Well-Posed Problems

August 23, 2009

To continue along with the mathematical analogies that I built in my previous essay on iterative processes, I thought I would examine and riff on the concept of ‘well-posed problems.’ To be honest, this isn’t something that I have much experience with in mathematics. Because, typically, in all the math classes I’ve had, the problems are ALWAYS well-posed. That is, they’re always something that can be solved.

But life isn’t like math class. Typically, the majority of problems in my life aren’t well-posed. Heck, half of them aren’t even POSED. And if that’s the case, how can I expect to get anywhere with them?

To go back to the math metaphor again, what does it even mean for a problem to be well-posed? It means that a solution exists. That you can get there from here. So, on the flip-side, what does it mean if a problem isn’t well-posed? What does it mean for a problem to be ill-posed? It means that there IS NO SOLUTION. No matter how hard you try, you can’t get there from here. You can scratch your head, jump on one foot while patting your belly, or even bang your head against the wall continuously. That won’t get you to the solution. Because quite simply, that solution doesn’t exist.

And in life? You can go about life half asleep. That’s analogous to always dealing with ill-posed problems. And yes, it has its advantages. Like the fact that you don’t have to think quite so much. Because thinking is, like, hard. And if all you ever do is try to solve one ill-posed problem after another, you’ll always feel like you’re doing something. And if just doing ‘something’ is what you’re after, then damn if you’re not doing a good job!

But if you’re interested in doing anything more than ‘something,’ say ‘something in particular,’ then it’s going to require that you find a well-posed problem. Although life has the slight advantage over math in that sometimes you might start with an ill-posed problem and still get an answer (even a ‘correct’ answer, if that terminology has any meaning in the real world). But then you’re just being lucky, you’re not being smart. And although those two domains are not strictly exclusive, one is well within my control while the other is, almost by definition, not.

So, to move things forward you need to pose the ‘thing’ well. I guess that’s analogous to setting up real, honest, concrete goals. And I would imagine that setting those goals must also involve writing the thing down. Because the mind has a silly way of making it seem like you ‘know’ and ‘remember’ things, just because you happen to be able to keep a fuzzy concept of those things in your mind’s eye for a few seconds. Like this whole whole ‘well-posed problems’ analogy. It was stuck in my mind when I first thought of it, but it certainly didn’t look anything like it does now.

And I certainly don’t really have any concrete details as to how to tell whether a ‘life’ problem is well-posed. That will require more thinking (eke!) on my part.

Time to pose some problems. And iterate.

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I was reading something by Eliezer today. And he mentioned something about morality being an iterative process. This got me to thinking about iterative processes and life in general. I mean, I spent the greater part of this summer working with an iterative process (namely, Levenberg-Marquadt) for minimizing a certain cost function in order to fit a model to data. And if I spent so much time with it, it would only stand to reason that I SHOULD be able to apply that idea somehow to real life. I mean, it isn’t a one-to-one correspondence. I’m not literally going to use some mathematical algorithm to ‘optimize’ my life. Though that would really be cool.

Here’s my thought process on this: for some iterative method (take Newton’s method in one dimension, since that’s pretty standard fair in any Calc I course and is pretty easy to think about), the goal is to find some value for x, call it x*, that stands as the ‘answer’ to some problem. Usually, at least with Newton’s method, that x* represents the solution, or zero, to some function. But you could just as easily use Newton’s method to minimize a 1D function by finding the zero of the derivative of the function (say the original function is something nasty that you can’t solve analytically, like f(x) = x * exp(x) – 5*x^2). But that’s just a random digression into numerical analysis.

My point is, with all these methods, the first thing you have to do is determine an initial iterate. With a high-power method like Newton’s method (which has quadratic convergence, for Jebus’ sake!), you want your initial guess to be within the neighborhood of the correct answer. Otherwise, you’re going to diverge like woah and never get to the answer you were looking for. If you want to get there more slowly, but also more surely, you might want to use something like the bisection method. That only has linear convergence, but you’ll DEFINITELY get there.

Again, that’s a bit of a divergence (but NOT del dot F!) from the main thrust of what I’m thinking which is this: you need that initial iterate to get the process started. It doesn’t matter how good the method is, if you don’t pick a first guess and then plug it into the technique, you stand 0% chance of getting to where you’re going. Which I guess is just a really fancy-ass way of saying, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t make.” But somehow at the moment that I thought of this analogy, it sounded really profound.

Anyway, what’s the takeaway message? In numerical analysis, as in life, the main thing you can do to make sure something gets done is to take the first step, pick the initial iterate, and then see what happens. It might be the case that you picked something that doesn’t fulfill any of the conditions for convergence (damn you, fixed point method!). In that case, you note the failure of the method (or the iterate), evaluate your situation, and try again. And again. And again. You may have to try a hundred different iterates and a dozen different methods before you converge to the right answer. But that’s okay. You’re living anyway. Might as well make the most of it and ride the gradient to that optimal solution.

And take heed: the first extrema you find might not be global. You may need some sort of momentum term built into your algorithm to make sure you don’t run into a rut. But all things considered, that’s rarely the problem with your problems. More often than not, it’s the simple fact that you don’t seem to want to get started out of fear that you’ll ‘do it wrong.’ But there is no wrong iterate other than no iterate. Anything you do will give you feedback on what you could be doing better. Expect for doing nothing. That gives you feedback, but all it tells you is that you should be doing something!

So start iterating!

Sidenote: I wonder if I’m going to start thinking more in these sorts of terms the more I get into applied math. I would find that both amusing and terrifying. This is both a new toolkit of metaphors to look at life with and a scary way to sound retarded to the rest of humanity. Let’s hope I do a lot of the former and not much of the latter.

Okay, that’s a pretty suggestive title. I don’t mean to say that Einstein and Newton didn’t accomplish amazing work. Or that all of us can be a Newton or an Einstein.

What I do mean to express is that these gentleman (and Nobel Prize winners, Fields Metal recipients, etc.) are not necessarily gods among men.

The first individual that pointed me in this direction (at least, to the point of feeling it necessary to write a post about this) was my graduate student assistant. We were discussing solving a linear first order differential equation (you may recall that perhaps the simplest method for solving such an equation is by using an integrating factor). I said something to the effect of, “How did these guys some up with that stuff?” And the graduate student responded by saying, “Well, actually, if you just think about it for a little while, it makes complete sense.”

Later that same day, I mentioned how impressed I was with Newton that he had developed the calculus. The grad student again responded by saying, “Yeah, actually, it’s not as impressive as what you would think. They (ie mathematicians at the time) knew about derivatives and integrals. I mean, slopes and areas under a curve are kind of intuitive. What Newton managed to do, his great accomplishment, was combining these two concepts through a form of the fundamental theorem of calculus.”

Deflated again. But he has a point. Discoveries do not happen in a vacuum. In fact, they happen a pretty big, complicated network. This is evident from the fact that calculus was developed independently by both Newton and Leibniz. Both men had available to them all the mathematics at the time. And both managed to come up with basically the same idea independently. (Newton gets all the credit, whereas most of the notation we use stems from Leibniz).

Similarly, Einstein didn’t just sit down one day and think really hard about space-time and then come up with his theories of relativity. I’m reading the book Einstein: His Life and Universe right now. As a biography, it traces the genesis of his ideas about relativity. Basically, he completely surrounded himself with the theories of the luminaries of his time: Boltzmann, Mach, Helmholtz, Planck, etc. He read and studied their textbooks and papers studiously. And only THEN, after reading through their works, grappling with their ideas, did he manage to make the next logical step and develop his theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, and brownian motion.

In other words, it wasn’t magic. He wasn’t somehow independently brilliant. If you stripped him away of his education, he would have been a really bright, hard working kid. But he wouldn’t have come up with relativity.

I write all this because it gives me a sort of hope. Because I know that I’m not ‘Einstein brilliant.’ That is, I know that I couldn’t possibly ever stand up to the popular conception of Einstein. But I’m a decently hard worker that shows a decent aptitude for mathematics and physics. If I want to follow in Einstein’s footsteps, that is, the real Einstein, then the next logical step is to start engrossing myself in the works of the masters of this day. That might take a while, because there are notably more masters now then there were in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But still, it is easy enough to pick a speciality and stick to. Read everything there is to read in that speciality. And then start trying to build on it. Not quantum leaps. Baby steps.

I should mention that a decent amount of my thinking on this topic originated from the book The Talent Code and the article Einstein’s Superpowers. Both are exceptionally good reads, both entertaining and informative.

I had an epiphany this past Friday about why I don’t really enjoy participating in sports all that much.

I went out golfing with the grad student assisting my research group and another REU-er. The grad student brought his friends, and all of them had golfed before. Both I and the other undergraduate had never golfed before. I actually didn’t end up golfing (I came up with some lame excuse involving the fact that there were five of us and they really only wanted groups of four). Instead, I tagged along and acted as the caddy to the other undergrad. I’m pretty sure I enjoyed myself much more than I would have had I golfed.

Listening to the other undergrads experience helped crystallize in my mind why I never really enjoyed sports. Throughout the night, he got more and more excited as he improved (and he did improve considerably from the first hole to the eighteenth hole). He told me that he gets pretty competitive and always wants to improve whenever he plays a sport.

And there it was: I’m not really all that competitive. At least, I don’t think I am. That is, I’m not consciously all that competitive. So, when I walk on a sporting field, having spent very little time honing my skills, I’m already below average in terms of general athleticism (catching / throwing objects, blocking people, running and avoiding obstacles, etc.). Add to that below average athleticism that fact that I also (a) don’t really care to get batter and (b) don’t like looking like an idiot in front of other people, it’s really no wonder that I dislike sports. They’re basically a giant incubator for (potentially) looking like an idiot in front of tons of people (mainly because they’re meant to NOT look like an idiot and thus signal your fitness, skills, etc.) and are meant TO allow for improvement and competitiveness. That second trait is almost the definition of a sport.

I don’t know what that says about me. Probably nothing good. But it does say that if I ever want to improve on my sporting skills and actually make playing recreational sports fun, I will have to drastically rework the way I think about sports in general. And I don’t really know if I think it’s worth it. I’ve learned how to ride a bike (thanks Dave!), and I can swim passably well. Those are survival skills if nothing else. Throwing and catching a ball only becomes a survival inasmuch as it is a great way to socialize. So by not participating in such activities out of apathy, I’m closing down a viable source of group bonding.

Yeah, that’s probably not good.

In a side note, I wonder why I enjoy martial arts? I started that at a young age (maybe around 2nd grade… I don’t really remember). I never ever disliked it, through the 10+ years that I participated in it a group program. And yet martial arts displays all the same indicators of things that I don’t enjoy: performing in front of a group, progressively becoming better via feedback and competition, etc. It’s kind of weird that I would like that and not like other sports. Maybe the very basic, mechanical level of martial arts interests me more? And now, it probably has more to do with the Eastern philosophy aspect and the general necessity of keeping in shape (the same reason that I enjoy running).

There you have it. After all that speculation, we have ended where we started: I suck at games involving balls. :P

This is priceless. The name of the ‘show’ is Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue. It tracks the descent of a teenager into drug culture. But that worse-than-laughable anti-drug cliches aren’t even the best part. No, that honor has to go to seeing all of my favorite childhood cartoon characters telling the kid to ‘just say no.’

The sad thing is that the anti-drug campaign hasn’t progressed much in 20+ years. They’re still making the same hackneyed, counterfactual claims to defend their twisted worldview. We can only hope that someday they’ll grow up and join the rest of us in a place called reality.

She’ll subtract her height from ten feet, divide it into
hundreds of gallons of water, the numbers
bouncing in her mind like molecules of chlorine
– Sharon Olds, “The One Girl at the Boys Party”

“Who here is taking this course to fulfill the core arts requirement?”

That was one of the first questions asked in my introduction to creative writing course this past semester. I knew from the moment I raised my hand in response that I was not in my element. Doubly so since I had not participated in a humanities class since CIE, Ursinus’ version of a Great Books program. Triply so since my idea of a fun class involved heavy use of integrals, gradients, matrices, and vectors. I could go on to infinity with reasons for my apprehension about taking this course. The problem was, I couldn’t draw, dance, or paint. Writing had been my creative staple since high school. And I hoped it would see me through college.

In a room full of peers that dislike (or as I would like to believe, think they dislike) science and mathematics, I found myself in a situation I had been in many times before. In fact, it’s a situation that society at large faces. C. P. Snow summed it up in his book The Two Cultures. In this text, he describes two cultures that exist in Western society: the literary intellectuals and the scientists. He goes on to explain how in the 1930s the literary intellectuals began referring to themselves solely as “intellectuals,” negating the prominence of scientists in the popular zeitgeist. As such, without the help of the literary intellectuals, scientific thinking did not pervade into pop culture. The gap between the scientifically literate and illiterate grew. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or a James Joyce specialist) to see some of the results of this cultural divide in current events. Just look at the Republican vice-presidential candidate in the 2008 election. She clearly could have benefitted from a stronger science education.

A growing group of scientists, myself included, wish to bridge this divide and create a new third culture, one that brings science directly into the common lexicon without dumbing it down to so-called pop science. Just as cultural literacy requires a certain amount of exposure to the Bible, Shakespeare, and War and Peace, scientific literacy requires exposure to evolution, the laws of thermodynamics, and the basics of statistics. More and more, science is defining the world we live in. As author Stewart Brand stated eloquently, “Human nature doesn’t change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly.”

But if the third culture stands any chance reaching their goal, they must first consider their audience. The general populous is at once curious and fickle about what they learn. In general, they have no use for dry formulae and abstract hypotheses. Give them a story, an analogy, a metaphor to take hold of, and they will certainly grasp even the most difficult of concepts. If that is to be the case, an intellectual in the third culture must be both scientifically literate and entertaining. And as such, he must also be creative.

This was the context in which I found myself in introduction to creative writing: the one scientist at a humanities party (although a few compatriot chemistry and biology majors peppered the room as well). At first, I attempted to eschew from scientific topics. We’re all humans, after all, and it is not so difficult to write about human topics. However, as I became more comfortable in and with the class, I realized that maybe I should make an attempt at a third culture piece. As such, I wrote “Trinitrotoluene,” my short story selection. Although readers stumbled over the name and struggled to recall the Second Law of Thermodynamics, overall the reception of the story was very warm. Most people seemed to latch onto the human element of the story, which ironically I found was the least interesting part of the piece to write and read. Again, as Brand stated, “Human nature doesn’t change much.” We have been doing the same stupid things for as long as man could pick up a rock and knock his neighbor over the head with it. The only difference is that the rock is now a nuclear weapon and the head is now another nation. But the chemistry, that was new and exciting and recent! And always changing.

Regardless of how I felt about the piece, the little nuggets of chemistry hidden in a ‘human interest’ piece must have become dislodged and entered a few people’s minds. They now know what TNT stands for, and perhaps even how to pronounce trinitrotoluene. They may not know the difference between naphthalene and benzene. In fact, a classmate asked later in the semester regarding a fellow chemists use of benzene in a poem, “Is that an element?” But they have at least been exposed to a new scientific idea. And perhaps in the exposing, they will not find the next science class as distasteful.

Although I greatly enjoyed writing the short story, I am sure that my skills in turning science into quality edutainment have a long ways to go. One of my role models in this vein is physicist Alan Lightman. In his novella, Einstein’s Dreams, Lightman paints a vivid picture of turn of the century Zürich, as Einstein must have seen it while dreaming of riding on a beam of light. Not only does this book contain some of the most vivid and enjoyable prose I have ever read, but it also explains many of the ideas behind General and Special Relativity subliminally. Any reader will find himself entranced in the prose, lapping up a complex and beautiful theory despite himself. When my reader gets stuck on a name or a force-feeding of thermodynamics, I think of Lightman’s beautiful prose and realize how far I have to go.

One of the many benefits of a liberal arts education is a broadening of horizons, both personally and academically. It is rare for a science major at a state or technical school to participate in a creative writing course. But it is just these people that society most needs to truly ‘get’ creative writing. Journal articles are boring to read, even to the individuals well-versed in a particular field’s jargon. We must convert these important ideas into a language that the general public not only can read, but wants to read. Popularized science, not ‘pop science,’ is a necessity in a world where almost every policy decision, from environmental protection to biomedical research, and every private decision, from the choice of paper or plastic to the choice of a retirement plan, has scientific implications.

There is no doubt in my mind that there is room in every person’s life for both science and literature, for both quantitative and qualitative views of the world and life. In Jonah Lehrer’s book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, he makes the argument that a great deal of the scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century were predicted by authors, cooks, painters, and composers. If the artists of the world can so positively impact the scientific world in unexpected ways, the least the scientific world can do is make earnest attempts at translating important scientific thought into enjoyable prose. In that vein, I strongly believe that my introduction to creative writing course has made me a more productive member of the growing Third Culture.

So, I haven’t actually WRITTEN anything on here that amounted to more than a snippet of text or an assignment from creative writing. Which is kind of strange. I don’t know. Maybe I’ve just moved on to a different stage of my life that’s less reflective and more projective. I’m okay with that. Though I do miss thinking for thinking’s sake.

Anyway, I thought I’d write down some of my thoughts about where my life is going in terms of school (which, when I think about it, is where my life’s going in general, since I don’t really have ‘life’ outside of school [you know what I mean!]).

I’ve recently decided to drop my chem major down to a minor, pick up a physics minor, and use math as my ‘real’ major. Probably a dumb choice. Probably a choice I’ll change 10 more times before I graduate (although I’m starting to realize that the chances for changing without consequences are getting fewer and farther between… what, I’m graduating next year?!).

But I’m sick of chemistry. Honestly, it’s kind of sad I didn’t realize this a lot sooner. Well, I did realize it, but I just didn’t act on it. And now it’s almost too late. This is the final hour. I change now, or forever hold my peace. And wonder for the rest of my life why I didn’t just go and stop being stupid for one second.

I mean, I should have figured it out my sophomore year. Heck, the end of my freshman year. But the funny thing is, when you’re not looking for solutions, the only available solutions tend to suck. So I stuck with chem. Even though I’ve hated chem labs since high school. Even though I had less than a loving relationship with organic chemistry. Even though all signs pointed to ‘hey, there isn’t enough math here!’ D’oh. And duh!

And then last week, I had the epiphany that it doesn’t have to be this way. I don’t have to get a chem major. I don’t know why I felt like I owed the world that. Or that I owed myself that. I don’t know what possible line of reasoning lead me down that path. I can get a job with a math major. I can get into grad school with a math major. And then I don’t have to fritter away in stupid pointless labs that will do absolutely NOTHING for my future endeavors / careers and just leave me more frustrated with myself.

Anyway, long story short, again, no more chem major. I’m sad to see it go. But in a way, I’m also breathing a giant sigh of relief!

So here’s my preliminary schedule for next semester:

Advanced Physical Chemistry

Computational Physics

Abstract Algebra

Islamic Mysticism (because I do still go to a liberal arts college, afterall…)

Mind, Matter, and Magic (it’s about the scientific revolution. Basically, I have to defend science from the clutches of the silly humanities majors)

No lab. The only chemistry course will be chock full of math. And then there’s physics and math. This, my friend, is what I should have been doing all along.

Hindsight is twenty twenty. I shouldn’t have took that many (chemistry classes).

A Facebook Birthday

October 5, 2008

Another creative writing piece. This was my ‘big one.’ We each chose to focus on one area of writing. I chose creative non-fiction. Enjoy.

Birthdays have changed. They’re no longer about the number of gifts you receive, or the number of cards your relatives send. They’re not even about the number of birthday punches you have to endure. These days more than ever, at least for the 13 to 25 set, birthdays seem to be about the number of wallposts you receive on Facebook.

My third Facebook birthday started like all the others. The night before, wrapping up a marathon homework assignment, I found myself drawn to check my e-mail. Click. Click. Aaah. The internet, connection, relatedness: other generations had their booze, their heroine, their cocaine. Ours has Facebook. Every time I open Outlook, as the little progress wheel starts spinning, I can feel my insides flutter. This time, I know there will be human contact for me. This time I’ll get a hit. Unlike most other nights, tonight I won’t leave empty-handed. Ding ding ding. I’ve got mail!

Just for good measure (and a little bit of the obligatory postmodern self-consciousness), I feel the need to preface this work by stating that I should maybe — possibly — not be writing it. Facebook isn’t eternal or enduring. It doesn’t represent the pinnacle of human achievement or even something that people in 10 years will be talking about (Friendster, anyone?). But it does epitomize our generation. Even more so on a Facebook birthday.

For those not in the know, Facebook is a social networking site. It was launched by Mark Zuckerberg on February 4, 2004. Zuckerberg, a student at Harvard, originally created the site as a way for Harvard students to keep in touch. The name comes from the real-world paper ‘facebooks’ some colleges distributed to new students. These books were filled with the pictures and names of all the students and faculty at the college. Facebook soon expanded to include Stanford, Columbia, Yale, and eventually all undergraduate institutions. In the fall of 2005, Facebook was opened to the preening masses of high school students. By the very next year, it became a no-holds barred stomping ground for anyone with a valid e-mail address and too much time on their hands.

But enough about Facebook’s birthdays. Let’s talk about mine. Birthdays bring my thoughts back to the beginning. Not of my life. Of my online life. I can hardly remember a time without the internet. I figure I must have lived half my life without it. But that was the half that I don’t much remember anyway: a blur of action figures, multiplication tables, video games, and geography lessons. Then, in 4th grade, we got AOL. America Online, a quaint relic of earlier times was once the sole ISP for my hometown. I remember with a certain relish returning home the first time to find my mom at the computer, ‘surfing the web.’ “What would you like your ‘screen name’ to be, David? Now, you’re not allowed to have your real name in it.” Always mindful of safety, and probably terrified by all the prime time news shows listing the various internet predators on the prowl, my mother understood that I shouldn’t pick a screen name with identifying characteristics. So I chose to be Arthur4000, after King Arthur, a childhood fascination. It turns out that Arthur2000 (the new millennia just over the horizon) was already taken.

“Now, you’re not allowed to have your real name in it.” How times have changed. Now Facebook pages overflow with personal information: date of birth, hometown, relationship status, political and religious views, not to mention one giant picture in the upper left hand corner to announce to the world what you look like. People I don’t even know can learn more about me by just looking at my ‘page’ than I will ever know about my grandparents. But this is normal. Before there was Facebook, there was MySpace.

Ah, MySpace. Facebook’s ugly older sister. She may be hipper, have more friends, and know all the coolest bands, but she still gets no respect. The fact is MySpace has 73 millions users in the US, compared Facebook’s 36 million. But somehow, for me at least, Facebook is just better. The comparative comes from a mixture of one part aesthetic, one part connectedness, and eight parts elitism. The common wisdom is that MySpace allows users to customize their pages, and therefore MySpace allows its users to customize their pages poorly. Just as in government, democracy of design can lead to some really horrible decisions. Facebook, on the other hand, wields an iron fist. You can change a few things here or there on your page. In the end, though, you’re bound by the great Zuckerberg. And Facebook creates a sort of feedback loop: all of my friends are on Facebook, so I find myself using Facebook more often, which leads to more friends joining, ad infinitum.

Back to my birthday. (Did I mention that it was my 21st? If not, you can always check Facebook). When I wake up, the first thing I do upon getting out of bed, the same as I do every morning, is check my e-mail. Click. Click. Seven new wallposts. A giant hit. The messages are generic: some mixture of “happy birthday” or “happy b-day,” occasionally suffixed with, “I hope you have a great one!” I know from personal experience that these messages are so simple to write. They take so little time and so little thought. Mark Zuckerberg even supplies a list of all the upcoming birthdays in a convenient box in the right most side of the page. Even though I know each message is only pseudo-human contact, really no better than an elevator conversation with a stranger or a head nod to a friend on the street, receiving them on this day and in this quantity makes them feel much more real. Despite the fact that half the messages come from people I haven’t spoken to in years and probably won’t speak to again outside of Facebook, I still get a rush. We’re social animals in a digital world.

Which is humorous, because as I go through my day, only one or two people wish me a ‘real-world’ happy birthday. Even some of my closest friends don’t pass on the mandatory ‘happy birthday!’ in person, perhaps because they felt the obligation met via Facebook. Does Facebook change the dynamics of a birthday greeting? It reminds me of elementary school, when on our birthday we were expected to bring in treats for our class. One friend, a Jehovah’s Witness, was not allowed to celebrate his birthday. This is what we remembered. Not all the cupcakes and brownies and cakes. No, this one strange friend who broke our custom.

After clicking through some more birthday greetings, I continue on to browse through the Facebook home page. I’m struck by the number of groups complaining about the ‘new’ Facebook. For the uninitiated, Facebook has recently changed its page layout from a ‘classic’ minimalist style (can something less than 4 years old really be classic?) to a more modern, free-for-all, everything-all-at-once style more conducive to the modern age. And Facebook veterans don’t like it. I’m invited to join many groups, all of them some flavor of ‘1,000,000+ to Bring Back Old Facebook.’ This group has 356,379 members. Another group has 456,507.

These groups reached this size in a matter of days, not months. The ‘viral’ ability of Facebook to organize half a million people is astounding. But what the millions decide to organize around is similarly baffling. In the past, millions joined arms to fight oppressive governments or overthrow old ways of thought. In the sixties, our parents marched on Washington to protest an unjust war. Our generation rallies to overthrow the tyranny of an ugly design. Facebook has the unhealthy ability to make it feel like you’ve accomplished something when you really haven’t. Joining a group against the genocide in Darfur doesn’t ‘raise consciousness,’ to use a term from my parents’ generation. It deadens it by creating a false sense of achievement. If Facebook had been around in the sixties, would the protests still have happened? Or would all the hippies have logged onto Facebook, congratulated themselves on being a member of ten groups denouncing the United States’ unjust war, and then clicked over to something more entertaining? Perhaps our generation simply finds a different meaning in Timothy Leary’s admonition to “turn on, tune in, drop out.”

I know I should do something more. More than continuously check Facebook to see if someone else has noticed it’s my birthday. Especially on my birthday. On this day, I’m especially aware of the need to do something ‘real,’ something unmediated, something that will last should all technology go up in some horrible fire of electrons. Instead, I check my e-mail one more time. Who knows? Maybe someone else noticed me.

Click. I have to make sure that all of my closest friends have left me a birthday greeting. Even in the deluge of quasi-friends, I have certain ‘real’ friends that stand out. Those are the ones that I really want to leave me a message. When I notice one or two haven’t written me, including my best friend from high school, I’m hurt more than I should be. Though maybe that’s a good thing: there is still some qualia amidst the quanta. I am still human.

My high school friend writes me later that day. Click.

I make light of this whole situation. But really, Facebook is big. Big in the same way that the printing press was big. Big in the same way that television culture was big. Somehow, we’ve managed to become both hypersocialized and hyperindividualized. We’re always on, always tuned in. We have the capability, and often the will, to know what any friend in the world is doing at any time. I made the joke once that my high school class’ 25th year reunion would be a Facebook group. And then I made a Facebook group for it. How inanely modern.

I read a book once by the anthropologist Thomas de Zengotita. This was back when I read books instead of reading web pages and Facebook walls. The book was Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It. That book has a lot to say about our culture. So much so that I wish to share some words of Dr. Zengotita with you:

“… representational technologies have colonized our minds. That may be the simplest, deepest way to characterize the whole history of representation. To the extent that our thoughts no longer wander along on their own, stocked only with materials drawn from direct experience, to the extent they follow flows of representation instead — to just that extent we don’t think our own thoughts. Literally.

Keep in mind, this book was written in 2005. Three whole years before my Facebook birthday. Dr. Zengotita was ahead of his time. We’re too busy to think our own thoughts. Too busy thinking about what everyone else is thinking about us.
In the end, over the course of three days, fifty-three people wrote on my wall to wish me happy birthday. That in itself is not impressive. I am not the type to base my self-worth around the number of wallposts I get, or the number of friends I have. And I know I’m nowhere near as well connected as most. The impressive part is that a person like me should get that many at all. I’m the ‘quiet type.’ An introvert. How do over fifty people notice someone who spends most of his life attempting to stay out of the spotlight?

This was my third real ‘Facebook birthday.’ One for each year of college so far. I can’t imagine there are that many more left. Something new and different will certainly supplant Facebook, just as Facebook supplanted MySpace. I can only guess that the new incarnation will be even more addictive. My generation is fighting a losing battle. Future generations have already lost.

I’ve been speaking of Facebook as some sort of monolith, a system that has so many things right and wrong with it. Obviously, though, a site that pegs itself as a social network is no better or worse than the people who populate it. We feed it with our teenage angst, our adult worries, and our middle-aged regrets. Like television, Facebook is real life, only more so. Unlike television, which only gets its material from an elite group of writers and producers, Facebook has the whole world as a staff. The internet is one of the greatest social experiments yet attempted by humanity. And Facebook will chronicle a few steps along the way.

Imagine 1000 years in the future. 1000 years ago, Western Europe was just entering the dark ages. Think of it. Where will we be in 1000 years? There’s no way to know. But isn’t it interesting to think that future historians will have pile after pile of hard drives to sift through. They’ll know more about us than we could possibly know about past peoples, more perhaps than they could ever want to know. And in one of those ancient hard drives, somewhere buried deep inside the magnetic ribbons, will be all the data from my Facebook birthday. Will they notice me?

Click.

Fun fact: I checked Facebook twenty-five times while writing this piece. Make that twenty-six. I had good reasons. I needed to get my facts straight. And read over the messages sent to me on my birthday. Oh, and a good friend left me an interesting wall post. Yes, I had a good reason to take my attention off this paper every time. Continuous partial attention, they call it. Much fancier sounding than ‘multi-tasking.’ Plus, CPA sounds like a syndrome. Add it to the DSM-IV. Click.

David Darmon is amazed that he finished this essay.

It’s time (actually, a little past time) to collect my thoughts on the summer. Although I have a feeling they’re going to be pretty short this time around. Mainly because there wasn’t much of a summer being had.

Which I guess is the ‘highlight’ of this summer: no longer quite being a kid anymore (though I still posit that kid-ness will never truly go away for our generation). The only part of summer that was truly summer like was the first week and a half. I spent that doing typical ‘kid’ things, like hanging out with friends, going to movies, playing video games. Yeah, good times.

And then I went to Texas. And although all that normal summer stuff was still there, it didn’t feel like the center of life anymore. The center of life became working (if you can call what I did over the summer working). Working a 9 to 5 schedule. That became the core of my day, instead of my friends / social activities, etc.

Now, I don’t know how much of that is just a function of my personality and how much of it is a function of getting ‘older.’ Although I guess it doesn’t really matter either way. Because either way, it’s the way that I’m going to go about life.

Returning to college just now, I plan on really enjoying this last bastion of ‘kid-ness’ in my life. Because undergraduate is really, really easy. Compared to what’s ahead, this is like a peace of cake. Which is funny. It makes all that complaining in high school worthwhile. Because you finally get an ‘out,’ a way to just chill, learn, and be a non-adult for a while. For the low low price of $40,000 a year! What a bargain!

Anyway, yeah, I guess that’s the weird thing about this summer. The fact that it wasn’t at all a summer. I miss the old summers. But hopefully next summer will be more like old summers. Because nobody told me my last ‘real’ summer was going to be last year.

Now onward and upward towards this year, though! All the fun, awesome, responsibility-ness of being a college student. Haha. Take that, real world!

How you spend your time…

August 17, 2008

So, I’ve discovered that I have a lot of time and don’t really feel like reading anymore. Since reading and watching TV are my default activities right now (and I’ve decided to limit my viewing time to 3 or so hours a day [wow, that’s kind of sad]), that leaves me with some writing to do. Plus, I haven’t written anything substantive here in a while. And the summer’s coming to an slow, gasping end. Why not spend the long hours putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys).

With a lot of time on my hands, I’ve been thinking a lot about time and how to spend it. Which is a mistake right there. When you have enough time to think about how you spend time, you’re doing something wrong. And I know that. And you would think that I have some or set of skillful means to get started on things so that I’m not in that situation for more than a day (instead of, say, three weeks). But nah, that would be too easy. Much more fun to thrash around, wondering, ‘What the hell am I doing with my life!’ Dramatic much?

I’ve taken a few steps towards resolving that issue. Like buying a textbook on computational science (that’s about the only academic interest that I seem to be able to work myself up about, which I guess is a good sign, because it seems to indicate I’ve found something I’m really interested in and could pursue should all the higher institutes of learning suddenly disappear). And, well, that’s about it. I guess doing this counts. Yeah, writing.

I keep having the same general idea running through my head every day. It goes something like this.

Voice 1: Hey, you should, like, do something. I mean, the time is going to pass either way. Why not make something out of it?

Voice 2: Yeah, I mean, I could do that. Or I could watch another episode of this TV show. Yeah, I think I’ll do that.

Voice 1: Do you really think that’s a good idea? I mean, you’ll get all vicariously entertained by that for the 42 minutes of the show, but then what after that?

Voice 2: I don’t know, I guess I’ll deal with that when it comes. But for now…

Voice 3: Did someone say Vicarious? Yeah, Tool!!!!

Voice 1: Um, okay. Whatever you say. Just don’t expect to feel to good about yourself at the end of the day.

Voice 2: Okie dokie.

Voice 4: Hey, where’d all the ice cream go?

Sometimes I wonder if I expect a little too much from life. Yeah, that.

For the moment, though, I think I’ll listen to voice 2. That guy seems to have something interesting in mind.