Never be afraid to get dirty, but be sufficiently sure-footed to avoid the abyss of contamination.

Past Posts

I started blogging six years ago as a way to keep in touch with friends on the East Coast. After a year of grad school, I had found better ways and stopped. It wasn’t until three years ago that I started again. I had completely forgotten the reason why I restarted until I reread No Standards for Creativity (July 1, 2006), which begins with the following statement:

I started this blog after a series of conversations I had with my friend Eugene about globalization, research, and what the United States should do to remain competitive. We discussed a range of topics, including government involvement, education, contemporary views of science and engineering at home and abroad, and the history of research and innovation.

The post went on to discuss his perspective on Korean education, mine on education in the United States, and the potential implications of the No Child Left Behind Act on the latter.

While my recent posts do not take themselves quite so seriously, I still thought it would be fun to share several of the older ones.

Education

After checking out a workshop about improving the quality of math education, I wrote I’d Rather Be a Hammer (August 1, 2006):

Middle school was also when I took the Algebra I and II sequence. I remember learning how to use a lot of mathematical tools, but we only applied them to figure out when trains would meet up in Chicago. Following this sequence, I took Geometry and Trigonometry. Aside from learning a lot of interesting properties about circles, lines, and polygons, we learned how to construct mathematical arguments like proofs.

What would happen if shop class were taught like math was? Maybe a year would be devoted to the hammer and screwdriver. I can picture projects like hammering a bunch of nails to a piece of wood. The next year would cover saws. This type of teaching style might allow students to really get a solid feel for each tool and its purpose, but it would also risk losing the big picture. It might be difficult to construct a tote box after just Hammers I and II.

When I reread that post now, I find it interesting albeit somewhat naive: it is based on a limited understanding of the Algebra Project and underestimates the importance of teaching basic skills. Moreover, the word problems that the post mocks have a noble goal: to teach abstraction. At the same time, memorizing formulas like rate \times time = distance subverts this very goal.

Decision-Making

When I reread a post like Stare Decisis (May 10, 2009) or even Radiolab – Choice (August 8, 2009), both of which are about making decisions, they feel anomalous in the current blog, but both would have been par for the course a few years ago. Back then I would often take too long to make decisions and would continually second-guess whether the decisions I had made were the right ones. It was around this time that I saw Ghost Dog, a movie about a hit man who follows the samurai code. The movie led me to the Hagakure: The Code of the Samurai, a text that discusses many principles to enable a samurai to make split-second decisions. I wrote about them in A Certainty Principle (August 9, 2006). Here’s an excerpt taken from the Hagakure:

When the time comes, there is no moment for reasoning. And if you have not done your inquiring beforehand, there is most often shame. Reading books and listening to people’s talk are for the purpose of prior resolution. Above all, the Way of the Samurai should be in being aware that you do not know what is going to happen next, and in querying every item day and night.

Since that post, I have experimented with various styles of decision-making with varying degrees of success, and truth be told, I am no samurai, either in fauxlosophy or practice.

Bending the Rules

Is the Shuttle Worth a Roll? (July 7, 2006) was a response to the return of shuttle flights after the Columbia disaster and discussed an ethical concept known as a normalization of deviance, by which the lack of consequence for a previous decision can encourage riskier behavior the next time a similar situation arises. To my surprise, the Guardian’s blog linked to the post, and in my secret desire to be a journalist, I tried in vein to emulate that post. Sacrifice (September 16, 2006) reasserts a common objection to one argument used to justify harsh interrogations:

Although both camps have let their opinions be known, it is difficult to make any defintive argument as to whether bending the principles set forth in Common Article 3 will put troops at greater risk, stop terrorist attacks, make the country safer, or make the world more dangerous.

And a few days before my qualifying exam, I wrote Regal (November 5, 2006):

While it can be difficult to break out of a comfortable situation, new challenges if conquered offer the promise of greater happiness. If one can face these challenges while maintaining integrity and confidence, it might best be described as regal.

Those who know me would not describe me as regal, but it’s definitely a quality I aspire towards.

Art

I know a foodie whose experience with restaurants puts me to shame. However, I have never heard Foodie praise a restaurant to which we went: “It’s okay, but there’s a place in [not here] that is much better.” Unfortunately for Foodie, he does not live anywhere near [not here]. While I never addressed that point in a blog entry, Clouds (October 27, 2006) and Ragas Revisited (November 27, 2006) were musings on the interplay between knowledge about art and the ability to appreciate it. Expertise (January 27, 2007) questions how seriously one should take the opinions of a so-called expert.

To put these posts in some perspective, it was around this time that I went to the MOMA and New York City and had a conversation with a friend about expertise. We had both seen Martin Creed’s Blue-Tack piece and were surprised the artist won an award. We came to the consensus that those at the forefront could be put in two categories: Arena A and Arena B. Arena A is for someone who has attained some level of technical achievement: an impressionist painter who has developed a new painting technique or a mathematician who has solved an open problem. Arena B is for the person whose point of view is considered visionary and is largely decoupled from technical achievement. At the time, I had some disdain for what I saw as Arena B in my research community: members who were held up because they were on top of the latest research fad.

Science

There is someone who persistently tries to troll me into an argument about science and religion, but I find these situations to be fruitless. There is nothing that I could say that would change this person’s mind or vice versa. 3 Simple Rules (June 27, 2006) was an attempt to make that point without making it personal. Simplicity versus Complexity (July 19, 2006) was an attempt to extend it beyond science and religion.

Positive Attitude

While I am not always successful in maintaing mine, I think there is a benefit to maintaining a positive attitude. But what about unrealistic scenarios? Doesn’t a positive attitude have to be tempered with some notion of reality? I tried to address this in Pipedreams (December 5, 2006) by examining two unrealistic scenarios:

While the resolution of both of these stories have yet to be written, I wouldn’t count out either possibilty. However, getting to a resolution may require passing by a lot of foul stuff along the way.

There are many roadblocks to maintaining a positive attitude, and a few posts have touched on some. Often, stress is the biggest roadblock to maintaing a positive attitude. Perspective (August 26, 2006) discusses a few remarkable moments that arose from stressful situations. Another of these roadblocks can be oneself. See that? (January 4, 2007) mocks a common scenario of self-pity where many of us occasionally find ourselves. Another roadblock comes from our peers. While school warned students that their peers might encourage them on self-destructive paths, these often involved scenarios in which peers would pressure someone to use an illegal substance. Type II Peer Pressure (January 12, 2007) deals with the opposite type of pressure, one in which peers could discourage a constructive activity or behavior. It ends, as this post does, with the following lines:

Of course, peer pressure of either type is not inherently bad. Friends may introduce us to new activities and interests. They may also warn us away from activities we would end up disliking. Determining whether or not to play Follow the Leader is then a matter of personal judgment.

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  1. Pingback: Exit through the Gift Shop « Dirty Hands

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