The Purpose of School – Unpopular Opinions

Note: too lazy to edit. Read at own risk.

Most parents will do anything to give their children a better start in life. With recent reports of Chinese billionaires and Hollywood celebrities paying bribes to get their children into prominent universities, it’s clear that a misguided approach can ruin the best of intentions – that we want our children to be better than us and enjoy what we may not have been afforded, be it material or educational.

One of the biggest choices parents encounter in Dongguan is school choice. Faced with a variety of options ranging from local Chinese schools, bilingual schools, to international schools and even homeschooling, parents fret endlessly over what to choose, and often double guess their eventual choices. Adding to the anxiety are the intense peer pressure of seeing everyone else sending their kids to class after extracurricular class, and the occasional twinge of guilt that maybe, in some way, one is failing as a parent by doing too little, or too much. Before we get caught up in the nuances of different school systems, perhaps we should take a big step back and think about the ultimate purpose of school.

For the students and parents, school is about preparing for a life and career in the adult world. For employers, it’s about equipping a future workforce with the right skill set. For society, it’s about instilling an informed generation with a forward-looking mindset and attitude. For the bureaucracy (government and school administration), it’s about demonstrating tax dollar effectiveness, using academic standardized test results as a proxy. These goals overlap somewhat but diverge significantly in many aspects, as one would expect.

If aliens from an advanced civilization were to visit Earth and observe our schooling system, they would undoubtedly be quite baffled. Cramming a bunch of kids in a giant concrete box and forcing them to sit through mind-numbing lectures repeatedly, learning material that will neither be remembered or used, seems like a strange way to prepare people for adult life. Yet it makes sense in a twisted way – with school caring for the kids during the workday, the adults are freed to sit quietly in a giant concrete box and perform mind-numbing tasks all day, generating memos and reports that will neither be remembered nor used. As the crow flies.

What about knowledge? Isn’t that what school should be all about? Of course, the basic curriculum is important, especially in lower education (reading/writing/basic math); yet aside from the fewthat go into academia or highly technical fields, most of the material we learn in higher education is obsolete or irrelevant in the real world, and quickly forgotten after the exam.

School is about far more than knowledge. It teaches the kids to conform to society’s rules, whether or not they make sense, are fair, or even apply to everyone. The kids are conditioned to not only accept being measured and ranked amongst their peers, but also being done so publicly. They learn, often the hard way, that life is not fair, intentions are not always pure, and good guys rarely finish first; that sometimes no good deed goes unpunished, and yet sometimes kindness comes from unexpected places. They make friends and foes, and realize that friends can hurt much more deeply than foes. They learn that teachers have the same shortcomings as everyone else; that power reveals and amplifies personal traits, good and bad. They learn to adapt and collaborate, develop interests and relationships, experience joy and sorrow, triumph and defeat. Indeed, they learn far more from each other than their parents or teachers – an uncomfortable fact that challenges our perceived self-importance. Yet it is hard to deny when you see kids speaking with an accent not of their parents’ or teacher’s, but of their peers.

When measured by what is retained from the years of school, academic knowledge comes in dead last. Yet everyone retains their friends and contacts. We keep our street-smart cynicism, and the realization that the world is mostly run by bureaucracies and hypocrisies (and predatory capitalism, usually realized when it’s too late). We remember our favorite teachers, flings and crushes, salient experiences, closet skeletons, even the meaningless conflicts and pettiness. That’s what we retain, what we revisit in our dreams, what we take to the grave.

If school is not primarily about obtaining knowledge, then what is it for? Surely, we can’t be so cynical as to think that the point of school is to have kids jump through hoop after pointless hoop, hoping that this process would magically generate a well-prepared citizen for the 21st century? No, but I think the truth is not far off. It has an important societal purpose – signaling.

Most employers don’t care about what a college graduate has learned, as the real training is done on the job. In their eyes, the real difference between a graduate and a dropout, is that one has the aptitude (and to a certain extent, the resources) to complete all the tedious requirements and earn the degree, and one does not. A diploma signals to society that this is the type of person who has a good chance of being successful on the job, through demonstration of a willingness to do what is required. Yes, it seems wasteful; but purposely wasteful, to separate the wheat from the chaff. In that sense, a higher education diploma serves more as a stamp of certification than an indication of knowledge and mastery.

For most of us, school is not really about acquiring knowledge. For if it were so, one could just take Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) that most prominent universities offer, without spending a dime. You could even go one step further and physically sit in on classes in a public university – most professors I’ve asked told me they couldn’t care less as long as you’re respectful, and many would much prefer an refreshingly eager learner over a reluctant student trudging through the bare minimum for the course credit . You could get all the knowledge you want without the massive financial burden, and get most of the college experience and its benefits, from networks and connections to friendships and social life, even a wide potential mate choice. Few people do so, because in the real world, actual knowledge is not valued nor recognized unless accompanied by a piece of paper certifying so.

According to a recent study, few are happy with our current school system. Teachers are stressed and frustrated, students aren’t learning the right skills, parents are worried their kids are unhappy, and employers find graduates inadequate. Given the universal sentiment, why haven’t we made any changes? The main reason is that bureaucracy moves at a slow pace, and education is the biggest bureaucracy of them all. With most qualities of education being intangible and difficult to quantify, the measure of success defaults to standardized academic tests, which suits bureaucracy just fine.

Another reason is that most parents draw from their own school experience, without considering that their own education was likely outdated even then, not to mention wholly inadequate for the information age. All too often it is our own hubris and illusion of competence that impede us – although it rarely feels that way, since bias is a flaw other people have, by definition.

Let me share an example. At an unnamed international school in Dongguan, the Chinese material chosen for the youngest kids to memorize and recite was “弟子规”. This particular text was cobbled together (content stolen almost verbatim from at least 3 books) in the Qing dynasty and is supposedly a guide for moral and proper behavior. It contains relevant, timeless nuggets of wisdom such as how to treat slaves/servants and handmaids (待婢僕), and how one should shut up and accept domestic violence (撻無怨). The text is about 1000 characters, grouped in 3-word segments in Ye Olde Chinese, incomprehensible even for a native Chinese speaker. Why choose this text? A charitable guess is that the Chinese teacher, a native mandarin speaker, drew from her own personal experience and decided that if it worked for her, it should work for them – and shockingly nobody objected. Never mind that this is an international school with non-native speakers, the text is abstruse and outdated, little practical language improvement can be expected, and we no longer live in the 17th Century. This is the epitome of what is known as the curse of knowledge.

Technology has driven change faster than any time in history, and it seems clear to me that our schools are ill-equipped to prepare the next generation for the fast-changing world ahead. Information technology has fundamentally changed the way we acquire knowledge. In the past, knowledge came mainly from curated sources like textbooks, which although biased and outdated, was generally vetted and of acceptable quality. Today any 3rd grader can Google anything, anywhere, anytime, with conflicting results supporting virtually any crazy position imaginable. There is no longer a dearth of information – the new challenge is differentiating reliable information from garbage, a skill set few possess and rarely taught.

To be fair, modern schools (mostly international schools) have started to focus on the 4 C’s: Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity. In addition to teaching material (what to learn), they are starting to teach metacognition (how to learn). This will undoubtedly come in handy in a rapidly evolving workplace, where the pace of innovation requires lifelong learning and relearning, and people will likely have several changes of career.

Machines have already taken over hard labor (manual work), clerical jobs (organizing work), logistics/analysis jobs (thinking work), state-sponsored remote killing (military work), surveillance (security work), and soon will take over fields like driving (real time life-critical work). In a world where machines will know more, analyze better, and be far cheaper than humans, it is hard to imagine what the best skill sets will be – even fields like art and music are not immune to the effects, as AI paintings and music compositions have already been shown to be comparable to human endeavors.

Nobody knows for sure what the new workplace will look like in 15 years – all I know is that it will be very different from today’s, and the skills required in the future will likely not be what is being taught in schools now. A diploma, once a certified stamp of approval, no longer offers a foot in the door, as technology enables employers to evaluate candidates with far more insight. Google, one of the leaders in innovation, used to have first pick from top graduates of elite universities. Yet today, a Computer Science degree isn’t even required for a software engineer or product manager position. In fact, 15% of new hires don’t even have a college degree. Why? Your GitHub code base tells Google far more about your coding proficiency than any degree or resume could. 

Technology will make more jobs obsolete, and our kids will have to be far more flexible switching careers – something our generation is loath to do as we age. Indeed, coping with change seems to be another essential skill that needs to be taught, yet those most adept and comfortable with change are rarely in our education system. The Sergey Brins and Elon Musks of the world are more likely gaining accolades and wealth by innovating and transforming the world, rather than being in an massive education bureaucracy thanklessly fighting for change. George Bernard Shaw once said, “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”. Disparaging as it may sound, I believe it says more about how we undervalue teachers in our society than the intentions and abilities of those who teach.

Perhaps more alarming than the dearth of innovation in schools, is the unwillingness to acknowledge the inadequacy of current education policy, much less muster the political will to reform it. The saving grace is that globally speaking, nobody is really rethinking and reforming their education system, so everybody is equally unprepared. Although one might argue that this can be said of most generations, the difference is that the stakes are higher now, since many career paths will no longer exist even though our system pretends that they will.

It’s been said that our generation questions tradition, the next generation knows no tradition, and the previous generation knows no question. This gross exaggeration contains nuggets of truth, as I think that all generations held this sentiment at some point. Yet, muttering about “kids these days” and caricaturing them as snowflakes who have never seen typewriters or even TV static, is living in the past. It seems that the best way to give our next generation what we were not afforded, is to properly prepare them for life in the 21st Century instead of the 17th. It requires us to set aside our personal experiences, and carefully examine what we are trying to achieve for them, even if it means reluctantly admitting that our own journeys may not be useful, adequate, or relevant. Questioning tradition can be uncomfortable (especially if we’re part of it), but that’s how progress is made. Our next generation needs to be comfortable being uncomfortable, to embrace the change that technology will undoubtedly bring. Facing these changes ahead we can no longer afford to make progress the traditional way, namely, funeral by funeral. Of course, someone else’s funeral, by definition.

The opinions expressed above are undoubtedly unpopular, as they should make any parent, already anxious, uncertain, and uneasy, even more uncomfortable. After all, parenting is a touchy subject. The mere suggestion that we could be, even collectively, on the wrong track, can be taken personally. To make things worse, questioning the value of past personal experiences in today’s world could be easily misconstrued as me discounting those cherished personal journeys, although that is neither the substance nor the intention. Context matters. Similarly, much like how our past experiences may not work well today, our past actions shouldn’t be viewed through today’s moral lens. Because when looking back, even seemingly imperceptible progress can accumulate enough to surprise us.

The Elementary School Entrance Exam

* note: this is a longer version of the published article in Here Dongguan

China is obsessed with grueling entrance exams. They are promoted as a path to meritocracy, a level playing field on which everyone is measured by the same standards. The most notorious one is the gaokao, or the college entrance exam. Before that, there is one to enter high school, and another one to get into middle school. Exams can be taken too far, however, and a recent incident has created outrage, even for China standards. It happened in an exam to get from kindergarten to elementary school, something intrinsically ridiculous yet sadly, is the least absurd part of the story.

Officially, the Chinese government forbids “written or academic exams” to enter elementary school. However, that has never stopped schools from cleverly circumventing the rules. In early May, a few private elementary schools held entrance “interviews” for prospective students. It not only involved face-to-face interviews but also oral quizzes on Chinese, English, math, a talent demonstration, and a bewilderingly difficult test on a computer, which technically, is not a “written” exam.

If one were to accept the very notion of an entrance exam for elementary school, which many Chinese parents begrudgingly do, then this is simply a logical extreme of that concept, and not offensive in and of itself. What caused the outrage was not that the schools skirted the rules by de facto testing the kids, but by making a shocking move:

They tested the parents.

They gave parents logical puzzles like these to solve:

They asked about the education and socioeconomic background of the parents and the grandparents:

One school had the parents write an 800-word essay on the spot about education. Another went full Gattaca and allegedly didn’t accept the kids if the parents were fat, a practice with ugly implications:

These actions strongly suggest that admittance would be based on the child’s current ability and their predicted intellectual capacity, using the parents as a proxy. Most people feel disgusted and outraged about this practice. Yet, for something so deeply unsettling, it is surprisingly hard to articulate coherently what exactly is so offending.

The most common objection is that it is unfair to judge anyone based on circumstances out of their control. This is ironic because consciously or not, we have no problem judging beggars, criminals, poorly behaved children, celebrities, potential mates, and others constantly, based on limited information and a simplistic narrative. After all, it’s only discrimination if someone else does it; when we do it, it’s called insight.

All but the most naïve of us realize that given the same qualifications, people with certain traits will be favored, regardless of relevancy. Right or wrong, it’s reality. An interview serves far more than to understand the person; it also confirms and strengthens our biases, whether we care to admit it or not.

Allow me to ask this: Even if these schools did not openly test the parents, does anybody honestly believe that they would not discriminate behind closed doors? Is their crime simply quantifying what is socially taboo, and discriminating openly instead of covertly?

I believe what truly offends us is not just the garden-variety discrimination nor the brazenness of it. That’s a job for virtue signaling, and this feels very different. I think the reasons we experience such swift and intense disgust are more complicated and subtle.

We all have skeletons in our closets, and deep down we all feel inferior and insecure in one way or another. It’s part of the human condition. One reason we are offended is that by testing the parents and asking unsavory questions, the schools are exposing our own skeletons, laying bare the insecurities that we hold dear and close to our hearts.

Growing up we are taught that we can be the next Michael Jordan or Stephen Hawking, if only we worked hard enough. As we approach adulthood, we realize that simply isn’t the case. Given sufficient effort we can achieve competence, proficiency, and even expertise – but rarely greatness. You can’t will yourself to be 6’8”, no matter how hard you try. We mentally file it away with Santa Claus, and keep this depressing thought private, because it’s socially unacceptable to point out that the Emperor is naked. Ironically, we repeat this very same inspiring lie to our kids. And there it is – we are offended because the school is exposing our lies, imposing the unsavory realities of adulthood onto kindergartners, stripping them of whatever innocence remains.

It tells the rejected children that they are not only not good enough, but that they do not even have the capacity to be good enough. It finds them wanting instead of wanted, and implies that they are not merely incompatible, but defective. It is both humiliating and devastating, similar to what a heartbroken lover experiences – the agonizing realization that one can never be good enough. We resent that this undoubtedly adult emotion is unnecessarily forced upon a child; but more than that, we are deeply offended because it is ruthlessly honest, and even we, as grownups, are not adult enough to handle that kind of honesty, much less our children.

Ethics aside, there are rational reasons to reject this practice, even if legally permissible (they are for-profit private schools after all). An exam is only as good as its predictive value of future success, and it is doubtful that these exams are useful in that sense. Whatever limited insight one might glean from looking at parents’ traits, if any, seems far outweighed by the divisive and bigoted attitude it promotes. The message it sends to our children is reductionist and Darwinian, and is antithetical to the very purpose of education.

In many parts of Asia, schools are ranked solely by their graduating students’ test scores. This creates a perverse incentive. As school ranking becomes the ultimate end of education rather than preparing students for life in the real world, choosing students become like picking race horses; the student is neither the customer nor the product, but a substrate – breathing meat that delivers scores.

Our kids will shape the world to come, guided by the values we instill in them. If we want to arrive at a diverse and compassionate world, we shouldn’t start the journey with dehumanization and bigotry. The next generation deserves a better world even if we do not, and looking around, there is still a long way to go.

Baby Dialogue

There is an article floating around the internet, clearly meant to be a dialogue between theists and non-theists. Normally I don’t bother with such laughably low hanging fruit, but I’m in the mood today so what the heck. Here it is:

In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other: “Do you believe in life after delivery?” The other replied, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.” “Nonsense” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?” The second said, “I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t understand now.”

The first replied, “That is absurd. Walking is impossible. And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”

The second insisted, “Well I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”

The first replied, “Nonsense. And moreover if there is life, then why has no one has ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”

“Well, I don’t know,” said the second, “but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.”

The first replied “Mother? You actually believe in Mother? That’s laughable. If Mother exists then where is She now?”

The second said, “She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her. It is in Her that we live. Without Her this world would not and could not exist.”

Said the first: “Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.”

To which the second replied, “Sometimes, when you’re in silence and you focus and you really listen, you can perceive Her presence, and you can hear Her loving voice, calling down from above.”

– Útmutató a Léleknek

First of all, let’s examine the premises. The use of “babies” and “Mother” (capitalized nonetheless), is already committing the logical fallacy of “begging the question”. This is similar to asking “have you stopped beating your wife?” in court; a telltale sign of intellectual dishonesty, incompetence, or both. Instead of ruling it inadmissible (as we should), let’s see if any other arguments are presented worth examining.

Assume for the purpose of our discussion, that the “babies” have sensory input, can reason, and communicate. The first baby purportedly says that walking and eating is impossible, and the umbilical cord is the only means of sustenance, without elaborating why. This is clearly a “Strawman” fallacy, stating a position that no reasonable person believes in, simply so it can be struck down.

In reality, this reflects that the author has not made any attempt to understand the other side’s actual positions and arguments. For example, a reasonable response would be, “We clearly have underdeveloped legs and mouths. They could conceivably develop into something that benefit us in ways we do not currently understand. Although we are currently fed only through an umbilical cord, there is no reason to believe that there are no alternative methods of receiving nutrition, despite not having seen one.” Of course that is more difficult to argue against; the other version is much better to mentally fap to.

The following lines of non-sequitur reasoning really made me laugh:

“But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”

“Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.”

Really? I don’t see a lot of things, but I don’t logically exclude them from existence. Neither does any reasonably intelligent person, theist or not. The inability to imagine something, such as alternative ways to eat, does not “logically exclude” those possibilities. Rather than make a valid point, it showcases the author’s comically naïve, binary thinking and lack of basic logic skills.

The first replied, “Nonsense. And moreover if there is life, then why has no one has ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”

More nonsense on display.  Imagine people in a prison cell. Some leave and never return.  Maybe they were all shot and killed.  Maybe they all lived happily ever after.  Maybe some shot and killed the others, and lived happily ever after.  Who knows. Yet following the author’s logic, it is the “end of life” simply because “no one has ever come back”.

It’s comical and tragic at the same time.  It’s like being given the deck to stack in your favor, giving yourself the best cards and your opponents the worst, playing the cards for your opponents, and still losing the game.

See, arguing is easy when you can frame the debate, make sloppy arguments, dream up crazy positions to knock down, be intellectually dishonest, and not care about making sense.

Zipper Around the World

I make zippers for a living. Every few months we produce enough zipper to go around the world, which is 40,075.16 kilometers at the equator. Here is an interesting thought experiment.

One day I’m bored. I haul out 40,075,160 meters of zipper (over 700 tons) from the warehouse, and make a perfect, tight wrap around the equator. With a smile on my face, I inspect my earth-hugging masterpiece. To my dismay, I find that the zipper is on the ground and on the surface of the ocean, getting dirty and wet, which is obviously unacceptable. Being the fickle person I am, I decide to haul in more zipper from the warehouse, and magically raise the entire zipper loop one meter above ground level (and sea level). I call on you, the warehouse manager, to get more zipper to do it.

Here is the question: Based on your intuition, roughly how much more zipper will I need?  How many trucks will you need?


To help out, here is a quick guide:

1%: 400 kilometers (1 big truck)

10%: 4,000 kilometers (four 40′ shipping containers)

100%: 40,000 kilometers (uh, call for quote)


You have 10 seconds to make a guess. Ready?

The answer, surprisingly, is 6.28 meters, or 0.000016%. The additional zipper needed is proportional to the diameter increase (1 meter off the ground = 2 meter diameter increase). Specifically, you will need 2m * pi = 6.28 meters. As the warehouse manager, all you need is to reach in your pocket and pull out some extra zipper, no need for a truck after all.

The Mirror Illusion

The brain is a wonderful organ. It provides us with a mostly accurate representation of the world around us, by making approximations based on sensory input and past experience. This has been mostly sufficient for our ancestors and their environment in which our brains have evolved. There are many examples of how the brain can be fooled, ranging from optical illusions, stereoscopy, to multi-sensory illusions such as virtual hands, phantom acupuncture, and the famous McGurk ba-ga experiment. What I will discuss here is something fundamentally different, which is how your brain can fool you by how it constructs the reality you perceive; and in particular, how difficult it can be to perceive it differently, even if you know the bias.

Look inside a mirror. You will see an image of yourself with a lateral but not vertical inversion, i.e., the left/right seems swapped but not up/down. A watch on your left hand shows up on the image’s right hand, but a shoe does not show up on the image’s head.

Think about it for a minute. That makes absolutely no sense, as the mirror is a piece of reflective glass, and should not discriminate between left/right and up/down. Most people have not thought through this apparent paradox. If you have not, I encourage you to take some time to think about it, and you will find that all of the obvious explanations that come to mind are in fact, incorrect. When first presented with the problem, I found myself experimenting with a mirror, closing one eye, in various orientations, and imagining different scenarios without gravity, to no avail.

What makes this problem so difficult? Simply put, we are looking in the wrong places. We look in the wrong places because what the brain constructs (and what we perceive) feels so real, we take for granted that it is real, and automatically exclude it from closer examination.

The first, and rather difficult step, is to realize that the mirror doesn’t care about direction.  You care about direction, and it is your brain that comes up with the representation, not the mirror. To illustrate this, point to the right, and the image will point in the same direction. Point up, same thing. However, point towards the mirror, and the images points back at you, in the opposite direction. The key observation is that the mirror inverts not in the left/right or up/down, but the front/back direction.

The second step, is to realize what you are actually seeing in the mirror. Imagine a cone pointed towards a wall. As you push the cone into the wall, imagine a cone growing on the other side of the wall, growing as you push, in the opposite direction. You end up with a cone, pointing towards you, on the other side of the wall. Put a red dot on the left side of the cone and a blue dot on the right side of the cone, and do the same thing. An inverted cone emerges on the other side of the wall, with a red dot and a blue dot, on the same corresponding side. Now, imagine a human face being pushed through the wall nose first, just like the cone, with the colored dots as eyes. You end up with an image of a face on the other side, inverted. The left eye is still the left eye, just flipped inside out. Although convoluted and highly counterintuitive, it is the correct interpretation of the image in the mirror.

Still having problems visualizing it? Take a latex glove and put it on your right hand. Now, take off the glove by inverting it, so it is inside out. The inverted right-hand glove is the analog of the image in the mirror, even though it looks like a left-hand glove.

The question now becomes, why do we so instinctively see a person swapped in the left/right direction, to the point where you cannot help but see it that way? The reason, simply put, is that it requires the least work from the brain. The correct interpretation (inverting), requires an incredible amount of work, as evidenced by the effort it takes simply to imagine it. There is no existing brain circuitry to do an inversion, because there was no need to do so when the brain evolved. It is far easier for the brain to represent the image as “someone” facing you rather than an inverted meaningless image. The agent detection circuitry in your brain is where the problem is, not the mirror.

Once the brain treats it as a “person”, it needs to orient the “person” in space to make sense of it. There are two main ways to mentally turn objects around in space; around a vertical axis (turning around), or around a horizontal axis (think foosball). Technically speaking, both ways are equally valid (as are any diagonal axes). Our brain will use the existing evolved circuitry, which is to turn around the vertical axis and spin the “person” around to face you, for that is what it encounters day-to-day. Interestingly enough, if one were to mentally flip around the horizontal axis, foosball-style, one would see the image as up/down inverted but not left/right inverted, further proving that the mirror does not discriminate, and the problem arises from a hardwired preference in your brain.

This example shows that something seemingly so real and right, is no more than an erroneous representation concocted by the brain. The explanation is counterintuitive, but readily verifiable, and probably enough to change your mind. Of course, this is a trivial question with a not so trivial answer, with no vested interest or emotional investment.

It makes me wonder though. I feel quite confident and passionate about many issues, far more complicated and nuanced than a piece of reflective glass. How many of those could I be completely wrong about, simply because it “feels” right? How many wrong trees could I be barking up, blissfully ignorant of the squirrel squarely perched on my back?

I wonder.


Yearning for a Hero

Judgments are clouded by emotion, and nothing brings out emotion like a highly charged event:

On Feb 4, 2015, TransAsia flight 235 ran into trouble shortly after takeoff and plunged into a river, clipping a taxi and bridge in the process. 43 people perished and 15 survived.

In the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe, when emotions are in overdrive, it is human nature to look for anything to lessen the pain, to divert attention, to ameliorate the situation. And what could be better that the ultimate silver lining……a hero. After all, it changes the narrative from an outright tragedy into a tale of a hero fighting to the end.

With reckless abandon, the notoriously salacious Taiwan media pushed the hero angle. In the days following this tragedy, the media and general public praised the pilot for flying along the river, avoiding populated areas, and making it less tragic than it could have been. In news reports and social media, he was elevated to a saint, a hero, a god. The general public, eager to shift their focus, gobbled the narrative, hook, line, and sinker. Anyone even remotely questioning that status quickly experienced the viciousness that only online anonymity can engender.

Did the pilot really deserve to be called a hero? Let’s take a closer look.

The first point to examine is whether the pilot was at fault to any degree. If pilot error caused the flying tube to inadvertently engage a lakebed, it would take a Stockholm Syndrome-type of twisted logic to call the pilot a hero. It would be like calling a quarterback a hero because he recovered the ball that he fumbled, and caused his team to lose by 10 points instead of 14. By declaring the pilot a hero, however, Taiwan’s media practically precluded the possibility that he was at fault. Evidently, their favorite sport is jumping to conclusions.

The final investigation report is not published yet, but preliminary reports seem to indicate that the pilot might have turned off the wrong engine (apply palm to face). This two engine plane can fly on one engine, but definitely not with none. This is eerily reminiscent of the surgeon who amputated the wrong leg.

For argument’s sake, let’s assume the pilot had no fault whatsoever. The question is, were his actions so extraordinarily courageous and altruistic to qualify him as a hero? Did he go above and beyond what is normally expected or required, and significantly risking personal welfare for the benefit of others?

The pilot seems to have maintained composure in the face of mechanical problems, and flew the plane along a river to minimize collateral damage. Some argue, that alone qualifies him as a hero, as a normal person would not be able to. This is fallacious, as a pilot should not be compared to a layperson. By that logic, a doctor would be a hero for not fainting when he is elbow deep in a patient. And a similar logic applies to prostitutes.

Pilots are trained specifically to handle emergencies; to stay calm first, then aviate, navigate, and communicate. The bar is set high, and we rightfully expect our pilots to meet that standard. Choosing to fly along an open, flat area with emergency landing potential, for example a river, is also a basic part of pilot’s emergency training (see page 2 of this FAA emergency procedure manual). This is a no-brainer; any sane person would choose an open river over a highly populated concrete jungle, with or without pilot training. Calling the pilot a hero simply for not committing mass murder by purposely plunging into buildings, is like calling a bus driver a hero for pulling over rather than intentionally plowing into the opposing lane. It cheapens the word and renders it meaningless.

The last reason is a bit more subtle. In the “trolley problem” moral thought experiment, you see a runaway trolley barreling down the tracks. Tied to the end of the tracks are 5 people, certain to die if no action is taken. There is a lever that can cause the trolley to go down an alternate track, at the end of which lies one person. The moral dilemma is a difficult choice between causing 1 to die through action or 5 to die through inaction.

In this case, the pilot is the decision maker, but in a sad twist, also sitting in the metaphorical trolley. His own life is on the line, which muddies the line between self-preservation and altruism; he is not risking anything more than he already has. In poker, it would be called a freeroll, with everything to gain and nothing additional to lose. I suspect that every reasonable person would do the same out of altruism, if not self-preservation, with few notable exceptions.

To summarize, the pilot cannot be called a hero because:

  1. He was doing his job (nothing extraordinary)
  2. His life was on the line (self-preservation)
  3. He very possibly was significantly at fault (shut off wrong engine)

The love for heroes seems to be universal, as it appears in every culture, and can be explained by evolutionary psychology. Naturally, we yearn for heroes, often with grossly misguided approaches. Genuine altruism touches upon our innermost sense of morality, telling a narrative of fellow beings who voluntarily risk life and limb for others; that perhaps one day, under the right circumstances, we ourselves might be inspired enough to be someone’s hero. It is a compelling narrative indeed.

We would not be human beings if we did not have emotions, and those emotions can be manipulated to affect judgment, sometimes by other parties, sometimes even by ourselves. False narratives provide that very emotional comfort zone, somewhere we can retreat and feel good. Everybody needs a bit of mental masturbation now and then. Just like the real thing, as long as it’s kept private, things won’t get awkward.

I am not trying to minimize the suffering of the victims in this tragedy, which is very real indeed. Looking for a silver lining that isn’t there is like looking for an excuse that doesn’t fit. Both are emotionally appealing but serve no real purpose, because in the end, a false hero provides no comfort, and explanation does not equal exculpation.

Appropriate Truths

Warning. This post is most assuredly not politically correct.

In “Origin of the Specious”, the late Irving Kristol quipped:

There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people,….there are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.

Cynical, patronizing, and arguably elitist, but not necessarily unreasonable.

We encounter different truths growing up, ranging from the tooth fairy and Santa Claus, to anthropocentrism, mind-body dualism, an eternal soul, a personal god. As our understanding of the world increases, some truths are readily discarded, some are replaced by more sophisticated versions, and some persist (of course, the “truths” discussed here are not literal).

Some truths, such as Santa Claus, seem to be discarded as one gains basic understanding of the world. Or is it so? I think that most trivial ideas are rejected not due to critical thought, but because their peers reject it. For children, the peer group is typically their classmates or friends, a group within which ideas spread and proliferate, and exerts immense influence. After all, migrant children tend to speak the language and identify with the culture of their peers, not their parents; and kids attending international school tend to come out not with their parent’s accent but a mixed accent of their peers. I posit that most children reject ideas like Santa Claus primarily because their peers reject it, with the rationalization coming later and secondary. For adults, although the peer groups may differ based on the subject, most people still follow the prevailing position of each in-group, treat the opinions or arguments presented by the in-group as more meritorious than they deserve, and ignore or discount disconfirming evidence.

Independent thinkers (relatively speaking of course), far fewer in numbers, may possess the thinking tools, but lack the knowledge, capacity, or even willingness to examine an idea properly and critically.

For example, to debunk Santa Claus, one does not need to understand mammalian aerodynamics or solve the Traveling Salesman Problem; simple, intuitive (Bayesian) probability will do. Reindeer have not been known to fly, and elves have not been known to exist. The prior probability of either is negligible (let alone both), therefore the idea can be safely rejected. Unfortunately, many “truths” or ideas, especially those involving ideology and theology, are not as easily revised or dismissed, and usually require scientific literacy, advanced logic and thinking tools, philosophical constructs, an understanding of psychology and cognitive biases, intellectual capacity (so politically incorrect!), honesty and curiosity. A few examples include intelligent design vs. evolution, global warming, alternative medicine, mind-body dualism, tabula rasa, and rational choice.

On important issues, people are often adamantly aligned with what they feel is right, apparently in itself a reason enough. It is often useful to see what a collectively disinterested group of experts think about a subject, without appealing to authority, . For example, consider this poll conducted by Pew Research (full report). It is unreasonable to expect a layperson, such as myself, to be experts on these important issues; however I believe that one should have the basic humility to at least seriously consider the views of expert scientists, who are collectively far more intelligent, and understand the issues and nuances more thoroughly. Being politically incorrect, I believe that scientific (not philosophical) issues should not be a democracy; they should be guided by relevant experts rather than popular vote. Could the experts be wrong? Could scientists fall victim to groupthink? That is a valid question, as no one person (or group) is right all the time. A more relevant question would be, who is more likely to be right? The gap of understanding between scientists and the general public is great. Case in point: when the scientists are asked “how much of a problem that the public does not know much about science”, 98 out of 99 answered as a major or minor problem, only 1 answered “not a problem”. As Adam Savage would say, “well, there’s your problem”. One the one hand, you have a consensus reached by the smartest people who dedicate their lives studying it; on the other, a gut feeling.  Assuming they differ, which one would you bet on?

Could the approach to a higher “truth” be like mountain climbing, requiring specialized tools and skills? Perhaps, like Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, requiring a deep understanding of disparate fields of mathematics, with few having the wherewithal to even understand the proof given? For a rigorous examination of certain issues it may be true (some philosophical problems for example).  However I suspect that even though many issues are complex and often intentionally confusing (example), given the right tools, most people can reasonably reach higher levels of “truths”.

One of those tools is a basic understanding of how the brain works (or fails to work). The ever growing list of cognitive biases discovered by science does not paint a pretty picture. The brain is but a delusion generator, constructing a version of reality from various input signals, eloquently explained in How the Mind Works. One needs to look no further than split brain research to realize this. A recent salient example is Dressgate, which made people question the veridicality of what they see with their own eyes. Evolutionary psychology shows that this constructed version has little to do with reality, and more to do with what had conferred a survival advantage, with heuristics and approximations often being good enough. To cut through the brain’s deception requires thinking critically and scientifically, in itself an arduous and painful process, as sacred cows are slain and comforting beliefs crumble under closer examination.  As the saying goes, the will to doubt requires far more than the will to believe.

The cynic in me asserts that few would even bother with the process, much less endure the unending cognitive dissonance; the optimist in me asserts that, well, false hope is still hope.

I believe that most can attain a higher “truth”, subject to our practical limitations (bounded rationality). It is probably beneficial to most people individually and collectively as a society; however, whether it is always beneficial to everyone is a question I cannot answer. After all, the curse of knowledge is a real phenomenon – look no further than at my jargon-filled, needlessly abstracted, diabolical writing style, unintelligible to most, often including myself.  Deeper understanding does not necessarily result in greater happiness.

Bertrand Russell once said “The fundamental cause of trouble in the world today is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt”.  The intelligent may have a better understanding, but the curse is that they lose the perspective of those less informed.  It is as easy to unthink a solution as unseeing a hidden message, or unfinding Waldo.  Sadly, in the current climate, it is politically correct to “give equal representation” to the fervent and passionate Waldo deniers, metaphorically speaking.  After all, the cocksure are loud, but more importantly, they can vote.

Interesting Problem

Here is an interesting problem that doesn’t require crazy math skills:

I participate in a daily lottery by choosing a number from 1-100 and hope it hits. The odds of winning is 1%.

I bought a ticket, got lucky, and won today. I decide to keep playing one ticket every day until I win again, and then stop playing for good. What day am I most likely to end up stop playing (by winning the lottery that day, of course)?

  1. Tomorrow
  2. The day after tomorrow
  3. 50 days from today
  4. 100 days from today
  5. There is no difference, every day is equally as likely

This is not a trick question (assume unlimited funds, standard lottery, etc.), no need to consider the unusual; you just need to understand the question.

If you chose 3) or 4), you would be incorrect. If you chose 5), congratulations, you have good statistical sense, and are probably quite sure of your answer, but you are nonetheless wrong – just less wrong. The correct answer is 1), tomorrow.

Counterintuitive? Here’s why.

Yes, every day is equally likely to hit the lottery as another, namely, a 1% chance. Let’s say today is Sunday. Tomorrow (Monday) I have a 1% chance to win and stop playing. The day after tomorrow (Tuesday) also carries a 1% chance to win. However for me to stop playing on Tuesday, two things have to happen: I must win on Tuesday (1%), and on top of that, I must NOT have won on Monday (99%). So while the chance I win on Tuesday is 1%, the chance that I stop on Tuesday is not 1% but 0.99%, because I must not have already won on Monday. Each day after that, the chance that I stop on that particular day decreases accordingly, not because I’m less likely to win on that day, but because I cannot have already won any day before then. Therefore, the most likely day that I will end up stop playing is tomorrow, which carries a 1% chance. Every day after that carries a chance of less than 1%.

This is a good example of how our intuitions fail us. I stated clearly that it is not a trick question, but “you just need to understand the question”, and for good reason. The question asked was “what day am I most likely to stop playing?”, which most people immediately substituted for a much easier question, “what day am I most likely to win?”. There is a subtle but important difference, which is the hard-to-spot implied condition of previous losses. To stop playing on a day does not just mean you win that day, but more importantly it implies an exact sequence of lose-lose-…-lose-WIN!

The last option “There is no difference, every day is equally as likely” is so appealing because it is a true statement.  The statement just happens to be irrelevant to the question.  It’s a powerful technique, a mental sleight of hand, widely used by marketers, politicians, and spouses.

Pope Endorsing Violence?

First, I agree with Pope Francis on many things he says and does (unlike his predecessor), and the direction in which he is taking the church. However, he has expressed an opinion that I strongly disagree with, and think is inappropriate for someone in his position. According to this report:

Gesturing towards Alberto Gasparri, a Vatican official who was next to him on board the plane, he said: “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch on the nose”.

Throwing a pretend punch, the Pope said: “It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others.


To a layperson, it seems that he is saying that if Face-Punch-4e0e4c3b2acd1_hiressomeone insulted his mother, he would punch him in the nose. That sounds like the Pope is endorsing violence against one who is not violent, simply because his feelings were hurt. Perhaps recognizing this misstep, the Vatican spokesman tried to do damage control:

Obviously he wasn’t justifying violence. He spoke about a spontaneous reaction that you can have when you feel profoundly offended. In this sense, your right to be respected has been put in question.

Ah, the good old “figurative”, “that’s not what he meant despite what he said” defense.

And Rev. Robert Gahl tries to further weasel out by saying,

Francis didn’t say that HE would have punched his friend for insulting his mother. He said his friend could expect to be punched, given that he should know that he had crossed a moral line in lobbing the insult and should be more careful and courteous in not causing offense.

Let’s see if this makes any sense by taking the holiness out. Imagine a drug lord telling an associate, “if dat punk ever *expletive, present participle* comes into mah territory again, he can expect a bullet through his *expletive, present participle* head”, while simultaneously making a gun gesture with his hand, pressing it against someone’s forehead, and fake-pulling the trigger. The intention of the drug lord – violence – seems more than clear, and the method – perforation of bone and thinking organ with metal pellet – is not ambiguous. Whether he does it personally or not, one can reasonably conclude: the drug lord does not merely passively condone, but actively endorses the threat of violence, and is ready to act if needed.

The example clearly shows that the Vatican spokesman was correct. The Pope obviously wasn’t justifying violence. He was ENDORSING violence. Ideas should be judged on merit alone; the person who expresses them should be irrelevant. Even if you are the Pope.

The line of argument taken by the Vatican spokesman and Rev. Gahl reminds me of the former President Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky case. Mr. Clinton narrowly avoided successful impeachment and perjury, by exploiting the incompetence of the prosecutor and creative but tortuous logic. He questioned the meaning of “is”, and came to the conclusion that even though Ms. Lewinsky was fellating him, she had sexual relations with him, but not vice versa! According to the declaratory definition, maybe. That’s getting off on a technicality, a distinction without a difference. For non-lawyers, think about how absurd that is for a moment. If one is getting serviced orally and concludes that he is not in a sexual relation, then what, exactly, is the nature of the act? For hygiene? For the taste?

Rev. Gahl argued that the Pope never said that HE would personally commit violence, despite the Pope himself gesturing with a flying fist to the victims nose. Technically he is correct. One is left to ponder, if not by the Pope himself, then by whom exactly? The Holy Secret Service? A Papal hitman? The Holy Mafia? None of these scenarios are any better than the Pope taking a swing himself. FacePunchOne often overlooked but exciting possibility is, perhaps the Pope’s mother, unhappy at being offended, flies from Argentina to find the person whom she likely does not know, and punches him in the face for an insult she did not hear. This would make the Pope merely unable to stop violence from happening, however if that is what the Pope meant, he needs to work on his communication. In any case, we are talking about a technicality. When others are trying to get you out of trouble, and the best they can do is rely on a technicality, you are on thin ice indeed. Especially if you are the Pope.

Contrary to what one might think, and as Dr. Pinker has shown in his highly recommended book, violence has greatly declined. Violence should rarely, if ever, be the response to non-violence in a civilized society. We have been moving in the right direction. We teach our children to “use words”, instead of fists, when they disagree. In a fight, we punish the one who threw the first punch. Disappointingly, this could be the Pope.

Freedom of speech is a basic human right, under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN. Unless the speech present a “clear and present danger”, all forms of expression should be protected, as unsavory or hateful as they may be. The problem is not with expression itself. It is with those who resort to violence when confronted with ideas they find offending; and to a lesser extent, those who feel that this type of violence is justified.


Update: The Pope, perhaps realizing the problematic situation he has created, backtracked somewhat.