IB Theory of Knowledge

IB Logo
International Baccalaureate

One interesting component of the International Baccalaureate (IB) is the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) class, a one-year course that, at my school, is taken in the second semester of junior year and the first semester of senior year. The reason I would describe it as an interesting component is that the class is so different, so bizarre in comparison to the other IB classes we take. Instead of teaching a set curriculum about a particular subject and then preparing for an end-of-year examination, TOK emphasizes thinking, or at least, the way we think, or the “ways of knowing.” It has some elements of a philosophy course, and though it does not completely qualify as one, our teacher Dr. Schaack would categorize it under “Applied Philosophy.”

Regarding the purpose of TOK, our teacher described it as in part to find out whether students can think. Thinking is quite a different activity from test-taking. The IB wants to make the most out of an individual, and one part of this is to tweak the way we think, or at least make us aware of different theories of knowledge. As such, it is an interdisciplinary course, where matters from all other subjects are discussed.

What does one do in TOK? This is a frequently asked question, and I had asked this myself to IB seniors several times last year. If I had to describe the class in three words, I would say, “discussion,” “thought,” and “application.” Discussion of what? Of almost any topic you can imagine. In just my class, I have heard and participated in discussions about current events, the subjectivity of knowledge, quantum mechanics and its relation to reality, the Iraq War, dreams, the three-second present moment, Nobel prizes and laureates, the fourth dimension, essay writing, college application, the authority of science, and much more. Our discussions have mainly been centered about two texts: Sophie’s World (1991) by Jostein Gaarder in junior year, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence: An Inquiry into Values (1974) by Robert Pirsig in senior year. These are only two of the many examined works (a list not limited to only books), and especially with the latter, we have had some extraordinarily thought-provoking discussions.

Other works studied in my class include: “Allegory of the Cave” by Plato, Waking Life (2001) by Richard Linklater, “The Dimension of the Present Moment” (1990) by Miroslav Holub, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) by Edwin Abbott, Nobelity (2006) by Turk Pipkin, and “The Fourth Dimension,” a chapter of The New Ambidextrous Universe (1991) by Martin Gardner.

The second word, “thought,” necessarily accompanies the first. After all, one cannot participate in a high-level discussion without thinking about what to say. Thus, to participate, one must review what has been discussed already and then continue on or take a different path. It is a class where any relevant, insightful thought is welcomed.

Finally, on to “application.” What use are thoughts that do not apply to the world? In discussions, even of abstract concepts, we often cite concrete examples to demonstrate the implications of our ideas. Even if a topic does not directly affect our daily lives, for example the existence of black holes, a discussion of such in a talk about the advancement of science is more grounded than one that only refers to science in general.

In addition, two essays of prime importance are written in this class. The first is the Theory of Knowledge essay, an essay that I actually have added to this site (under Essays). It is an essay that allows the writer to select from ten possible choices and write more or less freely about it for around 1500-1600 words. It is also a mostly free-form essay, written in a highly personal manner; the teacher recommends up to three sources in the bibliography.

The Extended Essay, on the other hand, is a wholly different matter. It is essentially a research paper, on the topic of the student’s own choosing, and should contain at the minimum 10 sources (except for exceptional cases such as essays on mathematics and experimental sciences). The length is up to 4000 words. Mine is currently not finished yet. As of today, half the essay is due next class.

It can be said that TOK is an incredibly unique class. Simply, I have never before had such a thought-provoking and thought-changing experience.

The Scarlet Letter Mock Trial

Judge in a courtroom
This man is in a courtroom!

We have recently read for English class The Scarlet Letter (1850), a famous novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The work covers a great deal of morality, and one such related theme in the book is the weight of sin, and closely related to it, the value of repentance. It was fitting, then, as a further study of the work, to act out a mock trial to determine the guiltiest of the three main characters, Hester Prynne, Roger Chillingworth, and Arthur Dimmesdale.

The trial in my class has so far operated for two class days. Today we just finished the final closing statement, and we will hear the judges’ deliberations next block. So, on to the trial itself.

Structure of the Trial

After reading the novel and taking a multiple-choice test on it, we then proceeded with trial setup. The class was divided into four groups, three comprising teams for each of the three defendants, and one for the magistrate team. It was very much not like a normal mock trial, in that in this one, we had a three-team brawl instead of a two-team duel, i.e. instead of two teams, there were three. This was a somewhat complicating issue for many reasons, e.g. each defendant was cross-examined by not one but two different teams.

That the trial was held in an academic setting is also a factor that must be taken into account. Since some grade must be assigned for each participating person, everyone was guaranteed a block of time to speak, even though in a real courtroom setting, some people may not be allowed to speak. Also, since one focus of our English course is rhetoric, or argumentation, and that a certain number of rhetorical arguments were required in the witness testimony, some such testimonies deviated quite largely from what may be admissible in real court, as they leaped into analysis and conclusions rather than stating concrete, objective details.

Time was an unavoidable but nonetheless significant constraint. First, we have three client teams. Each included an opening statement, the client’s testimony, three witness testimonies, two cross-examinations by the other teams, and a closing statement. Each mentioned speech was to last three minutes, so eight speeches times three minutes gives 24 minutes per team. That, however, turned out to be too restrictive a timeframe. Sections were on average lasting over five minutes, and if breaks and transition time be included, we have about 45 minutes per team, or 135 minutes total. Our class blocks last 90 minutes, so we split it up evenly between the two days so far. The next day will feature the fourth team, the magistrates, whose speeches should not last over 20 minutes total.

The trial could have lasted much longer, for some sections were actually cut. In a real court, opposing teams would be able to cross-examine witnesses, but in our trial, only the main client for each team was cross-examined, and not the three witnesses on each team. These nine witnesses times two cross-examinations times five minutes per cross-examination give another 90 minutes, which would have been totally unreasonable. Therefore, what the witnesses stated could not be directly refuted, except for in very special circumstances; such a case is later examined.

Also, each team was given two recesses, or 45-second timeouts, and three objections. The three objection rule actually made a noticeable impact, for, as an attorney, I felt I had to tightly conserve objections. Of course, the trial was in English class, not Debate, but even so, three seemed too restrictive.

What about the objective? The objective of the trial is to find the guiltiest sinner. Since there is a triangle relationship, the ways of attack are not so trivial. For example, Hester’s team could condemn Chillingworth, whose team would condemn Dimmesdale, and then form a triangle of attacks. Another possibility is that two groups could team up on the other. In this case, one client would be attacked twice, another one once, and the final one not at all. Something like this happened in our case, but to a more extreme scenario, in that two teams condemned each other, and the remaining team—Hester’s team, the team I was on—equally condemned the first two.

Because of this relationship, there were different ways to focus our speeches. A group could focus its time on defending its own client, and not worry as much about attacking the clients of the other groups. Or, a group could focus on a particular client to target. We asked our teacher (Ms. Gaetjens) which path to take, and it turns out the decision was up to us. In our case, we focused on defense, while the other two groups attacked each other.

My role in the trial was that of the direct examiner and cross-examiner for Hester’s team. Of course, as one might expect from someone who put “repartee” in his list of interests, cross-examination was the most fun part for me. In the trial I was able to cross examine both Chillingworth and Dimmesdale, the clients of the other two teams.

The Scarlet Letter cover

The Trial

Before I describe what happened in our trial, I would like to add that I did take one year of Debate, back in freshman year. Even though it was three years ago, I still remembered some of the guidelines for cross examination in mock trials. The experience too was quite useful. Perhaps the most important thing was to ask leading questions. Our trial started with Hester’s group, then Chillingworth’s, then Dimmesdale’s. When Hester (Doris) was cross-examined, the attorneys did not particularly ask any leading questions, and Hester could pretty much say whatever she wanted. However, in my first cross examination (perhaps it was a bit too harsh), I asked only yes/no questions until the very end, when I asked Chillingworth (Dong-Bin) to read a quote from the deposition, or The Scarlet Letter.

Of course, it has to do with the person representing the client as well. If the client only responds yes/no, then the questions will easily lead the client into a trap, as in my cross-examination against Chillingworth, for the novel sets him up as an evil man in many places. However, in my cross-examination of Dimmesdale (Andrew Q.), the client came up with many witty responses, and I was saved only by a magistrate’s (Gabe’s) insistence that the client not add additional information unrelated to my questions.

Another factor, and a very important one, is the plot of the novel itself. The novel (perhaps in combination with another Book) is the main source of evidence, and it contains great quotes to pull out in cross examinations that can lead Chillingworth or Dimmesdale into deep traps. However, there do not seem to be as many good quotes to use against Hester.

For an example of what I mean, consider the following attack on Chillingworth; I used these questions as the finisher of my cross-examination of Chillingworth in the actual trial:

When Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl are all together on the scaffold in front of the community (the third scaffold scene), and Dimmesdale collapses, you knelt down next to him, correct?

Chillingworth is obliged to answer yes, for this action is directly in the text in chapter 23. If he answers no, then bring out the book and quote the passage that states this.

At that time, did you feel any remorse or forgiveness for him?

This one is virtually a death trap, taking into account the next question. If Chillingworth answers “No,” that would destroy his case immediately. You can follow up with something like: “So you knelt down next to him, and being a physician, you knew he was about to die—and you still did not feel any remorse or forgiveness for him?!” In the more probable case of “Yes,” which the client answered:

Now, could you read the highlighted portion of the deposition, of what you said at this point? (Hands book open to the page in chapter 23 with the highlighted quote: “Though hast escaped me!… Though hast escaped me!”)

The client has to say “Thou hast escaped me!”

So, you earlier said that you felt remorse or forgiveness for Dimmesdale, but even when you knelt down next to him and he was about to die, all you could say was, “Thou hast escaped me!”?

This defeats a large part of Chillingworth’s case. It was actually my very last question, but Chillingworth’s team called a recess at this point, to prepare a response. When the recess ended, and before Chillingworth had a chance to speak, I said, “Thank you, we have no further questions for the client,” but the person wanted to answer the question, so we allowed the question to be answered. The response was something cheesy, along the lines of “What I meant by ‘Thou hast escaped me’ was that ‘Thou hast escaped my medical care.’ ” I merely smiled for about five seconds for the judges to absorb the folly of that statement, and said:


He said “Yes.” I smiled for a bit more, said we had no further questions, and then walked to my seat and sat down.

So, regarding evidence, the text seems to be biased towards Hester and against Chillingworth and Dimmesdale. Of course, I can give an example for the attack on Dimmesdale, but I might post that later, when the judges decide upon the guiltiest sinner.

Speaking of the text, the second most popular piece of evidence was the Bible. Some witnesses, including one that I direct examined (Ben), used multiple quotes from the Bible. Even some objections cited verses from scripture. Even I, as an atheist, cited the Bible. This case was actually somewhat comical.

You see, Dimmesdale’s group brought up God (Ellen) as a witness. The cross-examiner from Chillingworth’s group (Aaron) and I both objected to the person being God citing the Bible as evidence, but she was allowed to continue her testimony. In her speech, she used three graphs as evidence. The graphs showed sin on the y-axis and time on the x-axis. Chillingworth’s graph showed the highest sin overall, and increased over time, Hester’s came next, going up and down, while Dimmesdale’s graph was very low, and decreased over time. Therefore, Chillingworth is the greatest sinner.

However, in my cross-examination of Dimmesdale, I caused Dimmesdale to say that he hated Chillingworth at the second scaffold scene, and then I combined this with God’s earlier testimony that hate without repentance was the greatest sin. Dimmesdale obviously did not repent at that moment in time. Therefore, if Dimmesdale executed the greatest sin, but the sin versus time graphs showed Dimmesdale’s sin as being consistently lower than those of the other two, then the graphs must be inaccurate. I made this objection during the cross-examination, and asked the judges that the sin versus time graphs be stricken from the record. After some debate and deliberation, my objection was sustained, so the evidence became invalid. I raised an objection that caused God’s evidence to be stricken from the record. For me, that was the highlight of today.

I will fill you in on the results of the trial when it is finished.

Update: 11/13/09

Chillingworth was deemed the guiltiest sinner.

Sleep: A Heuristic Examination

Sleepy Person
He has fallen asleep!

Before I begin, I would like to make clear that the subject of this post is sleep, something that should be familiar to all of us (hopefully). I am not trying to make a scientific breakthrough on sleep or even outline recent discoveries on the subject. In fact, I am being somewhat unscientific in that I do not have tables of numbers and data to show any trends, and I am a (somewhat sleep-deprived) student, not a psychologist, biologist, or neurologist. What I have here is a heuristic approach, and I am merely sharing my abstract, qualitative thoughts on the puzzling phenomenon of sleep. Let us begin.

We need sleep. This point is pretty self-explanatory. In my entire life, I have done only one all-nighter, but even then, I fell into an extended nap some time in the second afternoon. It was simply too hard to stay awake. That feeling when your eyelids want to close, when your head wants to rest on something, and when your body wants to hibernate—this dreadful feeling that most of us have at some point in our lives felt—is, for the large part, irresistible.

By that, I mean there are few things that can sustain our conscience and keep us awake when our bodies beg for rest. However, as few as these methods may be, they are almost all related to biological constructs. For instance, coffee can keep us awake for some period of time because of a direct interaction between caffeine and our bodies. Physical danger, too, would counter sleepiness as an evolutionary principle. After all, it would be advantageous for the survival of a species to be able to resist the restrictions set by sleepiness in critical, life-or-death scenarios; for instance, if a crocodile were to attack me, I would certainly not want to fall asleep. While sleep may in general help my survival, it certainly does not in this case. To make an analogy to writing, just as successful writers know and utilize exceptions to the standard laws of grammar, successful species inhibit a generally good phenomenon for a more important objective: survival. In other words, the ability to resist sleep can be a direct result of natural struggle, the survival of the fittest.

This is intriguing because, if we take one step back, we may ask ourselves, Was not sleep itself an adaptation in the survival of the fittest? Yes, it was, and that is why it is difficult for us to change the general actions of sleep. It has been, in some sense, programmed into our bodies through many millions of years of evolution. We should find it most challenging, therefore, in a single lifetime to counter the effects of adaptations set in place for millions of years.

Why would an animal need sleep? If visibility was the most effective method of sensory-perception, then a predator, for instance, would have a much smaller chance of finding food at night than in the daytime. If the average energy intake from food during night was less than the expended energy, then it would be advantageous to have zero energy change during the night, i.e. through sleep. At that point, the prey too would have no reason to be expending valuable energy during the night and would hence increase its sleep. Another interesting note is that some animals, like reptiles, are cold blooded, and thus cannot function as efficiently at lower temperatures. Since there is more heat during the day, it would benefit the species to operate during the day instead of at night. Therefore, the factors of light and heat during daytime were key factors in the development of the evolutionary phenomenon of sleep.

Jumping back to the evolved inhibition of sleep, we find that it is by no means contradictory to the evolution of sleep itself. Simply, animals that learned to sleep were in general more successful than those who did not, and those in the former group that learned how to control it were also in general more successful than those who did not. This chain of thought does not seem to contribute much insight to the issue of sleep, but it does demonstrate the power of natural selection.

But there is a point in the evolutionary analysis of sleep. One popular phenomenon that keeps people up, and hence inhibits sleep, is actually much more used and widespread than you may think. In fact, if you are viewing this post on the Internet right now, then you are definitely in this phenomenon’s grasp. Yes, this phenomenon I am referring to is the computer. Remember I said I have pulled off one all-nighter in my life? That was in front of a computer screen. While playing a video game. Now, wait a minute, games and media have been around for centuries, just not on a computer. However, there is something different about a screen. I remember last year that one night, just before a European history test, I fell asleep with the textbook open in front of me. Honestly!

In contrast, it is nearly impossible to fall sleep while in front of a computer screen with Internet access or a good visual game loaded. Regarding a book, the book itself does not change or interact with the reader. Recall that the evolutionary principle for inhibiting sleep was to avoid danger. Your brain will hardly interpret any danger when digesting information from a book or a text source, even if the book is about something dangerous, as it was probably published many years ago. Next came the radio. Of course, now you could hear things in real-time, but the problem was, you would hear about danger, but you would never see it coming at you or feel any actual threat. With the television, things changed. Now you could not only hear the danger, but also see it happening in front of you. Yet, even then you still felt detached from the danger, because it could not cause real damage to you, nor could you do anything to repel it.

The computer changed everything. In the case of many video games, you are now not only seeing and hearing the danger coming at you, but you also have the capability to defend your “character” against it. In fact, having control of a virtual character, or avatar, changes the situation quite drastically. New technology and graphics allow games to seem much more realistic than ever before. Your senses and thought then link with the avatar on the screen. Whatever danger that comes toward it is also a danger heading towards you. The ability to defend or save a life, in this case your own, fits in perfectly with sleep’s evolutionary principle. Our ability to sit in front of a screen and play video games far past midnight is a mere reflection of our evolution. When we feel physically threatened or in danger, we have a heightened awareness that counters the adaptation of sleep.

Now, what about the Internet? I feel compelled to stumble upon new websites and read things, even though I just said earlier that I fell asleep while reading a textbook. What makes the Internet a better, or at least more energizing, place for reading? I am not exactly sure. Certainly the faster rate of publication and the ability to post comments makes the web more interactive. And because interactiveness, as shown in the case of video games, is more alerting to our senses, this would seem to be the reason why even reading on the Internet is so much more entertaining.

Are coffee, crocodiles, and computers the only things that can cause us to resist sleep? Certainly not. In school, or at least at my high school, many students are deprived of sleep due to the cramming of a pile of homework accumulated through rigorous programs and courses as well as through procrastination. Here, the factor is almost neo-evolutionary, if that is a term. It is a sort of artificial evolution. We students are certainly not competing for raw survival. We are competing for grades, which in turn supposedly mark our general success. (I could give a spiel on the grade system, but I will not do so here due to irrelevance.)

Because this neo-evolutionary phenomenon can also keep us awake, should it be considered a biological effect? I think so. I do not profess to be an expert on the biology of sleep, but I will note that if an artificial struggle can disrupt our sleep patterns, then it must, in some way, affect our biology. I would conjecture that this sleep deprivation caused by completing homework affects our body similarly to sleep inhibition caused by natural threats. Our brains probably interpret both as threats, one threatening our grades and the other threatening our physical body.

I am feeling sleepy right now. Can writing inhibit sleep? It does seem to, and it is peculiar in that it does not fit any of the biological causes aforementioned. Perhaps this is a good thing. Maybe it shows that we humans can go beyond the evolutionary calls of survival and competition. We all have some interest, I would hope, a passion, for which we can sacrifice some sleep. By doing something to keep ourselves awake, whether writing poems, learning mathematics, practicing a musical instrument, or even chatting with friends on social networking sites, we show that we are not an aloof, self-interested species. We help others even when we do not have “spare” time, when nature would be normally telling us to sleep. The inhibition of sleep may truly reveal the optimism of humanity.

Testing WordPress-Facebook Posting

[Edit: As of Feb. 27, 2010, WordPress can post directly to Facebook. The following post is now obsolete.]

WordPress can post directly onto Twitter, and Twitter can post onto Facebook via an application. This is an experiment to determine whether or not, through Twitter, WordPress is able to directly post onto Facebook.

Update: A link to this post appeared instantly on Facebook, so this two-step method of WordPress-Facebook integration does work.

WordPress Facebook Integration Screenshot
WordPress-Facebook Integration via Twitter

Of course, Facebook’s Note application has the ability to import external blogs’ RSS feeds, but it creates a note and does not actually go to the blog. The Twitter approach, on the other hand, gives the blog post title and the short link to the actual WordPress article:

Notice too that, even though this method uses Twitter as a middleman, neither the original WordPress article nor the resulting Facebook status links to the Twitter post. Hence, even a totally inactive Twitter account can be used for this method of WordPress-Facebook integration.

Compsci UIL “UIL”

Here is a Java program used to solve a trivial problem on a certain UIL (University Interscholastic League) computer science question.

public class uil

  public static void main(String[] args)
    for (int i = 0; i < 18; i++)
      System.out.println("UU    UU II LL");
    System.out.println("UUUUUUUU II LLLLLLLL");
    System.out.println("UUUUUUUU II LLLLLLLL");

The output?


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.

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