Saturday, September 14, 2013

Metacognition - Socrates

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
As You Like It Act V, Scene i

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Active Vs. Passive Voice - Ronald Reagan

On January 27, 1987, in his State of the Union Address, Ronald Reagan discussed the Iran-Contra affair, a political scandal involving the sale of arms to Iran in exchange for hostages and the illegal funding of the Nicaraguan Contras.  Reagan characterized the affair as follows:

And certainly it was not wrong to try to secure freedom for our citizens held in barbaric captivity. But we did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so. We will get to the bottom of this, and I will take whatever action is called for.

Reagan's words follow the long political tradition of using the passive voice to evade direct admission of responsibility.  By recasting the sentence from the active "I made mistakes," the writer makes the subject the receiver of the action, instead of the source of the action.  This allows the complete removal of the subject:

Mistakes were made by me.

Notice the differences in the sentences below:

Active Voice:
The chicken crossed the road.
Passive Voice:
The road was crossed by the chicken.
In the passive example above, the actor  or subject (the chicken) is placed at the end of the sentence, while the object (the road) is moved to the front of the sentence.  In addition, note that the verb changes from "crossed" to "was crossed."  The transformation from active to passive also creates a more wordy sentence of seven words, rather than the five words in the active voice.

It is important to note that use of the passive voice is not a grammatical error.  In cases when a writer wants to place emphasis on the object, or what happened, over the subject, or who did it, the passive is perfectly acceptable.  In general, however, it is best to put the actor in front to create a more vivid and more concise sentence.

Thought and Language - George Orwell

In his 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell talks about the relationship between our thinking and our words.  In the essay's second paragraph he uses an analogy to illustrate the problem and its solution:

A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.

Read by writing students for generations, Orwell's essay is much more than just a treatise on how to write a better essay.  His essay shows that seeing though the abuses of language can truly be a matter of life and death:

Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Good writers, Orwell argues, do not surrender to words; instead, they take charge, thinking through what they are saying and apply six specific rules that help to make thought more clear, more concise, and more cogent: 
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

In one especially remarkable section of the essay, Orwell talks through the thinking process of using words to express abstract and concrete thoughts.  It describes how a write can control both thoughts and language, avoiding the bad habits that plague bad writing:

In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose -- not simply accept -- the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one's words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Obedience to Authority - Stanley Milgram

What percentage of people do you think would deliver a lethal dose of electricity to an innocent person when told to do so by an authority figure?

In order for the horrors of World War II’s Holocaust to happen, ordinary citizens and soldiers had to carry out the evil schemes of the Nazis.  To find out how this happened and if it could happen again, Stanely Milgram, a professor of psychology, conducted numerous experiments.  He told his subjects that he was conducting a memory study.  One subject, the teacher, would take commands from a scientist in a lab coat.  The scientist told the teacher that he would be teaching word pairs to another subject in the next room.  If the partner in the next room got an answer wrong, the teacher was to administer an electric shock.  With each wrong answer, the voltage of the shock increased.  In reality no actual shocks were administered since the student in the next room was an actor.  As each wrong answer was given and as each increasing dose of electricity was administered, the actor screamed louder, sometimes pleading with the teacher to end the experiment.  When the teacher, hearing the screams of his student, asked to stop the experiment, the scientist would urge him to continue, saying, “The experiment requires that you continue.”  In the end 65% of the teachers followed the directions of the scientist, continuing to increase the dosage until it reached its highest point, which was marked “XXX,” implying death.
Milgram’s study clearly showed how ordinary people could easily be persuaded to commit unspeakable acts of evil.  When put in a position where they see themselves as just following orders, individuals become instruments instead of people, operating without a moral compass.

The 90/90 Prospect
In variations of his study, Milgram had subjects observe others act as teachers before taking part themselves.  In the cases where the first teacher rebelled against the instructions of the scientist, 90% of participants also refused to continue.  In cases where the first teacher followed the directions of the scientist to the point of administering the fatal dose of electricity, 91% of participants also went all the way.   The conclusion from this is that we are powerful social models for each other.  Goodness is infectious; unfortunately, so is evil.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Fate Versus Free Will - The Servant in "Appointment in Samarra"

Appointment in Samarra

There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said,

“Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.”

The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said,

“Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?”

“That was not a threatening gesture. It was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

Question:  How does the story "Appointment in Samarra" relate to the ideas of fate and free will?

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Achievement: The Beatles and the 10,000 Hour Rule

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the issue of achievement, arguing that talent alone is not enough to propel someone to success, especially when it comes to complex cognitive tasks like playing chess at the grandmaster level.
The British Invasion of 1964 and the arrival of Beatlemania in America are too often told as a story of overnight success for the four lads from Liverpool.  The reality is that they worked hard in the clubs of Hamburg, Germany, beginning in 1959 to hone their skills.  Thus the Beatles illustrate the following formula for success: 


What song better illustrates the Beatles' strong work ethic than this one?  "A Hard Day's Night."

See Gladwell's article "Complexity and the 10,000 Rule"

Question:  How does the 10,000 hour rule relate to the formula for achievement/success?
Question:  What can the Beatles teach us about success and achievement?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Despair - Aegeus and Theseus

In the story of "Theseus and the Minotaur" from Greek mythology, Theseus succeeds in killing the Minotaur and, with the help of Ariadne, is able to escape the labyrinth.  Theseus' escape plan involves a ball of string, or clew, given to him by Ariadne.  By tying the string at the entrance of the labyrinth and unwinding it as he walks, Theseus is able to retrace his path to escape the maze after killing the Minotaur.  This is the origin of the word clue:  evidence used to solve a mystery.

Despair enters the story when Theseus forgets his promise to his father, Aegeus, that if he killed the Minotaur he would hoist white sails, rather than black ones, on his return trip to Athens.  Seeing black sails, Aegeus believes his son is dead and throws himself from the high cliffs to the sea below.  The sea thereafter became know as the Aegean Sea.

We might also reserve a place in the Ideas Hall for Theseus under "memory" since in his jubilant spirit of victory he fails to pay attention to detail and forgets to change the sails.

Question:  How does the story of Aegeus and Theseus relate to the theme of despair?
Question:  How does a ball of string relate to the clue followed by a detective?

Wisdom - King Solomon

This Old Testament story illustrates the judgment of Solomon, the king of Israel:

1 Kings 3:16-28 (The Message)
16-21 The very next thing, two prostitutes showed up before the king. The one woman said, “My master, this woman and I live in the same house. While we were living together, I had a baby. Three days after I gave birth, this woman also had a baby. We were alone—there wasn’t anyone else in the house except for the two of us. The infant son of this woman died one night when she rolled over on him in her sleep. She got up in the middle of the night and took my son—I was sound asleep, mind you!—and put him at her breast and put her dead son at my breast. When I got up in the morning to nurse my son, here was this dead baby! But when I looked at him in the morning light, I saw immediately that he wasn’t my baby.”
22 “Not so!” said the other woman. “The living one’s mine; the dead one’s yours.”
The first woman countered, “No! Your son’s the dead one; mine’s the living one.”
They went back and forth this way in front of the king.
23 The king said, “What are we to do? This woman says, ‘The living son is mine and the dead one is yours,’ and this woman says, ‘No, the dead one’s yours and the living one’s mine.’”
24 After a moment the king said, “Bring me a sword.” They brought the sword to the king.
25 Then he said, “Cut the living baby in two—give half to one and half to the other.”
26 The real mother of the living baby was overcome with emotion for her son and said, “Oh no, master! Give her the whole baby alive; don’t kill him!”
But the other one said, “If I can’t have him, you can’t have him—cut away!”
27 The king gave his decision: “Give the living baby to the first woman. Nobody is going to kill this baby. She is the real mother.”
28 The word got around—everyone in Israel heard of the king’s judgment. They were all in awe of the king, realizing that it was God’s wisdom that enabled him to judge truly.

File:Judgement of Solomon.jpg

Question:  How does the story of Solomon and the baby illustrate wisdom?

Knowledge and Ignorance - The Socratic Paradox

"I only know that I know nothing"

Innovation - Steve Jobs' Bicycle of the Mind

Steve Jobs brief analogy illustrates perfectly the human propensity for tool building and innovative thinking.

Bicycle : Locomotion : : Computer : Mind
Question:  How does Jobs' bicycle illustrate human innovation?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Euphemism - George Carlin

No one has more clearly and succinctly summed up and exemplified the definition of euphemism than George Carlin.  His outstanding example of how "shell shocked" evolved into "post traumatic stress disorder" tells us so much about how language evolves  -- and sometimes devolves -- and how clear meaning can be clouded by euphemisms.

Question:  How does Carlin's explanation of the term "post traumatic stress disorder" illustrate the down side of euphemism?