Once Upon a Time

A raven, flitting around somewhere, notices a silver spot. Being curious, it pecks at it, and a seed falls out of a nearby hole. It pecks again, and another seed falls out. Now, whenever it pecks that silver spot, it expects a seed; whenever it wants a seed, it will peck the silver spot.

This is learning. Learning is entirely based on predictive pattern analysis: the ability to say, "in the past, every time X has occurred, Y has resulted," and use that information for future prediction. Advanced learning is being able to extrapolate that cause/effect into areas not identical but similar to the original situation: maybe the spot is gold, and maybe it's a piece of candy instead of a seed.

In simpler terms, the act of learning is an act of building stories - even ones far less interesting than "Jack and the Beanstalk." We build, in our heads, a narrative course of actions that we can use to inform ourselves as well as others in the future. Our brains are very good at building these stories: being good at stories - being good at learning - provided a heritable survival advantage, so our ancestors who were better building stories tended to survive more.

It's important, however, to recognize when our story-building goes awry: when we don't have enough data or experience to build a realistic cause/effect model, or when we highlight the wrong thing as being the cause or effect. This is also something we tend to be good at, unfortunately, because it's a side effect of constantly looking for stories.

The most critical part of any story we build is that we be open to modifying, expanding, or removing it based on experience in order to keep it useful: remember, if the story can't predict anything, it's not useful and may even be counter-productive as we waste energy in support of a pattern that doesn't exist. If the raven finds that it's not just silver spots, but square silver spots, that result in seeds, continually pecking a round silver spot and expecting a seed is a waste of energy; if it goes on long enough, the raven may starve.

Stories are extremely powerful, and while they can be useful, we need to constantly check and validate them to prevent them from becoming detrimental, both to ourselves and to society.



privi: private
lege: law

Privilege means, literally, "private law". Operating from a position of privilege means that the rules are applied differently - or are just not applied at all - for you.

There are many kinds of privilege. Some are earned, at least partially. Many are gained through luck or circumstance. Some are assumed even when not held.

The key, though, is that in all cases of privilege, the privileged person is acting from a position of strength or advantage over others who aren't privileged. The person with privilege doesn't have to be doing this deliberately or maliciously, or even be aware that s/he is doing it at all; often, one advantage of privilege is being unaware that a state of privilege even exists: those who have privilege may not be aware of it, while those who do not have it generally don't have a choice but to be aware of it. Furthermore, exercising a privilege generally (though not always) involves detriment to someone not privileged.

There are many privileges that are granted through general culture, so something that provides privilege in one culture may not (or may deny it) in another.

An example of a privilege that most people wouldn't think about: my parents are both great at finances, and have taught me from a young age about them. That's a privilege - it's an advantage most kids don't have. I didn't "earn" it in any way, and in this case my having it doesn't necessarily detract from others. But the knowledge I have gained because of my parents' fiscal ability is something that most of the people I know don't have.

An example of a privilege that is easy to spot is that I'm male. Being a male, even (or especially) in modern US culture, provides a plethora of advantages that most men aren't really aware of. We all know about things like wage differences, but even things like "not having to be vigilant about rape prevention" are privileges that men have and women don't.

An example of a privilege I lack is that I'm not straight. This goes far beyond issues like same-sex marriage and discrimination at work: the assumption of heterosexuality is so prevalent in culture that there is quite often a feeling that I have to hide my sexuality in everyday conversation or make other people angry/upset/flustered. Straight people don't have that stress: a straight man talking about his wife/lover/girlfriend does not cause any kind of disruption, but a gay man talking about his boyfriend/husband or a lesbian talking about her girlfriend/wife does. Thus, straight individuals are operating from a position of privilege.

We often can't avoid privilege - I can't stop being a guy, or at least not in ways that anyone would find reasonable, and I can't change who my parents are - but we can do our best to make sure that, in the exercising of privilege, we do not hurt or disadvantage others who are not privileged. This is often easier done that it seems, but first we have to be aware of the advantages we have that others lack. Also, we have to realize that, sometimes, levelling the field again isn't enough: to counteract privilege we, the privileged, must sometimes go out of our way to actively disadvantage ourselves in order to help someone who is unprivileged - especially if that privilege is indemic to culture and widespread.


So close... and yet, so far

Always remember: we're looking out, not up.


Once around the park

50 years ago today, a man orbited the Earth for 108 minutes. His primary concern, before launch, was making sure he had enough sausage to last him the trip.

The fact that the man was a Russian, and that, at the time, the US and the USSR were engaged in a bitter cold war, has no bearing on the significance of the event. As Michael Collins said of the moon landing some 8 years later, the accomplishment transcends borders and nationalities: "Everywhere we went, instead of saying 'you did it, you Americans did it,' they were saying 'we did it, we, the human race, did it,' and I thought that was a wonderful thing."

Today, space programs are international, with almost all the major players cooperating on a world stage. Even as private space flight begins to take off (pun intended), space travel remains one of the few egalitarian concepts in a world rocked by conflict.

The US has led the world in accomplishments in space since landing on the moon. We should do everything we can to encourage our population and scientists to continue exporing this next great frontier. At the same time, though, we must remember that we weren't the first ones there: we owe much of our drive and inspiration to Yuri.