Sunday, October 29, 2017

Jagged and Smooth

This is the closest account I am able to give of a very complex dream from which I have just awaken.  I know that many details are wrong, but I hope to catch the essence of it.

As soon as I was "in" the dream this morning, I realized that it was a repetition or continuation of the same dream I had had once before.  I don't know how we know that in our dreams, but I knew it.  The rules of the thing were at once familiar to me.

I am sad that I cannot remember the exact two words or phrases used in the dream, so "Jagged" and "Smooth" are only approximate substitutes.   The dream revolved around an anonymous fiction-writing site.  The site was a collection of stories, each published under a pseudonym, and each purporting to illustrate either the principle of Jaggedness or the principle of Smoothness.  I was one of the authors.  I believe that I had authored about three stories (say, Jagged 13, Jagged 37, and Smooth 40).

To try to get your story added to the Jagged and Smooth website, you had to electronically submit your manuscript (from 400 to 10,000 words) and the webmaster decided whether you made the cut or not.  The stories were posted chronologically from oldest to newest.

I couldn't be sure, but I think that at the end of some period of years, there was supposed to be some kind of party at which all the authors could meet each other.  But one of the author's works were so compelling to me that I wanted to meet him without having to wait that long.  It was some of the most amazing writing I had ever seen.

I don't know how I found the author, who turned out to be a woman in her late twenties.  I met her out at her farm in the country, and we spoke outside.  She had a few small creatures (like large insects, but I don't think they were insects) that I had never seen before.  She seemed a little distressed to be talking to me before the date on which the authors were supposed to be revealed.  But she also seemed flattered by the things I said about her writing, and she somewhat excitedly answered my questions about her stories.

So, now I wonder:  Could or should such a site be created?  It wouldn't have to be Jagged/Smooth.  It could be Bitter/Sweet or something similar.  I think the problem would be getting good authors to contribute to it.  And then, even if good authors were to find the site, they'd have to be willing to work on the writing with no immediate accolades.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Electronic Screens, Adventure, and the Cultivation of Intuition

It is all the rage these days to cast aspersions on the ubiquitous electronic screens that seem to rule our lives now.  Often, we write them down and then post them via those same devices, that others may partake of our rants.  But, contrarian that I am, I would like to say some things in defense of the screens.

When I was seeking my Texas Teacher Certification back around 1984, I took a class in Math Methods from the department head of the School of Mathematics at Texas A&M.  It turned out to be one of the most revolutionary courses I ever took, not only for my teaching career, but for life in general.  The professor spoke convincingly about the efficacy of guessing in Mathematics (though he recommended we use the word conjecture in place of guess, for pragmatic reasons).  Often, the best and fastest way to solve a problem is to adventurously step out into the void with a guess, a first approximation of the answer.  How that approximation stacks up against the constraints of the problem (e.g., governing equations) very often leads to a way to achieve a much better second guess, if not an exact solution.

Later, in my automotive engineering career, it occurred to me that (though powerful computers now did most of the "thinking" for me) nearly 100% of the problems I solved at work were solved through making an initial guess, and then making successively better approximations to the solution.  The world is a complicated place.  Engineering school (even at the graduate level) can give you a false impression of this, because an inordinate amount of time is often spent on one or two of the very few problems which have derive-able, closed-form solutions.  In truth, it is a statistically insignificant number (i.e., basically 0%) of the world's problems for which a closed-form solution may be found.  Almost always, engineering problems are solved by some method of iterative guessing (I mean, conjecture), such as Newton's Method.

In that Math Methods class, our professor emphasized the importance of developing mathematical intuition.  This cuts against the grain of the old, now largely defunct "just show me the exact steps to solve this kind of problem" approach, and you can see this in the obscene anger expressed against (so-called) Common Core math methods on the internet, from people who are apparently too timid to guess, or whose Math teachers a few decades ago told them never to do so.  But intuition is extremely powerful.  It can be developed.  But you have to be brave, to get out of your comfort zone to do so.  You have to have the temerity to experiment, to guess.  You have to risk being "wrong."

If you are old, as I am, did you ever stop to wonder why four-year-olds seem quicker to pick up new technology and more agile at operating electronic devices than we oldsters?  It is often chalked up to the idea that young people have more nimble minds, and I won't try to dispute that.  But I think there is a greater reason:  kids are not afraid to guess.  They are not afraid to push the wrong button and see what happens.  And what happens, eventually, is that they develop very good intuitions about how the electronic world operates.

Or, if you will, consider the opposite end of the spectrum.  Have you ever had occasion to help an elderly relative adapt to a newly-acquired electronic device?  I have a friend whose parents didn't understand where to type an internet address into their internet browser.  Instead, they made Google their home page, and then typed the web address into the Google search field.  It worked often enough that they could usually find what they were looking for.  But any four-year-old could have shown them a better way.  It is even worse if you need to teach a complex, multi-step task, such as:

1.  Go to a certain website.  Fill out the fields there.
2.  Use a button on the website to export your answer to a PDF file on your computer.
3.  Find the PDF file in your Downloads directory (wherever that is!) and move it to another directory.  CTRL-C and CTRL-V may help here.
4.  Rename the file.  Click the current name until the entire name is highlighted and then type in the new name.  Hit "RETURN."
5.  Open Outlook and send the renamed PDF file to two different addresses in your Outlook address book.  (Oh, but you'll have to know how to navigate to the folder where the PDF file now resides.)

Depending on the task at hand, there can be dozens or even hundreds of steps.   If one does not develop an intuition about these things, complex tasks can be very daunting indeed.  And that's for identical, repetitive tasks.  When faced with a brand new task, and without calling someone else in to help, you have nothing but intuition upon which to rely.  Your screen is filled with a few hundred tiny icons, perhaps, some of which may not be visible at first.  Where to begin?  You just have to make a guess.  You have to adventurously click on something, do some poking around, and see what you can find.

I submit to you that all of these electronic screens have done a fabulous job of developing our intuition.  They have made our minds more nimble, more resilient.  They have required us to be better problem-solvers, braver souls, better at guessing.  This leads us to be better thinkers in the final analysis.  It can help us to find a globally optimum solution rather than being satisfied with a locally optimum one.  In some of the Math and Physics classes I taught, I used an exercise that works to do this same thing.  There was a problem.  Say, estimate the height of a tower.  The students were required to come up with the craziest, zaniest ways to do this.  There is the obvious Trigonometric method.  There are Physics-based solutions (e.g., drop a ball from the top of the tower, and time how long it takes to hit the ground).  Maybe you chop down the tower and stack pennies from one the base of the tower to the tip.  Then, you multiply the number of pennies by the diameter of a penny.  There are so, so many ways.  And humanity is greatly enriched by cultivating the kind of imagination that does not stop at the first method found.

So, I submit to you that all of these electric "screens" everyone is so distressed about are actually making us better thinkers, and giving us more agile minds.  It is something to be thankful for.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Eminem, Trump, and the Coarsening of American Society

I use the AM radio news station as a morning alarm. I was jolted awake this morning by the newly-minted rap by Eminem, about Trump. It was ugly, inane, self-important, and hypocritical. But, mostly ugly. What a way to wake up!

There is so much to object to, in both form and content, in Marshall Mathers' anti-Trump tirade, it is difficult to know where to begin.  I suppose we can begin at the unseemliness of a white guy thinking he has to come to the rescue of black people.  How patronizing of him.  I mean, not to mention that his entire career as a rap "artist" has been built on a solid foundation of Cultural Appropriation.

There is the fact that much of his content is just factually false.  Donald Trump did not support the Klan -- he explicitly called them out as evil -- and they vilified him for it.  His other "facts" are wrong as well.

Then, too, there is the brutal ugliness of his "art".  He is angry.  He is angry that Donald Trump is President. Angry, one supposes, that rape-enabler Hillary Clinton is not.  And his anger pours out in guttural tones.  I suppose that if his goal is to incite a mob, his rap/rant may strike the correct tone.  But if he ever hopes to appeal to calm, rational, intelligent, people of peace, then it is absolutely wrong.

Compare Eminem's style with that of James Baldwin ("The Fire Next Time"), writing about the racial divide in America, clear back in 1963:
"But I cannot leave it at that; there is more to it than that. In spite of everything, there was in the life I fled a zest and a joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster that are very moving and very rare. Perhaps we were, all of us—pimps, whores, racketeers, church members, and children—bound together by the nature of our oppression, the specific and peculiar complex of risks we had to run; if so, within these limits we sometimes achieved with each other a freedom that was close to love. I remember, anyway, church suppers and outings, and, later, after I left the church, rent and waistline parties where rage and sorrow sat in the darkness and did not stir, and we ate and drank and talked and laughed and danced and forgot all about “the man.” We had the liquor, the chicken, the music, and each other, and had no need to pretend to be what we were not. This is the freedom that one hears in some gospel songs, for example, and in jazz. In all jazz, and especially in the blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged. White Americans seem to feel that happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad, and that, God help us, is exactly the way most white Americans sing them—sounding, in both cases, so helplessly, defenselessly fatuous that one dare not speculate on the temperature of the deep freeze from which issue their brave and sexless little voices. Only people who have been “down the line,” as the song puts it, know what this music is about. I think it was Big Bill Broonzy who used to sing “I Feel So Good,” a really joyful song about a man who is on his way to the railroad station to meet his girl. She’s coming home. It is the singer’s incredibly moving exuberance that makes one realize how leaden the time must have been while she was gone. There is no guarantee that she will stay this time, either, as the singer clearly knows, and, in fact, she has not yet actually arrived. Tonight, or tomorrow, or within the next five minutes, he may very well be singing “Lonesome in My Bedroom,” or insisting, “Ain’t we, ain’t we, going to make it all right? Well, if we don’t today, we will tomorrow night.” White Americans do not understand the depths out of which such an ironic tenacity comes, but they suspect that the force is sensual, and they are terrified of sensuality and do not any longer understand it. The word “sensual” is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic black studs. I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread. It will be a great day for America, incidentally, when we begin to eat bread again, instead of the blasphemous and tasteless foam rubber that we have substituted for it And I am not being frivolous now, either. Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become. It is this individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives, that makes the discussion, let alone elucidation, of any conundrum—that is, any reality—so supremely difficult. The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—for this touchstone can be only oneself. Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes. And these attitudes, furthermore, though the person is usually unaware of it (is unaware of so much!), are historical and public attitudes. They do not relate to the present any more than they relate to the person. Therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves."

That is the way you communicate to rational people, not with the feral grunts of an Eminem.  James Baldwin is worth ten-thousand of Marshall Mathers, if not ten-million.  May God, in his infinite mercy, raise up a hundred or a thousand new James Baldwins for America to (Yes!  I dare say it!) intelligently rebuke White America, where necessary.

But I was going to write about the "coarsening of American society", wasn't I?  And I must make it clear at the outset that I understand President Trump to be as problematically coarse as Mr. Mathers.  The polite, civil American citizen has nothing to choose between these two.  I do not expect Donald Trump's inevitable tweet in response to Eminem's free-style hit job (which certainly must have already been tweeted?) to be any less coarse or self-serving than the rap which was its occasion.

What I do ask us to consider is this:  Why do we care so much about the opinions of wealthy, successful entertainers?  We have had multiple cases of motion picture actors testifying before Congress, because they played parts in movies related to the subject at hand.  We do this sort of thing all the time.  We elevate our entertainments to God status.  Would anyone even care what happens before the start of an NFL game had we not already deified sports in America?  To those who would qualify Eminem as some qualified cultural prophet, at the same time attacking Trump, I would say:

"Do you want an entertainer as President?  Because, that's how you get an entertainer as President!"

This is not a left-right thing, nor a black-white thing, nor a young-old thing.  It's all of us.  We have all, to one degree or another, idolized entertainment and entertainers.

Let us heed the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians:

"Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted. Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play."