6/23/17

Lessons From: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World

How Huxley showed that excess can cripple society



Aldous Huxley is one of the most intelligent authors the world has ever seen, and his ability to predict the way society and government would function in the future was pretty impressive. In Brave New World, society is completely post-scarcity and is controlled not by authoritarian repression, but by their own hedonistic desires which can be so easily manipulated.

"Every one belongs to every one else" was the society's motto, in which individuals were nothing more than a cog in the machine, genetically engineered to fit a specific function. Bokanovsky's process was used in order to ensure that embryos would eventually grow to be Gammas, Deltas, or Epsilons, by carefully administering alcohol and produce, which gave humans capable of work but not of independent thought, while Alphas and Betas are left to develop and socially interact with each other, but never the Gammas, Deltas or Epsilons for doing so would be social suicide.



Freedom to question the government or society itself is drowned through one of various methods. The first is consumption and commodification. When people love the material, they'll work to maintain it and have more, so they live their lives working without really giving much thought to what they're doing. Otherwise, they can blur the line between love and recreational sex with "Orgy-Porgy", for acknowledging an individual identity as one you cherish can put the stability in uniformity disbalanced. In this society you have the moral imperative to have sex with anyone who asks it of you. If that doesn't work, you can always take soma, a drug that works for practically anything, be it grief, pain, stress, boredom, disappointment, and you can even take a soma-holiday. With this drug, you aren't aware of your degradation, nor are you of individuality itself.



Nowadays, it's clear that his prediction is closer to the truth than what Orwell, his student, believed would happen. Of course, we're not at the stage where people are being genetically engineered for specific roles, nor the whole sexual freedom/responsibility deal, but there are worrying aspects like the extreme consumerism, inversion of public and private lives, for example with Facebook and Instagram, things that were only your business are suddenly known by everybody, and in the book, whatever happens in private might as well not have happened, in real life we seem to get closer to this every day (pic or it didn't happen), and with Facebook being able to read your private messages, as well as Twitter showing your thoughts to the world, which aren't kept private by people most of the time anyways, you have to wonder when it is that a social network's benefits will be outweight by the disadvantages that having your life broadcast will bring. At least in Mexico, people feared that they'd be kidnapped because of would-be criminals targeting through social media, and that's just one of probably many examples.



What frightens me most is the lack of critical thinking in the book, which I'm starting to see in real life, and it goes beyond "X politician is good and Y politician is bad". Tell someone to explain why they believe what they believe, and most of the times they won't be able to tell you why without falling into various fallacies or going on irrelevant tangents that have nothing to do with the idea that they should explain. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is an example of people telling you what you should think instead of you deciding for yourself.  That's pretty creepy, if you ask me, people can't even keep up with the narrative the media's pushing and you can even tell that Colbert's pretty damn nervous about it.

What can we learn from this?

As an individual it's pretty complicated to change a society's course, but people must resist power grabs whenever they can, otherwise, you'll get to the point where it's pretty much impossible to do anything without suffering consequences, or worse, not realize you're suffering them. In the book, when one character asked another to speak in private, she laughed at the idea because she didn't even have a conception of privacy. It's our responsibility to avoid reaching this point.



This also goes to show that hedonism isn't necessary the best course for an individual. If you're always keeping your mind busy with things that don't necessarily require your attention, you eventually reach a point of contentment and then lose any reason to actually improve yourself or your life. Always strive to be better, and always question yourself and everyone around you, otherwise, you might as well take the reigns of your life and hand them over to the government or a corporation.

Read more on Brave New World here:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/nov/17/classics.margaretatwood

6/16/17

Lessons From: John F. Kennedy

How absensce can make you beloved



We've already covered how you can sometimes end with all of the credit for an idea with Charles Darwin, but what about making the world's perspective on you better than it should? John F. Kennedy is known as one of the most beloved presidents the United States has ever had, but was he really that good, compared to somebody like Richard Nixon, for example? Hell, they had one of the most interesting electoral campaigns in history, very intellectually charged, and both of these presidents were pretty defining for a new generation post WWII. 

JFK had a couple of rough bumps in the road. The most famous are, of course, the Bay of Pigs invasion, in which an army of Cuban refugees worked with the C.I.A. to attempt a coup in Cuba, which miserably failed, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the world was brought to believe in mutually assured destruction as an imminent threat for the first time. This, fortunately, was a success in the sense that nuclear bombs weren't detonated on either side, but seen as a defeat for the loss of strategic warhead placement in Turkey, right in the Soviet Union's front yard. 



People tend to forget smaller failures like his meeting with Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin's successor, which has been called by some the worst day of his life (sans getting his head blown off taken into consideration I assume), in which he was seen as weak by the soviet dictator and in fact probably led to the eventual threat of nuclear war. It was after their meeting in Vienna, in fact, when the Berlin Wall's construction began. 

He did have a few successes, of course. Keeping a cool head and preventing total annihilation is an achievement, but the threat itself was partially caused by him. He also created the Peace Corps and paved the way for the Civil Rights movement, which was finally brought to fruition by his successor Lyndon B. Johnson. 

Compare that to Nixon, then, who is one of the most disliked presidents in history, next to Buchanan, most of all because of the Watergate scandal in which it was found that Nixon's administration had been abusing power and had been recording many conversations which were promptly given to investigators and lead to the impeachment process and his resignation. 



Thus, it's no surprise that people overlook his reforms in welfare, civil rights, energy, and environmental policy, established the EPA, fought against sexual discrimination, lowered the voting age to 18, lowered the amount of troops in Vietnam and used the dividends to finance social welfare, made sure that Southern schools had thorough desegregation, and when it came to foreign policy, he was deemed to be a master of it, having even engaged the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, the latter which opened its markets to the rest of the world as a result. You wouldn't drink a glass of clean water with one drop of shit, after all. 

What can we learn from this?

In a way, this speaks about the effectiveness of martyrism as a way to erase your past mistakes and redeem yourself. It's very clear that his charisma helped people remember him in a better light, as well, after all, the American public could even forgive his affairs and everything because he was a charmer and it was expected. 



Of the 48 Laws of Power he inadvertently used 16: Use absence to increase respect and honor. Had he died early, he probably would've been forgotten or at least not so revered by everyone, and had he died after his presidency, the impact would've been much smaller, after all, there is a whole world of speculation and conspiracy theories you can create when a president dies. Learn when the right time to disappear is, and you can wash your hands clean of your own mistakes as well.

Learn more about JFK here:

6/9/17

Lessons From: Gustav Stresemann

How Stresemann single-handedly changed the course of a nation


Whenever you think of good diplomacy, Gustav Stresemann certainly has to come to mind. Winner of the Noble Peace Price in 1926, his achievement comes from Franco-German reconciliation between the World Wars, and granted, this reconciliation didn't last long with the eventual rise of National Socialism, but, had he not entered the scene of international relations when he did, tensions would've been much quicker to blow. 

Back when the Great War had finished and the Treaty of Versailles had been signed, Stresemann was horrified with the details in the treaty. Germany took the blame of the war when it should've been the Austro-Hungarian empire, and they were thus responsible for paying reparations to the rest of Europe, eventually established as 132 billion marks, besides the fact that the size of the German army was severely hindered (100,000 troops, 6 battleships, no submarines, no air force) and they were forbidden from joining the League of nations. The Rhineland was demilitarized, Alsace-Lorraine returned to France, lands in the East were given to Poland, Danzig was made a free city, and the colonies were given as mandates to Britain and France. These terms were even harsher as time went on. 



When Stresemann was prime minister he was hell-bent on making sure that the German resistance in the Rühr stopped in order to prevent chaos, and he made sure that the currency wouldn't fail under the dire circumstances that were surrounding the country. In 1924, as foreign minister, he was able to secure the Dawes Plan, in which the United States and Great Britain would lend money to Germany so they could pay reparations. Dawes himself was given a Nobel Prize for this, but the plan eventually failed in 1929 when the Great Depression came and was replaced with the Young Plan. Payments ceased after Germany's defeat, until West Germany paid off the debt and once the country was unified, the rest of the interest was paid off. The fact that this method of paying for reparations was able to be completed speaks a lot about the foresight Stresemann had. 

His next big achievement was getting Germany into the League of Nations in 1926, and it is here where he and Aristide Briand were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for restoring relations merely 8 years after the war had ended, and was pretty much unthinkable due to the hyperinflation that Germany suffered through as a result of the occupation of the Rhineland. It was here where he negotiated with the other European countries that Germany should be returned some of its colonies, its army be allowed to conscript anew, and besides the end of Anglo-French occupation of the Rhineland, it was seen to that France and Britain also disarmed, and with this he guaranteed peace on the West. He did not guarantee peace with Poland and always viewed Germany's claim on those territories as legitimate. The Kellog-Briand act of 1928 cemented the world's trust in his nation, because it renounced the use of violence to resolve international affairs. Until the crash in 1929, this allowed Germany to rebuild, and had he not been foreign minister the Depression surely would have been the end of the country.

What can we learn from this?

If Germany can recover multiple times from crisis that many regimes never return from, then you can see the necessity of perseverance. The important aspect in Stresseman's life was the fact that no matter what position his country was in, he could negotiate for more, and even though he did not live to see German prosperity in his lifetime, it only existed from then on because he was so tactful with the other world leaders. 



Whenever you're stuck in a rut and feel trapped, like Germany was, always bargain for more. You have nothing to lose and much to gain, even if it's just a base to expand on later. 

Read more about Stresemann here:

6/2/17

Lessons From: J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings

How to resolve your inner struggles in life's hardships



Most people have either read the books or seen the movies, or at least heard of them if they haven't had the pleasure. Lord of the Rings is extremely influential and most fantasy either tries to imitate, or differentiate itself, from LOTR. For the sake of the message, we'll also be looking at parts from The Hobbit. I'll avoid spoilers and keep it simple.

A lot of people tend to complain about the simplistic good vs. evil take on morality that the series takes, either with Smaug or Sauron, who only seem to exist as a nuisance or threat to the world. You have humans, elves, dwarves, hobbits, and a few other creatures coexisting, but they cannot do so with orcs, goblins, and a few other foul creatures which roam Middle-earth.



Friendliness and fellowship is one of the most obvious topics Tolkien touched upon, but the way it plays into the story is very neat. Generally, whenever a character or species accepted another, like Bilbo the dwarves or the elves a dwarf in particular, something good arose. Whenever a character got greedy, it would either lead to a rupture in the group and greater difficulty, or in some cases even death. It's probably no mistake that fellowship is often set in conflict with the ring itself, probably as a way to contrast what truly matters with material value itself. This also leads to the value of being a good host. Tolkien's religious values probably had a lot to do with this, what with Christians generally proclaiming generosity as one of their values, and you can see this a lot of times, what with Bilbo throwing the banquet for the dwarves despite not even knowing them, the elves taking care of their prisoners and guests as if they were one of their own, or even a half-man half-beast who took care of Bilbo and company, and even a damn weird wizard-god who's probably as old as the world itself who gave the hobbits a nice surge of morale for the world ahead.



The value of courage, which has been explored in Plato's Virtues, is a recurring theme in the story. It's not just about a halfling finding the courage to take the ring into the heart of his enemy's empire, all while under the influence of dark magic that weakens him, but about men fighting temptation, rushing to each other's aid when needed despite the danger that they put themselves through, and even making friends with a member of another species which has been loathed by and loathed yours for practically the entirety of their existence. Practically the only woman character is one of the most courageous of them all, and it's pretty nice to be able to see this virtue in the most of the heroes. This leads to what's probably the most important value in LOTR: Hope. No matter how dire the situation the heroes were in, they always had to find a light inside their soul, or in the real world for that matter, which would pull them out. Even if they seemed ot run out of courage to rely on, it was hope that kept them going.


How can we apply this? 

These tend to be a little more abstract when it comes to using them. After all, you can't just tell someone to "be more courageous" and expect them to actually face their fears just like that, and you probably can't tell the greedy man to at least lighten up on his pursuit of wealth in lieu of companionship. You also can't exactly expect the world to be in black and white, especially when it comes to morality. 



The best thing I can say is probably to keep hoping. Generally when you feel that you can't keep going on in whatever it is you're doing, you have to remember that it gets better and you can generally have a network of people supporting you during your endeavor. I know it sounds generic but usually when you remember that, you can deal with the "how".

Read more about Lord of the Rings here:
http://lotrproject.com/statistics/books/

5/26/17

Lessons From: Ayn Rand's Virtue of Selfishness

How Ayn Rand viewed the necessity of freedom



Ayn Rand is an inflammatory figure and is frequently brought up in politics either by ultra-conservative Republicans who didn't get the point (or even read her books), libertarians who did, and libertarians who didn't, as an example of why their ideology is the one that works. At the same time, she's brought up by liberals who've never read Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead, as an example of why the others are not that bright if they believe that her philosophy is sound or that her writing is good. It's a hit and miss, for sure, but there are a lot of lessons you can get from her. If you know about Bioshock's background, then you know that the storyline of Rapture is based off Atlas and shows the danger of taking it too far.

The interesting thing about Rand is that she's practically a refugee that fled to the United States from the Soviet dictatorship. This means that if you want an example of somebody who's seen the horrors of communism, Marxist thought and postmodernist thought, there you have it, and having seen such a flawed reality of the communist ideology, she practically had no choice but to resent it, and thus was a pretty stern individualist.



Her Virtue of Selfishness is a collection of essays which explained her philosophy, Objectivism. This philosophy consists of reality's existence in spite of consciousness. In other words, she takes the age-old question of whether a tree really falls in the woods if there's no one around to see or hear it, and she pretty much takes a dump over it because regardless of anybody being there, the tree will fall because it's happening.

Objectivism also goes into morality, explicitly stating that man's moral purpose is to pursue his own happiness and the only socioeconomic system that will allow this is laissez-faire capitalism. This is why a lot of libertarians identify with Ayn Rand, they want a system as close to a truly free market as possible with minimal government intervention, in order to not have their individual rights threatened by any institution. This means that you can produce what you want, sell it to whomever you want, with whatever standards you have. As a customer, this also allows you the freedom of choice, and this seems to be threatened on both sides because the freedom of choice implies the freedom of discrimination, of having standards. The same way you can't just up and open a bar without getting a license to sell liquor in developed countries, you aren't really free to choose your religion in places like Egypt, where you can legally convert to Islam but not to any other religion.



Then, we have to wonder, what does Rand mean when she talks about selfishness? It's usually a derogatory term, after all, and one who praises the selfish is usually pretty egotistical himself. Thus, the term must be understood as "concern for your own interests", and when this is held back from the individual, it is when evil is manifested. If you're wondering whether this means one is not capable of loving another, then you have to realize it's not like that either. Ayn Rand was married to a designer who tried becoming an artist, who was living off royalties from his past works, and when asked whether she would need to help him stay on his feet were money to stop flowing into his pockets, she replied that not really, because she'd be doing it out of her love for him and it would give her immense pleasure that would be self-gratifying for herself.

To take an example from her fiction, in Atlas Shrugged the producers are burdened with the weight of the world on their shoulders, not only with taxes and regulations but the demand that all must be shared, after all, it is man that holds his brother up. Her heroes reject this because they refuse to live for another, only for themselves, and so they leave everything behind and create their own society in which everybody is equal and free, and nobody is obligated to live for another. It's a very utopic vision, for sure, but there is an interesting lesson to be learned about society's entitlement and resentment towards those who actively look out for their own interests. This is not to say that they wouldn't be fair or even charitable. Some of these men actively improved humanity with their inventions, innovations, discoveries, what have you, and there's even a banker who refused to loan money to people who wouldn't be capable of paying it back, which, if I may remind you, was a big factor of the 2008 crisis in the first place.


What can we learn from this? 

Objectivism is pretty simple to apply if you can understand that altruism is definitely a virtue you can have, but you can never place your love of another over the love of self, that is what cripples individuals and in the long run cripples societies. You may ask how it is that Bill Gates can dedicate most of his wealth to charity, then, and to that the answer is that he's pretty much covered, as well as his family, and they have more than enough money to last themselves a few generations, even with all they have donated. 



It's a pretty Aristotelic way to view the world, for sure, centering yourself in what's reality instead of the interpretation of what it should be, and acting according to that, and if you want to lead an existence that is both moral and practical, you wouldn't regret checking her philosophy out. I'd suggest reading Anthem, though, instead of Atlas or The Fountainhead. It's a pretty quick read and has most of her ideas. 

You can read Anthem here:

5/15/17

Lessons From: The Socratic Method

How Socrates learned and taught the truth

Shoutout to all the teachers



If you've taken a class with a good teacher, and you actually feel that you got something away from it, chances are that your professor used maieutics, or the Socratic Method. All in all, it's pretty simple, you have two or more people asking each other questions, and through these questions you stimulate critical thinking and actually view everyone's prejudices and can draw them out, or to further their understanding about any topic. 

In a way, it's also a method of eliminating hypothesis, because you're always finding better theories about anything, and getting rid of those which are contradictory, either with the truth, or with your other beliefs. You make a series of questions that serve as tests of logic in order to help someone expand their knowledge or beliefs about any topic. Even though Socrates was who developed this method, it is Plato who put it down in prose in the Socratic Dialogues, where he recorded conversations between his teacher and citizens. In these, the people were questioned on moral and epistemological (theory of knowledge) issues, and their views would be either challenged or expanded upon by the questions that they had to answer. Plato then developed another version of this method he called dialectics. 



The method is pretty similar to the scientific method. It follows these steps:

  1. Make a common sense statement
  2. Find an exception
  3. Reject the statement if you found an exception
  4. Make a new statement that accounts for the exception
  5. Repeat until you cannot find an exception
The whole deal with this method is the capacity to question a single idea. Modern debate tends to be focused on the big picture, but when you throw everything in and don't really question each of those ideas, your arguments can be pretty deficient. The variety of answers that you can generate for a single idea is pretty impressive, and if you do it correctly, you can learn much more than from a two-sided debate where people try to "win" with their ideas instead of having the right idea. 

There are two forms of this method. The Classic Socratic Method focuses on questions of morality, virtue, and the answers not known by the facilitator. The Modern Socratic Method asks questions that already have answers, and can be considered to be more of Plato's interpretation of his teacher's ways. While the Classic method will have you wondering whether justice is truly based in equity, the Modern method can be used to ask your student what 2+2 is and to gauge whether he can figure it out for himself. 



As you can see, the Modern method will have to be used a little differently than the Classic, for it is not the same to question beliefs than to actually acquire new knowledge through the questions that you are asked. For this, the questions must be  1) Interesting, 2) Incremental, 3) Logical (moving from the student's prior knowledge towards a goal), and 4) Designed to illuminate particular points. This makes the scope of answers that you can receive for your questions smaller than with the other method. Instead of simply asking what justice is, you give a small example of a moral dilemma and ask what is fair, and you build up from there. 

How can we apply this?

The Socratic Method is not only useful for a teacher, but for anybody who wishes to have a more objective view of the world. It implies that you use your critical thinking skills to debunk your own preconceptions, and get closer to the truth, which is what matters at the end of the day.



If you're a teacher, though, instead of simply asking your students to memorize information, lead them to it through relevant questions that they can answer for themselves if they think a bit. Should it be used to teach anything? Not quite, I wouldn't say it's effective for teaching somebody differential calculus if he's just finished linear algebra, for building knowledge on a new topic like that would take more time than it's worth. Use it to build knowledge rather than teach from scratch, and you'll have a powerful tool at your disposal. After all, the best teacher in history used it, why shouldn't you?

5/14/17

Lessons From: Aristotle's System of Logic

How to use Aristotle's Logic to be a better student



Teacher's Day is tomorrow here in Mexico, so before we indulge in learning about the man who possibly was the greatest teacher of all time, we will learn about Aristotle, a student of Plato,  who himself was a student of the aforementioned teacher, Socrates. Besides being one of the most prolific students Plato had, having created the first comprehensive system of Western Philosophy, and when he left his teacher's academy at the age of 37, he was requested by Phillip II of Macedon to tutor his son, Alexander the Great. Being a teacher, in fact, gave him many opportunities and supplies, with which he opened a library in the Lyceum, and although a big part of his monument was devoted to his teacher, he eventually left Platonism for empiricism, and indeed, he was one of the first to attempt to develop a scientific method, and many of his findings couldn't either be confirmed or rejected until into the 19th century. His teachings on ethics were pretty much influential in Judeo-Christian philosophy, but were eventually ignored due to the rise of Kantianism and other philosophies, but we can talk about virtue ethics in another time.



Today we will see a version of Aristotle's system of logic that will be pretty easy to understand, and once you do, you'll be able to apply it to your life. He believed that logic was the instrument we used to understand anything, and he developed what was known as categorical logic, widely accepted throughout even the 19th century, in which he asserted that the way we use the subject-predicate form is the primary expression of truth, and the way we use language can eventually be used to paint a picture of the world.

Using the Categories

In Categories, he establishes three ways that predicates can relate to each other in meaning: homonymy, synonymy, and paronymy, sometimes written as equivocal, unequivocal, and derivative. As you can predict, homonymy implies entirely different explanations, for example, "His wife cheated on him, he's pissed," and "He's had too much to drink, he's pissed." Synonymous is basically using the same predicate with the same meaning, like "Paintings are pretty," or "Statues are pretty." Paronymy is when one predicate branches out from the meaning of another, for example, "He is very well-learned," and "His knowledge of Aristotelian logic is that of a well-learned man." (That's going to be you by the end of this post).



These relationships between predicates are important when you relate them to the ten categories of things. The most important is substance, for it describes the thing in itself, and is separated into primary substance, which is the individual thing itself, and secondary substance, which is the species or genera in which the individual thing belongs. The other nine are quantity, quality, relative, where, when, being in a position, having, acting on, and being affected by, and their function is simply to describe what separates this individual substance from the others. Basically, the first step to thinking logically like the man himself is being able to actually describe the world that you're living in, and although the focus is universal, the universe is found in the particulars.

Plato points to ideas, Aristotle is grounded in reality

Because what you see is generally a result of your perception, and not the thing in and of itself, if through the Categories you can create various propositions about an object which combines or separates its concepts, and these actually correspond to the object itself, you can say that you've made a truthful statement. If you can correctly apply the categories, you can make logical deductions of the world around you, as all knowledge, acording to Aristotle, comes from what is already known. Say, for example:

  • All humans are mortal
  • All Athenians are human
  • Therefore, all Athenians are mortal
  • All dogs are mammals
  • All mammals have fur and breastfeed
  • All dogs have fur and breastfeed

How can we apply this?

It's pretty simple. If you were to summarize what Aristotle said in a sentence, it would basically be: Name things as they are and build on it. This also helps you create false assertions, for through the use of logic, you cannot simply invent a fact nor attribute characteristics to an object that it does not really have. All in all, knowing this will at least let you pay attention to the language you use to describe the universe, so you may avoid mistakes or inconsistencies, and thus, allow you to become an excellent student of the world. 

Read more about Logic here:

Lessons From: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World

How Huxley showed that excess can cripple society Aldous Huxley is one of the most intelligent authors the world has ever seen, and...