morality in a governed society, emotional premises, and same-sex marriage

Government inherently imposes morality on its society.  Laws define what is morally acceptable and unacceptable, and the enforcement of those laws in turn constrains society to the particular aspects of morality manifest in said laws.

A democratic society should theoretically have laws that represent the morality of its population.  Things get a little trickier with representative democracies like the United States.  While the United States has a complicated and nuanced system of government, I think we all agree that its laws should be supported by a large portion, if not the majority of its population.

So, for the sake of simplicity, let's presume that this idea (that a democratic society should have laws that represent the morality of its population) holds for all democracies, direct or representative.  The people vote for laws and policies, or elect individuals to govern, such that the resulting government matches their own values as closely as possible.

To recap: anything relating to the governance of a society is a moral issue.  This includes the definition of rights.  The problem with moral issues is there is no right answer, except through consensus--that's just the way we work.  A philosophy is only as good as its strength in obtaining adherents.

You see, moral issues, while the can be argued logically, are predicated on some premises, which, when you get to the core of things, have an emotional basis.   A good debater can construct an argument to prove anything given the right set of premises.  That same debater can also dismantle any argument if allowed to disregard or redefine the premises.

So what does this all mean?  Let's consider an example: the laws and rights pertaining to marriage, which seems to be such a popular topic these days.  Some people have the emotional premise that marriage should only exists between and man and a woman.  Other people have different emotional premises that lead to the conclusions that marriage should be able to occur between any two willing adults.  There are also folks who think marriage shouldn't exist as a government construct, based on the premise that government should be minimal.  There are many more variations in opinion and other complicated aspects like rights outside of marriage, but I'll leave itemizing all the permutations and complexities to you.

How do we decide what to do as a society in the US? We vote, courts make decisions, laws are passed.  In the case of courts, judges have a set of legal premises in addition to their own options. Again, it's a complicated system, and in the case of same-sex marriage, there are strong opinions in either side.

I believe that same-sex marriage will be legalized eventually, since the primary purpose of modern marriage is individual fulfillment.  (There are more personal premises and opinions related to whether or not that should be the case.) The question is whether it will happen at the state level or the federal level.  In general, I'm more in favor of state level laws, but there are tricky questions regarding recognizing marriage from other states.

What I really wanted to drive home is that when people make arguments that seem totally illogical to you, it's probably because they have a different set of emotional premises.  (Though it's entirely possible that they have faulty logic.)  I've read many articles about how there are no good arguments against gay marriage.  Of course there aren't if you don't share your opponents' premises!  Opposing same-sex marriage is hard in particular because there is no argument: the opinion is the premise.  Proponents, on the other hand, can dig for deeper premises relating to equality, and thus make more compelling arguments.


incorporating computer science into K-12 curriculums

Math, Science, History, English--the four staples of American education.  Sure, maybe there's Art (performance or studio), foreign languages, physical education, health, and electives in there as well.  Sometimes there's the token technology class or the computer science AP you can take as a junior or senior in high school.

But computer science is huge, and deserves more time than it usually gets in classrooms.  I got my bachelors in CS and am working on my PhD in CS, so obviously I think the world revolves around it, because mine actually does.  But that doesn't mean that CS isn't huge, because it is.  There are the big names: Google, Apple, Microsoft. Wanna buy stuff?  Amazon and eBay.  There are the social media guys like Facebook and Twitter.  There are the folks doing websites and apps: Etsy to Instagram.  There are game companies like Blizzard and EA.  There are movie companies like Pixar and Dreamworks. Adobe, IBM, Yahoo.  The list goes on and on and on.

So we should teach our kids more about computer science, because it's crucial to so many industries.  Even if they're a digital artist, they'll still need to know a little about hexadecimal.  So let's teach them!

Recently, I did a demo at an elementary school science fair in which I brought a balance scale and had a dozen containers of various weights.  The task for the kids was to put the containers in order using as few comparisons as possible.  The older kids got it very quickly, and the patient younger kids got it too.  I was teaching quicksort to 2nd graders, and they didn't even know what hit them!

Kids are more than capable of learning basic computing concepts.  Elementary school kids could pick up counting in binary and hexadecimal, symbolic logic and basic satisfiability problems, sorting algorithms, and deterministic finite automaton.  These topics range in difficulty equivalent to mathematic problems they cover in elementary school: counting to pre-algebra.

I've got so many ideas of how to teach this to kids, and I'm not the only one.  High schoolers could do regular expressions, circuits (and, or, not gates), and maybe transistors.  And programming!  Ugh!  Why doesn't everyone learn how to program?  I know that it's not everyone's cup of tea, but neither is math, and I can't tell you how may people I've encountered that say, Oh I really need to learn how to program...

I was showing a middle-school kid from church how to program in Python, and when he left he told his mom, I wish they taught this stuff in school.  Me too, buddy, me too.

So what has to give in order for this to happen?  Not much.  It can be taught alongside math and science in elementary school.  We can overhaul the terrible "technology" classes taught in some schools and offer more serious computer science electives.  It's totally possible, but it needs to happen at the school or district level for real change to happen.  Going up any higher might just result in more crap "computer" classes.

Part of the problem is that second grade teachers usually don't know how to count in binary--that is, that the concepts that would be so easy to teach aren't yet known by the teachers.  That won't change until everyone starts needing to know this stuff, which wont happen until the system is changed.  It's tautological.  Maybe I'll start by contacting my local schools and see if they'd like me to come in for a computer science day or something.  If I do, I'll let you know how it goes.


harnessing the power of educated stay-at-home moms

A few weeks ago, I was having a discussion with a colleague whose wife is extremely well-educated but stays at home with their two kids.  This is a quite common story, with many stay-at-home moms having bachelors from prestigious colleges all the way to moms with PhDs.  I'm sure it happens with blokes too, but it is much more common route for women.

We then talked about how hard it is to find part-time work.  In 2010, I was pre-grad school doing research part time (so my schedule was super flexible), and I couldn't find a second part-time gig that worked and was worth it.  It's just hard.

So we came up with a startup idea: basically a high-end Amazon Mechanical Turk for connecting people with part-time work.  It would have to be less sketchy than craigslist jobs, and on a per-task basis.  The idea is that employers could break tasks down into small chunks--1 hour, 15 minutes, etc., have a deadline, and a minimum skill level in certain areas.  Individuals could accomplish tasks, "level up," and make money.  In addition to skills, you could have an optional review process to accept a task or request a redo/edits before payment.  There could bonuses for doing N tasks for a company, or doing a certain number of variations on the same task, accomplishing a task early, or for doing an excellent job.

This would require re-imaging how tasks are assigned and reviewed in the work environment, but I'd like to hope that it wouldn't be too hard.  What would be good candidates for this?  There'd be many boring tasks, certainly.  Data entry, ugh.  But writing summaries could be fun, as could be tagging photos and participating in user studies. If I were a user of this system, I could write web-scraping scripts for folks, do web development, or accomplish other small programming tasks.

There could be a competition component for some things, like the various logo/website design sites out there.  For example, a company could judge from the first three submissions and accept one or none.

Regardless of the details, there should be a web service like this, that pays more and has harder, more skilled-based tasks than AMT.  This wouldn't help just SAHMs, but it would be good for the unemployed or partially-employed, in general.  As for the companies?  I don't think they'd mind getting more work done.


being happily busy

Are you terribly surprised that I've taken a bit of a hiatus from blogging?  No, you are not. Three of my meager ten posts for this year have been about work.  This makes four.

In early April, I read this post about not being that busy, and it made me angry.  I did the mental tally at the time of what I was supposed to be doing: 20 hrs/week teaching, 20 hrs/week research, 20 hrs/week coursework, 10 hrs/week study for generals, 8 hrs a week for various Church commitments, let alone commuting, managing the community garden, taking care of domestic stuff, and doing things like sleeping and eating.  If you give yourself a frugal 9 hours a day for sleeping, eating, and getting ready, then you have all of 105 hours a week to do everything else.  There just wasn't enough time in the day.

Something had to give, and unfortunately the thing that took the brunt of it was my research and prepping for generals, which was arguably the most important stuff of all.  (That said, I've been pretty terrible at all of my obligations.)  But how did it happen that the my highest priority got left behind?  Because there was just too much stuff, the urgent but less important stuff got the air time.  Students need answers now and homework needs to get handed in today.  Generals, which was way off in May, had plenty of potential time.  Well, happy May everyone!

It came to a head relatively recently, and after several discussions with my advisor and other faculty, as well as some soul searching (Do I even want a PhD?), I decided to postpone my generals until October.  My advisor was incredibly supportive, and I'm really happy with the decision.

Since that turning point, I've been kicking up the research and studying back to the level they should have been at, and so I'm even busier now.  But I'm less stressed; how does that work? I think that it has to do with several things.

Before postponing generals was even on the table, while I was sorting through what bothered me about the I'm not actually that busy article, I realized that there was a difference between busy and stressed.  I like to be busy and I hate to be stressed.  I don't think it's bad to glorify productivity, but I do think it's detrimental to glorify being stressed out all the time.  I think it's also not good to glorify busyness for the sake of being busy; streamlining and efficiency are important.  It's also important to slow down for the right moments.

Another facet to this is in how we convey our lives to others.  If you do it poorly, talking about all your obligations can be very selfish.  (I know I did exactly that above, but this is my soapbox; get over it.)  On the other hand, people that care about you actually do want to know what is going on in your life.  So we're left with a tactful balance of revealing the right amount of information: not so much as to pass on the stress or bore the audience, but enough to engage friends and colleagues in your life and give them a springboard into talking about their lives.  We should never be so busy as to forget to care about others, even (or especially) in casual conversations.

(As a side note, I'm not angry at that not-busy post any more; I just think they had the wrong angle on the problem.)

I'm going to be busy for the foreseeable future.  But that doesn't mean I won't have time to talk with friends, play in the garden, or make a nice dinner.  I does mean that I need to manage my time well and be productive when it's time to work.