The School Drop-Off And Social Trust

Three or four times every week, I drop my daughter off at our local public school. We leave, on almost every occasion, in a bit of a rush. My daughter’s school is close by, a mere ten minutes walk, but the window for her to eat breakfast school is quite narrow–thirty minutes–so I’m keen to leave on time to give her enough time to eat a bit before she heads off for her classes. On the way to school, as we walk, we talk about any topic that happens to catch our fancy. (Besides conversation with me, my daughter also has to put up with my angry rants at drivers who do not give us the right of way on pedestrian crosswalks.) On occasion, we stop to climb a rocky wall of a local yeshiva that lies en-route. And then, all too soon, we are at school, at the door through which my daughter will walk into a large hall packed with noisy children, in the midst of which she will locate her teacher and her class, en-route to her classroom, her home for the day.

As we approach the door, my pace slows; I want to say goodbye ‘properly to my daughter, who I can sense is already straining at the leash and wants to move on, to get on with meeting her friends. So we stop; I pull my daughter to me and ask her a few questions–the same ones every day–and then, after planting a few kisses on her cheeks, and giving her one last hug, I let her go. She walks on, and as she walks through the door, I yell out some variant of “Bye, sweetheart, I’ll see you in the evening” (alternatively, “Bye, sweetheart, mommy will be picking you up in the evening.”) I blow her a kiss, and as I do so, my daughter turns to look at me, waves, and is gone.

All around me, other parents are enacting variations on this ritual.

As I walk off, to the subway station to catch a train to my gym, or onwards to Brooklyn College to begin teaching the first of my three classes of day, I am struck, yet again, by the sheer incongruity of it all. My daughter is only five years old, a mere child, one whose welfare and safety and well-being is quite plausibly understood as a preoccupation of mine, and I’ve entrusted her, left her alone, in the company of ‘strangers.’ I’ve put my faith in other people to protect my child, feed her, teach her, give her company, entertain her after school; I’ve entrusted to them, my most ‘precious possession.’ I always feel, as I walk away, a slight tinge of panic and fear. We don’t leave her alone at home; why am I letting her walk off like that? But I’ve placed trust in many to help me out; and indeed, this is just continuation of many acts of trust like this that have helped me raise my child. I live in this world, in this society, an individual sure, but also one reliant on others to help me live my life. And those of the ones I love. This little act, of dropping my daughter off to school, is a daily, acute reminder of my social indebtedness, my social being.

James Baldwin On The Non-Existence Of The American Worker

In The Fire Next Time (Vintage International, New York, 1993(1962), p. 88), James Baldwin writes:

People are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal…but they love the idea of being superior. And this human truth has an especially grinding force here [in America], where identity is almost impossible to achieve and people are perpetually attempting to find their feet on the shifting sands of status. (Consider the history of labor in a country in which, spiritually speaking, there are no workers, only candidates for the hands of the boss’ daughter.)

What does it mean to say that in this country, ‘spiritually speaking, there are no workers’? I can only venture an educated guess here as someone who has read a bit of Baldwin and been awed by the catholic generosity of spirit that is visible in the angriest of voices; I do not claim to understand Baldwin’s complicated relationship with spirituality for this is a man who was of the church, and left it, and indeed, claims that a certain kind of membership in, and affiliation with, the Christian Church is incompatible with morality (p. 47). So, to be a worker, spiritually speaking, for Baldwin would be to envision yourself as a member of a community first and foremost, a brotherhood and fraternity, a sorority and a sisterhood, one drawn together by common purpose and shared ideals, by a vision of a shared life and a common good, one achieved by joint effort, where the inevitable pitfalls of life are safeguarded by mutual security and respect and love. The workers’ union in this vision is a collective community, one dedicated to the common good of all its members, safeguarded with the passion that can only spring from mutual love. Idealized yes, but that is nature of visions imbued with love.

Such is not the community of workers here in America; here instead, workers are caught up in a zero-sum fantasy in which the rights and privileges earned by others are occasion for envy and rancor and self-hatred. As I’ve noted here, the American worker wants company in his misery, his lack of vacations, his shrinking wages, his implacable downward mobility; the unionized worker, one who has bargained collectively to secure better wages and working hours and vacation and healthcare, is not an object of admiration, but of envious fury. There is no aspirational ideal here.

Candidates for the boss’ daughter know there can only be one ‘winner’; all others are competitors to be vanquished. There can be no co-operation here; no mutual support; a ‘win’ by one is a ‘loss’ for another. Suitors compete; they are racked by envy and jealousy alike; they do not entertain noble emotions. They are hoping for luck, for recognition, for the hand of fortune to reach out and touch and elevate them; they are possessed by the desire to possess’ the boss’ riches as an inheritance that will make their dream come true, that of wealth and power and fortune made theirs by dint of a magical selection. Not by collective effort and solidarity.

How can the suitor ever see another suitor as a brother?

On Being An Educated Philistine

I’m an uncultured bumpkin with little taste for the finer things in life. My list of failures is long and undistinguished. I do not like opera: God knows, I’ve tried; I’ve attended a few performances–thanks to some free tickets sent my way by discerning friends and culture consumers–but no dice, it didn’t catch. I cannot abide ballet: I’ve attended one performance, that of Don Quixote, right here in New York City at a beautiful recital hall, and despite admiring the athleticism of the performers found their choreographed pyrotechnics did not touch me emotionally; indeed, I do not like most dance, have never attended a modern dance recital, and have only briefly viewed a few performances of classical Indian variants like Kathak, Odissi, Bharatnatyam or Kathakali, and as a result never developed a taste for them, despite the fact that one of my paternal uncles was a distinguished choreographer in that tradition. My tastes in poetry are restricted to the usual suspects like Yeats, Bishop, Rilke, Auden (and some of the older romantics) et al–the stuff that almost any educated layperson can lay claim to. Like your true denuded post-colonial I have not developed any taste in Hindi poetry and have not read a  novel in Hindi since my high school days. I do not like reading reviews of poetry–indeed, I find these almost impossible to get through, despite gamely struggling with Helen Vendler‘s essays in the New York Review of Books. I’ve discovered recently that I do not like reading the standard literary review of a novel either. In fiction, I struggle to read short stories, and prefer novels when I can get to them.

Perhaps, most embarrassingly, I do not like spending time in museums–and oh, dear Lord, believe me, I’ve tried and tried to summon up enthusiasm for this excruciating social and cultural ritual but I’ve been found wanting. There are certainly times when I’ve played the part of a connoisseur of art reasonably well in these settings but it’s not an easy appearance to keep up. I’ve visited cities in foreign lands and dutifully trooped off to the Famous Museum Which Houses An Amazing Repository of Famous Art by Famous Artists, the one I’ve been told is a must-visit, but no dice. Most of it didn’t catch–perhaps because of the venue, as trooping around, popping my head into one room after another to gaze at art wrenched out of its context failed to do it for me.

I consider myself interested in art and music and culture and literature but my tastes have not developed or become more refined over the years; they seem to have become narrower despite my game attempts to push them further. Though this state of affairs has often caused me some embarrassment–especially because I’m an academic in the humanities–it has also started to offer me some reassurance. Life is short, time is limited; I will never read the all the books on my shelves (and in my digital stores); better to have fewer things to serve as diversions. More airily, I’ve come to know myself better; I’ve tried to like the things I was ‘supposed’ to, and I couldn’t. That’s me, for better and worse.

Note: In a future post, I will make note of the many philosophical and literary classics which I have not read and seem unlikely to read.

Rereading Native Son

I’ve begun re-reading a book (with the students in my philosophical issues in literature class this semester) which, as I noted here a while ago, made a dramatic impact on me on my first reading of it: Richard Wright‘s Native Son. Thus far, I’ve read and discussed Book One with my students (on Wednesday last week); we will resume discussions on April 8th once spring break is over. But even on this brief revisitation I’m struck by how my reading has changed. I’m now twenty-six years older than I was on my first reading. Then, I was thinking about returning to graduate school; now, I’m a tenured professor assigning the same text to my undergraduates. Then, I read Native Son in the anticipation of discussing it with my girlfriend, who had gifted it to me; I think I subconsciously hoped to impress an older and wiser woman with my sensitive and nuanced take on Bigger Thomas’ fate. Now, I read Book One (Fear) of Native Son in anticipation of discussing it with my students, many of whom have already shown themselves capable of sensitive and nuanced readings of the novels I have assigned them thus far; I therefore look forward to their understanding of this classic novel, daring to hope that they will bring a new interpretation and understanding of this material to my attention.  For my part, I’m far more attentive to many plot details and devices on this reading; I’ve become, I think, a more careful and sensitive reader over the years, looking for more, and often finding it, in the texts I read.

Before we began class discussions I subjected my students to a little autobiographical detail: I informed them of my prior reading, of the book’s influence on me, of the passage of time since then, how I would be re-reading the text with them, and so on. I did not detail the full extent of Native Son‘s impact on me; that discussion will have to wait till Bigger’s trial and his defense by Max. But I cannot wait to do so; I wonder if I will be able to capture the sense I had twenty-six years ago of suddenly seeing the world in a whole new light. One part of that anticipation also fills me with dread; what if my students simply do not ‘get’ from it what I was able to? What if, indeed, as I read on, I find myself disappointed by Native Son?

But if the first class discussion last week was any indicator, I needn’t entertain such fears. My students ‘came through’: they had read the first book closely; they had responded to Wright’s dramatic evocation of a fearful, angry, and violent Bigger, living in a ‘black world’ disjoint from a ‘white world,’ destined to run afoul of those forces that had conspired to make him who he was, to drive him to kill, negligently and willfully alike, onwards to his fatal rendezvous with America, his home and his graveyard. Bigger’s story endures; it does so because much else–like the forces that harried him–has too.

Contra Corey Pein, Computer Science Is A Science

In this day and age, sophisticated critique of technology and science is much needed. What we don’t need is critiques like this long piece in the Baffler by Corey Pein which, I think, is trying to mount a critique of the lack of ethics education in computer science curricula but seems most concerned with asserting that computer science is not a science. By, I think, relying on the premise that “Silicon Valley activity and propaganda” = “computer science.” I fail to understand how a humanistic point is made by asserting the ‘unscientific’ nature of a purported science, but your mileage may vary. Anyway, on to Pein.

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Dear Legal Academics, Please Stop Misusing The Word ‘Algorithms’

Everyone is concerned about ‘algorithms.’ Especially legal academics; law review articles, conferences, symposia all bear testimony to this claim. Algorithms and transparency; the tyranny of algorithms; how algorithms can deprive you of your rights; and so on. Algorithmic decision making is problematic; so is algorithmic credit scoring; or algorithmic stock trading. You get the picture; something new and dangerous called the ‘algorithm’ has entered the world, and it is causing havoc. Legal academics are on the case (and they might even occasionally invite philosophers and computer scientists to pitch in with this relief effort.)

There is a problem with this picture. ‘Algorithms’ is the wrong word to describe the object of legal academics’ concern. An algorithm is “an unambiguous specification of how to solve a class of problems” or a step-by-step procedure which terminates with a solution to a given problem. These problems can be of many kinds: mathematical or logical ones are not the only ones, for a cake-baking recipe is also an algorithm, as are instructions for crossing a street. Algorithms can be deterministic or non-deterministic; they can be exact or approximate; and so on. But, and this is their especial feature, algorithms are abstract specifications; they lack concrete implementations.

Computer programs are one kind of implementation of algorithms; but not the only one. The algorithm for long division can be implemented by pencil and paper; it can also be automated on a hand-held calculator; and of course, you can write a program in C or Python or any other language of your choice and then run the program on a hardware platform of your choice. The algorithm to implement the TCP protocol can be programmed to run over an Ethernet network; in principle, it could also be implemented by carrier pigeon. Different implementation, different ‘program,’ different material substrate. For the same algorithm: there are good implementations and bad implementations (the algorithm might give you the right answer for any particular input but its flawed implementation incorporates some errors and does not); some implementations are incomplete; some are more efficient and effective than others. Human beings can implement algorithms; so can well-trained animals. Which brings us to computers and the programs they run.

The reason automation and the computers that deliver it to us are interesting and challenging–conceptually and materially–is because they implement algorithms in interestingly different ways via programs on machines. They are faster; much faster. The code that runs on computers can be obscured–because human-readable text programs are transformed into machine-readable binary code before execution–thus making study, analysis, and critique of the algorithm in question well nigh impossible. Especially when protected by a legal regime as proprietary information. They are relatively permanent; they can be easily copied. This kind of implementation of an algorithm is shared and distributed; its digital outputs can be stored indefinitely. These affordances are not present in other non-automated implementations of algorithms.

The use of ‘algorithm’ in the context of the debate over the legal regulation of automation is misleading. It is the ‘automation’ and ‘computerized implementation’ of an algorithm for credit scoring that is problematic; it is so because of specific features of its implementation. The credit scoring algorithm is, of course, proprietary; moreover, its programmed implementation is proprietary too, a trade secret. The credit scoring algorithm might be a complex mathematical algorithm readable by a few humans; its machine code is only readable by a machine. Had the same algorithm been implemented by hand, by human clerks sitting in an open office, carrying out their calculations by pencil and paper, we would not have the same concerns. (This process could also be made opaque but that would be harder to accomplish.) Conversely, a non-algorithmic, non-machinic–like, a human–process would be subject to the same normative constraints.

None of the concerns currently expressed about ‘the rule/tyranny of algorithms’ would be as salient were the algorithms not being automated on computing systems; our concerns about them would be significantly attenuated. It is not the step-by-step solution–the ‘algorithm’–to a credit scoring problem that is the problem; it is its obscurity, its speed, its placement on a platform supposed to be infallible, a jewel of a socially respected ‘high technology.’

Of course, the claim is often made that algorithmic processes are replacing non-algorithmic–‘intuitive, heuristic, human, inexact’–solutions and processes; that is true, but again, the concern over this replacement would not be the same, qualitatively or quantitatively, were these algorithmic processes not being computerized and automated. It is the ‘disappearance’ into the machine of the algorithm that is the genuine issue at hand here.

Iris Murdoch On Interpreting Our Messages To Ourselves

In Iris Murdoch‘s Black Prince (1973), Bradley Pearson wonders about his “two recent encounters with Rachel and how calm and pleased I had felt after the first one, and how disturbed and excited I now felt after the second one”:

Was I going to “fall in love” with Rachel? Should I even play with the idea, utter the words to myself? Was I upon the brink of some balls-up of catastrophic dimensions, some real disaster? Or was this perhaps in an unexpected form the opening itself of my long-awaited “break through,” my passage into another world, into the presence of the god? Or was it just nothing, the ephemeral emotions of an unhappily married middle-aged woman, the transient embarrassment of an elderly puritan who had for a very long time had no adventures at all? [Penguin Classics edition, New York, 2003, p. 134]

Pearson is right to be confused and perplexed. The ‘messages’ we receive from ‘ourselves’ at moments like these–ethical dilemmas being but the most vivid–can be counted upon to be garbled in some shape or fashion. The communication channel is noisy; and the identity of the communicating party at ‘the other end’ is obscure. Intimations may speak to us–as they do to Pearson–of both the sordid and sublime for we are possessed, in equal measure, by the both devilish and the divine; these intimations promise glory but they also threaten extinction. What meaning are we to ascribe to them? What action are we to take at their bidding? A cosmic shrug follows, and we are left to our own devices all over again. ‘Listen to your heart’ is as useless as any other instruction in this domain, for ‘the heart’ also speaks in confusing ways; its supposed desires are as complex, as confusing as those of any other part of ourselves. Cognitive dissonance is not an aberration, a pathological state of affairs; it is the norm for creatures as divided as us, as superficially visible to ourselves, as possessed by the unconscious. (Freud’s greatest contribution to moral psychology and literature was to raise the disturbing possibility that it would be unwise to expect coherence–moral or otherwise–from agents as internally divided, as self-opaque as us.)

We interpret these messages, these communiques, from ourselves with tactics and strategies and heuristics that are an unstable mixture of the expedient, the irrational, the momentarily pleasurable; we deal with ‘losses’ and ‘gains’ as best as we can, absorbing the ‘lessons’ they impart with some measure of impatience; we are unable to rest content and must move on, for life presses in on us at every turn, generating new crises, each demanding resolution. Our responses can only satisfice, only be imperfect.

The Clash were right thus, to wonder, to be provoked into an outburst of song, by the question of whether they should ‘stay or go.‘ We do not express our indecision quite as powerfully and vividly as they do, but we feel the torment it engenders in our own particular way.