The Individual ../. Because only the individual has a conscience Sat, 06 Aug 2011 22:27:26 +0000 en hourly 1 Perfection .././2011/08/06/perfection/ .././2011/08/06/perfection/#comments Sat, 06 Aug 2011 22:23:53 +0000 Sergio de Biasi .././?p=222
“Perfeição” (Legião Urbana)
by Renato Russo


Let’s celebrate
Human stupidity
The stupidity of all nations
My country and their gang
Of killers
Cowards, rapists
And thieves…

Let’s celebrate
The stupidity of the people
Our police and television
Let’s celebrate our government
And our state which is not a nation…

Let’s celebrate the youth without schools
The dead children
And our discord…

Let’s celebrate Eros and Thanatos
Persephone and Hades
Let’s celebrate our sorrow
Let’s celebrate our vanity…

Let’s commemorate like idiots
every carnival and every holiday
all the road deaths,
all the dead for lack of care…

Let’s celebrate our justice
The greed and defamation
Let’s celebrate the prejudices
The vote of the illiterate
Celebrate the stagnant water
And all taxes
All the forests burning, all the lies
All the kidnappings…

Our house
Of marked cards
Slave labor
Our little universe
All the hypocrisy
And all the affectation
Every robbery and indifference
Let’s celebrate disease
Let’s party for the winning team…

Let’s celebrate hunger
Not having whom to hear
Not having whom to love
Let’s feed all that’s evil
Let’s hurt someone’s heart…

Let’s celebrate our flag
Our past
Of glorious absurdities
All that’s fortuitous and ugly
All that is ordinary
Let’s sing together
The national anthem
This rolling tear is true
Let’s celebrate our nostalgia
Let’s celebrate our loneliness…

Let’s celebrate envy
Let’s celebrate violence
And forget about our people
Who worked honestly
For a lifetime
And now is left with no
Right to anything…

Let’s celebrate the aberration
Of all our lack
of common sense
Our disregard for education

Let’s celebrate the horror
Of all this
With a feast, a funeral and a coffin
It’s all dead and buried
And now we can also celebrate
The stupidity of those who sang
This song…

My heart is in a hurry
When all the hope is dispersed
Only truth sets me free
Enough with evildoing and delusion

Love always has the door open
And spring is coming
Our future starts again

Because what’s coming is perfection…


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Sleep Dealer .././2011/02/05/sleep-dealer/ .././2011/02/05/sleep-dealer/#comments Sat, 05 Feb 2011 16:24:11 +0000 Sergio de Biasi .././?p=200
Conversation with the director Alex Rivera after a screening of
Sleep Dealer at Rutgers University on 2011.02.03

Sleep Dealer (2008) is a movie that has yet one more go at the now standard notion of humans connecting their nervous system / mind directly to computer networks. The concept remains fresh and intriguing and opens so many doors to all kinds of philosophical, sociological, existential and political exploration that it’s no surprise that it spawned a whole tradition – almost a subgenre now I’d dare to say – of moviemaking around it.

The earliest contact I had with an investigation of this Pandora box of real reality versus simulated reality versus “what is real after all?” was when I read the classic sci-fi novel Simulacron 3 (1964) when I was a teenager. Although this book probably can’t claim to have been the first to tackle the theme, it remains as sort of an intellectual grandfather of later incarnations, and many of the ground rules that are now repeated and accepted for how to go about it were laid down back there. It took a while though before there was wide popular interest in more of the same, an early exception being the movie Brainstorm (1983). As the millennium approached, however, possibly because of the explosion of the internet and other technologies which made this whole alternate universe more concretely relevant and realistic, there was a sudden surge of renewed energy directed to the subject, and after the release of movies such as Strange Days (1995) the public and filmmakers seemed to finally fall in love with it, a movement which culminated in 1999 with the production of The Thirteenth Floor (1999) (which explicitly refers to and is loosely based on Simulacron 3), Existenz (1999) (a Cronenberg movie with the usual implications) and then of course The Matrix (1999).

The Matrix can probably be described as the landmark movie of the genre, which brought the whole concept into mainstream consciousness, bringing about the usual mix of awareness raising and washing down of ideas. But while the average person had arguably stayed largely untouched by all the philosophical conundrums and mind bending consequences of this kind of technology, the idea had been alive and kicking and breeding in the sci-fi literature, which had meanwhile been augmented by classics like Ender’s Game (1977 short story, 1985 novel) (in which a child is unwittingly induced to commit genocide when his ability to play games is used to control military drones) and Neuromancer (1984) (the archetypical cyberpunk novel).

Enter Sleep Dealer, 2008.

Before watching the movie, I was curious to see how the director would manage to explore those issues without just re-hashing bits and pieces of what is now a somewhat mature cafeteria of ideas. I was not disappointed. The director, Alex Rivera, had some aces up his sleeve, one of them being his South American  ancestry. Right at the beginning of the movie, the main (Mexican) character watches his father being killed by an American military drone in a completely stupid military operation which serves no purpose but to keep the paranoid marketing of constant war going. Now, of course there is a political point being made there. The director, however, chooses not only to let it go and not to spell it out (which to me is even more powerful than ranting about it, the scene speaks for itself) but he also has the main character react to it in what is a much more personal and human way than the one we are used to in American movies. What do you do if a member of your family gets killed by an oppressive alien government for no reason at all in front of you? Well, if you’re Mel Gibson, you grab your machete and start hacking, killing as many as possible, and give the whole thing an immediate “us vs them” meaning in terms of politics and ideology. Which I wouldn’t really feel justified to condemn under the circumstances, I suppose. But this is definitely not the only possible reaction, and it’s surely not on the list of urgent priorities of the main character in Sleep Dealer that he should join a guerrilla or start blowing things up. No, instead his main worry and concern is about his family, his mother, his brother, the people whom he loves and who will now have a very hard time meeting their basic survival needs. So he decides to leave town and look for a job that can give him enough money to support his family, even if this means being alone and isolated and letting his health and identity be put in jeopardy.

Now, this is an immensely powerful statement. Some would call the main character of the movie “alienated” or even naive. I beg to disagree. He is in fact shockingly in touch with his own humanity and with what really matters. He doesn’t really want to fight anyone or to use his abilities to destroy. He wants to connect. All through the movie, what he wants to do is to connect, to share, to meet the scary unknown otherness face to face. “I didn’t call to fight with you”, he tells his brother when he is criticized for having left their family behind. His perseverance is rewarded when what is supposed to be his “enemy” empathizes with him and out of guilt and shame offers to help him. Somewhat unrealistic? Perhaps, if taken literally. But that’s more or less how Gandhi managed to get the English out of India.

The movie makes a very strong point out of how much more fundamental than the impersonal entities and institutions and nations and ideologies which divide us, our emotions and underlying common humanity stands. Families are more important than jobs, feelings are more important than ideology, working together is more important than borders. If we are to thrive and blossom both as individual human beings and as a species, love must overcome fear. This is a message that speaks very deeply to me, and which I think is lost in the sometimes blind monomaniacal pursuit of supposedly objective material “prosperity” and “success” which in the end leaves people alone and unfulfilled.

Sure, there is a strong political message about immigration and social control which most of the time is not even metaphorical. But the movie manages to get the point across splendidly precisely by not being metaphorical about it, by not making it cerebral, by showing in all its glory the absurd reality that comes out of the actual physical materialization of certain attitudes. There is a scene in the movie in which the main character visits the wall which supposedly prevents immigrants from crossing the border. And then what immediately strikes you as most surreal as you look at it is that such a wall is being seriously (well as seriously as such a thing can be) proposed and has been partially built at enormous cost. Isn’t it inconceivably ironic that one of the most iconic utterances associated to a standing idol among some of the conservatives voices who demand and mobilize for the construction of this aberration is precisely “Tear down this wall” ?

And once again (wisely and effectively) without discussing it too explicitly but instead by letting us see it through the eyes of  a specific person with an identity, a story, a conscience and a soul, the movie raises some points  which still seem to somehow elude a large fraction of governments, politicians, policy makers and ideologues everywhere (as if history didn’t teach us this lesson again and again) : that restricting immigration in a draconian implacable fashion inevitably end up entailing totalitarian practices, that the pseudo-economic argument about “stealing jobs” is much more about xenophobia than anything else, and that in modern economies the migration and growing virtualization of the jobs themselves makes the very notion risible. (This is what a serious, working border wall would look like.)

But although the movie does tackle these issues head-on, it also transcends the political context in which they are posed to reframe them as an expression of the more basic and ultimately more important issue of connectedness in general. So this absurd physical wall ends up representing not only a criticism to immigration policies that manage to be simultaneously oppressive, unrealistic and counterproductive even to their stated objectives (i.e. supposedly protect the US economy and labor force), but a much deeper criticism to the actual broader psychological forces behind it, a criticism of a culture of fear in which human beings find themselves unable to connect and relate to each other at meaningful, emotionally rewarding, existentially fulfilling levels. The wall is an appropriate and universal symbol for lack of understanding, for the essential existential loneliness and isolation that each human faces, and whose ultimate resolution is to connect to other human beings. It’s impossible not to think of The Wall (1982).

And still regarding this message about connectedness, another aspect of how the director goes about some artistic and iconographic decisions which I liked very much is the way in which he chooses to depict the technology for jacking in to the network and (this is explicitly underlined) to other people. First of all, he does not make the physical connections (which are actual holes) go into the spine or the brain. No, they go into wrists and the back and into other place which he goes out of his way to have perceived as being the body – not the mind – of a person. And the connectors themselves are (even unrealistically form a technological standpoint) extremely needle-like, and convey in a very primal fashion the sensation of being invaded, penetrated, touched.

The metaphorical link to sex is overwhelmingly obvious, and even made explicit the first time the connecting nodes are discussed in the movie. But the point is then driven home by making the metaphor concrete and depicting the potential that this technology has for, above and beyond tearing down all sorts of social, political and economic walls, and maybe even more importantly than between people’s conscious minds, it has the potential to tear down walls between people’s experiences and emotions, and its actual use during sex is very concretely depicted and then suggested as possibly the main and most significant redeeming feature of a technology that could otherwise be seen as used (in the movie) mostly for dehumanization of the main character.

“How could I tell her the truth? I was just figuring it out myself. My energy was being drained… sent far away. What happened to the river, was happening to me. I don’t know what I’m doing. I work in a place I’ll never see. I can see my family, but I can’t touch them. And, well, the only place I feel… connected… is here… with you.”

Which maybe brings us all the all through the metaphor and, without the need for any new technology, to the immensely powerful role of sex as the ultimate tool and symbol for integration, connection and tearing down of walls. When two people have sex, they actually, physically, literally connect and put their senses intimately in touch with each other in such a way that what one feels, the other feels (even though of course they may *experience* it differently). On one hand, this has the potential to be an invaluable resource to nurture intimacy, closeness and peace, and establish communication and connectedness at levels that would not otherwise be possible. On the other hand, it leaves one’s self exposed and bare and unless one is existentially able to let go the fear, and unless one can get in touch with finding sincere fulfillment and rejoice in feeling empathy for the other, one may feel the urge, the need, the urgency to go around building all kinds of walls.

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What One Person Can Do, Another One Might .././2011/01/31/what-one-person-can-do-another-one-might/ .././2011/01/31/what-one-person-can-do-another-one-might/#comments Mon, 31 Jan 2011 05:47:28 +0000 Sergio de Biasi .././?p=119 Probably the single most severe limitation to improvement and success – be it in education or in anything else – is not found in the environment or in lack of competence but rather in the arbitrary psychological barriers that individuals impose on themselves.

Of course we all face objective, concrete impediments to achieving our goals, and some of them might be difficult or impossible to get around. Additionally, it’s obviously the case that we all have different abilities and strengths – as well as circumstances and opportunities – and not everything that one particular person can do is an option for everyone else. However, and without any contradiction, I would say that in most contexts the options that are indeed available to us are almost universally broader than we perceive at first, and after we succeed, we frequently see in hindsight how many opportunities we had which we didn’t even realize were there all the time in front of us waiting to be seized. One of the most important factors that stop great ideas in their tracks is not knowing or not believing that you would in fact succeed if you just tried. Thus very often the greatest impediment to progress is not that people don’t have the means to succeed, but rather that they don’t know that they do, or don’t feel entitled to do it. What they need most is to be encouraged to take the initiative, and to be shown how to do it.

In spite of that, when discussing student improvement and success in the context of teaching and education, the emphasis in practice tends almost always to be on how to make the student the passive object of education. It tends to be on how one can most effectively upload a certain set of skills and information to the minds of human beings whether they want it or not. It oozes of a caricatural behavioristic mindset in which students are to be trained to automatically display certain responses when exposed to certain stimuli instead of being helped to developed the cognitive tools to be better equipped to understand what their options are when facing a variety of situations.

I propose that besides this being an inherently violent and invasive approach, besides the fact that this is borderline (or even downright) immoral, I submit to the reader’s consideration that this approach simply does not work, or works very poorly, specially in a day and age where the high-level skill sets that are going to be needed for being a productive member of society even next year are not necessarily clear or even understood by those in charge of teaching. And one of the main reasons it doesn’t work is because it squarely misses the point above – that unless education is set up to empower people instead of bossing them around, it will be worse than useless if we want students to actually understand anything.

I suppose I don’t have to argue very arduously to convince the reader that the current systems of traditional education are completely out of synch with the needs and expectations of modern societies. This should be obvious; if there’s still any doubt, compare what the syllabi for most courses say students should be learning and what they actually know if asked one year later. Most of them wouldn’t be able to confess the most basic facts about math, physics, chemistry or grammar to save their lives. So even if we (boldly) assume that the syllabi are adequate and accessible, it’s still a huge waste of mostly everyone’s time. But how can we fix it?

Again, what I am arguing here is that the single most severe limitation to improvement and success does not arise from lack of opportunities, resources, infrastructure, investment or – I cringe at the notion – more and stricter rules, assignments, hours. It’s not that all those things don’t make a difference, but in the overall scheme, what a student could do even with very limited resources by today’s standards hugely exceeds what they are actually doing – if they only felt motivated to do so, if they only knew that they could do so. But instead, we are breeding whole generations of underachievers, of people whose achievements greatly lag behind their potential.

Is that happening because we were not implacable enough in forcing them to “learn” stuff? Or maybe we need to give them even more “information”? My take is that unless we change our perspective from bossing them around to actively empowering them, we’ll still have a system that is not only unable to help prepare autonomous critical self-motivated human beings, but actually works against that goal.

Now, don’t get me wrong here, I agree that some degree of structure is fundamental for the formation of a balanced personality, but having more of something that is not working won’t fix a broken system. In fact, it will probably make it worse. Unless there are fundamental changes in the overall attitude and paradigm, it will be more of the same, like in the old joke :

- “Waiter!”

- “Yes, sir?”

- “This dish tastes awful! It’s inedible! Improper for human consumption!”

- “I’m sorry to hear that, sir. We won’t charge you for it then. Is there anything else I can do?”

- “Well, yes, additionally the portions are too small!”

The current state of affairs in some supposedly educational contexts is so corrupt that one would be best served by staying home and watching re-runs of Scooby Doo. For many people this would at least mean that they wouldn’t have their self-esteem squashed and their respect for the value and usefulness of academic pursuit permanently shaken.

For average victims of failing educational systems, the lessons they actually take home have little to do with feeling (or being) empowered to better reach their full potential, their personal goals, or even to be prepared to match their abilities to the needs of society in a mutually beneficial and constructive fashion. No, no.

Instead what they actually “learn” or at least come to believe is that “academic” knowledge is something separate and divorced from actual knowledge. It doesn’t have to make sense, it doesn’t have to be useful, it doesn’t have to be relevant, it doesn’t even have to be true. But it does have to be mimicked and repeated to the satisfaction of the authorities in charge, who will check your ritualistic performance for an adequate level of conformance. It’s perceived as mildly useful only insofar as it helps them get an official license to enter a restricted job market – i.e. a degree. The overall mindset that spontaneously emerges is often that academic knowledge is something arcane and byzantine that you have to hold in your hands just long enough to get a degree and which you then gladly drop like a hot potato when the ritual is done.

On top of that, they also learn that challenging authority and questioning established practice is dangerous, costly and best avoided.

Most unfortunately, these are precisely the bizarro world nonskills whose opposite is desperately needed in a society that changes at an increasingly faster rate.

So when students are told in effect and for most purposes that their ideas don’t matter (or matter only in a “oh that’s cute” way), that they should listen instead of asking questions, that they should repeat instead of create, that they should fit in instead of diverge, that they should follow orders instead of taking the initiative, that they should not ”’rock the boat”, that is precisely the opposite of what they need to succeed. Again, of course I’m not saying that anarchy and condescendence are the way to go; what I am actually saying is that the most empowering and valuable result that a good education could bring about is to give people tools to rock the boat in a constructive way. People who are going to excel in almost anything need to know how and when to rock the boat, and need to know what they are talking about when they do so, and they need to develop the very complex ability (which involves much more than knowledge) of  looking at themselves and being able to judge and determine if they actually know what they are talking about. They need to develop justifiable and justified (as opposed to none or delirious) trust in their own judgment.

Realistic awareness of what is actually the case, or rather, developing the mental tools to better distinguish what is actually the case from what is not – and that includes self-awareness – is immensely more useful than memorizing any list of facts or formulas or skills picked by someone else. Even if the learning process often depends on a certain level of trust and “suspension of disbelief” if you are to pay attention to this source of information instead of that one, this should be a filter that acts on your attention budget, on the amount of effort you are willing to spend to decode and evaluate the data stream coming from that source of information. It should not instead be encouraged that information is blindly taken at face value from any source. The idea that the average citizen should believe a professor or teacher blindly “because I have a degree and a position of authority” is as ludicrous as the same claim coming from any other source accompanied by similar arguments. What one says and wants you to believe has to make sense.

When the system is set up in such a way that most students – even those who originally cared and were engaged – eventually just give up trying to make sense of what is being told to them, and shift gears to “ok, let’s just try to do whatever will most efficiently result in getting institutional approval”, that’s when the possibility of a quality education starts to die. Then the whole process becomes worse than useless – it actually encourages intellectual confusion and a fragmentation and compartmentalization of what should be a unified identity. Your mental model of the world is, in several important senses, who you are, and tinkering with it and forcing people to relinquish the requirement that what you say you believe and what you hold to be true should make sense to you results in weak, insecure, manipulable individuals. So unless that is actually the desired and expected result to be obtained from educational systems, important changes in attitude are essential.

And among the changes, probably one of the most fundamental is bridging the psychological / emotional / human gap between those who are teaching and those who are learning. Once again, I’m absolutely not saying that “Oh we all know the same things, you know, it’s arbitrary that some people are professors and others are not”. This would be disingenuous, condescending and not empowering at all. Yes, professors do know more about what they are teaching than their students – or at least good ones should. That’s precisely why it’s a good idea to listen to them. But – and that’s a big but – how do you know who to listen to if you don’t yet have the foundations to question what they are saying? Now, there comes the crucial step. The final and most crucial step of really learning anything happens when you understand something which you didn’t before. And after you manage to do that, you don’t need to cite or refer to anyone else in order to justify your new beliefs. You can refer to your own judgment instead of the professor, the textbook, the authorities or any other socially accepted source of knowledge. So that’s what you should be aiming for – to acquire this sort of solid interlocking grid of insights which anchor what you believe to your own judgment – or at least that’s what you should be going for in the areas in which you hope or desire to have a serious level of understanding. And that’s what a good teacher, instructor or professor should be trying to help you achieve. They can show you the way, show you where the pitfalls are, give you tools to help you understand. But in the end, the eventual goal should be to make you able to throw all crutches away and think for yourself.

Unfortunately, that’s absolutely not the prevailing attitude in many educational (and other) settings. One of the most perverse and destructive myths that is instilled into the minds of students – and of society in general – generation after generation is that “knowledge” equals revelation and that there’s no way to achieve it except through surrendering your own judgment to those who magically have supernatural access to it. Besides all the social, political and intellectual damage that this paradigm nurtures, this idea cripples the very identity and sense of autonomous self of those who buy into it. It’s psychologically, emotionally and even morally damaging to live your life under the belief and assumption that you are helpless, weak, unable to distinguish true from false, reality from fantasy, right from wrong, that you can’t hope to develop and cultivate the ability to do it yourself, that you need someone to constantly tell you what it is that you should believe.

But to avoid encouraging this mindset, one must make changes not only to the “objective” aspects of the system, to the syllabi and hours and course structures and assessment methods, etc… but most and above all to the human aspect of education. If professors, teachers and instructors in general present themselves as prophets instead of as learned but fallible guides who are telling you tales about what they think they know, if textbooks are seen as sacred texts instead of as personal attempts to call the reader’s attention to what the author hopes are some aspects of the truth, if the current academic consensus about a subject is described as being the ultimate and unambiguous reality instead of a snapshot of our most current and (for most subjects) probably (historically speaking) fast moving guess at what reality might actually be, then education will fail at its most important purpose, which should be empowering people to think for themselves.

Learned academics do have a lot to tell us, but we should not be encouraged to “believe” them because of their prestige, title, degree, position or power. We should instead be encouraged to listen to them, and then try very hard to figure what it is that they are talking about, and why in the world this should be true, relevant to us, or even make sense. And it seems to me that the most difficult and insidious barrier to that is fueling a psychological divide between those who hold the sacred books and the power of prophecy and those who are mere acolytes and whose heretical questioning should be met with scorn or punishment. Of course students are in many cases not in a position to seriously challenge a teacher’s knowledge or opinion on a given subject (although more often than most teachers would be prepared to admit they in fact are), but unless they ask themselves “why should this be true?” and voice their doubt when they can’t come to a satisfying answer, and are encouraged to do so, we switch from promoting learning to promoting ritualistic reverence.

So before and as a prerequisite for any learning to actually happen, the student must see that however learned the professor is, this only means that a lot of effort and time and study was put into understanding whatever is now being taught, and the professor may and frequently does deserve attention and respect because of that, but no mystical powers or revelation were involved. It’s however unfortunately the case that many academics don’t want to relinquish the mystique that derives from being “the learned one” in subjects that nobody understands and they instinctively fear or believe that they will lose their prestige, respect or value if their mastery of difficult subjects is not seen as something that only they have the superpower to conquer. So too many times instead of trying to make their teaching accessible and as crystal clear as possible, they will go the opposite route and (often even without noticing, but sometimes deliberately) go out of their way to make it obscure, mysterious and unintelligible. They will try to make it seem harder than it actually is so as to implicitly elevate their own value and standing. They will encourage students to believe them instead of acquiring the mental tools that will allow student to reach similar conclusions by themselves. They fear that if they teach too well, the student will no longer be at a position of disadvantage and hierarchical subordination. And in a sense, they are correct. That is the best result that could be expected of education – successfully elevating followers to masters of themselves.

Thus, I propose that orders of magnitude more important than the information that teachers provide to students – which in objective terms is all easily available in libraries and online nowadays anyway – and possibly more important than even the objective intellectual coaching and feedback and orientation, the single most important relevant role a teacher can play in education is effectively conveying the psychological message that “Here I am, I am a real person, I am doing this, thus maybe so can you.” It’s effectively expanding the student’s expectations to the possibility that whatever is being studied, it’s something that if one person can do, another one might, and maybe you can too, so give it a try.

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Absolute Truths .././2010/12/09/absolute-truths/ .././2010/12/09/absolute-truths/#comments Fri, 10 Dec 2010 02:58:20 +0000 Sergio de Biasi .././?p=146 The truth is out there.

To anyone who has ever thought seriously about it for more than 30 seconds, I hope it is abundantly clear that the statement “there are no absolute truths” is completely ridiculous and indefensible, and should raise embarrassed laughter as soon as it’s pronounced. For those who have not thought about it for more than 30 seconds, I point out that this statement clearly self-destructs before the question “Ok, is this statement an absolute or relative truth?”. So either there are absolute truths or there aren’t, and if they do not exist, then this is in itself an (unthinkable) absolute truth, and therefore the only logically viable alternative is of course that they do exist, and we even get a bonus example: “There are absolute truths.”

But ok, this might actually seem a little too self-referential and perhaps the reader is not fully convinced of its relevance. We need better examples and criteria for what we call truth.

At the risk of being tautological, I would say that the truth is precisely what does not vary depending on what we believe.

Let us pause now to look more carefully at why this statement, instead of being what may at first glance look like an inconsequential truism, in fact contains the seeds of a fundamental philosophical concept. A tautology, in popular parlance (which follows the meaning used in rhetoric), is a statement in which we rewrite another statement using different words with the same meaning. So for example “black elephant” and “dark pachyderm” mean the same thing.  (Assume for the purposes of this argument that there is no ambiguity about the interpretation of these sentences.) So if I say that “there is a dark pachyderm if and only if there is a black elephant” I’m saying something that is patently true, in fact absolutely true, but which in a way remains completely empty of content, in the sense that it tells me nothing about the world, since strictly this is just a reaffirmation that “there is a black elephant if and only if there is a black elephant”.  Note that without resorting to any particularly mysterious concepts we’ve already run here into the existence of additional statements about whose truth we can be absolutely certain. This idea can be transformed into something entirely rigorous using mathematical logic, and if tautologies technically do not automatically lead to new assertions about properties of the world which we didn’t already know, they do at least take us to new formulations of these properties. But perhaps the reader is still dissatisfied – if that is the only type (still self-referential) of absolute truth that we are able to demonstrate, it will be difficult to go very far.

As so we arrive at a less obvious point that I want to raise. I say above “in popular parlance” because in mathematical logic a tautology is something subtly different. In mathematical logic, a tautology is something that is always true no matter what hypotheses you are starting from. So of course the logical equivalences as described above are all examples of tautologies. If I can show that the assertion X is just a way to rewrite the statement Y, then yes, “the statement X is true if and only if Y is true” is a (trivial) absolute truth. But this is not the only kind of tautology that is possible. If I say for example that “either there is a black elephant or there is no black elephant” that is also a tautology, and an absolute truth, but it is not asserting a logical equivalence. And similarly, if I say “if there is a black elephant then there is an elephant” what we have is a logical implication that is a little more sophisticated, and which is also a tautology and an absolute truth. In other words, we might know absolutely nothing about whether X is true or whether Y is true and yet be able to conclude that X implies Y is an absolute truth.

Now, notice that in all examples above we could not escape from some sort of self-reference. So here I point out that this is more or less inevitable, that unless we assume something as an axiom, as true in principle, all that we will be able to prove will be about the absolute truth of logical implications that are mandatory given certain assumptions – which we will have to refer to when drawing conclusions. And in fact, that’s all we can hope to prove with absolute certainty. Thus self-reference, or recursion, is at the core of truth, or more precisely at the core of anything we can hope to truly know for sure. This is an absolutely fundamental concept in mathematical logic, in theoretical computer science, and in philosophy: that the truths that are objectively accessible to us are exactly those which can be described recursively.

But back to the original concept. When I say that conjecture X is universally true, I’m saying that X does not depend on what assumptions you’re starting from. We’ve already concluded that such propositions do exist. The question is, how do we identify them, and will they all be trivial? (Trivial in the sense that they are all obvious or at least demonstrable).  And a bit surprisingly, when we try to deepen this concept formally, and apply it more broadly to any kind of proposition that we could state about the world, we conclude that there are truths that, although absolute – that is, true no matter which assumptions you make – it’s impossible to prove that these propositions are true! And this fact itself can be formally established as an absolute truth!

This and other considerations lead us to the need for a new word to describe logically correct conclusions – mandatory, truthful ones, which do not depend on anybody’s opinion. These are not in the general case exactly the same conclusions that can be obtained only (“tautologically” in the rhetorical sense) rewriting old statements to obtain new ones, a fact that came as a surprise to mathematicians and logicians when first shown. Of course, when we can actually rewrite a statement to obtain another, then the need of logical implication is clear. But again, there are cases where the logical implication inexorably exists but can not be demonstrated by saying the same thing with other words! That is, there  are truths that although absolute, are inaccessible to us (in the sense that although they are absolute truths we can not be absolutely sure that they are indeed absolute truths). We give to such claims (i.e. those that actually hold whether we can prove it or not) the name “valid“.

This is exactly the point where the force of the statement “the truth is precisely what does not vary depending on what we believe” shines with full force. Firstly, this would already be an interesting observation even if all truths were tautological – after all, it is not always immediately obvious when Y can be obtained by rewriting X with other words. But it goes much further than that. The fact is that even within models that are perfectly well defined and explicitly known, it is impossible to determine everything that should be necessarily true given what we believe.

Another way to put the above statement is : since absolute truth cannot depend on what we believe, then “truth is that which we are logically forced to believe when we do not assume anything a priori”.  One might hastily conclude that no conclusions can be drawn without making assumptions, but this objection has already been dismissed right at the beginning; this is clearly false.  We could then conclude a little less hastily that only trivial conclusions can be drawn from nothing, making the above sentence far less interesting though true, but the fact is that this is also not the case. The actual case is that there are truths which universally hold no matter what our assumptions are but at the same time provably there is no effective way to find out exactly what all of them are or even to determine for sure, in general, if a given statement is one of them.

On the one hand, this may seem a little daunting. But in the end, as humans, we never have direct access to what “really” is anyway and instead we only have access to what we believe. So maybe the fact that the truth does not depend on what we believe is precisely what gives us some hope for the possibility of knowing anything at all. More than that, the truth is what unites us all, in all our different beliefs, feelings, stories and missteps. Truth, not faith, revelation, tradition or instinct is what is really in common between all of our consciences, all of our individualities. Unfortunately, determining what is in fact true is extraordinarily complex, and in most cases, literally impossible.  So this whole deep unerlying existential identity that unites all beings in the universe remains latent and only occasionally perceived; meanwhile we fight to the death to defend our favorite prejudices.  And this is where we must take two steps back and transcend what we know or think we know and look at everything that is true but we can never prove or know. It remains true nonetheless, and to act as if only what we understand exists is an attitude that is securely, demonstrably universally guaranteed to be wrong.

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Towards the Great Unknown .././2010/10/24/towards-the-great-unknown/ .././2010/10/24/towards-the-great-unknown/#comments Sun, 24 Oct 2010 16:22:49 +0000 Sergio de Biasi .././?p=140
Towards The Great Unknown

by Sergio de Biasi

Song inspired by how almost everything that is important is indecipherable and mostly out of our control. We must be always ready to plunge towards the great unknown; it’s not a choice but a certainty. What we were yesterday is already fading. What we’ll be tomorrow, we do not yet know.

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Sacrificial Scapegoats .././2010/10/02/sacrificial-scapegoats/ .././2010/10/02/sacrificial-scapegoats/#comments Sat, 02 Oct 2010 19:10:02 +0000 Sergio de Biasi .././?p=131 An undergraduate student at Rutgers just committed suicide after his roommate recorded him having sex with another man and distributed it on the internet.

Now, this is absolutely horrible. And in fact everyone seems ready and eager to pay lip service to underlining how horrible it is. And I agree. But the bottom line is – what are those among you who now mourn in easy words about a tragedy that already happened, but who were silent and indifferent as the victim was going through unbearable suffering and utter loneliness, what are you actually going to *do* about it? Are you going to do anything different next time? Are you prepared to change anything? I thought so.

Unfortunately, as in all circumstances like this, the first cry I hear is for more control. Sensitivity training. Mandatory ethics seminars. Codes of behavior that must be acknowledged and signed. Stricter laws. Cyberbullying must be a federal crime punishable by many years in prison. Right, more control must be the answer.

Instead of all that, I have this crazy idea here which is so revolutionary that is probably going to sound insane :

How about actually CARING about others?

Seriously, the *real* problem is not some idiots doing idiotic stuff. I am reasonably sure that if the victims were convinced that the reaction of society around them would be of almost unanimous disapproval and horror towards the idiots and of support towards the victims, they would not suffer so greatly and not be so hopeless. The *real* problem is that when idiots do something like this to someone, the reaction of those around them should be something along the lines of “WHAT? Dude, you’re a creep and an idiot, and I don’t want to have anything to do with you.” but instead for a million reasons it is not. It’s not socially convenient to antagonize anyone. It doesn’t really bring any profit to show support for someone who was been wronged. So people just go on and do business as usual.

And then when a tragedy happens because nobody seems to care, well, we need someone to pay for the guilt of everyone else, right? And since the guilt is so great, the punishment must be terrible, awful, cathartic. And then everyone can go home feeling smug about how righteous they are. Now, reality check : do you think that the victim would really be in peace if nobody in his social circle did anything about his suffering and by calling the police he could have the idiots arrested? Would that make him feel less lonely, isolated, alienated? Would he even *want* his roommate to go to jail and have his life destroyed? How does that fix anything?

Of course, the idiots should suffer the consequences, and the adequate level or harshness is rather arbitrary and not the point I’m trying to make (although I do think that the main purpose of any reaction should be to protect the victim and future victims). The point I am indeed trying to make is that this suicide was a collective work, and the two idiots are, if we take some steps back, just convenient sacrificial scapegoats, as was the victim. They are all paying for society’s sins.

What makes someone feel that there is no way out is not simply falling prey to the stupid actions of random idiots. The *real* problem is that most of the time nobody cares. Of course now that something tragic happened everyone speaks up, but how about all the silent lonely suffering that he had to go through? How about the silent lonely suffering that many others are going through right now? As long as they don’t do anything tragic, then it’s ok?

So in my personal opinion the main fault was *not* with the idiots, idiotic as they are, and using them as scapegoats for everyone else’s inaction and implicit quasi-approval is just too convenient. They should suffer the consequences, yes, but if those consequences are essentially only those enforced by the police and government and the way people are actually socially treated everyday goes on as usual, this will prevent nothing. The *real* problem is actually living in a society which as a whole and on average is indifferent to the suffering of others most of the time, and this is considered the pragmatic thing to do and perfectly acceptable.

More control is absolutely not the answer. Regulating social interaction by force to the last detail and impose insanely harsh penalties for being stupid will only create even greater hypocrisy and alienation. We don’t need more control. We need more actual caring actions in everyday life instead of inflamed rhetoric about it when a tragedy happens. We need more people who will stop and listen when someone else looks sad, not more people going to jail. What needs to happen is not making everything a federal crime. What we need is basic human decency, not a police state.

But even if we want to work at the societal level, the real battle, the one that might have saved the victim’s life, is to be fought elsewhere. It’s absolutely amazing that we live in a society in which there is still a *debate* about letting gay people get married, a society in which it’s socially acceptable to vociferously rant about gay people burning in hell. These are some of the real issues here. Unless people stop being harassed by society as a whole for not fitting their favorite prejudices, this kind of situation will persist. Converging on some circumstantial idiots and making them bear the full load of the guilt as if they were not just rather irrelevant pawns in this sordid game only serves the purpose of avoiding the real issues.

And the main issue here, I would say, is : what really made the victim feel that he had nowhere to run, no escape, no safe harbor? Was it the actual actions of the idiots? Or rather the (predicted or actual) reaction of the social surroundings? Notice, we are all confronted with injustice and evil from time to time. But when we are, say, mugged, the reaction of the people around us is in general *not* to laugh at our misfortune and then ignore or ridicule it. Now of course we feel safer and better if our aggressor is caught and punished but much, much more important than that is the support that we receive from those around us, the way that our misfortune is perceived and handled by others. If everyone is completely indifferent to your suffering and then the police bolt of out the blue, arrest your roommate and disappear, does that really make you feel safe and cared for? Is that a world in which you want to live? Or is it more like a world that makes you want to jump from the George Washington bridge?

Now, will this issue really be addressed by “solutions” like “mandatory ethics training”? What message will someone get from society if what they concretely observe is “Ok, you’re surrounded by people who do not care whether you live or die and who are totally not there in your moments of deepest despair and who believe you’ll go to hell for being who you are and by the way you can’t get married because we don’t really like your kind around here but hey, it’s ok, we’re going to give mandatory ethics training to everyone so that they know which words to use without getting in trouble.” You tell me. You tell me how effective you think this is in preventing people from wanting to jump from the George Washington bridge.

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Kirlian Pictures of Two Coins .././2010/07/07/kirlian-pictures-of-two-coins/ .././2010/07/07/kirlian-pictures-of-two-coins/#comments Wed, 07 Jul 2010 15:51:50 +0000 Sergio de Biasi .././?p=93

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Tesla Coils .././2010/06/14/tesla-coils/ .././2010/06/14/tesla-coils/#comments Mon, 14 Jun 2010 21:13:39 +0000 Sergio de Biasi .././?p=67 Artificial lightning on demand

In my previous post about Kirlian Photography I ended up briefly discussing high voltage generation methods in the comments. Now, one of these methods involves what are called Tesla coils, which use a resonant transformer to operate. And since I did experiment with them in the past, I decided to post some pictures here. In the first picture above, which was taken in the dark, one can very clearly observe the glowing plasma that is generated when we create such a high difference of electric potential between a pointed needle and a metal plate that electrons simply jump from one to the other, ionizing the intervening ambient air in the process.

The same setup with a longer exposure

Tesla was actually a very interesting character. He was undeniably a first class genius and in the field of putting electricity to practical use it’s very arguable that he was as relevant as the much more widely celebrated Edison. In fact, he is one of the Nobel Prizes that weren’t meant to be – he was nominated but due to several political isues, including the strong animosity between him and Edison, never won.

I believe there is a very illustrating (and somewhat depressing) clash of personalities to be observed here. Edison’s first invention was a vote recording machine, which he successfully developed, tested and proudly patented. Unfortunately, it was an engineering success but a complete commercial failure. So he decided never to spend efforts again developing something that he couldn’t sell, and dedicated the rest of his very successful life to relentless and agressive promotion of commercial applications for his inventions. Tesla, on the other hand, was much less concerned with developing effectively marketable products, and although he did have many immensely useful ideas with very practical applications, his heart was not really in trying to squeeze money out of them at any cost, and he spent lots of effort and time investigating revolutionary technologies, some of which were so ahead of his time that he couldn’t convince anyone to invest on them, others which were really bordering on the delusional. In the end, he died mostly alone, poor and regarded by the establishment as some sort of eccentric mad scientist.

The same setup with the lights on

Now, back to the Tesla coil. In the setup above, we have a huge coil that is able to make sparks fly through regular air, and in this case also with a relatively large current. However, if we decrease the density of the medium, it’s easier to send sparks through it. This is what happens in a plasma globe, such as the one I pictured below, which is powered by standard AA batteries.

Straight from the 1980′s

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Kirlian Photography .././2010/06/12/kirlian-photography/ .././2010/06/12/kirlian-photography/#comments Sat, 12 Jun 2010 19:56:22 +0000 Sergio de Biasi .././?p=60 Don’t try this with a digital camera

Digital cameras are great in almost all respects, but one of the side effects of going away from film is losing touch with the raw chemical connection with reality that is established every time we take a picture with old-fashioned analog equipment. This in itself might not lead not any technical disadvantages, and increasingly it indeed doesn’t. But still, there is something romantic and vaguely more “authentic” about photographic emulsion. The original emulsion is actually physically affected by the scene being captured and it changes in a permanent way. When you hold a photographic negative, actual rays of light hit the molecules in the material in your hands and they reacted to it in a way that you can then inspect years in the future. This is not a second hand account, a distant tale of an irretrievable past; this is the real deal, it became a permanent part of that past the instant you triggered the shutter, much like a footprint or a fossil. It’s not just abstract information; it’s an object.

One of the situations where this is most obvious is with Kirlian photography. For those who don’t know, such pictures are taken without a camera, by placing the object on top up unexposed film and then forcing a high-voltage low-current electric current through the object and into the film. The resulting corona discharges expose the film and create an image of the object. Now, this is of course not possible with digital cameras. In fact, digital cameras are almost like the exact complement of this; they take pictures without film. Kirlian photography involves pictures without a camera.

It’s very unfortunate that Kirlian photography got associated with much mystical mumbo-jumbo (to a grand extent due to claims popularized by Kirlian himself), since otherwise it provides an interesting medium for artistic exploration. The fact that many people were/are willing to accept such claims (instead of discarding them as nonsense after careful consideration) is a tribute to how this method of taking pictures strikes us in an intangible psychological sense and being more “intimate” than the usual process (which in objective terms is probably as mysterious as Kirlian photography to the average person).

Just to illustrate the basic principle, that’s how I took the picture above. In it, I didn’t actually press any object against the film. Instead, I just held my finger a bit above the emulsion in the dark and I let high-voltage flow from my finger through the air and into the film (yes, you do need very high voltage for this to happen, and no, it doesn’t hurt you because the current is very low).

Don’t try this with a digital camera. :-)

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Homework and Exams .././2010/05/28/homework-and-exams/ .././2010/05/28/homework-and-exams/#comments Fri, 28 May 2010 18:53:26 +0000 Sergio de Biasi .././?p=26 Concerning homework and exams, let’s start by taking a step back and consider more explicitly what purposes we might be wanting to achieve.

One purpose of homework and exams is assessing how much students have learned. But even this objective is actually twofold : on the one hand we have to bureacratic institutional need to give grades to students, but on the other hand, there is a very important pedagogical purpose being fulfilled here which is to give students feedback on how they are faring. We should not underestimate how important it is for students to have a “reality check” assessment of how successfully they have managed to achieve the goals that were set for the course. This is in my opinion one of the strongest arguments against having just a few very long assignments which leave no space or opportunity for corrections of stance and effort from the part of the student. Many – probably most – of them don’t have an exact idea of what your exact expectations are, of how much they should know, and of how well they understood the material – until they are tested on it. But then, in a standard academic setting, it’s too late to do anything about it. So, from the beginning, I believe that a system of evaluation should be designed to *not* be a one-shot deal – students should be able to realize how much they don’t know and work from there. In fact, I believe that within the limits of what is practical, every student should be given ample, recurring opportunity to demonstrate that he or she was able to master the subjects being taught.

Which brings us to another way in which homework and exams are used and managed : as a way to “force” students to work. As I’ve repeatedly said before, I don’t think that the attitude that we’ll “force” students to do anything is desirable, useful, or even workable. At least not in terms of forcing them to do the kind of work that is pedagogically useful. Sure, we can force them to deliver “something”. But we can’t force them to think, and the more we try to do so through threats and intimidation, the poorer the results will be in terms of promoting insightful self-examination and intellectual growth. The stricter we are, the more we’ll shift their priorities from learning to bureaucratically meeting deadlines. Thus I don’t believe in scaring or stressing the students as good pedagogical practice, and I think that rules should go only as far as needed to make the whole course manageable. In particular, I certainly don’t believe in imposing unnecessary arbitrary limits and demands to “build character” or anything like that. I hold that this is one of the most dreaded (un-)pedagogical practices that I see being deliberately adopted in a reasonably widespread fashion, specially (ironically) by young professors (who apart from lack of experience may additionally be somewhat insecure and thus feel an increased need to assert their position of authority).

Once more, I don’t think that assignments and exams should be a source of as much stress for the students as they usually are, and that is still another reason to make them short, and as much as possible redundant. Students should be given ample time to finish all of their assignments, and should be told as early as possible which objectives they are expected to eventually be able to meet, so that they can plan in advance and actually try to understand what they are doing instead of being forced to submit “something” because it’s due today. Of course some students will still do it, but this should not be structurally imposed on them. I positively don’t think that homework and exams should be designed to stand as obstacles that must be transposed in order to get a grade, but rather as opportunities for the student to show understanding and mastery of the subjects being taught. Additionally, an ideal evaluation method should in my opinion not constitute a severe burden to anyone who is already proficient, especially not in terms of time that would otherwise be drained away from more useful and productive efforts. Their time is best spent trying to actually learn and understand, not on exhaustively (and very, very doubtfully) “proving” that they did, or even worse, being forced to “study” things that they already know.

Finally, I believe that any temptation to pass judgment on a student’s character, intentions, good faith or other personality traits based on the quality or consistency of his or her academic work should be fiercely resisted. There is a huge number of reasons for all kinds of behavior that might seem to be irresponsible or lazy, but besides the fact that this is absolutely not what you are there to evaluate, in almost all cases you have a very limited access to what the whole picture is for any particular student, so speculating on what his or her situation or reasons might be very easily leads to wrong and plain unfair conclusions, and if you let them thrive this will definitely harm your ability to help the student.

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