The Revenge of Geography

the-revenge-of-geography

This book was very tough to slog through, but the ideas were superb, even if most of them came from thinkers from before the 20th century.

Pros:

  • Well organized. There are three distinct sections: (1) an overview of several theories of geography (most of which are old and not politically correct today); (2) case studies of the most important zones in the current world; and (3) a short prophecy of America’s own destiny.
  • Good synthesis of ideas. Mackinder, Spykman, and Mahan are the most referenced.
  • Focuses on relevant regions: Europe, Russia, China, India, Persia/Iran, and Ottoman Empire/Turkey.
  • Makes substantive predictions based on geography. For example, the book (2012) forewarned the recent Ukraine-Crimea-Russia situation.
  • Gives a nuanced view of the role of geography. Kaplan carefully says the determinism is only partial. (I originally had the wrong impression from the title & subtitle that it was going to be more deterministic.)
  • The third section, on America’s fate, is particularly solid. If you could only read 50 pages of the book, it should be the last part.

Cons:

  • Often, the writing is neither clear nor concise.
  • Not that much original content, though still valuable as synthesis. (The exception is the last section, which has a lot more content.)

Not sure that this book replaces Diamond or Huntington, but it is an excellent addition.

Kaplan, Robert D. (2012).The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate.

A Single Cause For Everything

Our society loves to pin each problem on one cause. The most recent example is Elliot Rodger. Some say he was a misogynist (Huff Post) and others that he was mentally insane (TIME). Others blame the system instead, claiming that he was operating under a grander systematic male privilege (Salon) or that therapists and law enforcement are inadequate to detect signs mental illness (Slate). And here is yet another pair of conflicting reports in the misogyny (Washington Post) vs mental illness (National Review) debate. Despite the variety of voices in the debate, they all seem to agree on one thing: their reason is the only reason.

The title of the TIME article says blatantly, “Misogyny Didn’t Turn Elliot Rodger Into a Killer,” and the first sentence reads, “Yes, Elliot Rodger was a misogynist — but blaming a cultural hatred for women for his actions loses sight of the real reason why isolated, mentally ill young men turn to mass murder.”

Besides this acknowledgement, the articles all present evidence that furthers their own theories while not considering evidence that might support other theories. It’s very difficult to dig up an article that discusses, for instance, with nuance how much of it was caused by misogyny and how much by mental illness, or how the two factors behave in tandem. (Or whether there is a third factor: this article (Salon) talks about the role of race in Rodger’s motives.)

In case you’ve already made your mind on which side of the misogyny vs mental illness debate you fall on, here is a simpler, non-politically-charged example. Suppose we want a theory to predict where there is snow and where there isn’t snow. The first theory I’ll propose is the latitude theory: higher latitudes are colder and should thus have more snow (assuming we’re in the Northern hemisphere).  If this theory were completely true, the snow distribution might look something like this.

latitude-us-map

Everywhere north of the latitude line, there is snow, and everywhere south, there is no snow. Clearly this isn’t true.

Here is another theory: water proximity theory. Snow needs water to freeze, so snow will form near bodies of water. If this theory were completely true, then we should only find snow near water. Clearly this isn’t true either.

Here is an actual picture of snow cover from NASA:

snowcover

And here is an animated gif of world snow cover:

Earth-satellite-snow

As one can see, neither theory is true as an absolute statement. The correct way to think of these theories is as probabilistic theories. That is, the more north you go, the higher the chance you will encounter snow. The same goes for being near bodies of water, to a lesser extent. Even then, snow cover cannot be explained as a combination of these two factors alone: mountainous regions have more snowfall as well.

The debates in our current-day media are akin to one side saying that latitude determines everything and the other side that proximity to water determines everything. Neither side is willing to look rationally at the cold facts around them.

History is another subject where it is more clear that everything has multiple causes. In just less than two months from today, it will have been 100 years since the beginning of World War I. One might argue that the cause of WWI was the assassination of an archduke, but this simplistic explanation misses all the political tensions and alliances at the time. Similarly, one could argue that it was purely due to the political landscape and that war would have broken out regardless of the assassination. Both causes were necessary to an extent. If Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated in a less tense time, war might have been averted. Similarly, if no assassination had occurred, the great powers might not have had a proper excuse to actually go to war.

So why can’t we use scientific or historical reasoning on sociological issues?

Religion is a great example of this single-cause mentality. The honor killing of Pakistani woman Farzana Parveen last week was unanimously condemned in the US, similarly to the Elliot Rodger shooting. However, whenever someone tried to posit a cause that could have contributed to the honor killing, the other side would knock it down, saying it couldn’t be the right cause, and they give examples. For instance, if you go to the comment section of any major news story about this event, you’ll invariably find that someone criticizes Islam for condoning honor killings and promoting misogyny, and then someone else responds by pointing out that honor killings sometimes happen in other cultures (e.g. Hindu) as well.

Both sides make decent points but such conversations are useless since they are both saying true things but ignoring what the other side is saying. Just as “more north = more snow” is not always true, it is also not false. So sure, Islam might not be the only reason that honor killings occur so much in Pakistan, but it’s a pretty strong factor. Just because a cause is not the only cause does not mean that it is not a cause at all.

With religion in general, people very often make absurdly simplistic statements themselves and assume other people’s views of religion are absurdly simplistic (perhaps by projection). This might also be reflected in the general media and American culture as a whole. We love simple answers to complex problems. I’m not advocating that we personally conduct full academic research for every problem we face, but we are clearly too far on the simplistic side. The problem is that we’re thinking too little, not too much.

Elliot Rodger’s event, just like any other event, has a variety of causes. Both misogyny and ill-handling of mental illness are to blame. Snow cover depends on several conditions. World War I had a complex background, as do honor killings and suicide bombings.

Solutions to oversimplification of causes?

  • Prefer depth of news, not breadth. Instead of gaining a superficial understanding of many stories, try to understand one story really well. Read 10 different articles on Elliot Rodger and look at the issue from all sides.
  • Look at the statistics yourself. Numbers don’t oversimplify themselves.
  • Acquire more information. Have an opinion on Russia’s involvement with Ukraine? See if your opinion changes if you read up on past involvements.
  • Read the comments section of the article. While 90% of it may be trash, someone might point out something worthwhile.

5 Historical Documents on Universal Truths

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post criticizing the strong form of moral relativism, namely the idea that nobody, or no culture, is right or wrong. In this post, to continue the objective vs subjective truth discussion, I will look at five historical documents that have explicitly acknowledged universal truths. Moreover, all of these documents proclaim non-empirical truths, i.e. they are not documents of science that can be tested by the scientific method. (I include this caveat because it’s easy for a relativist to acknowledge that science can have universal truths but then claim arbitrarily that other subjects work differently than science and shouldn’t have universal or objective truths. So, I am addressing the claim that nonscientific truths cannot be universal.)

1. Euclid’s Elements (~300 BC)

euclid-elements

The Elements is one of the most influential books of all time, not just in mathematics but in the entire Western way of thinking. For this post, math is considered separate from science, in that math does not operate by the scientific method. It instead operates by a strictly logical method that was largely formalized by Elements. The steps of this deductive method, in contrast with the inductive scientific method, consist of:

  1. Listing axioms, or self-evident truths.
  2. Listing basic assertions, which also should be self-evident.
  3. Combining the axioms and assertions to obtain theorems, which are the end result.

(For a list of the axioms and assertions, see the wiki page.)

In Elements, the first “postulate,” or axiom, is that a straight line can be drawn from one point to any other point. This seems obvious enough. Clearly if we imagine two points, we can also imagine a straight line between them. Another seemingly obvious claim is the last “common notion,” or assertion, which states that the whole is greater than the part.

But to what extent are these axioms really self-evident or universal? On what basis do we have to judge their universality or objectivity? The last axiom, for instance, known as the parallel postulate, is not even true in certain geometries. These are questions that have been debated for centuries

2. The Declaration of Independence (1776)

Trumbull-Declaration-of-independence

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Note that “We hold these truths to be self-evident” sounds like something Euclid would have written two thousand years earlier. In fact, the similarity is likely more than coincidence. Thomas Jefferson was a reader of Euclid, as evidenced in a letter to John Adams: “I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier.” Furthermore, the Declaration reads much like a mathematical proof in the style of Euclid:

  1. The introduction (“When in the Course of human events… a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation”) establishes the want for the “dissolution of political bands” and then acknowledges that they need to declare the causes for it, i.e. the need for a proof.
  2. The preamble establishes the self-evident truths.
  3. The indictment contains the various violations by the King of the self-evident truths.
  4. The denunciation gathers the above together and says a “therefore,” showing that the proof has been concluded: “We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.”
  5. The conclusion notes that the proof has been completed; therefore, they will act on the result of the proof: “That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown.”

More can be found in a talk given by Noam Elkies. The interesting thing is to note how universal these self-evident truths are. Is it objectively true, for example, that all men are created equal? Is this view just a Western and/or Enlightenment construction? I would argue it is not (this is for a different post).

3. Pride and Prejudice (1813)

pride-and-prejudice

The reason I have included Pride and Prejudice over any other work of literature is the opening sentence: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Yet again, we have a declaration of universal truth, though this time used in fiction to establish the setting for the story. In contrast with its use in the Elements and the Declaration of Independence, universal truth is used by Austen in a more sarcastic manner.

Indeed, literature in general tends to question truths that are universally held. In this context, Pride and Prejudice is special because it acknowledges this explicitly. The statement, of course, is patently false, but it raises the question of whether there are any universal truths in social relations. And what would “universal” even mean? If something applied to a certain group in early 19th century England but not to anyone else, is it still universal?

4. The Communist Manifesto (1848)

Karl_Marx

Back to serious documents, we have the strong claim by Marx and Engels that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” The signifier is the word “all,” which again proclaims a universal truth, at least universal to a sufficiently large breadth (“hitherto existing society”). By the nature of their argument, it should not be an absolute universal in the sense of applying to all time: success would mean having a classless society, and therefore, class struggles wouldn’t exist.

This example and Austen’s example are both social/historical universals. Marx argues that history can be understood by looking at class struggles, but again, on what basis can we support this? The modern view is that history is complex and can be partially understood through many different means, not just on modes of production.

On the other hand, Euclid’s is a mathematical universal, and Jefferson’s is a moral universal, in acknowledging the rights of man.

5. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

Flag_of_the_United_Nations

This United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is among the most significant documents of the twentieth century, and it is also based on presumed universal truths. Its preamble consists of seven “whereas” clauses to establish several self-evident assertions much like in the introduction to the US Declaration of Independence. These are:

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge….”

These set up the basis for the 30 articles, which are the “self-evident” truths or axioms. The first three articles, for example, are:

“Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

Note that the UN did not feel the need to prove any of these. They were simply obvious or self-evident. The theorems, however, are all implicit. It is implied that if these axioms are violated, the UN has the authority to intervene on behalf of human rights.

We could spend a long time debating which particular articles are true or false, but the big picture question is, Can any of them be objectively true? Is the discussion of them even meaningful? The intuitive answer is yes.

To be continued…

The Better Angels of Our Nature

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker, is definitely the most thought-provoking book I’ve read this year. Then again, it’s still January, so we’ll see.

better-angels-of-our-nature

First, the question of why violence has declined presupposes that it has declined, a shocking idea to many. From the preface:

“This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not—and I know that most people do not—violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era of our species’ existence…. It is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.”

There are numerous reviews of this book already in existence, both professional and nonprofessional. So, I’ll focus on what I found to be the most interesting part.

The Violence Delusion

When I surveyed perceptions of violence in an Internet questionnaire, people guessed that 20th-century England was about 14 percent more violent than 14th-century England. In fact it was 95 percent less violent. (61)

The first chapters of the book show that violence has actually declined. But it might also be worth pointing out why many people (including myself) would have thought the opposite. Pinker does discuss these reasons, but the discussion is sporadic, accompanying each individual section, rather than being presented at once with a big-picture view. I present a summary of these scattered points here:

  • Memory pacification: “A woman donning a cross seldom reflects that this instrument of torture was a common punishment in the ancient world; nor does a person who speaks of a whipping boy ponder the old practice of flogging an innocent child in place of a misbehaving prince” (1). Pinker also notes that when witches are mentioned, the thoughts that come to mind are of fairy tales and fantasy, not of drowning trials, hanging, or burning at the stake. We react to the Colosseum with awe at the architecture and the glory of the to-the-death fights, not with horror at the endorsed murders that took place (imagine if Auschwitz were toured in the same manner as the Colosseum). Overall, this makes it more difficult to remember how cruel the past was.
  • Publicization of relatively small events: We have a full-day press that competes to put out news stories and keep your attention. Thus, every time a homicide or multiple homicide occurs, we are reminded of the dangerous violence in our current society. Newtown was tragic, yes. Was it a very significant event relative to other things that go on in the 21st century United States? Yes. But that is the point—we live in an age where 28 deaths is considered a national tragedy. An isolated event involving 28 deaths, common in medieval times given the feuding states, would hardly affect a medieval peasant’s perception of how violent their country was.
  • Change in mentality: Pinker notes that, as horrendous as we would view it today, torture was not seen as wrong in the Middle Ages. “[T]he sporadic, clandestine, and universally decried eruptions of torture in recent times cannot be equated with the centuries of institutionalized sadism in medieval Europe. Torture in the Middle Ages was not hidden, denied, or euphemized. It was not just a tactic by which brutal regimes intimidated their political enemies or moderate regimes extracted information from suspected terrorists. It did not erupt from a frenzied crowd stirred up in hatred against a dehumanized enemy. No, torture was woven into the fabric of public life. It was a form of punishment that was cultivated and celebrated, an outlet for artistic and technological creativity. Many of the instruments of torture were beautifully crafted and ornamented. They were designed to inflict not just physical pain, as would a beating, but visceral horrors, such as penetrating sensitive orifices, violating the bodily envelope, displaying the victim in humiliating postures, or putting them in positions where their own flagging stamina would increase their pain and lead to disfigurement or death. Torturers were the era’s foremost experts in anatomy and physiology, using their knowledge to maximize agony, avoid nerve damage that might deaden the pain, and prolong consciousness for as long as possible before death” (130). Pinker then goes on to point out that while we today would condemn an act of torture because torture is inhumane, medieval criticisms of torture focused on the wrongful targets of torture—the act of torture itself was fine, it just mattered whom it was being used against. It’s difficult to perceive your time as violent when atrocious actions like these are not viewed as violent.
  • Rise in awareness: “Well into the 1970s marital rape was not a crime in any state, and the legal system underweighted the interests of women in other rapes. Legal scholars who have studied jury proceedings have discovered that jurors must be disabused of the folk theory that women can be negligently liable for their own rapes…” (395). Stats from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics show that the annual rate of rape from 1973 to 2008 had fallen by 80%. Pinker notes, “In fact, the decline may be even greater than that, because women have almost certainly been more willing to report being raped in recent years, when rape has been recognized as a serious crime, than they were in earlier years, when rape was often hidden and trivialized” (402). Thus a decline by a factor of five in reported cases could and probably does mean an even greater decline in actual cases. On the flipside, since awareness of rape is up so much, people generally perceive it as a greater threat today than it was decades ago.
  • More available data towards the present time. “Remember Tuchman’s ‘private wars’ of the 14th century, the ones that knights fought with furious gusto and a single strategy, namely killing as many of another knight’s peasants as possible? Many of these massacres were never dubbed The War of Such-and-Such and immortalized in the history books. An undercounting of conflicts below the military horizon could, in theory, throw off the body count for the period as a whole” (199). Basically, an availability bias.
  • Population and proportionality. Using a chart compiled by Matthew White, Pinker lists the 21 events in human history with the highest human-caused death tolls. Indeed, World War II tops the list with 55 million, the 16th century French Wars of Religion are at the bottom with 3 million, and the other 19 events are in between those. Some of the things I had never heard of, such as the An Lushan Revolt, which apparently happened in the 8th century and caused a death toll of 36 million (from White’s data). Surprisingly to many, 14 out of 21 of the worst human-caused events in history happened prior to the 20th century, and this is based on absolute numbers. When the death tolls for these events are adjusted by population size, only one 20th century event makes the top 10 (which was World War II in 9th position).
  • Political sentiments: The 21st century started with 9/11 and Iraq. But these are almost trivial compared to the violence and wars of the past. In the section “The Long Peace,” Pinker notes, “Zero is the number of developed countries that have expanded their territory since the late 1940s by conquering another country. No more Poland getting wiped off the map, or Britain adding India to its empire or Austria helping itself to the odd Balkan nation…. [T]wo entire categories of war—the imperial war to acquire colonies, and the colonial war to keep them—no longer exist” (251).

With all this in mind, the fog can be cast aside. This brief summary is not from the book itself, but from the website: “Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate of Medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then suddenly were targeted for abolition.  Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago. Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals—all substantially down.”

Overall Comments

I thought the discussions of the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment were interesting. Pinker shows the Enlightenment as one of the principal motivators in the humanitarian reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was an age people began seriously questioning things whether torture, witch-burning, slavery, sexism, racism, or homophobia were actually justified, and rules started to be edited or written anew (the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that all men are created equal was one giant leap at the time). On the other hand, Counter-Enlightenment values generally countered (for lack of a better word) the Enlightenment ones. Perhaps something that will cause/is causing/has caused much uproar is Pinker’s link between the Counter-Enlightenment and some of the deadly experiences of the 20th century like the World Wars, Nazism, and Communism. I feel like these are generally associated by the public with Enlightenment values, but that’s another topic. As for the modern day:

“Reason appears to have fallen on hard times. Popular culture is plumbing new depths of dumbth, and American political discourse has become a race to the bottom. We are living in an era of scientific creationism, New Age flimflam, 9/11 conspiracy theories, psychic hotlines, and resurgent religious fundamentalism.” (642)

Pinker makes sure to address the issue of violence from multiple angles. It’s commonly believed, for instance, that a nation’s economy has a significant impact on its violence rates. However, this often seems to be correlation rather than causation. Poor countries in unstable regions are politically… unstable, and politically unstable regions tend to have higher rates of violence. On the other hand, if economy (say by GDP or per capita GDP) were a strong measure of rates of violence, we should expect US violence rates to cycle up and down in response to expansions and recessions, which they do not. Nor, for instance, was Britain’s rise in personal wealth resulting from the Industrial Revolution the reason for a decrease in violence—the decline of violence in Britain had already begun centuries before, but up until the Industrial Revolution, average real wage was flat.

In all, The Better Angels of Our Nature was an extraordinary read. Even though we face tough issues in our time, there are many ancient atrocities that we no longer have to worry about on an institutional scale: “…abduction into sexual slavery, divinely commanded genocide, lethal circuses and tournaments, punishment on the cross, rack, wheel, stake, or strappado for holding unpopular beliefs, decapitation for not bearing a son, disembowelment for having dated a royal, pistol duels to defend their honor…” (30). Those wanting to do away with the decadent present and instead live in the idyllic, peaceful past might be surprised, for if their dreams were to become reality, they would face unspeakable rates of violence and death.

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.