Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Dissatisfaction with Evil

I may have mentioned that I am taking a class called Evil. Certainly, over the summer I bragged about it frequently out of excitement. Consequently, I went into the class with expectations that were far too high, and it really isn't the professor's fault that I am dissatisfied with how things are going. All the same, the class is indeed suboptimal, and following the spirit of modernity, I am compelled to think of ways to change it, to improve it. How would I want to approach the topic of evil?

I am not so arrogant as to think that I have a better grasp of the literature on evil than the professor, so I probably wouldn't change the reading list significantly. The main changes would be structural; as any junior in AP English Language could tell you, juxtaposition matters. The flow of ideas would be different, and, I think, more relevant. (Which, to me, implies "more interesting.")

Certainly I would not choose a theological, theoretical point of view as my first line of approach (one of our first readings was Augustine). No, I am concerned with evil as a real phenomenon, as a practical consideration. In class, we've taken for granted that the two ur-examples of evil from history are slavery and genocide (if you're going to call anyone evil, Hitler is it). So I'd start there and ask: what makes these actions evil? Why do we think so? Was there ever a time in which these actions would not be considered evil--and at those times, were they still evil even if no one thought so?

That would lead into an archaeological approach to evil: where do we get these ideas of evil from? Then I'd bring in Nietzsche, as the professor did, but one cannot really take Nietzsche at face value, so I'd pair him with actual historical accounts.

My main problem with the class is that everything is too abstract; thus, in my revised version, I'd always keep an eye on the practical questions. We've only just gotten to the section on modern evil, which I find most interesting because it's most applicable. In what ways are we evil today? We stand complacent while horrors go on all around the world, because they don't affect us. (One of my favorite readings: the short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin.) We are complicit.

Under what circumstances could ordinary people be evil? That's an important question, and different answers have different implications for social institutions and laws. I'd keep the readings on Zimbardo's and Milgram's experiments, along with the critical look at what they actually say. Is evil situational, institutional, or inherent? This is where Freud and his Eros v. Thanatos theories would come in.

I also would definitely spend more than one day taking apart the arguments in Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she talks about the "banality of evil." As was explained to me in section, this doesn't mean that she says that evil is normal, but rather that evil doesn't have to be diabolical or grandiose. Someone can be evil without being a Satanic figure.

Where would I put the literature? Paradise Lost and "Genesis" and Augustine all have interesting ideas, and certainly our modern notions of evil draw heavily from Christian tradition. This should probably go with the archaeology of evil section.

What about Faust? I may mark myself as uncultured for saying this, but I didn't find Mephistopheles terribly compelling. Interesting, certainly, and his description of himself as a spirit of negation ties in nicely with a lot of other readings. I would not remove Faust from the reading. Nor would I give it fewer than two days of discussion. But I'd ask different questions, which I think would fold in more potential avenues of thought. Instead of "is Faust evil?" I'd ask "where is the evil here?"

Someone in my discussion section said that the townspeople, with their judgmental attitudes and restrictive laws, were the real evil in the story. I'm not ready to let Dr. Faust off the hook, but there's definitely merit to that idea. It would also pair well with Shirley Jackson's classic story "The Lottery."

The class also screens movies after-hours once a week. The ones I've seen, "Winter's Bone" and "Fargo," are in realistic settings and have a certain degree of verisimilitude. As it should be. I love my fantasy, but with something like evil it's probably more useful to stick closer to the facts. (And I get that the two movies I named are fictional, but they are closer to real than your typical slasher flick.)

Were I to add anything, I'd probably throw in mention of Heart of Darkness, Crime and Punishment, and Lord of the Flies. All three are fairly standard high school required reading texts, which might make them valuable as jumping-off point for various discussions (on complicity/anonymity, on the difficulties of diabolical evil, on human nature).

To recap: if I was in charge of a class about evil, I'd keep a practical focus and ask what it is, where it exists or could exist today, how we deal with it, and where it comes from. I also think that it's always valuable to ask "is it useful?" I'm not sure where in the class such a question would come. At the end, we'd all be better informed and have a more nuanced idea of what evil is; on the other hand, maybe it's a question we should ask constantly.


Some meta thoughts:

Yes, I just wrote a sketch of a lesson plan. I get a sinking feeling sometimes that I'll be tempted to go into education--mostly because I got into the habit of criticizing the educational system during my twelve years of public school and I can't stop even now that I'm here. But I know that I would make a downright awful classroom teacher, so for my own and others' sakes, I will not become a teacher.

It's easy to sleepwalk through the weeks. I wrote a post about bringing it, but I've started to see signs of slacking off, of not giving it my all. It's easy to get complacent. That was more okay in high school that it is now--now, it's a sign of a personal weakness. And you know what must happen to personal weaknesses? I must do my level best to eliminate them.

A system I plan to implement: write down what you expect to get out of each class you take, and periodically check in to see if you're getting that. If you aren't, then what are you getting? And if expectations > reality, what can you do to shift that balance?

My IntroSem teacher took us to task today for not doing all the readings, and it was a bit of a wake-up slap. Don't feel like you have anything valuable to contribute? Fear speaking up because you don't want to look like an idiot? Get informed, damn it. This isn't high school. You can't assume that you're in the upper ranks of a class anymore. And you know how to fix this, don't you? You would not be at this university if you were afraid to work hard.

(All advice is autobiographical.)

What did I want out of Evil? I don't remember anymore what I expected. I think I wanted to change my worldview. I probably wanted a tool to optimize myself, since the message I get most consistently on campus is "you could do better." I want to understand evil more...but what aspect? The world said "never again" after the Holocaust, and then genocide after genocide occurred in other parts of the world and we did nothing. I think what I want to understand is how to eradicate such evils. Where does evil come from? Not in a theoretical "the Devil made me do it" way, but in a "we dehumanize others to improve group cohesion AND the international community has an awful track record on stopping mass murder AND political instability..." way.

This is a lot to ask of a class. No wonder I've been dissatisfied.

More meta: I am not sure how long I've had this "everything must be useful" sort of mindset. I wasn't born with it--I wanted to major in English when I was seven, for example--and I am not violently against doing something for its own sake, learning knowledge for the sake of knowing it instead of for applying it. But "useful" for me is correlated to "interesting," and if I'm going to read a philosophical text I want it to contain ideas I can test against my own experiences and use to change my behavior or thinking. What is the point, otherwise?

I'm not asking that rhetorically. But this post is getting rather long already, and I think I should take up this discussion at another time. On Friday, look for a Halloween-related (probably not -themed) game.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Unstyled Arrogance

Halfway through the quarter. I don't know whether to be shocked that we are already here or shocked that I have only been here for six weeks (10 week quarter / 2 + NSO). One would think I'd have adjusted either way, but given how much I've written about my college transition, it's clearly something I'm still thinking through. Also, college doesn't leave a lot of mental energy for anything else--at least, that's how I'm explaining the single track of my posts the past month.

I wanted to talk about something other than myself or college today, however. This post is inspired by a conversation I had with my roommate about gender politics and appearance, which happened because she recently cut off about two feet of her hair to donate.

I am as usual exploring an idea space, so forgive me if this post rambles.


Hair length is where the conversation began, and it is as good a starting point as any; so here I will start. I have short hair, and it is as much a part of my identity as the clothes I choose or my decision not to get my ears pierced. That is, it reflects my sense of self, but because it is a projection it necessarily lacks most of the nuances.

(Goss has written a lot about this; check out Doing Pretty and Style as Story for a more sophisticated take on appearance and identity than I can give here.)

At the time it wasn't some earth shattering personal revelation. I just wanted to donate my hair, was getting tired of dealing with it, and faced two humid summer weeks in China. So I cut my hair and that was that.

(Did I say I didn't want to talk about myself? Hm. Bear with me a second.)

Since then, however, I think having short hair has shaped my sense of self more than I anticipated. This is an experiment without a control, so I don't know what can be attributed to having short hair and what to the other events going on around that time. But I will argue some things that may need explanation or defense:

Having short hair takes off some of the pressure to be "pretty" and, by extension, to fall into traditional gender roles.

Long hair is, in the most widespread cultural shorthand, associated with traditional femininity. Short hair thus takes on an opposite connotation: of being defiant or progressive. Think flappers. Think "power hair." How many female executives have long, flowing locks?

I should note that I'm not being normative here: there is nothing wrong with long hair, and statements of appearance shouldn't be taken as ultimate measures of ideology. The cultural perception, however, ascribes a greater potential degree of conformity to long hair.

For myself, after cutting my hair I stopped worrying as much about my appearance and being pretty as I used to. As a freshman, my appearance was a big source of insecurity (particularly the clothes I wore, on which more later), but in the last two years of high school how I looked stopped being a source of angst. Correlation != causation, of course, but correlation == correlation. And for me, short hair and freedom from most appearance-related anxiety are correlated.

A brief note on "pretty": my roommate commented that she used to get a lot of compliments on her hair, and that it was somewhat annoying because if your physical appearance is striking, the other parts of your identity--your intelligence or character or ambition--might be harder to see in comparison. There is also the practical, concrete point that with short hair, all you can really do is comb it, which saves time.

Another note: having short hair is practical if you have to work in a machine shop, as my roommate does.


Enough on hair; I want to explore some other facets of personal appearance. I am not the most obvious choice of person to address this, since I don't often think very hard about my appearance these days. I halfway expected that college would make me change my style, but it hasn't, much.

Some ways in which it has: I will no longer wear t shirts during the week. This is because of what happened on Monday, which is a diversion but I'll talk about it anyhow:

I heard about a water policy event occurring on campus as part of a collaboration between the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Hamilton Project. Being interested in this kind of thing, I biked over to Paul Brest Hall after my first class.

And then I saw a line of people in business suits in front of registration tables.

At the time, I was wearing an old pair of dark jeans with a hole in one knee, but my shirt was reasonably formal looking. I think that was contributed to why, when I went up to the table and explained that I hadn't registered but was strongly interested in the topic, they let me in. I was still horrendously underdressed but at least I was wearing dark, neutral colors so I didn't seem like a total anomaly. The dignified looking clothing meant that I didn't give the impression of being disrespectful or disruptive; I honestly don't know if they'd have let me in if I had been wearing a t shirt.

So, perhaps because of the way I was dressed, I got to hear Sheryl Sandberg and Gov Jerry Brown speak, and that was amazing. Lesson: sometimes it's worth it being the Entitled Arrogant College Undergrad. Also, no t shirts when you may stumble into a fancy event.

Diversion over. Also notice that Sheryl Sandberg has short hair.

No t shirts is a negative statement, and I will probably take the positive counterpart soon: more formal or at least business casual clothing. Collared shirts and non-jean pants and the like. I haven't gone shopping in a long time, but when I do I'll probably get real person clothes.

Where was I going with this? Dressing like a real person...not feeling as though my personal style has shifted...okay, despite my resolution I seem to once again be talking about myself and college. Why not see what lies down this route? On campus, I don't see a lot of conspicuously stylish people. The teacher of my archaeology/design awareness class has lamented this fact. Stanford students are not that stylish.

I wonder why, because I know that there are some colleges with very stylish students. My sister got a lot more stylish after her freshman year of college (and she started out with a fairly well-developed personal style). It might be the Silicon Valley conceit at work: who has time to spend thinking about what you wear? Suits are for East Coast squares.

If people are dressed nicely, they're usually dressed nicely in the sense that they're wearing business casual. It's a statement of function and role, not of identity. Or maybe I'm just not paying enough attention. What if I ran an experiment where I pretended to be a street style blogger and...nah, I'm interested in the interplay of appearance and identity, but not that interested.

Yes, I probably am not the best person to tackle this idea. Shouldn't style discourse be left to the people who know something about style? When I try to come up with some words to describe my aesthetic, I get "neutral," "simple," and "unpatterned." Which converges on boring.

But this ties back to the point on short hair, of denying social norms on appearance. I'm a college girl: shouldn't I have long pretty hair and wear OOtD worthy clothes? Shouldn't my personal blog be filled with filtered pictures of aesthetically pleasing things from my life? What's my aesthetic, what's my style?

There's nothing wrong with people who care about style or who want to share their style with the world. There's nothing wrong with girls who wear their hair long and style it in different ways. There's nothing wrong with people who care about their appearance and cultivate a unique aesthetic. In fact, all these things that society may deem shallow are really ways in which people can explore their identities. These are activities charged with meaning.

Yet equally so does the opposite carry meaning. My roommate and I have short hair; Stanford students don't dress well. It's a message: "I am not playing your game. This is what I do. I don't have time for this." There's arrogance bound up in here; arrogance and defiance.

Of course one can show defiance some other way. But this is one with an established cultural mapping, and given the way that Stanford and I have hijacked a post that was supposed to not be about me and Stanford, the inherent self centeredness of the message is real.


Music for today:

Short Hair - Mulan OST

This is an iconic moment in Mulan and the Disney repertoire in general. Mulan cuts off her hair to disguise herself as a soldier: in this sense, short hair is a step away from her true identity. But in the (less good) sequel, note that her hair is still short even though she has no more reason to hide her gender.

I could go on about the anti feminist rhetoric of the song "Other Girls" in the sequel, but this post is getting long. Another time, perhaps.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Design of the Megamachine -- Review

I've been talking too much about myself lately, (and I have about five minutes before I host a wild pset party in my room,) so tonight, I have nothing for you but a review/summary I wrote recently of an essay called "The Design of the Megamachine" by Lewis Mumford. I may have mentioned him in a recent post, and I find his ideas interesting.


The megamachine draws its strength from the authority of the kingship. Only a powerful ruler, often abetted by tools of social control such as religion and the military, can mobilize the requisite number of people in an organized enough way. The megamachine is often used to produce more tangible works, such as the pyramids of Egypt or the Roman roads, but is itself invisible because the components—the ordinary people who, through joining the megamachine, lose their individual identity— can disperse to their own pursuits when the authority is no longer strong enough to direct them.

At the top of the hierarchical structure is a mind with a purpose: a king. Behind the king stands the threat of coercive power. The king works through bureaucrats, lines of communication, and other administrative structures to transmit his will to labor units which are at once specialized and interchangeable. He directs action at a distance, and ensures fidelity of will-transmission through writing down orders and putting into place systems for accountability. The holder of this role needs a suite of design skills: the ability to abstract into the future (conceptualizing the goal—he must be a “visionary”), the ability to foresee which steps need to occur to achieve that goal, consummate skill in organizing systems (mostly of people; logistical concerns may, perhaps, be delegated to a skilled underling), and practical instinct (can this really be done?). The worker must have complementary traits: obedience, patience, and precision.

Between the king and the workers are, as mentioned, other systems. First, the megamachine requires a body of knowledge, practical and otherwise. In the ancient world this was embodied in the priesthood, and the exclusiveness thereof contributed to the power of those who were educated. Knowledge of science, astronomy in particular, allowed the priests to solidify their spiritual authority. Second, the megamachine needs a structure for executing orders. This is the bureaucracy or the administration, and consists of several parts: communications corps such as scribes and messengers who move information around the structure, directors and managers such as stewards, and finally, specialized workers.

Some invisible machines are the military, labor forces, and the bureaucracy. They can, of course, join forces or in some cases overlap.

The ancient human megamachine was intended to use labor; the modern mechanical equivalents instead seek to save labor. But both sought efficiency and exactitude.

Of course the megamachine glorifies the king and reinforces his power; but what, if anything, do ordinary people get out of it? The works of the megamachine often include useful public infrastructure such as roads and aqueducts. Beyond that, being part of the megamachine integrates people with respect to society, bringing people together in pursuit of a common goal. Thus the megamachine is a force for law and order in society, and a source of pride and identity for its components. It leads to an urban mindset, one of concentrated and consciously directed action, of expanded human possibility and imagination. Kingly egotism may benefit society.


Relevant music:

Everybody Wants to Rule the World - Lorde

Friday, October 17, 2014

Community and Conformity

At the end of week four, I'm starting to feel more at home at college. I can signal turns while riding my bike; I know librarians and dining hall staff by sight; I stay up late doing homework because I got distracted earlier in the evening by interesting conversations with friends on my hall.

(On the other hand, my writing has ground down to a few paragraphs a week, which is awful because I've been stuck in the same scene for weeks and Marilla is not the only one getting bored. I may just do an awkward scene cut to get to the next bit.)

In particular, what strikes me is that what was true in high school is still true in college. Namely, when I get caught up in classes and schoolwork then I get tunnel vision and often feel sad and insecure and anxious. When, however, I am participating in something outside of classes--band, hall conversations, seismic design team--I feel, perhaps not happy all the time, but more optimistic, more purposeful, and more in power.

I also worry about conformity. The topic is on my mind right now because not an hour ago I was in section for my class on Evil, and the readings for today included a piece about the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments (read here). In general, though, I sometimes get worried that being part of something bigger than myself, being part of a group, means sacrificing my individuality.

Mostly, I've gotten over this fear. Playing a certain role in a group doesn't have to entail selling your soul; it's a matter of taking on suitable roles, of letting the character you play hew to the character you have. That's part of why I don't feel completely at home in band yet: yes, the more experienced players are very kind and helpful, and I appreciate that, but it doesn't suit me to be in a position where I need their help in order to get anything done. I want to be useful and reliable, someone who, if not in a leadership position, can at least be relied upon by leadership to play point person--and I'm not there yet, which is uncomfortable.

Honestly I'm not sure why I'm so worried about conformity. My problem is more likely to be that I don't *get* the implicit rules of a group and do something aberrant and weird and awkward than that I internalize the rules too well. Conformity lies on the other side of community, and you have to get in before you can't get out.

(I'm also not that worried that I'll compromise myself in order to gain acceptance. As this blog, especially of late, should demonstrate, I am far too self-absorbed for that.)


I wanted to make one more point in this post, which is that, as I said I'd do in a post from last week, I've reached out more to people in my department. The response has been illuminating thus far, and every week I feel more certain that I will indeed end up in civil engineering. Walking around Y2E2, where most of the CEE faculty have offices, is one of the things that makes me the happiest here: just looking at the research posters, all the fascinating work going on, gets me excited to get started.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The City

Recently I went to San Francisco for a day with my dorm on a Scavenger Hunt. For anyone who isn't local, in the Bay Area we refer to San Francisco as "the City" (not San Fran, not Frisco), which is one reason for the title of this post.

It was a fun day. My group wasn't going all-out competitive, and we started by getting lunch. We walked all over, and ran back from Ghirardelli Square to catch a train.

  • Meeting people from other parts of my dorm
  • SFMoMA "play artfully" suggestions on the sides of buildings
  • Going through tunnels
  • City Lights bookstore
  • Seeing beautiful buildings
  • Brownie from Ghirardelli Square
  • Running along the Embarcadero (no, really)
  • Coming home along Campus Drive while having a philosophical conversation with friends

I'm local, but I actually haven't done a whole lot in the City, and being with out of state people happy just to explore made me see San Francisco in a different light. Something I regret about high school is that I didn't get out more. This, I thought, should be my city, but I don't know it as well as I should. Instead of having a clear mental map of how long it takes to get from place to place and by what means, I stumbled around dependent upon Google Maps. I know the big tourist destinations, but not the smaller places that one would expect to get to know, living near a place for so long.

I mentioned that our name for SF was one reason for this post title, but there is another one: I want to think through (or perhaps just about) the idea of the city. The idea of living in one. My thoughts about maybe doing that when I'm older.

What do we associate with the word "city"? Fast-paced, hectic, exciting, dangerous, busy, public transportation, culture, museums, shops, restaurants, landmarks, lack of parking, business, international corporations, wealth, poverty, penthouses, slums. Simultaneous magnification and compression of human experiences. Intensity, variety, diversity. For me, personally, the idea of the city is tied up with notions of being young and free and possibly wealthy.

Cities may be megamachines: power multipliers, levers for action at a distance, systems that reduce people to functional units. (I should probably read more Lewis Mumford.) New York is probably the most archetypal American big city, and I am pretty sure that I wouldn't want to live in New York. But there are other cities, like Boston and San Francisco, which seem milder but without losing that "cityness."

What is this "cityness"? Well, the opposite of rural or provincial. Worldly, future-oriented, fast-paced, perhaps unstable. When we think of city dwellers we often think of rudeness or callousness, anonymity. Kitty Genovese being murdered and no one calling for the police. Skyscrapers. Ambition.

Please read "Cities and Ambition," an essay by Paul Graham. He talks about how different cities make different value judgments, and about how the ambitions of one city differ from the ambitions of another. New York values money, Cambridge values intelligence, Silicon Valley values power. He also says that cities are important as a locus for specific types of ambition: gathering like-minded people, the right colleagues, to work on problems together.

Furthermore, because (in case you haven't noticed over the past month) I've just started college, the last paragraph in his essay resonated with me quite a bit:
Some people know at 16 what sort of work they're going to do, but in most ambitious kids, ambition seems to precede anything specific to be ambitious about. They know they want to do something great. They just haven't decided yet whether they're going to be a rock star or a brain surgeon. There's nothing wrong with that. But it means if you have this most common type of ambition, you'll probably have to figure out where to live by trial and error. You'll probably have to find the city where you feel at home to know what sort of ambition you have.

I think I do want to live in a city during my early career. Actually, for my early career I imagine being somewhat itinerant, living where my projects are, following the work. But I like the idea of living in a city, young and free and on my way to becoming a force for good in the world (I may criticize the Silicon Valley conceit, but I have it too). Knowing the city in and out, having a favorite cafe and bookstore, being surrounded by people doing interesting things. Working hard and learning a lot and becoming a real person. Though that process, I hope, is already under way.

So what do I do with this? If you've been reading AI for a while, then you know I like things to be useful. What does this thinking about the city give me? Well, I know what I want--to expand my mind and worldview, and for my life and my world to act indelibly upon one another. To channel my ambition into something important and worthy. I knew these things already, but the thoughts of the city concentrate them somehow. Which, I suppose, is one of the city's functions: as a lens to collect ambition, distill it into something bright and cutting and capable of effecting change in the world.