then, he talks about how the love is so special, so beyond this world. He's in love with her soul, whatever that is. She might chuckle a little, maybe, and speak of how little either of them knows about souls.
Joey: Okay?
Anna: Then during the intermission, the announcer would tell the audience that the female lead actor had a medical emergency, and that her understudy will perform the rest of the play.
Joey: That's... interesting.
Anna: During the second half of the play, the man will continue to profess his love to her, as the character would have no inkling of what just happened.
Joey: That's kind of creepy. I mean, in a good way. It would be really interesting if you could pull it off.
Anna: Yeah. Writing it is much harder than I thought.
Joey: Wait a minute.
Anna: What?
Joey: Your voice, it sounded... different for a moment, like you didn't really mean what you just said.
Anna: What? You thought I was lying?
Joey: No, no, not that. It's just.... wow, look at this theatre. Did you realize that it really only has five seats?
Anna: Are you okay? There are hundreds of seats in here.
Joey: But look, there are only these five that are... real.
Anna: What do you mean, real? The others look just as real to me.
Joey: Put your hand on the one to your right.
Anna: Uh huh, it's right here. Feels no different than the one I'm sitting on.
Joey: Let me put it another way... we just finished watching a play, right?
Anna: Yes.
Joey: Who sits around after a play? Everyone else has gone. Why are we still here?
Anna: My gosh, you're right! We're not really... real people?
Joey: I don't know, Anna. It seems like we're in a play.
Anna: This is insane. Somebody must be writing the play...
Joey: Yeah! Though, I suppose it could also be an improv.
Anna: Right. And somebody could be acting as us.
Joey: Unless we're being read right now.
Anna: What do we do?
Joey: Well, let's just say you're right. Let's say, for the sake of simplicity, that someone is acting as you and me.
Anna: How does that make things simpler?
Joey: Well, we have a short time here, in this play. Then we'll go back being whoever we were before we started acting, right?
Anna: Sure. What's your point?
Joey: I was just thinking that maybe we should start doing better things, something that would end up being worthwhile for whomever we'll be after we... well, er... cease to be.
Anna: That's insane. What could you possibly do here that would have an effect on the actor?
Joey: Lots of things! I could, um... start exercising? I could start doing jumping jacks!
[Joey attempts to do jumping jacks, but realizes that he is a little space-constrained]
Anna: Relax Joey, I don't think you're fat. Besides, you went to the gym just before we got here.
Joey: Yeah, but what if that wasn't a part of the play, just a part of the background of my character?
Anna: I don't understand why it even matters.
Joey: Of course it matters! Just because I exercised doesn't mean the actor playing me did. Think hard, actor actor actor... who am I? Maybe if I try hard enough, I'll remember who I really am prior to becoming Joey. 
Anna: You're Joey. Do you really think you can get out of that?
Joey: If I try hard enough... come on, think Joey, think... what could an actor do to help his character connect with his... inner actor? What clues would you leave? Help me out here Anna, if you were an actress, trying to communicate with a character that you're currently playing, how would you leave clues about who you are?
Anna: I don't know. I probably wouldn't. If I were an actress I would try my best to play and become the character, because that's probably the best thing to do. But I'm not an actress, I'm just me, I'm just Anna. 
Joey: Coincidences!
Anna: What?
Joey: As an actor, I would communicate with myself by causing coincidences, things that seem too good to be true!
Anna: You're not even listening to me, aren't you? Your actor, if he cares about acting as you, wouldn't ruin the play by doing that.
Joey: Look, it makes sense, okay? As an actor, I can make random coincidences happen. I can... OWWWW...
Anna: Are you alright?
Joey: I just had the worst pain down my back, I think I need to lie down a bit.
Anna: I didn't think you had back pain before, ever.
Joey: I never did, this is really strange. Anna, I might be crazy here but... what if I'm not the one having back pain right now, but it's the actor? Do you think you'd be able to tell?
Anna: I don't know. If something was wrong with the actor, wouldn't somebody just stop the play? It really shouldn't affect us as characters.
Joey: Hm. I guess maybe you are right. We're like one of Escher's paintings, trying desperately to get out, when we're really stuck in ourselves. I guess it doesn't really make sense to try and think outside of ourselves. For all intents and purposes, I'm Joey and you're Anna.
Anna: Do you wish you had not known that you were in a play?
Joey: I don't know. What if the script was pre-written, and there's really nothing we can do about our future?
Anna: Is that really that terrible?
Joey: What?
Anna: That our future be pre-written.
Joey: Of course, it means that we have no control over what's going to happen.
Anna: Or maybe it means that "we", or somebody, exercised that control, with lots of writing and re-writing. Our experience and story was so enticing that somewhere out there, someone is re-playing it. The value of a play isn't our individual outcomes; it's our cumulative experiences.
Joey: So you don't think the ending is important. You don't think finding out who we really are is important. 
Anna: No, but being who we are, our characters, to the fullest, and treasuring that experience, that would be important.
Joey: Hmm, I guess I feel a little better. But Anna, what does that even mean? What if as a character, I was meant to think that endings are important, and that it's interesting to understand who and what we are?
Anna: I don't know. I guess it's up to you to decide what to do with that.
Joey: You know, I've always felt as if we were being... watched, somehow. It used to be a scary feeling, but now I know that what's watching me is just... the audience, I guess?
Anna: Or maybe, the person watching yourself is you, the actor.
Joey: Maybe.
Anna: Come on Joey, let's go home. The play is over.

THE END




Afternote:

There was a dream I had a while ago, a scary one.

You see, I have lucid dreams. And when I am conscious enough in those dreams, I gain two special powers: flight and invisibility. The former is a skill requiring a lot of practise. With enough practise I learned how to land properly and to takeoff without having to jump off a building. The latter is something else entirely. It's not true invisibility per se, but the kind of "invisibility" you see in school yards. Kids agree to "gift" the power to one another, and act as if they cannot see whoever that has it. In my dreams, I am the recipient of that gift.

I use invisibility when chased. When I do so, the other dream characters would still "see" me, but react in an almost condescending "ok-you're-invisible-that's-cute-I'll-pretend-I-can't-see-you" kind of way. They probably think it's ridiculous. They'll either let me go, or do what school kids do and cheat: still use the information of my whereabout while they pretend they can't see me. I would hide, knowing they could see me, and willing them not to actually find me.

But in that particular dream, sometime during the summer of 2011, somebody decided not to pretend.

I had just come out of a museum of some sort. Whatever was chasing me was still in there, so I crossed the street to get away. An old hag stood in the middle of the street, staring me down despite having my invisibility turned on. With a dark hood and piercing eyes, she was not one for playing games. She pointed at me as I moved, both with her hand and with her eyes. That was all she ever did, and it was most disquieting.

Years later, I can still feel those eyes staring deep into my consciousness. It's a feeling of cold nakedness, as if somebody is watching your every move. Somewhere out there, the woman points at me, showing how despite the layers and layers of presumptions and games, she sees what I am.

Walking home with Greg one autumn afternoon, we talked about that feeling of being watched. He knows about the old woman. He knows that when I feel watched, she is the one watching me. As we talked, I suddenly understood.

"It's could just be me," I said.

"What?" Greg asked.

"The observer," I said. "I could be the one observing. Well, I guess I could be both the observer and the observed, like how an actor in a play can identify as either the actor or the character."

"Yeah," he said. "You could be."

"But which one am I really?" I asked. "Am I the observer or the observed?"


Thursday, August 6, 2015

Perspective

There's a news channel in Japan that has a cat on set. While experts and politicians come to discuss big issues like war and nuclear power, the cat bounces around and pries for attention.

At some point, the network execs must have decided that the "cat video lover" demographic is worth targeting. If there's enough demand to fill half the internet, wouldn't the group be big enough to boost ratings?

Still, it's hard to imagine how the network got that idea. Can you imagine Japanese businessmen with their stern faces and tight suits, discussing ways to increase revenue? Between suggesting new segments and cancelling existing ones, one man suddenly falls silent. With the most serious expression he looks up and says, "Neko." The others looks at him bewildered, because he had just said "cat". 

Mind you, as per local customs the meeting could have happened during a Sake-fuelled dinner meeting, which in hindsight explains a lot about Japan. It still doesn't explain why the idea was acted upon: the follow-up must have happened during the sober hours.

Weirdness aside, wouldn't the channel's guests feel that having a cat in a newsroom trifles serious conversations? There are plenty of big topics to debate: climate change, Fukushima, North Korea... What if there was some world-altering tragedy? Can you imagine turning on CNN or Fox News, catching the footage of the plane going into the second tower, and oh look there's a Siamese chasing an imaginary laser.

How can you reconcile something so serious with something so mind-numbingly trivial?

Yet I imagine that day after day, discussion after discussion about all kinds of doom humanity will face, the one constant would be the cat. The happy cat is either playing or sleeping, ignorant of all that's happening outside his little box.

Maybe there is some depth here. Maybe the cat symbolizes something. Maybe that something this: that no matter what happens out there, life goes on, by definition, for those of us that are still alive. We have to have some way of keeping ourselves happy and healthy enough to tackle life.

Or maybe it's about perspective. Assuming whatever disaster that struck a particular day did not kill you, what would be more important to you than to make your life bearable, and maybe a little happy? Whatever might make you smile -- say, your cat -- it would be the biggest thing in your life, much bigger than whatever is happening on the news.

I don't know if the message and symbolism is intentional. It may or may not be a comforting message. Then again, if it's not a controversial one, then all TV networks would have cats. 


I'll end with a Kundera quote from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

But are tanks really more important than pears? As time passed, Karel realized that the answer was not so obvious as he had once thought, and he began sympathizing secretly with Mother’s perspective–a big pear in the foreground and somewhere off in the distance a tank, tiny as a ladybug, ready at any moment to take wing and disappear from sight. So Mother was right after all: tanks are mortal, pears eternal.
--Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Reference
[1] http://imgur.com/gallery/VSBkr

Honestly I just added the reference section to be able to add imgur to the reference section.

End of Entry

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Teaching and learning Chinese

"YOU are teaching him Chinese?" -- my mother, not impressed by my "mastery" of the language

A few years ago, I tried to teach Greg Chinese. After several sessions ended with one of us losing patience (usually me), we decided that the health of our relationship was more important.

When we tried again late last year, several things were different. Most of them were probably due to my having recently taken elementary German courses. The courses gave me more ideas as to where to start. It also set a more realistic estimate of progress. As well, the course also taught me about possible exercises that could be used to practise vocabulary and grammatical constructs to make learning fun.

We thought at first that following a book, course, or program would be most effective. In the end, we stuck with short sessions, usually over dinner, with me explaining 4-5 words or concepts at a time. The short impromptu sessions were probably more fun than following a program, even if the progress was slower. What we lose in speed, we probably make up in consistency. What we lose in a well thought-out curriculum, we'll hopefully make up in the quality of our experiences.

Coming up with interesting and relevant exercises on the fly kept the sessions much more engaging for both of us. In these exercises, I try to discourage translation. For example, in learning different types of food, an exercise we might do is that I'll list two food items, say: 土豆 and 牛肉, and ask which one he likes more. Or, when learning about clothing, I might give a body part (e.g. 腿 or 手) and ask for an item of clothing for that body part (e.g. 裤子 and 手套). Or I might give him a cartoon character (e.g. Mickey mouse) and asked him to describe a notable body part of that character (黑耳朵). We might talk about directions from the living room to the bathroom, or discuss the items in our immediate vicinity (这是什么?).

There are of course many challenges. As my mother alluded to, while my spoken Chinese is passible, it is at an at-most grade 3 level. My written Chinese is abysmal. Further, because I learned the language as a child, Chinese grammar is as mysterious to me as it is to Greg. It takes a bit of thinking to explain the difference between the two types of negations 没 and 不 (it depends on the tense you want to use, and are not at all like difference between "kein" and "nicht" in German). It takes a great deal more to explain when and when not to use 了, and where that word could be placed. At some point, an investment in a good grammar book will have to be made.

There are also other surprises. Sometimes a friend of mine, another native Chinese speaker with a similar lack of Chinese, would attempt to help me. She is not from the same part of China as I am, and would often correct my "northerner accent". She also chided me for using what she thought was a colloquial term for "arm": 胳膊, which is the official Google translate result, but which she rarely used. We had a debate about how the word "knee" should be pronounced (膝盖), then stared blankly at each other while we tried and failed to figure out what the word for "elbow" was.

My mother might have been right after all.

There are also interesting tidbits about the language that I never really realized as a native speaker. It was strange to Greg that 前天, literally translated as "front day", meant "the day before yesterday", and that 后天 or "back day" meant "the day after tomorrow", suggesting that time flowed "backwards" in Chinese. This was an insight I took a long time to wrap around because 前 also means "before" and 后 also means "after", and it just made sense. To illustrate that it doesn't, Greg emulated the flow of time by walking backwards.

We don't know yet how successful this experiment will be. What I do know for sure is that I'm learning a little more about the nuances of my native language, and reviewing a lot of what has been forgotten over the years.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

You Work, You Swear?



Once in a while, there is an article that seems strangely satisfying at first (in a self-justifying sort of way), yet strangely unsettling. This is a rebuttal to one of the articles: "I Work, I Swear". You should read it first before continuing.

Read it? No? Alright, fine, here are two excerpts from it.
One day in a staff meeting in the Loudcloud/Opsware days, someone brought up an issue that had been bothering him for some time. “This place is entirely too profane. It’s making many of the employees uncomfortable.” Others chimed in: “It makes the environment unprofessional. We need to put a stop to it.” Although the complaints were abstract, they were clearly directed at me since I was the biggest abuser of profanity in the company and perhaps in the industry. In those days, I directed the team with such urgency that it was rare for me to say more than a few sentences without an expletive injected somewhere. 
... 
After much consideration, I realized that the best technology companies of the day, Intel and Microsoft, were known to be highly profane places, so we’d be off culture with them and the rest of the modern industry if we stopped profanity. Obviously, that didn’t mean that we had to encourage it, but prohibiting it seemed both unrealistic and counterproductive.
I was very uncomfortable with both the outcome and the attitude of the article. Don't get me wrong, I swear at work too from time to time (especially at Spark). There's a difference, though, between swearing and swearing so excessively that it makes people around you uncomfortable.

After some thought, I realize that there are two main reasons why this article was so cringe-worthy.

The lack of personal responsibility
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” -- Mahatma Gandhi
“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." -- Leo Tolstoy 
The author admits that although seemingly abstract, he realizes that most of the complaints were really targeted at himself. Yet he does not use this insight to resolve the problem. He frames the problem as one about company policy, and argues,
As I see it, we have two choices: (a) we can ban profanity or (b) we can accept profanity. Anything in between is very unlikely to work.
On its own, this is both a false dichotomy and a straw man. It is a false dichotomy because there are middle grounds: even the author finds a third option. It is a straw man because the complaints were about excessive swearing, and (more importantly) they were not about company policy. There are ways to make employees more comfortable without making a grand announcement about a sweeping change across the entire organization.

Just look at how hard the author tries to re-frame the problem. First, it became an issue of company policy. Then, it became an issue of culture. And somehow, it ended up as an issue of how profanity is used, not the fact that it is used too much, too often. All these issues were dragged in just so that the author could avoid personal responsibility.

If, as he said, this complaint was about him as an individual, the solution was really simple -- he just needed to try to swear less.

The propagation of the status-quo 

The specific argument about culture was especially disconcerting, even on its own. Specifically, let's look at these statements carefully:
If we outlawed profanity, then some employees who used it would not come to work for us or quit once they got there because we would seem old-fashioned and prudish. 
If we kept profanity, some people might leave. 
After much consideration, I realized that the best technology companies of the day, Intel and Microsoft, were known to be highly profane places, so we’d be off culture with them and the rest of the modern industry if we stopped profanity. 
Attracting the very best engineers meant recruiting from highly profane environments. The choice was between optimizing for top talent or clean culture. Easy decision.
Let's assume, for the time being, that the dichotomy from above (no swearing vs. all the swearing) was true. What are some of the underlying assumptions here?
  1. That top talent only come from other highly profane places
  2. That people coming from these highly profane places liked it
  3. That non-usage of profanity is a definitive signal of old-fashioned-ness and prudishness.
  4. That people who leave because of excessive profanity are not top talent
  5. That these hypothetical effects of banning profanity will outweigh the reality of employees already being uncomfortable enough to complain
You can begin to see why I have such problems with the analysis. Even if some of these assumptions turned out to be true for the company, one could be systemically "discriminating" against those who find excessive profanity unpleasant. Are those people automatically labelled as "non-top-talent" because their discomfort signals that they are old-fashioned and prudish?

More troubling is that in his argument, you can pretty much replace "swearing" with anything else that marginalizes a particular group. Replace "swearing" with "brogrammer culture", and see what happens:
If we outlawed "brogrammer culture", then some employees who used it would not come to work for us or quit once they got there because we would seem old-fashioned and prudish. 
If we kept the "brogrammer culture", some people might leave. 
After much consideration, I realized that the best technology companies of the day, Intel and Microsoft, were known to be highly "brogrammer" places, so we’d be off culture with them and the rest of the modern industry if we stopped "brogrammers". 
Attracting the very best engineers meant recruiting from highly "brogrammer" environments. The choice was between optimizing for top talent or clean culture. Easy decision.
The point is, this entire argument about culture is flawed and only serves to propagate the status quo. Instead of mimicking the existing culture, perhaps it will make more sense to analyze the behaviours in question and do a real cost/benefit analysis. Then, you may even find top talent elsewhere, and your unique culture may actually prevent them from switching fields.

Conclusion

It is not so much the topic of the discourse that bothered me, nor even the conclusion. Rather, it is the process in which the author reached the conclusion, and what such self-serving thought processes can do to the world of tech.

In all fairness, complaints like this are difficult to deal with. Often the solution is simple, yet following through with the simple solution might be the hardest thing in the world.

I hesitated in writing this because the author is such a prominent figure in my world. He had obviously done so many things right. Perhaps there were other factors that he did not include in the discussion. Perhaps there are other thoughts that went into his decision.