More on Pride in Race, and Social Revolutions

US Capitol

This is a followup to my earlier post “Pride in Things Out of Your Control“. In that article, I argued that it does not make sense to be proud of anything that is purely random, such as your race. An even more important argument is that race should not a factor when judging anyone, since no one chose their own race. More strongly, and perhaps, race should not be a factor when making laws.

For the same reason as before, namely that no one actually chose their own race, it is strange for laws to target certain racial groups. Is that not the very definition of racial discrimination, or shall I say, racism? Now, from a utilitarian perspective, it is possible to justify temporary measures that target specific race groups in order to increase the total social utility, namely affirmative action. However, the real difference to bridge in these cases is usually not so much race as it is socioeconomic conditions. Affirmative action is defined in terms of race rather than socioeconomic status because it is easier for the common person to understand and easier to enforce.

With affirmative action aside, even though its true motivation is only indirectly related to race, there are very few possible justifications for using race in law. And while the Zimmerman case should not have been related to race, the public perception of it certainly seemed like it. The law argued in court and the racism argued outside of it were out of sync.

Yes, in my last post, I wrote about how little this case mattered, but the more time that time goes by, the more I see people talking about it, and often with completely wrong accounts.

The question is, who has failed? Are the people so ignorant of the court system and brainwashed by the media that they have no clue what the trial was actually about? Or is the court system so disconnected from reality that it failed to serve justice?

A Historical Tangent: Changing the Mindset of Other Groups

It is important to keep in mind that when groups do agitate for rights, their practical purpose is to convince whomever is in charge to give them rights. Just looking at American history, we see that every time there is a major social revolution granting rights to a previously discriminated group, the government itself contained extremely few, if any, members of that group.

Abraham Lincoln was white, and so was the rest of the US government when the Civil War occurred. When Congress granted women the right to vote, there were no women in Congress. And when the LGBT community first agitated for rights, no member of Congress of such an orientation had openly declared it.

While this is not directly related to the main topic, I wished to remind you of what protests are actually for. A discriminated group MUST convince fellow citizens who are not of that discriminated group that something must be changed. This in turn will, after a number of years, cause a change in public sentiment which will be reflected in the election, and in turn into law.

In this respect the LGBT movement is sort of a model modern movement, in that it successfully convinced a majority of straight people to accept LGBT people as equal.

So to the public who thinks that the result of the Zimmerman trial was unjust and that racism or the self-defense law should be changed, you must try to convince people who disagree with you of your position. The reason I point this out, when it seems completely obvious, is that it is not easy to do in the current world.

Yes you can announce your ideas to hundreds if not thousands of people with social media, but social media is also highly self-clustering, in that on a given social issue, discussion between the two groups is far more rare than among one group. That is, you may think that you champion good causes on Facebook, but your good intent may be useless because the only people listening are the ones who already agree with you anyway. This is especially true if you are not highly aggressive or confrontational in your posts. Unless you explicitly provoke the other side, your posts and resulting discussions will be nothing more than friendly groupthink, and which will only increase confirmation bias. An argument between people who disagree is far more useful than an argument between people who agree.

So go ahead and discuss, debate, and disagree.

Pride in Things Out of Your Control

The topic for today is: Can you be proud of something that is out of your control?

I started thinking about this last week, when someone claimed to be proud of belonging to a particular house at Harvard University. This seemed quite reasonable, and perhaps rational, until he admitted the following caveat: the house assignments were entirely random.

In any normal situation I would let this go, but in our internship there is a strong emphasis on thinking rationally, and I was chatting with people I consider to be highly rational. So I raised the issue and we discussed it briefly, but it was not really resolved. I am continuing my thoughts on it here.

Pride in Luck

Imagine a game where you roll a fair 6-sided die. If it lands on a 6, you gain $10; otherwise, you lose $10. The expected value of this game is negative (on average you lose $6 per game), so one would be a fool to play it. But suppose you did play the game once, and it landed a 6, netting you $10.

Can you be proud of rolling a 6?

I would argue that you cannot be proud of rolling the 6, as there is nothing you did that affected the chance of rolling it. (Even further, I would argue that you cannot even be proud of choosing to play the game, as it has negative expectancy with a significant chance of loss.) It is irrational to be proud of something that happened by chance.

Biological and Geographical Luck

Similarly, can you really be proud to be a member of whatever race you belong to? Personally, I would answer no: I happen to be Chinese, but I have never felt proud of being Chinese, simply because I had no choice whatsoever in being born Chinese. In fact, I would far more strongly identify as “American” rather than “Chinese,” since there are some things I actually can make decisions between, e.g. Eastern vs. Western philosophy, cultural values, and freedom of speech; and in each case I agree more with the American side.

The key difference is that nationality is something I could theoretically change. Had I the inclination, I could feasibly move to some other country than the US. Yet no matter how much I might want to be of some other race, I can’t revoke being Chinese. Thus I cannot be proud of being Chinese in race, but I can be proud of being American in nationality.

Because of this way of thought, I have never understood the point of racial clubs and organizations. I won’t speak out about other racial groups in America due to lack of knowledge, but I will say that Chinese organizations I have encountered in the US seem useless, cultish, and indoctrinating, to the point of being as bad as religious organizations. Every Sunday for a while, I had to go to a completely useless, mind-numbingly boring, tradition-ladden “school” which, of course, cost my parents quite some money. But I’ll save that rant for another day.

Elsewhere in geography, many people are proud of football or basketball teams—of the city in which they grew up or are currently living. Unless you specifically moved to some city for the sole purpose of being with its sports team(s), it is irrational to be proud of a local sports team just because you happen to share, by luck, some geographical vicinity.

In a similar way to geographical luck, biological luck defines us all more than it should. Survived some disease? Good for you, you happened to have had certain beneficial genetic mutations and proper health care. Tall? Again, a matching assortment of genes and nutrition. Hair or eye color? Genes. Male or female? Just a difference between XY and XX. It is just nonsensical for someone to be proud of being these.

Pride in History?

American Flag

So now, having established that I am proud to be an American, the question remains as to whether I can be proud of something that happened earlier in its history. After all, I have no control over the events of the American Revolution, just as I have no control over the roll of dice. However, the difference is that the American Revolution and its leaders were not an accident—they were forged from the values of the Enlightenment.

Then what makes it rational to be proud of the Enlightenment? I think the reasons listed above, for why it is justified for me to be proud of being American but not of being Chinese, provide the answer: one can and should be proud of philosophical and cultural values (though not necessarily of the culture in which one was born). Even now, the path of independence and freedom from tyranny is a slow and hard-fought process. Events like the American Revolution, even though they are long into the past, are then indeed something to be proud of. Happy Independence Day!

Edit (7/21/13): I wrote a follow-up.

12 Events That Will Change Everything

[The feature article of the June 2010 edition of Scientific American (pp. 36-48) is actually a compilation of articles titled “12 Events That Will Change Everything.” Online version here.]

Scientific American, June 2010 Cover

This Scientific American feature discusses 12 major events. Below are the twelve events in order as presented in the magazine. (In parentheses are the likelihoods of each event as described in the magazine; the terms in order from least likely to most likely—very unlikely, unlikely, 50-50, likely, almost certain.)

The 12 Events:

  1. Cloning of a human (likely)
  2. Extra dimensions (50-50)
  3. Extraterrestrial intelligence (unlikely)
  4. Nuclear exchange (unlikely)
  5. Creation of life (almost certain)
  6. Room-temperature superconductors (50-50)
  7. Machine self-awareness (likely)
  8. Polar meltdown (likely)
  9. Pacific earthquake (almost certain)
  10. Fusion energy (very unlikely)
  11. Asteroid collision (unlikely)
  12. Deadly pandemic (50-50)

Each of these would have profound implications for the world, though some are certainly more important than others. The ones with the most immediate and negative global effects would be 3 (extraterrestrial intelligence), 4 (nuclear exchange), 11 (asteroid collision), and 12 (deadly pandemic). Of these, 4, 11, and 12 are deadly, while 3 has the likely potential to be.

Numbers 1 (human cloning), 2 (extra dimensions), 5 (creation of life), 6 (room-temperature superconductors), 7 (machine self-awareness) and 10 (fusion energy) all seem to be beneficial.

This leaves 8 (polar meltdown) and 9 (Pacific earthquake), of which the former will have slower but costly consequences, and the latter will have a non-global effect.

Whether the good events or the bad ones come first—or even at all—will depend on science, determination, and chance.

The Legacy of 2009

2009 has been a remarkable year in every aspect. Struggles were fought, issues were disputed, but in the end, new heights were reached. What follows are various statements from the web on this fateful year. (With focus on technology.)

Doug Gross [CNN]:

  • This [2009] was the year that online social media exploded.
  • It was a big year for technology: Twitter and Facebook’s popularity exploded, while new smartphones, e-readers and a host of other gadgets cropped up to compete for our plugged-in affection.

Mark Leibovich [NYTimes]:

  • You could Tweet all the highlights of 2009 and still have time for dithering.
  • But if ever there were a year to put buzzwords before a death panel, this would be it, before the aporkalypse comes.
  • Whatever, it was a year when a lot of people acted stupidly.
  • If this year were a state dinner, even the Salahis wouldn’t Salahi it.

John D. Sutter [CNN]:

  • Engineers didn’t make huge improvements to technology in 2009. The year’s big tech names — Twitter, Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon — all existed before January. Instead, this is the year technology changed us.
  • We could have done any of these things in 2008. But we embraced in unprecedented numbers a digital-centered life in 2009.
  • By the end of 2009, having a basic cell phone wasn’t good enough anymore.
  • Facebook now has more than 350 million users — that’s more people than live in the United States and is more than double the 150 million people who were on Facebook at the start of the year.
  • In 2009, it’s no longer enough to search for information that was current 30 minutes or an hour ago. Now, Internet junkies look for their news, Tweets and links to be updated in “real-time,” just as they are on Twitter.

David Von Drehle [Time]:

  • [2009] A year that dawned to the chime of change soon got bogged down in intractable troubles.
  • Struggle abroad and struggle at home: surely those were defining glimpses of this Moment in our history.

Alex Altman [Time]:

  • We were warned. But when the worst recession in seven decades smacked us in the face, all the gruesome auguries did little to dull the pain. As unemployment soared to 10.2% — the highest rate since 1983 — spendthrifts became tightwads, a new age of austerity dawned, and the era of easy money lurched to a close.

Pete Cashmore [CNN]:

  • The “real-time Web” is booming. From Twitter to Facebook to new search engines that discover information posted just seconds ago, it seems the 2010 Web will be fueled by our desire for instant gratification.
  • We’re seeing the ongoing voluntary erosion of privacy through public sharing on Facebook and Twitter . . . [link]
  • One factor that’s dramatically different at the end of this decade versus the beginning: Ubiquitous connectivity.
  • The network itself has become faster and virtually omnipotent.

For more, including the politics and news aspects, check out the following features:

Last, but not least, we honor

Reflections on 2009

My first semester as a senior in high school just finished. Today. Although 2009 is not yet over, I would like to take the time to reflect over all, or rather, some of the various events of this hectic year.

Overall, I can say that 2009 was most certainly the most influential on my life. That has to do with, of course, the fact that it was (and is) the most recent year, but regardless, there have been many changes in the ways I view and interact with the world.

Literature

Something early this year, around January or February, still in the midst of my junior year, totally changed my outlook on learning, or more specifically, my academic interests. Before this year, I would have considered myself to be a math/science person, and to some extent, I still am. But even so, my collection of academic interests has immensely broadened, to the point where I enjoy subjects such as literature and history, rather than be indifferent or hostile to them. I am still searching for answers. How did this shift happen, and why?

I think it started with a play we read in English class, even slightly earlier, in late 2008. It was Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett. Before reading this, I had more or less detested English classes in general. Whenever we were assigned a book to read, I would always wonder, What’s the point? Especially of a book such as Great Expectations (by Charles Dickens), in ninth grade. It was by far the most boring book I had (attempted to) read. It killed my interest in reading for a while. Before that, I used to be an somewhat avid reader, but after being assigned that work, whatever fascination for literature I had was obliterated. I still made A’s and A+’s in the class, but the real problem was, I no longer had any respect for it.

How did Waiting for Godot resurrect my literary interest? For one thing, it was vastly different in both content and style from anything we had previously seen in English. It was certainly witty, but even more, it made me think. Great Expectations seemed to be a long, drawn-out piece of writing with no point. On the other hand, Waiting for Godot was minimal in plot, but extraordinarily thought-provoking in content. It asked some fundamental philosophical questions. It was clear. It was intriguing.

Okay, I know I haven’t painted the clearest picture of this play’s influence on me, but somehow, my interest in English, both the subject and the class, became reignited by the kindles of this play. While I’m on this topic, I would have to acknowledge my teacher, Ms. Dowdle, for making that class interesting last year. I always felt that I learned something every class, something I cannot say for my ninth and tenth grade years.

History

Admittedly, I was also not enthused by history. That is, until I had an epiphany about January of this year, in the middle of AP/IB European History.

For this subject, I think I know the epiphany’s cause. It was the understanding of how different eras blend into each other, each providing the context for the next era. Paradigm shifts, if you will. Our teacher, Ms. Saenz, showed us how the events we learned in the previous semester, namely the Renaissance, the Reformation (and Counter-Reformation), the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment tied into one another by drawing large, abstract, intersecting arcs spanning across the board. These arcs clearly showed how the eras led to what we were presently studying, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era. History suddenly made sense.

It wasn’t so much the content, i.e. the personalities, the dates, the numbers, that caused me to suddenly see history for what it is, but the method of analysis, i.e. the way of looking at the big picture. I had previously thought of history as a vast, disjointed collection of facts to memorize. But the big-picture method of looking at the situation changed my views on it entirely.

Writing

I used to be indifferent about writing. This had to do with my writing style. It used to be very formulaic, and every sentence had to follow the laws of English grammar. For example, I never started sentences with conjunctions.

But, in the middle of May, ironically just after a sea of AP exams, I suddenly found myself writing. A lot. If you want proof, take a look at the “Essays” section of this website, a tab on the top. You’ll find among the collection three essays, all in the range of approximately 2000 words, all freelance (not for any class), all dated May 2009. Heck, even the existence of this website/blog is evidence. For me, a more law-breaking, or rather, “creative” writing style makes writing significantly more fun, therefore causing me to write a lot more.

I ran, however, into the natural follow-up question: What caused this change in style? This question was very tough. I could not think of anything writing-wise in May that would cause me to take up writing as a hobby. If anything, the AP exams should have caused me to detest writing. Then it hit me. It had nothing to do with the AP exams. It was actually, in fact, something not related to writing at all, or at least not directly.

Waking Life. A movie directed by Richard Linklater. We watched it in IB Theory of Knowledge (TOK), an intriguing class taught by Dr. Schaack. So, how did this movie change my writing style? Indirectly. I think what happened was that TOK changed my thinking style. I became more open minded. And creative. Yes, I just implied that creativity can, to some degree, be taught. What Waking Life did for me was to literally wake my mind (though this sense of “waking” is not the one used in the movie). Just as Waiting for Godot was a creative play, Waking Life was an extraordinarily creative movie. It exuded creativity.

With this newfound creativity, I perhaps found the mechanistic writing style to be too inadequate to express my thoughts. I’m looking back right now at various saved writing assignments over the years. In ninth and tenth grades, my writing was appallingly lacking. Sentences were always medium in length, rhetorical questions were never asked, and the word “you” never appeared, just a few examples among other things. Which is yet another example, as I used to avoid the word “thing” at all costs, just because English teachers told us not to use it. The list goes on and on.

Humor

Of course, I always have enjoyed humor, but only this year did I realize that it can sometimes mean serious business.

College

Luckily, my new style of writing came in time to help with college application essays! Plus, from the other two subjects listed, I think I became a more well-rounded student. Of course, my main points on the applications were mostly math and science-related, but in several essays, I did not hesitate to mention academic interest in the humanities. My academic broadening also helped put some schools such as the University of Chicago on my list. For my status so far, see this post.

Website

This website was made in November, just last month. Technically, there are two items under the October category, but those were imported from my other blog, now replaced by this one. Of course, my recent interest in writing is related to the creation of this site.

Perhaps, as the end of the year draws closer, I will post an addendum to this, as a final goodbye to 2009.

The Most Dangerous Enemy

I figured that one natural thing to put in the personal blog of a curious student (or a “reasoner,” which I think has a better ring) would be works, whether of the typographic era or the age of entertainment, that I find interesting and some comments from a reasoner’s point of view. This, I presume, would constitute a review.

Thus, I felt it would be fitting to start my collection with The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain (2000) by Stephen Bungay. As its subtitle states, it gives a detailed and well-researched account of the Battle of Britain, an aerial engagement in 1940 between the German Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force (RAF) chiefly in the skies of southeast England.

Bungay debunks the myth that the battle was won by “the few,” according to popular legend a handful of fighter pilots who fought against overwhelming odds and saved Britain from defeat. In reality, German defeat resulted from a wide range of factors, from the reconnaissance advantage held by the British in their invention of radar to the incompetency of the German High Command in the most critical decisions regarding which locations to bomb. As a comprehensive record, The Most Dangerous Enemy demonstrates also the Battle of Britain’s vital importance in determining the fate of Europe and the rest of the world.

This book is actually a strange interest for me because I normally do not read history. Yet, the book is more than powerful enough to appeal to the curious reader.