American Dialectic

I may as well confess that I’m a recovering academic. As the most cursory and perfunctory background research to this post, I looked up “American Dialectic” and found a philosophy journal filled with philosophy writing by earnest young students like I used to be, and I was deep in. Tried to read a little, but I’m over my love of philosophy. Pro-tip: always remember that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig was about a philosophy student who held on a little too tight. It’s subtitle, “an inquiry into values,” hints at its philosophical origins.

Of course the term “dialectic” derives from Hegel’s work — you know, thesis, antithesis. People in my opinion make the mistake of associating Hegel with communism, and there is an association, but that’s just communism incorporating and discrediting good work because Hegel actually provides a pathway to complexity, which is the next big philosophy thing.

Complexity will be addressed in due course, but I want to think a little about what I mean by American dialectic. The Great Seal of the United States hints at a couple of dialectics. First, the motto, “E pluribus unum,” which means “out of many, one,” and which has its own inherent dialectic-ness as one is the thesis, many is its antithesis, and the United States is the synthesis.

Additionally, the olive branch and arrows held in the eagle’s claws hint at the thesis of peace, the antithesis of war, and their synthesis again in the United States. Marines, as usual, have a more pithy and direct version, “No better friend, no worse enemy.” That same theme will emerge in this blog, which endeavors to illuminate certain philosophical themes through a narrative.

Finally, to not overlook the obvious, the seal features an eagle, a predator. Part of complexity is a deep and nuanced understanding of systemic balance, and the Nature, through which God is revealed, is driven fundamentally by a balance between predator and prey. Part of the reason that the global environment is so out of balance is that predators have a bad reputation because they eat other animals, and they have suffered commensurately. Appreciating the role of predators, like the eagle, and how they help support the natural environment will be a repeated blog theme.

Emerging from America

I was young and full of ideas and wild-eyed enthusiasm, so I applied to twelve political science graduate schools because I figured the world of environmental politics and policy could benefit from the somebody knowledgeable in the ways of engineering and computers. However, as I was working away one spring afternoon in Manhattan, Kansas on some particularly tricky code, I was no longer quite so enthusiastic because I had been rejected from eleven of the twelve political science programs to which I had applied, and the last one was one of the top programs in the country if not the world. It seemed that the academy did not share my enthusiasm for combining engineering and policy because even my safety schools had already rejected me. I had long since acknowledged and moved on by reassessing my situation and planning my next round of graduate school applications — to proper engineering schools this time — when my mother called.

“Hi mom,” I said.

“You received a letter from MIT.” she said. “I opened it because I figured it couldn’t be too personal, and it says that you’ve been accepted for admission in the fall.”

I was dumbfounded; I didn’t know what to say. I had filled out eleven applications similarly, with the same information and the same essay that I was certain the various admissions committees wanted. For MIT, I wrote something very different and completely honest because I knew I wasn’t going to get accepted anyway.

“It says you didn’t get into the PhD program as you wanted,” she continued, “but you did get into the master’s program.”

“That’s amazing” I managed to say.

“Are you going to go?” Mom asked.

“Heck yeah I’m going!”


The hard part about being accepted to a great school is waiting for September to arrive. I had been born and raised in Lebanon, Kansas — the geographic center of the continental United States — and I earned undergraduate degrees in electrical engineering (EE) and computer science (CS) from Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, so the idea of going to MIT was beyond exciting. My buddies took me out for one last day at Waconda Lake, and it was time to leave.

The family determined that my car wouldn’t make it all the way to Massachusetts, so my dad gave me his, a low-end, high-mile Cadillac we called the Silver Bullet. The drive took a bit longer than originally planned because I had a flat tire in Effingham, Illinois — home of the world’s largest cross — and had to wait a day for the auto center to open and get the right size tire. After I finally got back out on the highway, my ear started to hurt. The further I drove, the more it hurt, and the more I regretted that last day at the lake because I had a world-class case of swimmer’s ear. For years I had driven by those blue signs with the big white ‘H’ but had never stopped. I found a hospital somewhere in Indiana late at night, made my way to the emergency room, and finally had my time with a resident who wasn’t too much older than me. He looked in my ear, confirmed my diagnosis, and gave me some antibiotics.

He said, “Are you heading back out on the highway?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I’m trying to get to the east coast to get to school.”

“My advice is to find a hotel room,” said the resident, “Bad stuff happens out on that highway, and I don’t want to see you back here.

The next morning it felt like I was emerging from the heartland of America to Cambridge, Massachusetts, which was someplace different.

 

 

The Circle Review

Although I wasn’t looking forward to it, I watched The Circle this weekend, and it wasn’t bad! First off, the Circle features Emma Watson, who is not my favorite actress. She was great in Harry Potter and This Is The End, but other than that, the bad movies have far outnumbered the good — not that she isn’t photogenic, but that’s not really enough.

As a computer scientist though, it was interesting to see the portrayals of Silicon Valley’s high-tech workplace. Although it’s pretty transparent that Circle is pretending to be Google, I’ve visited a couple of those firms — specifically Apple and Facebook — and it’s easy to be seduced by the glitz and the wealth.

The movie however also did a good job of showing the downsides of these workplaces as well in the form of long hours and sheer weirdness. The Circle especially addresses the privacy concerns driven by companies like Google and Facebook, who make their outsize profits by monetizing the privacy of their users.

More than that though, the movie treads on some pretty interesting mental ground by showing how Emma’s thinking gets twisted because she receives so much attention and status so quickly that how could she not be impacted negatively? The big takeaway for me is that the products and services offered by Silicon Valley’s big tech are certainly cool, both from the view of technologists and users, but the consequences aren’t at all clear. The marketing is very persuasive, but there are good reasons and real reasons, and if history is any guide, these technologies are likely to be profitable for the technology corporations and problematic for their users.

The Stakes of Complexity

I’ve been to the complexity conferences, not all of them, but a bunch of them, but none of them really get a the nub of the issue — that is, they don’t get at what’s really at stake. However, one author I heard at one conference made an amazing amount of sense, and I’ve never heard that concept articulated since.

A few years ago at a Stephen Wolfram “New Kind of Science” conference, James Bailey made a compelling argument that in the 20th century, the intelligentsia or academy or philosophers moved from religion to science, and I think that’s correct. Examples about including William F. Buckley’s 1951 book, God and Man at Yale (which is curiously subtitled, “the superstitions of academic freedom.”) and the 2016 movie Hail Caesar! that offers a hilarious juxtaposition of religion and “scientific” Marxism (probably had to attend a few too many graduate seminars to find it truly hilarious).

Bailey however makes the point that in the 21st century, there will be a transition from science (and “scientific” Marxism) to complexity — a transition that I’ve heard echoed several times recently. The question is however, what does a transition from science to complexity imply? That question is worthy of its own book, but several observations can be made quickly.

First, it will consist of a Kuhnian paradigm shift as social science will slide into scientism — an increasingly obvious and embarrassing ersatz pantomime of science designed to win academic arguments — and the adherents of scientific Marxism will need to die off before ever letting go of their shibboleths, even if they could. One quick aside: Kuhn spoke at MIT when I was there and I was too busy to go. In retrospect, I couldn’t make time to listen to Thomas Kuhn? A wasted opportunity for sure, one that wouldn’t have happened in Manhattan, Kansas.

Second, the lessons of and studies about complexity will echo previous scholars and writings that have been denigrated as unscientific, such as sensemaking, will see their insights resurrected, including religion.

Third, the tools, techniques, and procedures of these complexity insights and studies will be computer-based, as the cognitive prosthetic of advanced, high-power computation is necessary to reveal and make sense of complexity.

Quote — There is an ethic to design: interact

Preface

Writing about my experiences at Course 17 is undertaken with an explicit sense of circumspection and humility, which I hope is obvious. It’s easy for such efforts to descend into mere whining, which is what I earnestly seek to avoid. The reason I choose to write about these experiences is that: (1) I think they’re at least interesting, and (2) I hope that the insights are general and insightful enough that they are helpful to others going through similar travails. There’s no real way to find out other than to write it up and put it out there, which is what this blog is all about — your mileage may vary.

Those reading will doubtless ask several questions, the first being: Is what you write true? I can assure you that the spirit of what I write is true, but what I write can’t be 100% true because then it would be too detailed, tedious, and boring. This isn’t meant to be a legal transcript or diary, it’s meant to be informative and, as far as possible, entertaining, so I will write using the principles of American New Journalism, which uses fictional techniques to present a non-fiction story.

The most tangible manifestation will come in the form of the character’s names, who are mostly professors. Their real names will not be used; instead, their names will be drawn from the NATO phonetic alphabet — that is, alpha, bravo, charlie, etc. — based on some experiences I had with the Army. Moreover, multiple professors will be combined into single, composite characters to make the narrative easier to follow. Finally, certain geographic locations are fictionalized to highlight other themes, and even the timing and dates will be changed as well. The goal here isn’t to settle scores with individuals, but to shine a light on the dynamics of higher education generally, and “elite” east coast education specifically, that are all too often left unexplained and hidden..

You lost today kid, but that doesn’t mean you have to like it. — Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Course 17

“Don’t be distracted by criticism. Remember, the only taste of success some people have is when they take a bite out of you.” –Zig Ziglar

I traveled across America to attend Course 17 — that is, that political science department at MIT.  What I found however is that Course 17 isn’t like Course 6, 8, or 18 — that is the departments for which MIT is justly famous: electrical engineering & computer science, physics, or mathematics — it’s something quite different. But the question remains, exactly what is it?

I arrived at Course 17 with degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, so I thought initially that I was in the best of all possible places, a department that valued my education and expertise, but that turned out not to be the case — at all. The way this dynamic manifested itself has been a source of continued contemplation for me over the years. Moreover, I have written about it online over the years, and people have always found the topic interesting, so I want to focus on my experiences here, in this blog for a couple of reasons.

First, the concentration of events that occurred in Course 17, both in space and time, is actually rather instructive, rather like the classic novels that took place on British naval vessels, because the number of characters is reduced and the constrained space gives the characters ample opportunity for interaction and plot development. Such is the case with Course 17.

Second, the issues that emerged from Course 17 are not solely personality driven, though that’s how I initially interpreted them. Instead, the issues I experienced have expanded out and impacted politics over the years after I left. I didn’t appreciate this dynamic initially, but it seems worth developing because the insights could help others appreciate the forces underlying today’s politics that aren’t discussed or addressed by today’s mainstream media (MSM).

Third, this blog will stray from this particular theme to address others as they present themselves. I’ve started a couple of blogs that have not flourished — hopefully this one will.