Tag Archives: responsibility

Team Humanity


An article showed up on Digg today, asking if sacrificing for one’s team should be considered altruistic. In the context of sports, the author, David Papineau, raises a question of whether a player sacrificing for his team is doing so for his or her fellow teammates (altruism) or is instead identifying with the abstract concept of a “team,” of which he identifies as a member.

Papineau then suggests an extension to traditional game theory that  allows separate agents to behave as a group. He uses an example of two player-agents in soccer where the correct answer is only clear when both agents act as a unit. You can look at the article for the details, but basically each agent’s ideal action is dependent on the action of the other, but of all the possible combinations of both agents’ actions, there is a clear best outcome.

Papineau then brings up the prisoner’s dilemma, wherein the solution is also trivial when attacked with group, rather than individual reasoning. Papineau notes that group reasoning falls apart when even a very small proportion of members do not behave according to the group reasoning. However, humans very often do behave with group reasoning. Watching The Wire, it’s more than clear that criminal gangs of all stripes have solved the prisoner’s dilemma using group reasoning, for example. The gang, the family, the syndicate, these are all teams on which people play, and with the proper cultural mindset it’s relatively easy to imagine that a player will be confident that his teammates will hold up their end of the bargain.

Now let me take Papineau’s article in a different direction: clearly this propensity for group-based reasoning has allowed humans to prosper through cooperation, but why does it so often fall down after a certain point and leave us with warring tribes instead of a world-wide harmony?

To answer that, here’s another question – what team am I on? The obvious first, I am on my own team. Then I have a series of other teams, in very rough order of closeness to me, my relationship, my work, my family, my friends, North Carolina, America, humanity. My duty to each of these gets more remote and abstract as the entity gets bigger and my place in it gets smaller, and therefore I’m willing to sacrifice less for one group to benefit a group more removed from me.

That may not be the central issue, though. Clearly people can be good at placing a very large entity’s needs above their own – this is what nationalism and its ability to motivate massive armies to kill and die for their nation proves. Nationalism is anything but a given in a nation. It relies on enormous propaganda drives. It can remain strong even when the nation does not fulfill its side of the bargain (read: veteran’s healthcare). Also, one can identify with one’s nation and not with one’s leaders, which is why patriotism can mean so many different things to different people. Nevertheless, the nation appears to be the largest entity so far that has been able to get people to identify as team members and sacrifice for it.

The forces encouraging people to identify with all of humanity do not have enormous propaganda on their side. The complexities of humanity make it difficult for us to all agree on what actions to take, and many of us don’t even agree on what success looks like, making it difficult to form a team mentality. The closest we have are our ethical standards – journalism, science,  human rights, and rule of law are four that come to mind. Instead of identifying with large groups of people, we can identify with sets of rules and values that are designed to remain the same despite the frailties of the people involved. Maybe that’s how Team Humanity should play the game.

The Video Game Fast

This Smelter Demon guy is a real jerk.

So, I was playing a bit too much Dark Souls II the past few days. Eventually I decided that things had gone too far and I told my girlfriend Alice that I would play no video games for a week. I had tried this many times before, but this time I had an external entity to keep me honest. I asked Alice to ask me every day she saw me if I had played any video games since the last time she’d asked. If I had, she should be ashamed of me. Alice, as only Alice would, decided she would take it one step further and be publicly ashamed of me, explaining in detail to everyone we jointly knew how I had set myself what a normal human being would see as a simple goal and failed miserably. Then she suggested she could cook me a whole chicken if I succeeded, but I declined, finding the threat sufficiently motivating.

I started my video game fast late Friday afternoon, so I’ve been clean two days. It’s gotten markedly easier since yesterday, when it seemed I could think about almost nothing but enchanting my blacksteel katana with poison to get through the Smelter Demon’s heavy armor. In the meantime I’ve made significant progress on my work and done a lot of cooking and exercise with Alice.  Yesterday we made another kale salad with miso tofu dressing, which we took to a potluck with Alice’s covenant group through the Unitarian Universalist Church.

Today, though, we had a particularly exciting lunch.

“What is that?” You may ask.
Believe it or not, that is a slice of tofu. We’ve prepared it as “Tofu Steak.” It was one of the multiple items piled onto our dish today. I cooked this tofu in a miso and ginger marinade while Alice fried some radishes. Between us we had only one stainless steel spatula, and we were neither of us interested in using the plastic one, so we passed the instrument between us in a sort of frenzied dance, each trying not to let our own dish burn. I repeatedly added too much oil to my dish, which reacted violently with the water in the tofu,  treating us to a relatively constant boiling hot spray as we worked. At one point Nate came in and asked me to pick up a plate for him,  since I was standing in the way of the cabinet, which I did with one hand while flipping the tofu with another, carefully maneuvering my chest to keep my apron pointed towards the stove to protect me from the brunt of the boiling oil spray. My neighbor knocked on my back door and said he wanted me to meet somebody, and I chatted with him for a few minutes until he asked me about the thick fog of smoke billowing from my kitchen.

Somehow despite all the wacky hijinks, we managed to make a plate stacked high with delicious food.


Then we went out to Lake Johnson, which baffles me in that I haven’t been kayaking on it the whole three years I’ve been here in Raleigh. For $10 we rented two kayaks and explored the various coves, dams, and bridges for an hour that seemed simultaneously to go on forever and end too soon. Not pictured here are a seemingly unlimited supply of puppies that crowded the shoreline and dock.IMG_20140518_160539320[1]

In short, it wasn’t nearly so hard to maintain my fast today, although I do look forward to giving that demon what’s coming to him next Saturday.

The Future of Education: Part 2 – Nightmares

“A Teacher Gets Depressed” isn’t specifically about technology in the classroom, but does speak to the problems of exclusively using automatic evaluation to judge the quality of schools and teachers. Also it references a nightmare. Click the image to see the whole comic.

When I spoke with my old teacher in my post on positive outlooks for education, he expressed concern at being replaced by technology. I told him that no technology would be invented that could reproduce the growth he spurs in students until long after his retirement, if ever. Teaching is a social vocation, and technologies for performing even the most simple social jobs are still in their infancy. Teaching is not a simple job, and attempting to remove the human factor from education at this point is likely to do more harm than good.

But what is a mad scientist, if not one who releases upon the world a new technology that turns out to cause more harm than good? Our collective body of fiction is rife with people who think they know more than they do and cause immense suffering as a result. The most famous of these mad scientists, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, reversed the course of death itself, but without considering the ramifications of his actions. The fruit of his life’s labor turned out to be a wretched, ugly creature even its creator could not bring himself to love.

While raising the dead may be a bit of an overstatement in terms of the risks of advancements in education, the allegory of the genius who does not consider the consequences of his actions is an appropriate one. In the theoretical future, an aggressive reductionist approach to education based on the theory that a child’s growth can be fully represented by his or her score on then-available automatic testing technology could become an educational Frankenstein’s monster, causing more problems than it solves.

If we were to measure school performance according only to the results provided by these technologies, and allocate funds accordingly, inevitably the skills and qualities unmeasured by the tests, which even in the near future will not be perfect measures of everything, would lose attention in favor of the ones the tests do measure. Perhaps in the near future we will have the ability to measure skills and qualities like  creativity, ability to work well in a group, self-confidence, and civic responsibility, but if we don’t, schools will no longer have incentive to maintain, and will therefore lose, their ability to foster these skills and qualities in our nation’s youth.

I am a strong proponent of technologies in the classroom. I also believe that the more data we can collect on the process and results of education the more we can use to help advance our goal of a well-educated population. The ability to bestow life on a lifeless being is also a scientific advancement that could do wonders for the world, but before we rush ahead, we should consider whether our technologies are ready for the tasks we will be counting on them to perform.

Treadmill Desk

As I write this post to you, dear readers, I am standing and walking forward at 0.6 miles per hour. Well, I would be if I were writing from Raleigh rather than Chapel Hill visiting my family where I have no such treadmill desk. For the moment, let’s imagine that I am doing now what I have been doing for the past week and there are no unusual circumstances screwing things up.

I have wanted a treadmill desk ever since I learned of their existence years and years ago. The problem? They’re expensive. They generally run around $1000 on average. At a minimum (from a cursory glance at Amazon) they’re about $800. Even for a purchase for my health that felt steep.  Then my roommate Joe announced that he had acquired a treadmill desk for $200.  How did he do it? He took advantage of the fact that, in the end, a treadmill desk is just a treadmill under a standing desk. The cheapest treadmill on Amazon goes for $200 and with a little work can have its arms removed so that it slides neatly under most tables. Then stack up some (relatively stable) boxes and crates to make a standing desk and voila! For more details you can consult this guide.

Let me tell you about owning and regularly using a treadmill desk: It’s tiring. The first few days I would walk for a few hours working and feel like my feet were going to fall apart. I got used to it eventually, but I still take my computer down to the side of my table for a simple sitting desk now and then.

One issue with this treadmill desk that has actually turned out to be an advantage of sorts is that the treadmill itself is so cheap that it only has one timer setting – thirty minutes – that cannot be turned off. I will be working for a while getting into what I’m doing when suddenly GLOMP I stumble forward on my abruptly motionless treadmill. Sounds pretty annoying, right?

Well, it turns out that I tend to get absorbed in activities, so having a literal jerk back into reality every thirty minutes can be terrifically helpful. In particular playing Civilization 5 recently I would say I’d play for an hour (two GLOMPs) so I would play until the second GLOMP at which point I would be reluctant to pull away just yet from my attempts to convince Luxembourg to join my empire, so I would start the treadmill again and say I’d stop playing when I’d annexed Luxembourg. Of course by the time I’ve achieved that goal, a few more are just within my reach, so it is very difficult for me to stop playing until GLOMP I stumble forward again and say “all right, that’s enough.”

Stay tuned for another entry today on my recent foray into ChefScript.