February 25, 2010

Madness and Genius Part 1

I know that this is not news or relevant, but something I saw set me to thinking about it again today. There was a boy who found his high school math classes too easy. He was placed in a more advanced class in his sophomore year of high school, but he quickly mastered that material as well. After taking a required English course in summer school, he graduated high school two years early and was accepted to Harvard at the age of 16. While at Harvard he studied math, notably as a student under the eminent logician Willard Quine. He scored at the top of Quine's class, earning a 98.6% grade in the course. After Harvard, this young man when on to earn a master's degree and PhD from The University of Michigan in the field of mathematics.

His specialty was a branch of complex analysis known as geometric function theory. "I would guess that maybe 10 or 12 people in the country understood or appreciated it," said Maxwell O. Reade, a retired math professor who served on his dissertation committee. He would publish several more papers on advanced mathematics while teaching undergraduate courses at The University of Michigan. This man next became an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of California Berkely in the fall of 1967.

Do you know who this man was? Perhaps you do from the short biography that I have provided. Most mathematicians aren't well known outside academic circles, but this man would become very well known in the popular culture, but not for his breakthroughs in mathematics. He became famous by mailing letter bombs. He was who the FBI and media outlets dubbed "The Unabomber". His murders stretched over a span of two decades and they were accompanied by a manifesto to which he wanted to draw attention. He promised an end to his killings if his manifesto was published in a major newspaper, and the Department of Justice and two major newspapers complied.

You can find his manifesto on the internet if you would like to read it. He wrote it on a typewriter in a primitive shack in rural Montana, yet it is lucid, cogent, free of grammatical and spelling errors, and chilling in its message. Which is more frightening, the fact that this man killed to advance the ideology of this manifesto or the thoughts themselves that went into the creation of the manifesto? Kaczynski paints a picture of a looming technological dystopia that seems more real with every passing year. Did he kill individuals in airlines, the computer industry, and universities to strike out directly at that techno-corporate system or did he do so simply to draw attention to the message he wanted to braodcast in his manifesto? My initial belief was the former, but I was puzzled by the utter futility of that act. Kacynski should know better than anyone that the people he bombed represent only an astronomically small portion of the power structure and that his murders would not have any real effect, even if those individuals couldn't be easily replaced within the techno-social machine. Thus I am forced to conclude that he killed those symbolic targets not for any direct damage that such murders would do to the system he opposed, but rather to cause people to take notice and to actually read his manifesto. To me, this conclusion makes his actions even more evil and depraved than if he had killed those men to more directly undermine the system he opposed.

In either case, he has failed. His ideas did not gain traction (who really thought they would?) and he engendered no movements of social or technological change. His predictions are slowly coming true as our society becomes increasingly technological and our lives more firmly under the control of "machines" (using the word in both the literal and metaphoric senses) and divorces from our basic humanity.

I do not share Kacynski's views on how to solve the world's problems. Absolutely not. A total rejection of technology is neither sensible nor possible. And using murders to draw attention to a political ideology is abhorant. Seeing people as cogs in a machine, or numbers in a math problem, all divorced of their humanity, is something we would expect from Kacynski's enemies, and it undermines his basic message when he resorts to such base expressions of violence to promote his text. Beyond those two very important objections, Kacynski was wrong to kill because it worked against him in a war for public support. He wanted support for his message but as long as the author of that message is a serial killer, no one will pay it heed. Society has shunned him and his ideas, and rightly so.

Counterinsurgency operations fail if they do not win the hearts and minds of the local populations that support the rebels. We have learned this truism in Malaya, Vietnam, and now Iraq. In this case though, the insurgency has failed because it did not win the support of the population. Campaigns are fought for public support now, in modern democracies when the truth is an artificial construction of a corporate machine. The great masses of people, living off easy answers and quick news clips can be persuaded of anything. Who is the Axis of Evil this year? Who hates freedom now? A king would have difficulty ruling because when public opinion turns against him, especially in a federalist republic such as ours, his power evaporates. But an oligarchy composed of technocrats, monied politicians, media outlets, corporate players, and carefully controlled facemen -- that is the machinery that can hold sway over millions by telling them what to think, feel, buy, vote, and accept as the truth.

Contrary to Kacynski's vile tactics as a serial killer, to compete in this arena one needs to move within this power structure either as a component of it or a clever manipulator or a revolutionary innovator. Muhammad Yunus is one such man. He saw an enormous problem--crushing and desperate poverty suffered by hundreds of millions--and he took steps to solve this problem. He did it by reinventing the capitalist system in a more human and equitable way. He fought back against the evil machinary that Kacynski saw but he did so in a moral, heroic, and commendable way. Read his Wikipedia page:

Muhammad Yunus is one example of how to change the world for the better. The man is without a doubt my personal hero. My earliest blog entries make mention of levers and fulcrums to move the world, and indeed Dr. Yunus found his fulcrum point. I will not write in this blog about my lever or fulcrum point, but I will leave you with an MIT lecture by Dr. Yunus. Enjoy:

February 23, 2010

Education is Freedom

I installed a counter on this blog today and also posted the URL on my Facebook page. I noticed that I have some new visitors tonight and you may be English speakers. Since the two previous posts were both in Spanish, I thought that I should return to English for a while so that you were not put off by the my use of Spanish.

Tonight I would like to write about a favorite quotation from one of my favorite thinkers from premoden times: Cicero. We all know Cicero, the Roman philosopher, I am sure. One of Rome's greatest orators, politicians, statesmen and philosophers he was a towering intellect whose insights into life have weathered the decay of centuries and retain their significance even now. The quotation (translated to English because I don't read Latin) is as follows:

"The purpose of education is to free the student from the tyranny of the present."

This rings true in several ways. First, education is a way to look beyond our present circumstances and open our minds to greater possibilities. It is easy to become trapped in our own personal situations, in our own narrow limits of thought and opinion about the world around us, and grow ignorant of the wider world. Learn about another culture and you enrich your own just that much. Learn to speak another language and your mind and your view of the world opens up not only because you can communicate with more people but the act of learning a new tongue frees the mind from its linguistic and cognitive bondage as new ideas can be thought. As we learn new languages, learn math or physics that allows a greater understanding of the physical world, and learn history that provides us with a clearer picture of the human world, as we do these things our minds break free from the tyranny of the present and expand into the multitudinous possibilities of the intellect. This is the first power of education.

I can imagine other worlds. I can imagine my life different than it is now. I can imagine ways to change my life and to change our world. I would not be capable of such imagination without the education to formulate such theories. Not all education is equal and it is the proper education in critical thinking, imagination and historical perspective that provides us with the clearest lens to other possibilities. This is the first way in which we can interpret the quotation, as a sort of freedom of the imagination.

The second way that we can interpret the quotation is a more practical application of education to material freedom. If I hold a masters degree in finance, or a la3 degree, I will have more financial freedom, I will have a greater capability to find a job, I will have more power over my fellow man and thus greater freedom to act on my will. Education, in our modern society is the way to attain anything we want. Those who cannot read are shut off from many of the avenues of our modern society and unable to participate fully in the social fabric that surrounds them. Those who don't graduate high school have extremely limited employment prospects. Those who attend college and graduate study choose their own path in life and attain the freedom to chose not only the benefits they will derive from society but the effect they will have on it. Do you want to earn $100,000 per year? Go to law school or get an business degree. Do you want to save people's lives? Make it through medical school and become a doctor. In either case, our present circumstance, with less education, is one of restriction and enslavement, enslaved by the bonds of our own ignorance. It is through education that we break free.

I see the present as not an end state but as an ever present beginning and I believe it healthy to fix our gaze on the future. I derive a great deal of joy from the acts both of learning and of teaching. I have much to learn myself, as we all do, but there are few pleasures more pure than inspiring others to new intellectual heights and provoking their minds to gain new understanding.

Education and the quality of education is most often what separate one social group from another or one person from another now in this increasingly modern world. And our families and their influence on our attitudes toward education determine, to a large degree how successful we are breaking free from the tyranny of the present. I have seen this again and again during my time in education. The attitudes of the student and his or her family are the largest determiners in his or her success in school. Some choose to remain ignorant and will never succeed, no matter how intelligent they may be. Others choose to embrace education, to work hard and to break free from the slavery of their ignorance. It is very much a choice.

Finally, another way to read the quotation, or at least a corollary that adds an interesting twist. It is through education, both of himself and of others, that Cicero truly broke free of the tyranny of his present. He now continues to educate us more than two thousand years in the future and has attained a sort of immortality. Very few of us will be able to say the same in two thousand years as the ravages of time will have washed our memories from the sands of time.

As a closing thought, for all those who are still in school: remember why you are there. You are there to learn. To learn math, to learn history, to learn new languages, to learn science, to learn new ways of thinking and new possibilities. You are there to grow and become better people and it is not just a place to pass the time or have fun. Looking back later in life, you will appreciate it more, but then it will be too late. Heed my words now, and free yourselves from the tyranny of the present.

February 14, 2010

La Rosa

"La rosa"

La rosa,
la inmarcesible rosa que no canto,
la que es peso y fragancia,
la del negro jardín en la alta noche,
la de cualquier jardín y cualquier tarde,
la rosa que resurge de la tenue
ceniza por el arte de la alquimia,
la rosa de los persas y de Ariosto,
la que siempre está sola,
la que siempre es la rosa de las rosas,
la joven flor platónica,
la ardiente y ciega rosa que no canto,
la rosa inalcanzable.

Todos los idiomas son sistemas simbológicos en los cuales una marca en un papel o un patrón de sonidos representa un objeto en el mundo real, una acción o una idea. Nuestras mentes humanas también funcionan así, con una compleja interacción entre metáforas. Metáforas son el lenguaje silente de nuestras pensamientos. No entendemos el mundo en forma directa sino por medio de metáforas que formamos por nuestra experiencia y que expresamos con otras metáforas (palabras). ¿Qué es una rosa? No somos capaz de relatar lo que es Rosa sin usar palabras y no somos capaz de usar palabras sin caer en una serie de metáforas que nacen de experiencia. Eso es la esencia de la poesía. La poesía es una forma de literatura que concentra las metáforas de nuestras palabras y deja al lado todo lo que es extra. Nos deja con símbolos potentes, ideas y imágenes que surgen de una colección de letras ordenados en versos. En su imitación de pensamiento y voz, la poesía se vuelve una representación no solo de la idea en la página sino la mente del poeta mismo. Todos los grandes poetas y esacritores saben su rol pero siempre me fascina el poeta y cuentista argentino que eleva el papel del metáfora enuna manera tan inescapable. Jorge Luis Borges es conocido como un escritor quién juega con varias metáforas repetidas y inolvidables como la espada, el espejo, la moneda, el libro, la luna, el tigre y la rosa. Tienen un valor personal para Borges pero también juegan un rol en el lenguaje literaria que quiso crear, muy con propósito.

En este poema, muy Borgesiano, tenemos un intento a nombrar algo—la rosa. El poema entero es una larga serie de fragmentos—siempre el sujeto de la oración sin la predicado. Cada verso empieza con el artículo definido como si otro intento a nombrar la rosa, a definarla de nuevamente. La lista de atributos, la inabilidad de llegar a una resolución, la falta de movimiento en el poema establecen que la rosa es más allá que su abilidad de describir—es “la rosa inalcanzable” (13). Esa tema de una cosa “inalcanzable” empieza en el primer verso con el frase “que no canto” y sigue hasta el final.

Puede ser inalcanzable pero no menos real o potente aunque sea fuera nuestra control/entendimiento. Borges escribe que “la inmarcesible rosa [...] que es peso fraganncia” (2,3) , es decir, que es existente y real. Pero al mismo tiempo es cualquier rosa de cualquier jardín y de cualquier noche (5) y de ser cualquier rosa, se convierte en ser “la rosa”. Eso es la esencia del símbolo, que las letras r-o-s-a son la rosa, todas las rosas y que cada rosa, aunque único, es a la misma vez todas las rosas que en la historia hemos guardado en nuestra memoria colectiva. La historia y la memoria colectiva nunca son lejos del poesía de Borges y aquí entra con el verso, “la rosa de los persas y de Ariosto,” (8). Esta rosa, o esta docena de rosas, son ligadas por una cadena de memoria, metáfora y tradición a las flores que sostenían un persos o un griego—no, el griego, Ariosto.

Borges, en verso once, llama la rosa, “la joven flor platónica,” y con esa palabra platónica no quiere negar el amor romántico—para nada—quiere establecer su concepto de la rosa eterna como un ideal platónico, como las formas de Platón. La rosa es perfecta porque encontramos su perfeccción en nuestro concepto de la rosa que se representa por esa flor y porque es “la rosa que resurge de la tenue/ ceniza por el arte de la alquimia,” (6-7) cuando entendemos que la alquimia no es solo las ciencias botánicas sino nuestra imaginación y amor. Borges usa la palabra “joven” en conjunto con “platónico” porque cada vez que usamos la rosa es joven de nuevo, es la el objeto de la metáfora que queremos expresar, es nuestro amor, nuestro deseo que damos a luz en este mensaje vivo y perfecto.

Todo el significado del poema, de la historia de la rosa, de las experiencias personales con rosas entre amantes, está cargado en la rosa. Dar una rosa no es el acto de dar una flor sino expresar una emoción llevado por esa metáfora viva, anciana y siempre joven. La rosa de Borges es la rosa de Ariosto es mi rosa y la tuya. Todo que decimos y todo que hacemos sirven para expresar ese nudo de metáforas (y emociones) que forma nuestras mentes y con la rosa expresamos más que meras palabras pueden decir. Te dejo con el misterio de la rosa y de mi metáfora tenue y ardiente.