Thursday, October 3, 2013

Truth, Circa 30 A.D.

            Here’s a quick and dirty breakdown on modern Biblical thought. There are two (almost) all-encompassing camps: one that says the Bible is a moral and religious authority, and one that says the Bible isn’t. Those who say the Bible isn’t an authority aren’t saying the Bible can’t overlap whatever they use to cobble together their moral code or religion, but neither of those derive from the Bible. And then those who take the Bible as truth have a wonderfully complex and diverse opinion of what truth means. This essay will attempt to give an overview of this camp, but it should be noted that ‘Bible’ could really be replaced with any religious text out there; it’s just the one I happen to study. Oh, and remember how I said those two camps were only almost all-encompassing? Yeah, that’s because some people are boring and don’t think about religious questions at all so they have no opinion; we don’t like them.
            In the same week my Bible & its Interpreters course started discussion allegorical, synchronic, and diachronic readings of the Bible – big words that mean interpreting Scripture as all metaphor, only as it is understood in modern language, and as it was supposed to have been understood by its initial audience several thousand years ago – the pastor of the church I attend in Austin emphatically told the congregation that we must discern what the Bible means, not just what it means to us. He didn’t go into more detail to explain what that meant, unfortunately. Let’s use the Biblical creation story as an example. Is the beginning of Genesis just an artsy interpretation of the birth of the world, a history that states the earth was created in six 24-hour blocks of time, or a poetic explanation for creation using ‘days’ in a loose sense to just separate important events as it was taken to mean around the time of writing? What is truth?
            The entirety of Scripture isn’t this migraine-inducing, thankfully. Belief that there is a single God who provides salvation to those who come to Him through Jesus is written often enough and in clear enough language for everyone to get the gist of that statement. No allegory or deep interpretation necessary. The nature of Jesus, though, is a huge debate that I don’t even want to touch here, but that He is stated to be the conduit to God isn’t held in such contention as most of the Bible. Whether you believe all that or not is your choice, but it’s the clear message from the text.
            Baruch Spinoza, a seventeenth-century philosopher whom I didn’t know about until a week before writing this essay and is now one of my favorite theological writers, constructed a very scientific-method-like exegesis method (again, unnecessary big word, ‘exegesis’ just means interpretation of a text). The Bible is first examined literally, then the parts that don’t make sense and aren’t asserted as fact elsewhere in the Bible are reframed allegorically, and the parts that still don’t make sense should be given up on. This is perfectly acceptable, in his opinion, because all the important stuff is clear. I believe he said interpreting everything else should just be “a hobby,” but don’t quote me on that.
            There are many other methods for exegesis out there. Spinoza just has my favorite method that I’ve encountered so far. I would say that individuals can try to interpret all Scripture, but they should never claim to have all the answers. Plenty of people are vain enough to say that, but I don’t think anyone is smart enough.
            Interpretation of Scripture really depends on the nature of God. If the nature of God is held to be more fluid, then interpretation of Scripture can be fluid as well. The more constant God is, the more those interested in His Word should attempt to discern what he meant in light of its original audience and culture. The fun part is that God’s nature is discerned through interpretation of Scripture, so it’s a circular statement.
            Unfortunately, I can’t give a concrete statement as to what my belief on how one should read the Bible is; I’ve given bits and pieces though. The more I study it, either independently or for class, the less certain I am about my preconceived notions. Spinoza’s method is definitely the path I’m leaning toward, but I still have, like, ten more weeks’ worth of theologians to read, so we’ll see what happens.

-Jason Rossiter

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Saturday, September 28, 2013

We the People?

            [This contains spoilers for The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and V for Vendetta.]

            I’ve mentioned my Government class covering US/Russian relations on QBA before (here, here, and here), and I’m going to do so again. Whenever I get the chance, I like to tout the importance and power of the masses. In class, I was given a writing assignment where I was to give my opinion on what caused the downfall of the Soviet Union: Gorbachev, Reagan, Containment, or the failure of Communism. Naturally (for me, at least), I argued that the USSR’s collapse was due to masses being fed up with the slipping living standards and life spans. I held a minority opinion; the class majority believed that Gorbachev all but single-handedly led the collapse of the Soviet Union through his ideas. It is not my intent to state my opinion on that topic here to make myself feel better about holding an unpopular opinion even if I was completely right in every way, but I wish to discuss if the masses have any real clout or if they’re just controlled by a small group of charismatic individuals. I hope you did your homework.
            The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, for those of you who did not do your homework and don’t plan to, covers the revolution staged by a penal colony on the moon. The orchestrators of the revolution were not the masses on the moon, they were a small group of individuals led by the anarchistic Professor Bernardo de la Paz who lied to their own people and to their enemies, restricted freedoms, rigged elections, and intentionally misled people in order to appear as if they had majority support. In this instance, did the people’s wishes drive the change? They did not; the people were used as a mechanism to create the change individuals wanted. Although, in the end, even the Professor didn’t get the change he wanted, so perhaps the people can create their preferred change through individuals who wish for something else.
            V for Vendetta is another story where an individual carefully orchestrates an act of rebellion, using people as a weapon and a threat. However, the mastermind, V, was intentionally mysterious so he could be any individual who wanted to fight an oppressive. He could be an idea to strive for and embody. The problem with that is V was anything but an anybody. While he did embody an idea that everyone could put his or her own face on, the skill with which he manipulated Norsefire and the people could not easily be replicated.
            What can we see in these and real-life situations? A lot of ambiguity. People are an unfortunate facet of humanity. (Read the previous sentence again. Appreciate the contradiction.) For almost anything to be done, it requires the acceptance and participation of a large group, but that large group can be manipulated by a small one: Eisenhower and McCarthy in the Red Scare, Gorbachev in the downfall of the Soviet Union, even Bane and Gotham City for those of you who watch more movies than read books. However, those small groups leading large ones are susceptible to problems. More popular and powerful ideas and groups can overpower and destroy, like the opinion of the global community when the Nazi atrocities were revealed. And those charismatic leaders who seek control still need to appeal to human nature and natural law which is why fringe political and religious groups can be extremely fervent and persuasive yet still rub the wrong way.
            In conclusion, the masses have the power, but they can be quite complacent. Humanity is like an object subject to the laws of physics; it will remain at rest until given the tiniest push. On the other hand, the masses still have some discernment on what pushes to accept and which to reject, so it’s not like an object subject to the laws of physics at all. How wonderfully paradoxical.

-Jason Rossiter

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Sunday, June 30, 2013

I Am Spock

            If only.
            For years, I have been fascinated by the suggested advantages of operating in a purely logical, emotionless manner. Pain, or rather the lack thereof, tops the list. Physical pain is something that I have never had much trouble shutting off, manipulating, ignoring, but emotional pain is an entirely different and far trickier beast. At some point, I arrived at the conclusion that the most workable answer to this tenacious variety of pain was to cease to feel emotion – most logical, is it not? – if you cannot feel, you cannot feel pain. The appeal is obvious, and I endeavored through most of middle school to exercise complete control over my every thought and response. I like order, and I found my own mind’s failure to display it infuriating. By imposing unbreakable self-discipline, I could make myself into something machine-like, something perfect. (Middle school me spent a bit too much time reading old science fiction and not enough time interacting with actual people.)
            Needless to say, I failed.
            I am, after all, only human. Spock had his Vulcan side to help him out, and even he struggled continuously. I was, however, left with a question – what defines humanity and can that trait be lost – and a realization – dear God, I need to get out more.
            I think that pain is an integral part of what makes us human. We highly value social ties, and they define us to a great extent. Yet to care about another person is to invite their pain. To trust is to be vulnerable to betrayal, to love is to be vulnerable to rejection. To care is to feel the pain of another even when it is not directly your own. Society is founded on the sharing of pain, and relationships are founded on the belief that lowering your defenses and relinquishing some control is worth being able to get closer to someone. We tend to avoid pain when possible, but so much of our meaningful interaction with others seems to come down to risking and accepting it. And we tend to be happier around others.
            So when we lose the compassion that makes us capable of relating to others, when we lose the emotion that makes others capable of relating to us, do we cease to be human? Is it possible to be satisfied with feeling nothing and having no one? A truly logical, emotionless individual would be unquestionably alien to any of us. They could look completely human, they could perhaps have once been completely human, but their thoughts and actions, though we might be capable of comprehending them, would seem monstrous. Their lack of empathy and understanding would be infuriating and best and quite hurtful at worst. They would simply be too cold. Too inhuman. Were someone ever to truly achieve such a state, it would be only after every trace of their humanity had been burned away. Their logical perfection would be grotesque.
            And what would it be like to be such an individual? Lonely, no doubt. How could you stand to be around other people? Their laughter, their tears would strike you as pointless, false. You would watch them move through their lives as if from a distance, unable to touch them, and isolation rarely does good things to the mind. Logic would grow twisted and contradictory, even that shining tool you had so desperately wanted would turn against you. First you would hate them, then you would hate yourself. And having distanced yourself from everyone, who would there be to stop you from hitting self-destruct some day?
            Poor Spock. It seems so attractive, doesn’t it, the idea of eliminating needless interference, of exchanging senseless emotion for cold reason. A pity it does not work. A pity it will never work. A pity that making it work would destroy you. At least you have middle school me to commiserate with – she’s pretty disappointed too – assuming that either one of you is willing to admit that you feel disappointment.

-Emma Foster

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Sunday, June 23, 2013

lol ttyl Part 2

     Sometimes, I turn into an angry-old-man-persona and get very falsely nostalgic for how good things used to be and how everything is deteriorating now. My essay about how technology is making interpersonal connection harder was very much that type of discussion, and I have to stop and remind myself at times like that that we as humans are rational beings; we wouldn't do something if it didn't have any upsides, or even if convenience were the only upside. If you talk about what you have lost, you must stop and consider what you have gained as well.
     Have you ever written someone a letter? I think the single biggest differentiating factor between older communication mediums and modern mediums of communication is time. Time to write a letter, time to send it to someone or wait until you see them and can hand it to them, time while they write a response, time until they send you their response or wait until they see you and can hand it to you or respond in person. Maybe this amounts to time to wallow in your emotions, time to angst over what is happening on the other end of the line of communication. There's a definite sense of vulnerability that is required and emphasized by older forms of communication, a sense of having no control over what is going on with the other person. This lack of control, this vulnerability, I believe, leads to a heightened level of emotional or mental response one way or the other. I mean, imagine you sent someone a letter confessing your love for them: can you imagine how stressed you would be by the time the other person got your letter and responded to it and you got their response? If you got the answer you wanted, you'd be on the verge of euphoria; if you got the opposite answer, you'd be miserable.
     Younger people can experience this feeling too, in at least one circumstance; by the time colleges review and respond to college applications, possibly months have gone by. I had firsthand experiences with acceptance and rejection from colleges, and those were some of the most intense feelings both me and many of my peers had thus far experienced.
     So what does taking that much time out of the equation do? I think it gets rid of that vulnerability, to a certain extent, but increases reciprocity. It turns communication into a mutual conversation.
     For example, in the love letter example from above, imagine if you had revealed your feelings over Facebook; the ability to tell someone you love them for the first time and hear back that they love you too within minutes doesn't lend itself to erecting barriers between yourself and the other person; it rather turns that admission of love into a mutual discussion and reassurance. If you told someone you loved them and had to wait for days before you could hear back from them, you're likely to do anything to manipulate the situation in your favor; if you wait forever to hear back from colleges, you're likely to hang your self-worth on whether you get in or not. When the response is immediate, the emotion is closer to the reality of the situation, and it gives you a CHANCE at happiness. Immediacy lends itself to honesty. I believe that older forms of communication, while intensifying emotions and thoughts and ideas and stuff and allowing you to maintain control (over yourself, at any rate) and present the you that you want to present, can very definitely erect a barrier between people; while you may be happier with the illusions that are inherent to the older forms of communication, I think they give you too much power to remove yourself from reality, which newer mediums of communication try to get rid of.
     Augustus Waters in The Fault in Our Stars by John Green says that "love is just a shout into the void." I think, generally speaking, all attempts to connect with someone else through communication is a shout into the void; I always picture it like we're all trying to climb out of own personal abyss, and maybe, if we try hard enough to make it to the top, and the person next to us tries hard enough to make it to the top, we can both make it there and actually reach each other and talk and connect. I think that, while modern communication has forgone idyllic extremes for lukewarm realities, it brings us closer together by creating a sense of immediacy and urgency that demands honesty with both others and ourselves, and this makes the abyss we have to escape just a little less deep.

Climb out of the abyss and connect.

- Adarsh Nednur

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Guard Your Privates

            In light of recent events that have blown up the front vehemently disagreevehementlypage of one of my favorite sites, Reddit, and that have inspired work from some of my favorite web comic artists like Randall Munroe, Dave McElfatrick, and Zach Weinersmith, I feel the need to explain why innocent people don’t like being creeped on by their government. Also, I need to amend statements made in Big Brother: Down to Size since we now have more information on what governments think they can get away with and why people end up blowing whistles for the world to hear.
            Early in June, news sources (at least the ones I pay attention to) exploded with information stemming from a leak in the National Security Agency which exposed a program, PRISM, which had been in place since 2007. Slides pertaining to this program claim that it accesses important information directly from the servers of companies like Microsoft, Apple, and AOL. The companies in question deny any knowledge of such a program despite leaked information claiming they are involved. The government’s response is that PRISM is used within the United States because this is where most internet traffic passes through, and that it is used for locating national threats and terrorists not protected by the Constitution.
            Here is why people vehemently oppose this: perspective. Governments are inherently paranoid; someone always wants to usurp power. Therefore, even the smallest inkling of a threat must be dealt with. Given today’s interconnection via the web, many people are probably Facebook friends with someone who’s friends with someone who’s of interest to some political entity. It’s the nature of the beast. It’s the price for being able to converse with someone across the globe with similar interests and for being able to arrange the get-together of the year and change the start time four times the morning of and still have everyone make it. Given motive, namely paranoia, and manpower, I believe many nonexistent or accidental connections between individuals could easily become “proof” that one is a national threat because he or she was in a Facebook group for a college dorm with someone who later attempted a terrorist attack or something of the like.
            Extreme example? Yup. Likely? I don’t know. That’s something that wouldn’t be discussed out in the open because it sounds as ridiculous as it sounds.
            The solution, in my uneducated and idealistic opinion, is not more security and fear, but less 1984 impersonations and more ability for problems and solutions to be openly discussed. The main reason for violent protest is the belief that one’s words are not being listened to. Our political system has become, to borrow a saying from South Park, a collection of “giant douches and turd sandwiches” who do what is necessary to take office and stay there. Privacy and rights of the people are secondary to security of one’s position in the government. That is inherent in our two-party system.
            A word of warning when taking my opinion; what do I know? Everyone has legitimate concerns about the safety of his or her culture, and upping security will make catching terrorists and dangers quicker than having less security would. However, upping security will cause more people to become terrorists or dangers. I'd rather take my chances with people who vehemently  disagree with me but feel respectfully listened to than take my chances with a police state.
            Now, on to the painful reflection on the faults of an earlier essay of mine. I said in my essay on 1984 that an Orwellian state would be impossible to sustain because people within the Party (or governing body, for the general case) would find it in their best interest to squeal or throw their superiors under the bus to usurp power. However, it has become apparent that an Orwellian state is possible to sustain for enough time to be a pain as long as nobody notices. I asked on my Facebook page how many people considered themselves knowledgeable of politics in their country, and more than half of the responses in my sample too small to draw any conclusions from said they were not. With enough wordy fluff to keep everyone except lawyers completely unaware of the fact that the government can be climbin’ in yo’ servers and snatchin’ yo’ emails up, and with, “Because terrorists,” as an acceptable response to any attempt to check the government’s power, it is possible to believe one is freer than he or she really is. This brings to mind another of Orwell’s classic books, Animal Farm.
            An optimistic change to be made to my essay, however, is due to the reason for the PRISM. Edward Snowden, the loved or hated whistle blower depending on who pays your bills, leaked information because he believed that what the government was doing was wrong. In an interview he gave while holed up in a hotel in Hong Kong, Snowden said that he accepted the fact that he may never see his family or his girlfriend again, but it was worth the price to pay to be the kind of leader he was hoping he’d be able to follow. Altruism; I guess there’s hope for us yet.

           Fun Facts: Obama, the NSA, the Department of Justice, and Verizon are being sued for $3 billion in a class-action lawsuit due to PRISM, and 1984 sales on Amazon have increased 126% as of 10 p.m. on June 10th.

-Jason Rossiter

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Friday, June 7, 2013

Believe in the Green Light

     So, it's no secret that The Great Gatsby is my favorite novel, and I think it has a LOT to offer in the way of themes. It deals with the idea of understanding other people complexly instead of turning them into symbols or concepts (which I dealt with in some depth here) and how that affects love; it famously deals with the ideas of materialism and self-indulgence and hedonism and what they do to human nature; it has a lot to say about the importance of living an active life and "engaging as deeply in the miracle of human consciousness as possible", as John Green says, rather than living passively. But I think the main theme has to do with what The Great Gatsby has to say about hope. (Warning: Spoilers abound.)
     There is an old discussion (and you can find it in a lot of older QBA essays too, if you look for it) about whether it is better to live at the extremes of emotion or at a medium. In other words, is it better to hope, to want things so strongly that you experience euphoria when you get them and misery when you don't, or is it better to go through life distanced and removed from everything so you always exist at some moderate level of apathetic contentment?
     A lot of people have entered this discussion. Here's the wonderful spoken word poet Sarah Kay saying that she's learned that being happy is worth being sad. On the other side, Shakespeare's most famous "romance", Romeo and Juliet, is actually practically a satire extolling the dangers of living at the extremes of impulsive desire and misery. And in the middle, in Toni Morrison's Beloved, the character Paul D shares his wisdom that one should love everything just a little bit, so that when it leaves there's more love left for the next time.
     Fitzgerald doesn't give a straight answer to the question, of course; he argues for both sides. (As Fitzgerald himself said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see things as hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.") Gatsby symbolizes hope, pure unadulterated hope, even in the impossible. The first description we get of him, in fact, is that he had "an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again." Fitzgerald unravels the dichotomy of the theme in the very first chapter: on the one hand, "Gatsby turned out all right at the end," but on the other, "it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men."
     On first reading, one might consider The Great Gatsby the story of the tragic end of Gatsby himself. He does, of course, wind up dead in a pool after being abandoned by the love of his life to whom he has dedicated his entire being and shot for another man's crime. On the other hand, he spent his whole life hopeful, idealistic, certain of an impending happiness, even if it was a belief in a long-lost past and a never-coming future that carried him through his life with that faith. So, one might consider that Gatsby lost a physical battle but won an emotional one, meaning that the novel might not be a tragedy after all. Seems like the score for hope vs. detachment is all tied up at present.
     Maybe we could look at Nick's character arc to figure out what Fitzgerald thinks; after all, contrary to popular belief, Nick is in fact the novel's protagonist, not the title character. Nick starts off sick of "reserving judgments", which is a matter of "infinite hope", as he says. Throughout the course of the novel, though, he embraces Gatsby's ideology more and more; he pursues Jordan when his living vicariously through Gatsby becomes insufficient, when he feels like taking a risk, abandoning his role as "the tired" to become "the pursuing". He compliments Gatsby for the first time just before Gatsby's death, saying he's worth the whole damn lot of the passive, jaded, disillusioned generation of his party guests. Jordan even says that she was wrong about his being a "careful" person, and that he is actually "careless" as well; he takes his chances by the end, he risks his happiness. On the other hand, he recognizes the miserable reality of Gatsby's life at his funeral, and he becomes disenchanted with Gatsby's hopeful nature as well, and moves back west, unable to deal with the reality which contrasts so strongly with Gatsby's dream. Nick seems to have believed, for a time, in the power of hope, but he eventually finds himself unable to escape the reality of the world. The reader generally identifies with Nick pretty strongly, because we also are often caught up in the promise of a better tomorrow but eventually unable to fool ourselves any longer, unlike Gatsby whose optimism is endless and who can fool himself indefinitely.
     I believe, personally, that Fitzgerald's genius is not in which answer he gives to the debate, but in the fact that he reaches a different conclusion altogether: Hope is inevitable. He suggests, I believe, that the argument of whether it is better to hope or not is a moot point, because it is not a choice we can make. He seems to say that hope is inherent to the human condition, that it is impossible for humans to escape from desire and still live meaningful lives. Put another way, in the words of a friend of mine, "Humans always want things. It's very intrinsically human." No character in the whole story is without desire. Gatsby wants to relive some beautiful, if imaginary, moment in the past through Daisy, Daisy wants reciprocation in a relationship which translates loosely to a need for adulation and connection, Tom wants to achieve the level of dominance and glory he once had, Nick wants to believe in hope. (We really understand what Nick wants once we realize that Gatsby is to Nick what Daisy is to Gatsby, at least when Gatsby and Nick first meet: a larger than life ideal to aspire to, a figure to believe in. Nick's arc spans everything from accepting the hope that Gatsby symbolizes to facing Gatsby's reality, the reality that he is just a man, and a naive one at that.) Not one of the characters really gets what they want, but that doesn't stop them from wanting it, and it is notable that the only one who is really happy until the end is Gatsby, the only one who never gives up hope on his desire, despite its impossibility. Once we realize that hope is inevitable, we can learn how to be happier, how to deal with misery, and how to keep faith through it all. We can learn to believe in the green light as Gatsby did, bring what it may.

Believe in the green light.
- Adarsh Nednur

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Sunday, May 19, 2013

School Year in Review

            My stomach hasn’t quite completely untied itself after being hit by the stress of finals and the realization that this is my last summer as a teenager; my bags are as unpacked and stowed away as they will get, and the grades have been turned in. My summer is beginning, so it is time for my semesterly (I made that word up, but it should be real) update. I normally do this via Facebook because I usually only talk about boring personal details, but a year of college has caused some interesting and thought-provoking tweaks to my personal philosophy. QBA will be a wonderful platform to share them from. As usual, a warning: the following is the opinion of one who has only spent a year in college. What could I possibly know about how the world really works?
            I have been a very vocal proponent of extremely limited government and supporter of a gradual progression toward anarchy. Those are still my beliefs, but every class I’ve taken has shown me that the level of government control appears cyclical and that the acceptance of status quo ideology is so internalized that higher education needs to be rebuilt from the ground up to not just escape from the inefficient society we have now, but to ensure that it does not return. Government and Economics classes showed the benefit in lying to the public to minimize loss and casualty based on situations created by the current governmental and financial systems. An overview of conspiracy theories taught by a Sociology professor showed me how easy it is to and how often people lie to escape a world of uncertainty instead of facing and fixing it. Roman history has shown how similar our ideals and plans were to the Romans’ and how similar our faults are. We’re in a self-perpetuating machine of governance that fluctuates between bounds of oppressive (but not as oppressive as 1984) and liberating (but not anarchistic), and we’re all taught that there is no other viable option.
            Beyond this is the fact that people (myself included) can be blissfully unaware, immature, and simply feigning intelligence. The level of ethical reasoning one is expected to enter higher education with is appalling, and many of the readings I’ve had assigned use thousands of big words to state ideas that could be stated in a page and a half (the average length of a QBA essay in size 12 Times New Roman font… just sayin’), and our writing assignments are intended to teach us to replicate such behavior. Not only does this waste every student’s time, it doesn’t teach the material, and it makes it much more difficult for the armchair intellectual to learn anything worthwhile because he or she must wade through copious magnitudes of frivolous prodigalities.
            On a purely personal note, I’ve noticed how easy it is for me to be miserly. It’s worrying to end the school year with a surplus of funds ear-marked to be used for food since the only benefit that brought me was skipping several meals. Church, my friends, and my girlfriend especially enjoy pointed out the fact that money is for spending to increase one’s own enjoyment and that of those around him or her. I’m extremely curious on what my transformation in this area will look like if there is any, and it’s also interesting because this seems to be a unique problem. I know very few people who pinch as many pennies as I do, and I wonder what makes me so abnormal in this respect.
            The idea of limited government will be touched on again as well as revolution and the true power of the masses in my next essay unless something new and exciting pops up so be sure to watch V for Vendetta and read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Adarsh is planning to discuss The Great Gatsby, so read it. Most of you educated in America probably have a copy collecting dust somewhere anyway. I’ll have a less philosophical School Year in Review on Facebook for anyone who actually cares.
            For those of you still in school for the year, good luck!

-Jason Rossiter

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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

All Of The Feels!

     So, emotions. They kinda suck. And by kinda, I mean they're by definition the reason for everyone's unhappiness and existential angst. But in reality they're actually important for us as a species; they're essential to our survival, again pretty much by definition the reason for everyone's happiness, and also an essential tool for a rationalistic approach to thinking as well, believe it or not.
     This vein of thinking of mine started a long while ago when I was reading, in an article about evolution and emotions and such, a scientist saying something along the lines of, "Evolutionarily, 'liking things' is a very important idea." It's something that we may be aware of, but not necessarily think about: liking things has deep roots in giving organisms an evolutionary advantage. For example, we as people have evolved to find the taste of most poisonous plants to be very unpleasant, while we love the taste of, say, bacon, because meat and fat were the most nutritionally effective comestibles when early humans needed sustenance and food was rare. Similarly, emotions are generally rooted firmly in giving an organism an evolutionary advantage as well; love (or lust) has its origins in finding the mate with the best features with whom to propagate your lineage, happiness is rooted in having done something which is beneficial to your survival or lifestyle, anger is a product of the aggressive lifestyle which was crucial to early humans' survival, etc. Of course, a lot of the situations which engendered or necessitated these emotions initially have changed or disappeared as humans' ability to influence their environment has increased, but they are still relevant and often crucial to our survival.
     Now, give me some credit, I know what you're thinking: "Yeah, yeah, I know that emotions are evolutionarily rooted, but I think I could probably figure out all of those things through reason at this point, especially given the structure of our society and stuff. Also, not only are most of those situations gone now, but the emotions they leave behind are like vestigial organs that can actually affect us negatively, counter to their original evolutionary purpose." I hear what you're saying, random argumentative reader, but my contention is that, first of all, these negative effects are caused by metathought (which I'll explain in a moment) and that emotions are important tools in decision-making and lateral thinking, even with the negative effects.
     So, metathought. "Meta-" is a prefix meaning "self"; metathought is thinking about thinking. I would argue that almost all of the negative effects that emotions have that aren't at least beneficial in the long run are caused by people's thinking about thinking, meaning, thinking about their emotions until they convince themselves of something that wasn't true before that, or thinking about life at a level which pulls people out of it. I like to call emotions caused by metathought "second-tier emotions." I would agree that these types of emotion are indeed detrimental, but they're at least as much caused by rational thinking as they are emotions (showing that, once again, the more you think, the more miserable you are). Emotions which are normal responses to situations are really pretty necessary, even the negative ones, and this really speaks to the second part of my contention. I don't mean that in a cheesy "You can't know happiness without sadness" sort of way, either, because that's obviously false; I mean, rather, that positive and negative emotions in response to a variety of situations really establish a balance of what action to take in any given situation, how much risk any given choice in a decision is worth, etc. "Should I ask out this girl I really really like? Well, she might say yes, and when that happened last time with Joanna it made me incredibly happy and I had a good time. Of course, she might say no, which made me miserable for weeks the last time THAT happened. Or, maybe worse, she might say yes, and we might become a couple, and be happy for a while, and then she might break my heart and leave me for Fabio because he has a six-pack and dreamy eyes, like Joanna did. Hmm... I DO really like her, though... Meh, I'll take a shot." Emotions can be viewed as an innate way for your mind to perform cost-benefit analysis constantly based on your prior experiences.
     Emotions also allow your mind to form connections between different experiences which may not have any direct connection, to empathize with people in different situations than you in a way that purely rational thinking does not, and to predict the future to an extent through that aforementioned lateral thinking and empathy that reason and linear thinking don't allow. "Oh, gosh, those poor people in North Korea, I can only imagine what the living conditions are like there... I imagine that the people there won't be able to stand it much longer; it'll probably all boil over one way or the other soon if the people have any control over the situation."
     All in all, emotions really are a powerful tool when used to your advantage.

Petronius's Paradox: "Moderation in all things, including moderation."
In a nutshell, that's what emotions are good for (which would explain why they're so paradoxical and confusing).
- Adarsh Nednur

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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Don't Waterboard Me, Bro!

            Today’s discussion is on the use of power to interrogate and use of power in general. However, I will do everything I can to use flowing generalities to avoid discussing particular leaders and policies. The main interest of QBA is to provide philosophies; how those philosophies are being carried out or ignored is not our problem and, quite frankly, a matter for much less intelligent and interesting people than the sleep-deprived teenagers that like to babble about random topics online.
            Is it ever right to torture an individual for information? If someone had asked me that question a few weeks ago, I would have said no. However, my Government class brought up the topic several times, and I now feel that, under the right circumstances, torture and intense interrogation practices are acceptable.
            If an individual agrees to act a certain way, he or she must accept those actions being reciprocated. This is Kant’s rule (I first mentioned Kant in my essay on Miley Cyrus); for an act to be moral, it must be able to be universally applied. For example: sports have rules that are applied equally to both teams. Any team that breaks rules can and should expect repercussions for doing so. I believe it is not a large jump to move from this example to examples of conflict. If a group swears death to a regime or ideology through any means necessary, they either accept the same means they use being used against themselves, or they believe they are above the universality of logic. If they are the prior, they can be wrong but fair. If they are the latter, they’re a danger to every society through attempting to set a precedent that would cause not only unrest but eventually anarchy. And not the good kind of anarchy at that, the kind that people stereotype all anarchy being like.
            Taken to its extreme, this philosophy doesn’t allow an escalation of conflict because one group can't act in a way that hasn't become acceptable by the other group using it first. It's a not-so vicious cycle of fostering kindness and teamwork; it requires a relaxing of tensions, or, in the worst cases, détente. Détente, for everyone who isn’t in my Government course on US/USSR relations in the Cold War period, is a stalemate where I point my gun at my opponent’s head while he points his gun at my head. Nothing gets done, but no one pulls the trigger. I believe, and history has shown, that people don’t like and don’t let détente last for long. Eventually, new ideas are discovered, new causes are fought for, old farts die, or new leaders take over, destroying détente and relaxing tensions.
            Now, we talk about waterboarding. Is it morally right to torture? Only if it is done to one who has already stated a stance in direct opposition to your way of life in a dangerous manner, and only if there is reason to believe torture would lead to accurate information. I don’t believe that it is right to torture “suspected” anythings, and I don’t believe that torture for malicious intent behooves anyone. You can see how Kant ties in here. Torture fits into the "game" once the other "team" says it's playing by "rules" that include life-threatening decisions. That allows one to either play by the new rules set by the opponent, or to act as referee and impose a penalty for deviating from the old rules. I just wouldn’t have the stomach for torture, especially unwarranted torture; I recently found out I couldn’t even play scary video games in the dark. How could I condone torture for funsies?
            I can understand why people torture. If a group produces a video saying they possess weapons or plan to injure large groups of people, I could condone the interrogation of one who had explicitly stated he or she had knowledge of the situation. I cannot see a situation where interrogating a “suspected” threat could be a morally upheld decision, and that’s probably why I’ll never be elected President. I can’t put the state before individual choice; I can put the lives of many before the freedoms of one who explicitly stated he or she was planning to do harm, though. That is a decision I could make and still sleep well at night.

-Jason Rossiter

We won't torture you if you don't, but like and follow QBA.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Mirrors, Windows, and the Monkeysphere

     Disclaimer: I realize that larger than average portions of this essay are quotes from books, but I have done this both to show the prevalence of this theme in literature and because I believe the quotes have added something to my thoughts that I could not articulate in a more effective way than the quotes themselves do. I recommend you read them, but you can probably understand the essay without them.

     One of my favorite authors, John Green, likes to say that his novel Paper Towns is about "the importance of imagining other people complexly". It takes a while to understand what that means when you're reading it, but there's a very elucidating passage that I think it's important I reproduce here. Context: Both of the narrator's parents are therapists.

"My dad finished chewing something and then put his fork down and looked at me. 'The longer I do my job,' he said, 'the more I realize that humans lack good mirrors. It’s so hard for anyone to show us how we look, and so hard for us to show anyone how we feel.'
'That is really lovely,' my mom said. I liked that they liked each other. 'But isn't it also that on some fundamental level we find it difficult to understand that other people are human beings in the same way that we are? We idealize them as gods or dismiss them as animals.'
'True. Consciousness makes for poor windows, too. I don’t think I’d ever thought about it quite that way.'"

     So now, to the meat of the essay. I believe that we as people are very very comfortable with the idea that   we are ourselves people. I also believe that we are very very comfortable with the idea that we, being people, have hopes and dreams and aspirations and desires and secrets and fears and make mistakes. I think the problem we have, as people, is recognizing that other people are also people. We have a problem recognizing that other people are as three-dimensional, metaphorically speaking, as we are.
     I think this is a very dangerous thing. Imagine if someone idealized you to the point that they thought you were the exception to every rule, imagined that you were infallible. You could never truly connect to that person, no matter how much they truly "love"* you, because you could never live up to their expectations.  I like to call this The Daisy Buchanan Effect, after a very relevant passage in The Great Gatsby.
"As I went over to say good-by I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby’s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams — not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart."
     Same with hate, of course. If you've decided that someone is a terrible person, there is no way for them to recover from that. At least, not with any level of ease. I'd point to Pride and Prejudice as an example. It takes a whole book for Mr. Darcy to get from "worst guy in the world" to "love of my life" in Elizabeth Bennett's mind; she could have saved herself all of that trouble if she'd been able to imagine him complexly, as John Green advises.  It's also my defense of moral relativism and one of the big reasons I'm comfortable writing essays like Hitler was a Good Guy. I'm very uncomfortable saying that someone is a "bad person", no matter what they've done, because they have their reasons and dreams and hopes and fears. These may be misguided or may disagree with my views, of course, but, if you try to imagine someone complexly, you will at least be reluctant to dismiss them as a demon, as it were.
     On the other hand, there are some counterarguments. Hank Green, the brother of author John Green, suggests in this video that if you cared about everyone in the world equally, you would lose all ability to function and to help even some of the people. Also, this very interesting article from, though it acknowledges that society would be much better if everyone could imagine everyone complexly, suggests that decisions at some point require you to choose one person over another, and also suggests that we might have a biological limit of how many people we can imagine complexly, which they call the Monkeysphere (that limit being about 150 people for humans).
     I do recommend, however, that you try to empathize with people more on a deeper level before deciding that they are one thing or another. Strive to understand them as much as you understand yourself. Admittedly, you may not understand yourself very well, since you're made up of many complex and conflicting thoughts and emotions, but that's kind of the point. So, really, maybe the goal should be less to understand them as much as you understand yourself and more to understand them as little as you understand yourself. I think I'm rambling at this point.
     Homework assignment: Next time you're stuck in traffic, look around and realize that every car around you is driven by someone who is as complex as you are, at least. Try to imagine the fact that each of those people has had as rich a life as you have, as rich a personality as you have, as strong hopes and dreams and fears and secrets as you have. It's mind-blowing, and will likely change how you look at and treat the people around you.

Consciousness makes for poor windows, but a person has to try.

*The quotation marks are to emphasize the question of whether someone can really love someone else when they don't see or understand that person, just the idealized version of that person that they've placed on a pedestal. That's a big question that both Paper Towns and The Great Gatsby address. A visual novel I play/read called Katawa Shoujo also addresses the question of whether you can love and connect to someone without truly understanding them. What do you guys think?

I think I'm done.

- Adarsh Nednur

Imagine us authors here at QBA complexly and realize that we'd love it if you'd like QBA on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Big Brother: Down to Size

            Eric Blair is probably a person you’ve never heard of before; I had never heard of him either until I opened the textbook for my class on the Cold War and discovered he was the man behind the pen name George Orwell and author of 1984. That piece of trivia has nothing to do with the meat of this essay, but I felt like including it anyway. We’re covering two topics from 1984 today: why an Orwellian government cannot be sustained, and why doublethink is already prevalent in American society. As QBA essays focused on books or movies are wont to do, this essay contains spoilers.
            While many activists and politicians want us to petition or vote in a way that will keep America from becoming an Orwellian state, there are certain facets of human nature that guarantee the impossibility of a sustainable state that monitors every action, requires absolute devotion to the Party, and systematically demonizes all other entities and cultures. Society may elect leaders and allow laws that are in that vein, but it would be impossible for them to last.
            Man is inherently vain and greedy. The reasoning for such attributes is a question to ask your religious leader of choice, but those attributes make 1984 as a reality an impossibility. The only way to perpetuate the idea of the state is to require complete devotion to Big Brother, the fictional head of the Party in Oceana, from all subjects. Given the number of people necessary to create the farce that is the Party’s absolute control, at least one of those people would see it in his or her interest to take credit for some event or feel deserving of praise. If there is one thing Watergate and other attempted conspiracies have told us, it’s that someone always finds it in his or her best interest to talk or try to get ahead. The secret to destroying a 1984 government is not to ‘wake the proles,’ it’s waiting to watch the government implode. However, it would be preferable for most people just not to instate an Orwellian government in the first place.
            Moving on to doublethink, holding two contradictory ideas in one’s head at once, we can see that it is and has been part of our train of thought. For any regular readers, you know that my last regularly-scheduled essay discussed Tolkien’s anarchy in The Lord of the Rings and how it could be applied to the real world. Did anyone think of the fact that Tolkien’s work was a work of fiction, and there is no reason that any scenarios in his novels could be applied outside the realm of Middle Earth? Of course not. You were practicing doublethink. What could happen in The Lord of the Rings could happen in reality, and magic does not exist. My ration of chocolate is now smaller than it was yesterday, and my ration of chocolate has been increased. There is a less ominous name for this particular use of doublethink: suspended disbelief, but it is doublethink nonetheless.
            1984 is a novel I’d suggest reading every couple of years. My copy was annotated for my Junior year English class, and it was extremely entertaining to see what I thought of it then in comparison to what I think now. In fact, I found some notes scribbled in the margins about my preference for a hierarchy based on character instead of fear and power that I found fleshed out in Atlas Shrugged. Small world.

-Jason Rossiter

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Valentine's Day: Romantic Love

            Almost six and a half months ago, I asked out a girl who was never supposed to say yes. However, she did, and I got stuck in a wonderful relationship that forced me to put a rush order on the parts of my personal philosophy that I hadn’t completely formulated yet and pertained to relationships. Since love is popular topic at this time of year, I’ve decided to interrupt the flow of essays I started with Orcs and Anarchy. My apologies to anyone who really wanted to know how I was going to make fun of people who used the fantasy world to fix the real world; you’ll just have to wait a little longer.
            The Greeks, being more OCD with their language than the English, had several words for love: agape, eros, philia, and storge. Romantic love, in its modern sense, hangs somewhere between agape and eros because nothing is worth writing about if it isn’t confusing to begin with. Agape love is the unconditional love that can’t be wrecked no matter how stupid the recipient is acting. Eros (the root of ‘erotic,’ obviously) isn’t just hot-and-heavy lovin’; Socrates through Plato describes it as a desire for a person that can become a love of the eternal beauty within that person. I leaned heavily on Plato for my definition.
            However, being a Christian, I also combed the Bible for help, but the Bible absolutely sucks in defining romantic love. There is the 'Song of Solomon', which is pretty much one long, erotic, love poem between a couple in love, and clear statements that there is no ‘the one’ since widows are able to remarry and there are religiously acceptable reasons for divorce and remarrying. I wasn’t able to find any, “Romantic love is…” statements, only, “We are in love, so we feel…” statements. That was annoying.
            Also, I further delved into Plato’s and Socrates’ ‘eternal beauty,’ finding it to mean the absolutes the recipient of love represents for the lover (not that kind of lover). An example would be my girlfriend representing altruism and grace for those of you that don’t like ambiguous philosophy terminology. The one being loved is a proxy for larger ideas that are loved. For those who believe that absolutes are an extension of God (touched on very briefly in Save $ By Not Killing People), it can be said that romantic love recognizes the godliness in another individual.
            Lastly, I concluded that love had to be a choice. If there is no ‘the one,’ there are, at least, ‘the few’ (this is also talked about in Atlas Shrugged for Dummies; it should be noted that I considered romantic love in Atlas Shrugged as different from the romantic love discussed in this essay. An explanation for that is that the actions in Atlas Shrugged are done for a form of eros that doesn’t find ‘eternal beauty’ to correlate to godliness). One could, of course, hop from one partner to another at a whim based on certain features found attractive, but there is no love in that, only appreciation for the attractive features. Therefore, ‘true love’ needs some form of permanence. Marriage is some statement of that, if used Biblically. It just means tax breaks otherwise.
            All that being said, here is what I’ve cobbled together as what I think is the best definition of romantic love available on the Internet:

Romantic love: strong affection felt for someone found attractive at an intellectual and physical level who represents eternal beauty or godliness, whose needs and wants make one happy to fulfill, and beyond the initial attraction it becomes a choice to honor relational promises; romantic love can be lost if left unnurtured, i.e. given up on

             For any (possibly most) of the readers of this, I'm not going to force-feed a Biblical interpretation of romantic love. Feel free to reinterpret at will as long as you acknowledge that, like in Atlas Shrugged, a different interpretation can lead to extremely different results. But I'm only a 19-year-old whose longest relationship so far is six months and a fortnight; what do I know?
            I would like to take a moment to look smugly at my fellow QBA author, Adarsh, who just shrugged and said, “Love is love,” when we started our long discourse on the topic. Ha. Ha. Hahaha… Ha.

-Jason Rossiter

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