Grad School Visit #1: Mizzou

(Clarification note written prior to any visits: While I blog about these visits for several reasons (personal reflection, sharing my experiences with anyone interested, maybe someone else accepted but unable to visit will find them useful, etc.) I will note upfront I intend to omit anything I consider negative and also that no inferences should be drawn from any omissions. In fact, I may omit things just to ruin the ability to make inferences. I’ll also omit names. I doubt my blog is read enough to matter, but I’d rather not anyone read these and dislike what they see. Also, the no negative comments rule does not apply to food.)

I flew in Thursday morning, getting in around noon. After settling in, I had some time to wander Columbia before meeting with anyone. The city itself I immediately took to. There’s a lot of food options, a lot of stuff in an easily walkable area, and the level of crowdedness is comfortably low. The place looks pretty nice, and downtown is close enough to the university you can’t easily tell where one ends and the other begins.

The campus of Mizzou itself certainly earned its reputation. I couldn’t explore all of it because it’s huge, but what I did see was beautiful. Many of the buildings are historical, though the newer ones are obviously state of the art. (For contrast, none looked like they were thrown up thirty years ago and left to decay since.) The student center and the union (apparently different buildings) were both packed with things. Lots of restaurants, plenty of places to be, some recreational activities, a two-floor store, etc. The recreation center was named the best college rec center by Sports Illustrated, and for good reason. I found the rock climbing walls and lazy river with whirlpool to be the most appealing features of the rec center.

Regarding the philosophy department itself (right!), I spent most of my time in individual meetings with faculty. I was pleasantly surprised to find more areas of shared interest than I expected. If I were to go to Mizzou, I wouldn’t expect to have any trouble finding support for my interests. One professor and I got so immersed in conversation that our twenty minute meeting consumed the next twenty meeting. Whoops. That much should have been expected as soon as the topic turned to metaphysics, though.

Overall the climate was extremely comfortable. The term seems vague, but it really fits–the place felt like home almost instantly. Sitting in the hotel waiting for my taxi to pick me up, I feel sad to leave. The relationships between graduate students and professors appeared all quite virtuous. I haven’t personally seen any departments where people are really at each others’ throats in a negative sense, but I’m aware they exist, and this department seems to be the polar opposite of that. I couldn’t talk to anyone without them saying good things about someone else in the dept. Moreover, all of the grad students seemed really happy being there. Some went out of their way to say good things. Others, even when I asked, really had nothing bad to say.

The last event of the whole visit was a pizza party at one of the professors’ houses. It was about as pleasant as you would expect a pizza party to be (very). I bounced around for awhile before settling in a small group off to the side talking about metaphysics for a few hours. Seems talking about idealism will get pretty much anyone (quantified over the domain of people interested in philosophy) interested. From there everything from mereology to bodily resurrection to time travel came up.

On my free night (Thursday) I had Shakespeare’s pizza since I actually heard of it from over a hundred miles away. It was good, for sure, though not worth trying to replicate at home with the expensive frozen pizzas they offer. The cheesy fries in the student union were good. The cheese took awhile to get used to, but about halfway in I appreciated the depth of the flavor. The fries were average. I think the pizza at the pizza party was Wise Guys. Also decent, for sure, and it even held its own after cooling off throughout a couple hours of metaphysics.

Grad School Visit #1: Mizzou

For whatever reason math, science, and pretty much any heavily quantitative study has become the metric on which intelligence is based. Someone who can do calculus mentally must be a genius and someone who struggles with fractions must be dumb. I’m not immune to this oddity–I met one particularly brilliant individual years ago and assumed he must be great at maths. (He’s not bad,  but also not significantly above average.) However, this sort of assumption is just toxic for many people. While some people let the cultural assumption roll off their backs, I have friends who insult themselves for being dumb simply because they’re not skilled with a particular mental skill or two.

I’m generally alright at math; I think it comes more easily to me than many others. I got a 3.8 on a math major and likely to have a coauthored paper published soon. But when I try my hand at writing a compelling story or poetry, I often fall flat on my face. Of course, with practice it improves, but if math abilities were an indicator of intelligence generally, I’d expect to be at least average at these things. Being able to craft a driving story, create art that inspires or comforts people, or say things that somehow improve life for people are themselves incredible intelligences to have. If I could trade my logic skills for those sorts, it’d be quite the tempting offer. Understanding people, feelings, aesthetics, etc. is hard. In my mind, far harder than crunching numbers and symbols.

Ultimately this is just a result of misdirected priorities. The pursuit of money and new technology (for the pursuit of money) has distracted us from the happiness and fulfillment those things were meant to serve in the first place. Certainly a lot of math and science is done for joy, knowledge, beauty, or some other virtuous thing, but the state of cultural supremacy they have taken seems to stem from these misdirected priorities. These misdirected priorities speak nothing of the art-oriented people. Quantitative skills have their place in good living, but it’s not the place that’s given them their current status.

As I can imagine certain complaints will come in, I’ll address them right now. I’m not saying everyone is smart. Some people are dumb. If nobody was, being smart wouldn’t really be anything. (I’m not saying just that it wouldn’t be valuable–it literally doesn’t make sense for there to only be smart people. Of course, there is a wide spectrum, but I don’t foresee anyone trying to make an object on the basis of apparent binaryism.) This isn’t to say they have less value as people. There’s a lot of very good things to be besides smart. Being smart is often only a useful trait in more valuable things. Nonetheless, for people who desire to have that trait but consistently fail because what they do is aimed at knowledge or some sort of mental skill but not one quantitative in nature, this attitude is harmful. (The underlying issue of priorities is an issue with a much larger scope. That there is a problem is simple enough to state, and all that is needed for my point here.)

I said some things two years ago when law enforcement and homicides and all those other fun things were constantly in the news. The ideas still hold now as much as they did then, and the problems haven’t really gone away; we just got a new topic for the news to talk about. I’ve been involved in some protesting and I also know a lot of LEOs. While some are acting nothing short of abhorrently, and many are just propping up a system that abuse the weak (see: Standing Rock), there are also quite a few good people under the uniform, and seeing fewer of them get killed would be nice.

The (largely waned for now, though likely to reemerge soon enough) protesting against police and prosecutor corruption is entirely legitimate. Grand juries are fed whatever the prosecutors say, and guess who’s buddied with the prosecutor. Could it be the officers giving them the evidence they need to do their job? People tend to act emotionally and protect their friends; that’s entirely reasonable. I wouldn’t put it past myself to sell out the good of the community for the sake of the people I care about. However, the general public does not gain from this system. Some outside entity needs to be involved to make sure everything proceeds fairly. If an officer can get off free when on camera shooting someone who’s not attacking anyone, we have an issue.

Some LEOs are corrupt or otherwise vicious people, yes, obviously, all kinds of people are. I wouldn’t be surprised if the power attracted some people who have no business being officers. Some extra hurdles to get the badge seems like a good idea. That said, indiscriminate murder of innocent officers is a stupid idea. It’s unethical on the one hand, and only likely to scare more people into encouraging the bad behavior.

Stepping back, though, I’d like to think most rational people ignore the hype and are in the “we need more oversight, we don’t want murder”, etc. category. It’s a pretty middle-of-the-road and easy conclusion. However, there’s a few points I don’t see very often in most discourse on the matter.

The main point that the following culminates to is I want less dead people, both cops and civilians. I don’t just mean the violent protests nor do I mean the racist cases we’ve seen recently, either. Of course, fixing racist cops is a moral obligation the government needs to fulfill, and I’m losing faith in the power of violent protests–at least first strikes. But in general there’s a few big issues that aren’t being addressed much in this context:

-Mike Brown (a divisive case at the time I originally wrote this point, and still a good example) was attacking the officer, yes, and use of deadly force was probably warranted, yes. However, we still have a dead kid’s blood on our societal hands. Most people do not charge officers, or anyone for that matter. Most people also don’t rob convenience stores. At least most people who are in a healthy situation. If we look to areas where things are not well, these become more common. These are symptoms of bigger issues. If a system spits on someone long enough without reprieve, why would we expect that person to cooperate? Poverty breeds resentment which leads to no remorse for crime against the people who didn’t give a damn. Lack of education leads to lack of opportunity which leads to a lack of real risk in committing crimes. Moreover, the aforementioned poverty also stresses parents and harms their ability to properly raise a member of society because they lose mental acumen and often simply lack the time from working bonus shifts. (This isn’t to say poverty elements==poor parents, but it certainly makes it harder to parent.) We have the resources to prevent things like this and we don’t. You want less crime? Get rid of the motivation.

-Our current youth generation doesn’t care much for authority figures, especially of the law. But why would we? Our first encounters are often negative. Most kids aren’t being saved from rapists and robbers. A lot of kids are speeding, drinking underage, and smoking pot. All of those lead to negative encounters with the police or at least fear of the police. The police aren’t widely considered friendly people who will help you when you’re in need; they’re considered the people who will screw you over when you’re not doing anything actually harmful. The other week a friend of mine told me she emergency services to send an ambulance to help her friend who was dangerously intoxicated. Instead the police came and hounded her about heroin (which she didn’t have. Never mind the bodily danger someone is in. We need to punish people with imaginary heroin!) Things like quotas and using traffic laws to fill city coffers sure only worsen the problem since they increase negative reactions to police. While many do have important roles and can’t be taken away from investigating a homicide, spending less time ticketing someone going 46 in a 45 (even though the speed clock is wrong and they were actually going 44) and more time being the most upstanding citizens of their communities would do a lot of good.

-This comes full circle to my “I want less dead cops” point. People breaking the law attack. People who have no reason to respect the law or law enforcement break the law and attack. While you can’t prevent all crime, we have data showing lowering bad stuff like poverty lowers crime and we already have the resources to get the job done. We just need to do it.

Quote of the Day 2016-12-06: Bertrand Russell

“By the law of excluded middle, either “A is B” or “A is not B ” must be true. Hence either “the present King of France is bald” or “the present King of France is not bald” must be true. Yet if we enumerated the things that are bald, and then the things that are not bald, we should not find the present King of France in either list. Hegelians, who love a synthesis, will probably conclude that he wears a wig.” (On Denoting)

Quote of the Day 2016-12-06: Bertrand Russell

The Lengthening yet Dying Consumerist Christmas Season (I find it surprisingly saddening)

This year I saw Christmas decorations before even Halloween and Black Friday setup at Walmart early Thanksgiving with signs saying not to touch until 6 pm. A few friends went out to shop at midnight and found out most places were closed, the whole thing happened on Thanksgiving evening without much notice. We’re already two months into the Christmas selling season and there’s not much of the usual excitement in the air.

This might just be 2016. It’s been widely acknowledged that this year has been sub-par. The length probably also plays a factor. Being excited about the Christmas season is harder when it’s three or four months long. Being excited about Black Friday is harder when it’s over a week long. I make the point now and then that scarcity increases our feeling of value in other domains, but it comes into play here, too.

I think in addition, though, there’s a dying excitement in consumerism. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not a big fan of consumerism. But I do appreciate nice things like excitement, even if they emerge from something less nice. Should buying unnecessary things be the focus of our celebration? No. The excitement is still nice. Hearing about the door-buster mega-blowout super-sale and seeing people excited about a cool new thing is nice. And I do still see it in some domains. Long-awaited movies and games that come out can get people excited. (In fact, pretty much all of my examples are cultural things. Books, TV shows, etc. also come to mind.) 4K TVs are making less of a splash than 3D which made less of a splash than HD. I don’t think they’re less cool, either. (I can’t see 3D, so maybe I’m wrong, but that sounds like a huge thing. If I had to choose between seeing more clearly and seeing in 3D, I’d pick 3D.) But the attitude has shifted from “Hey, come check out our awesome stuff!!” to “Buy our crap and get out.”

The Lengthening yet Dying Consumerist Christmas Season (I find it surprisingly saddening)

The Most Obnoxious Argument

I see this argument far too often, usually in a limited quantity of forms, but across a wide variety of topics. The argument goes:

  1. S entails x.
  2. x is good/bad.
  3. Therefore is good/bad.
  4. entails y.
  5. Therefore is good/bad.

The word “entails” might be better swapped out for “includes” or some other verb depending on what S is. Usually the work is done with a sneaky shift in what’s meant by S. A lot of bad arguments on the web about feminism are subject to this.

  1. Feminism entails equality across gender.
  2. Equality across gender is good.
  3. Therefore feminism is good. (Or, “If you think men and women are equal, you’re a feminist.”)
  4. Feminism entails #KillAllMen.
  5. Therefore #KillAllMen is good.

Often this is played out contrapositively: If you think #KillAllMen isn’t good, you must be anti-feminist, which means you must be anti-gender-equality. This is, of course, silly. We can fight over what precisely the word “feminism” means, or just agree that there are multiple senses of it or homonyms in play (i.e. either the equality feminism and killing feminism are two kinds of feminism or there’s actually two words, pronounced and spelled the same, but with different meanings.) We can also just give the term to the other party and pick a new word to conveniently label a bundle of beliefs. (Or just state the whole bundle. This has issues for brevity, which in too many media is required to a stupid degree.)

This same basic line of thought is used to put words into others’ mouths or try to force them to make the contrapositive argument. For example, a communist may support public ownership of the means of production. Someone arguing against them may claim communism clearly involves killing millions of people, so it must be bad. That means communism must also be bad and thus public ownership of the means of production must be bad. Again, either we can play some games with the word “communism” or move over. (Other factors will come into play here as well. For this example in particular, “socialism” has had its meaning for many Americans shifted far to the right, leaving only “communism” which still leaves a bad taste for many.)

Ideally people would stop making this argument. In the absence of this ideal, I’m partial to acknowledging the usage disparities up front and defining words explicitly, easily hedging to use a different label for a set of beliefs. Granted, there is still the possibility of insisting on making this argument. Someone who is hostile to Christianity and also likes this argument may say Christians did the Crusades which were bad. Therefore Christianity is bad. Christianity includes believing Christ is the Son of God. Therefore believing Christ is the Son of God is bad. Ignoring the jump from Christians doing something to Christianity including something, someone not super attached to words may just make a new word. If I were a Christian who believed in Christ being the Son of God but thought the Crusades were bad, I might decide to tie all that up in, say, “Orichalchist”. So in this case I can say, sure, Christianity (i.e. Christ is Son + Crusades) is bad and Orichalcism (i.e. Christ is Son + anti-Crusades) is good. At this point the hostile may claim the Christ is Son thesis is sufficient to be a Christian, and being a Christian necessarily entails endorsing the Crusades. (I.e. there’s a non-necessary condition that’s necessary.) The argument is even more clearly absurd.

The Most Obnoxious Argument