Learning to Teach (Superhero Perspective)

I recently spent four weeks teaching in a comprehensive high school in Sydney’s south. It was my first ever teaching experience, and it was intense! Two things that hit me early on:

  1. lot of preparation goes into each class (e.g., lesson plan, PPT slides, finding resources, making worksheets, designing activities, etc). I’m sure it does get easier over time as you build a portfolio of things to draw on. It also depends on whether you want to be great, or whether you are content with being mediocre.
  2. lot of things are happening all at once inside the classroom. In addition to ‘delivering’ the content, I’m trying to familiarise myself with names/faces, monitor behaviour, formulate questions to ask students, respond to input from students, keep track of time, keep track of environmental factors — good teaching requires expertise in multi-tasking.

What I also began to realise as the weeks went on is that the process of learning to teach is like being a superhero who begins to discover and explore my superpower. Teachers have tremendous power over students, both in terms of how they learn and how they behave. Think about it — we have the power to control people. “Line up outside, two straight lines.” “Open up your books and write this heading.” “Turn around now. Look at me.” “Write down three things you learned today.” “Pick that up. Put it in the bin.”

Being an effective teacher requires having the confidence and capability to exercise power over people. This brings me to a really great quote from Haim Ginott, a child psychologist and author who wrote this about the power of teaching:

I have come to a frightening conclusion.

I am the decisive element in the classroom.

It is my personal approach that creates the climate.

It is my daily mood that makes the weather.

As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.

I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.

I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.

In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.

Lots of things have being proposed to improve/reform the education system — money, syllabus, testing, technology, parent choice; the list goes on and on. Ultimately however, learning happens in the classroom, as facilitated by teachers. Developing the knowledge, skills and motivation of teachers is paramount; and also, I would suggest, their character. As we all know, with great power comes great responsibility.

Six Months with the Apple Watch

Last year, my cousin gave me an Apple Watch (Sport, Space Grey, 42mm) as a belated wedding gift. I’ve worn it for about 6 months now and… I like it. I’m not a watch person, and yet the Apple Watch has comfortably found a place on my wrist (and in my life).

Below are some thoughts based on my experiences with the Watch. I thought the best way to capture my feelings about the various aspects of the Watch is to use emoji.

(NB: For the TL;DR version, scroll down to the Bottom Line)


Basics

Hardware – 😄

Apple Watch looks and feels nice. After the initial strangeness of having something over my naked wrist, wearing it has become completely normal.

The anodised aluminium case is very durable. There’s not a single scratch, although there is a small chip from the time I bumped my wrist into the door frame a few days into owning the watch. Oops. If I look really closely, I can see a couple of hairline scratches on the Ion-X glass surface. Perhaps this is where the sapphire screen of the non-Sport versions has an upper hand.

I love that the bands are customisable. In addition to the black sport band, I also have the blue leather loop for more formal occasions and an orange sport band for when I want something more colourful. I feel good when I am wearing the Watch.

Watch faces

Interestingly, the different Watch sizes (42mm and 38mm) are compatible with each others’ bands. My wife has a 38mm Watch and I’ve used her white sport band a couple of times. It’s a little narrower but it’s impossible to tell the difference unless you’re looking at it closely. Unfortunately, she’s not able to wear my 42mm bands since they are just wide enough so that the edges of the lugs stick out from the body.

The battery life is very impressive. Unless I’m using the Watch for multiple Workout sessions or long stretches of turn-by-turn Maps directions, I easily get two days’ use out of it.

Software – 😐

Apple Watch is clearly a first-generation product. A theme that I keep coming back to is that the Watch is slow. Launching apps typically takes several seconds, if they open at all. Navigation is solid (but not smooth like on the iPhone), with some stutters here and there. The Watch will occasionally freeze or crash.

User interface – 🙂

In my experience, the user interface is not too complex once you get the hang of it. From the Watch screen, you swipe down to see missed notifications and swipe up for Glances. Glances are discrete ‘cards’ that you navigate by swiping left and right. Some Glances display information (e.g., Activity, Battery, Calendar), while others are immediately actionable (e.g., playback control in Now Playing, toggle Airplane Mode in Settings). I’ve found Now Playing especially to be quite useful.

Where things go awry is when you press the digital crown to go to the app (home?) screen. The app screen feels overwrought. The mass of tiny circles is confusing and difficult to manage. Fortunately it is customisable, and I’ve arranged it so that I can make geographical sense of where things are (h/t to Casey Liss):

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The reality is I hardly ever go to this screen—mostly to launch the Workouts app, and occasionally for a third party app (see below). It feels like Apple just ported the iOS paradigm of app tiles onto the Watch, and the lack of fit really shows.


Tentpole features

When Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled the Watch, he outlined three “tentpole” features:

  • Timekeeping
  • Communication
  • Health and fitness

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I think the Watch does a decent-to-great job on each of these.

Telling time – 😊

As someone who didn’t wear watches before, having the time on my wrist is obviously great. Do I care if the Watch keeps time to within 50 milliseconds of the definitive global time standard, as per Apple marketing? Not really.

The Watch screen is normally off to preserve battery life, and typically I tilt my wrist slightly to turn it on. Occasionally the sensor doesn’t register and I have to overtly raise my wrist or tap the watch to turn the screen on. This is annoying when I have to do it in the middle of a conversation, or when I’m holding a bag of groceries in my left hand.

I love the customisation of the Watch face, which allows me to match it with what I’m doing or what I feel like on a particular day.

  • When I’m going to university, I tend to use the Modular face to see what classes I have coming up and where they are. I can also change the colour to match what I’m wearing.
  • For work, I usually go with the Utility face. Both the Modular and Utility faces display my activity, the weather/temperature and sunset time as complications.
  • For weekends or when I’m just chilling out, I use either the Motion (Jellyfish) or Time Lapse (Hong Kong) face.

Faces

When I’m feeling a little pretentious I’ll use the Simple face with minimal detail. It’s not very practical but looks nice with the all-black setup.

Communications – 🙂

Apple Watch has been a useful, but not indispensable, addition to my life in this regard:

  • Notifications – Receiving messages on my wrist is fast and almost frictionless. For me, most of the time this is a first-world luxury. The Watch gives me haptic feedback that feels like gentle taps. The feedback is really nifty. It varies depending on the type of notification—iMessage, Whatsapp message, Reminder, phone call, etc. I love that my phone now remains inert; no vibrations, no screen lighting up.
  • Digital Touch – This is a feature that allows me to send taps, drawings and my heartbeat to other Apple Watch wearers. My wife and I do this from time to time. It’s cute and can be delightful, but neither of us do it on a regular basis.
  • Phone calls – The Watch is great for making or receiving calls in a pinch, like at home when the phone is sitting somewhere else. This is a cool and underrated feature.
  • Messaging – It is convenient when I do it, which is not very often. I don’t ever think of using Apple’s creepy default emoji.

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Health and fitness – 😄

This is one area in which the Watch really delivers. The Workout app is great. It tracks all the activities that I need: outdoor running/walking, indoor/outdoor cycling, rower and elliptical. During the workout session, the Watch provides a series of metrics that you can swipe through. For me the key metric is heart rate, which it apparently tracks quite well.

Another thing the Watch does well is the gamification of health. It tracks daily Move (pre-determined calorie/KJ target), Exercise (30 min above a certain heart and movement rate) and Stand (at least one minute per hour, for 12 hours) goals. The Watch rewards you with badges for completing various achievements—e.g., Perfect Week (complete all three rings every day for a week) and Perfect Month (reach the Move goal every day for one month). Both my wife and I suckers for this kind of stuff. We have done post-work strolls around the block to reach the Move target and even gratuitous jumping jacks to get that last minute of Exercise. Yes, the Watch is controlling us.

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The Watch has had a subtle yet meaningful impact on my health and fitness. It nudges me to move more. It encourages me to pump my legs just a bit harder during workouts. It facilitates a more intentional and healthier lifestyle—right now I’m keeping a spreadsheet to record my weight/diet/exercise, and the Activity companion app on the phone is a valuable reference source.


Other notable features

Maps – 😊/😓

Maps has been hit and miss. I will typically enter in the destination and start the navigation on my phone, which activates it on the Watch. Siri is unreliable transcribing exact addresses, so when I do use her I will just say the suburb name (normally going home from somewhere).

Most of the time the turn-by-turn directions are fine, although every now and then it lags just enough that I will miss a turn. I’m right on the edge of being able to trust Maps, but it keeps giving me little reasons not to.

When the Watch is having a good day, bringing up walking directions and a map of the surrounding area on my wrist feels wonderful.

Siri – 😄/😡

The story is the same here. When Siri works (I’d say a bare majority of the time), it’s really cool. Some of the stuff that I use her for include:

  • References (“define soporific”, “who is Andy Murray’s brother?”)
  • Reminders (“remind me to water the orchid at 6pm”)
  • Timers (“set timer for 3 minutes”)
  • Music (“play 1989 album”, “shuffle the chill playlist”)

However, Siri fails enough that it is frustrating and prevents me from developing a habit of using her.

Apple Pay – 😍

Apple Pay is awesome. When you would normally tap the payment terminal with a credit card, you can double click the side button and present your Watch instead. Using it feels like I’m truly in the future. Plus, unlike most Watch features this one is highly reliable!

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Apple Pay has been really useful for my wife. She can go on a run and pick up groceries on the way home, or duck out of work to get something from the supermarket next door—all without having to grab her bag or wallet.

Luckily we have an American Express card that supports Apple Pay. The Australian banks have refused to play ball, preferring to develop their own mobile solutions. I hope they will capitulate soon, after losing customers and losing transactions due to their intransigence.

I think the future potential for the Watch to interface with the physical world is huge. Whether it’s via NFC, QR code or something else, the Watch can be instrumental in convenient and low-friction interactions at airports, concerts, sporting events, theme parks, hotels, and more.

Third party apps – 😐

I have hardly installed any third party apps—the app screen is cluttered as it is, and the user experience is plain bad. Apps are only likely to load when I tap on them. When I do tap on an app, it will always take several seconds or more to load. Taking out my phone and doing whatever it is that I wanted to do on the Watch is probably the better option most of the time.

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Third party apps that I keep on the Watch:

  • Instapaper – For when I want to listen to saved articles while driving
  • Overcast – For when I want to change podcast episodes while driving
  • Tripview – Getting the time for the next available train between pre-determined places
  • 2Do – A more powerful kind of Reminder, I have it mostly just to receive notifications
  • LIFX – Turn the smart bulb in my bedroom on and off. Feels gimmicky rather than useful. Before bed I will take my Watch off and put it on charge… and then I want to switch off the light.

Bottom line

Here’s how I would summarise what the Watch does for me.

Things I do a lot + feels natural (short interactions):

  • Proactive – quick look at Watch face for the time or a complication (e.g., temperature, activity, next appointment)
  • Reactive – quick look at a notification after the Watch taps me

Things I do sometimes + feels natural (overt interactions):

  • Swiping down to see missed notification(s)
  • Swiping up and side-to-side to look at Glances (mostly Battery, Now Playing and Activity rings)
  • Going to the app screen and launching the Workout app
  • Activating Apple Pay
  • Sending a Digital Touch
  • Changing my Watch face

Things I do infrequently + still feels like extra work:

  • Using Siri to do anything
  • Sending messages

Things I forget that I can do, but am pleasantly surprised when I realise I can do them:

  • Using the stopwatch directly on the Chronograph face (rather than launching the separate app)
  • Making and receiving phone calls
  • Taking a photo on the phone with Remote
  • Pinging the phone when I can’t find it
  • Looking at the position of the planets on the Astronomy face

Things I pretty much never do:

  • Going to and navigating the app screen for a non-Workout reason

The Apple Watch is useful, delightful, frustrating, flawed. Currently I am only getting out of the Watch only a subset of what it is capable of (which, to be fair, is still quite a lot more than a traditional watch).

Part of it is technical. The Watch needs to be faster, more responsive, less buggy, all that good stuff. That’s (relatively) easy to fix. Part of it is more fundamental. The app screen paradigm is very awkward. I haven’t found any other compelling use cases yet, which is disappointing compared to the robust iOS app ecosystem.

Despite these limitations, I think the Watch is a compelling product with a bright future. To paraphrase Jony Ive, this is just the beginning of the era of personal wearable technology.

Among the 76,000

I promise this will be the last post on Taylor Swift for a while. Last Saturday I saw her perform at ANZ Stadium in Sydney, the first Australian stop on her 1989 World Tour. It was a fantastic show. As someone who likes to observe things, I want to share my thoughts on the concert here.

Charm

After kicking things off with a glamorous rendition of Welcome to New York, Swift addressed the crowd with a simple “Hi, I’m Taylor”, accompanied by a beaming smile. Calculated? Certainly. Effective? For sure. The charm factor was off the charts.

Throughout the show Swift would get the crowd involved. Sometimes it would involve action—echoes, sing-alongs, arms in the air. Other times it was rhetorical, imploring us to come on a music journey with her. She took the time to say what a great audience it was, and to express her appreciation for making her album a success and for being present that night.

All photos taken with iPhone 5S.

All photos taken with the iPhone 5S.

Swift was real with the crowd. Here’s what she said in her introduction to the song Clean, which began with her remarking on how passionate and joyful the crowd was:

And let me tell you why that kind of behaviour makes me happy. Because that kind of behaviour is free, and uninhibited, and warm, and the way you’ve treated us is so open and welcoming. And, you know these days there are millions of ways for people to tell you—how to be. How to act in public. What’s cool, what’s not. What’s beautiful, what’s not. And it’s really easy to become completely preoccupied by the idea of trying to be cool. You have a lot of people who will try to make you feel like being cool, is being unaffected, and unexcited, and cynical, and chill. But you know what I think is better than being cool is being happy. And you seem really happy tonight Sydney. [Crowd cheers]

You know when someone criticises you, or says something behind your back, those words that they said about you, it’s like you feel like those words are written all over your face, all over you. And then, those words start to become echoes in your own mind. And then there’s a real risk that those words could become a part of how you see yourself. The moment that you realise that you are not the opinion of somebody who doesn’t know you, or care about you—that moment, when you realise that, it’s like you’re clean.

I think this is more than just a feel-good message. It’s a psychologically important message, especially for the mostly young and mostly female audience. A cynic would say she had crafted all these words in advance, to get the maximum emotional leverage. But I also think she’s being very genuine here. These words come from her own experiences and the (painful) lessons that she’s learnt.

Presence

Swift had incredible stage presence. I was sitting in the stands, so most of what I observed was derived from the big screens. I can only imagine what the effect was for those sitting up close.

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Swift has mastered the runway strut. She moved about the stage with purpose and grace. She has mastered the turn-back pose. She has mastered the hair flick. She has mastered the pause—to look around, soaking in the adulation of the crowd. She has mastered her smile, of which there are multiple variations (subtle, innocent, knowing, beaming, etc.) depending on the situation. She always had a sense of whimsy in her expressions and body language, which was fun and engaging. Her passion was infectious.

Needless to say, the outfits were great. Probably my favourite (and my wife would enthusiastically concur) was the pink two-piece light-up dress Swift wore for How You Get the Girl.

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Performance

I go to live shows not just to hear songs that I like, but to be entertained by an experience I can’t get by putting on my ear buds. I went in with very high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

Swift is multi-talented. In addition to the choreographed set pieces, she rotated comfortably between an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, and the piano. She’s blossomed from a country music darling to a gifted stage performer.

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I loved the variation in music styles—from pop, to punk, to ballad, to rock, to stripped-back. Each live song captured the essence of the studio version and built further upon it. In particular, Swift’s rendition of the two popular songs from her Red album swayed my original opinion of them from annoyance to enjoyment. I Knew You Were Trouble was satisfyingly dark and moody, backed by foreboding strings. We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together was delivered punk rock style, with Swift working the electric guitar.

Atmosphere

Another dimension to my enjoyment of the show was the crowd. 76,000 adoring fans made the stadium come alive. At no point did the crowd become still or passive. The number of bums off seats was impressive, even for those who were really far away from the stage.

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As we entered the stadium, each person was given a rubber wristband with radio-controlled LEDs, as a “present from Taylor”. These were used to great effect, as the stadium became a roiling sea of white, blue, pink, purple and more, to punctuate the progression of each song.

Swift capped off the concert with Shake It Off, which brought together all the elements of lighting, video, band, dancers, smoke machines, rotating stage, and even fireworks. It was a worthy end to the world’s biggest star performing the best show around.

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What They Believe

I attended the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) earlier this month. FODI is an annual event hosted by the Sydney Opera House where leading thinkers around the world are invited to discuss and debate important ideas in the areas of politics, society, technology, philosophy, and more. In this post I want to share my thoughts on one of the panels I saw, “What I Believe”.

The format was a little weird, in that it wasn’t a discussion between participants on stage. Rather, the participants came in one at a time to give a ~10 minute talk on what they believe. Clearly this threw off Peter Doherty (Australian medical researcher and Nobel prize winner), who gave an entertaining but off-topic diatribe against anti-science sentiments. In any case, I came in to this panel with high expectations. Belief—that is, acceptance, trust, faith, confidence—carries special significance for how we live, and I was particularly interested to hear the perspectives of those who are non-religious. For the most part, I came out fairly disappointed.

Frank Brennan, Australian Jesuit priest and human rights lawyer, went first. He was the only speaker who was clearly associated with a religious denomination. However, Brennan was less overt about his own faith, which was a letdown. He mostly played it safe and stuck to moderate talking points. Listening to him talk about the dignity of human people, of Australia’s greatest moral challenge being how we govern our borders, and how notions of common good are as important as self-determination, I’m reminded again of how Christianity speaks to ideas that most secular people would assent to. These ideas got polite applauses from the educated, left-leaning, well-to-do audience.

Adrienne Truscott, a multi-talented American entertainer, was next. Her talk on what she believed was more like anti-belief, as she spent the bulk of it talking about her problems with organised religion. Fair enough. The general position of the audience was made very clear to me by their enthusiastic applause. What I found fascinating was the audience reaction to another speaker, Indigenous journalist and former politician Malarndirri McCarthy. At the beginning of her talk McCarthy recognised Aboriginal custodianship of the land and how the “spirits” of past Aboriginal women were with her at that moment. The audience once again applauded energetically. Just 10 minutes ago they were treated to an acerbic (and what must have been satisfying) takedown of the irrationality and ridiculousness of religion. Now they were clapping for spirits. What gives?

I think the answer lies in the qualifier organised. Truscott, and I suspect the audience (excepting the rabid atheists), does not have antipathy to the particular claims of any belief system. After all, that’s the secular way: “You can believe in whatever you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.” Rather, I think they have a problem with power, and the real and perceived abuses of that power. Christianity has been an institution for approximately two thousand years. In a nutshell, people and groups associated with Christianity have done really good things and also really bad things. These people and groups often have and sometimes still do exert influence over societies. For secular, educated people today, I think this could influence their thinking in the following non-exhaustive ways:

  • People tend to remember bad stuff more than good stuff, so they tend to view “the church” in a negative light.
  • For left-leaning people who are more sensitive to groups with relatively less power (e.g., minorities, women, etc.), institutions who seemingly have more power are viewed with suspicion
  • For people who just want to live however they want and don’t want to change, it’s useful to justify themselves by pointing to the bad stuff with organised religion.

For Christians I think this is both encouraging and discouraging. It is encouraging because I think people can still be receptive to the gospel message, untethered from the politics and practices of imperfect institutions. It is discouraging because secular people have been so engrained to think of Christianity as at best neutral, and frequently some shade of bad, that it is an uphill battle to shift their thinking.

Next up was AC Grayling, a British philosopher and one of the leaders of the New Atheism movement. I had high hopes that he would explain what he believes in an intelligent manner befitting a person of his standing. It would not be an overstatement to say that his talk was a profound disappointment.

Grayling starts off by rehashing what philosophy is about (1. What is the nature of reality, 2. What should we value). He then makes a logical jump (given his time constraints, I’ll give him a pass) that if there is only physical reality, then it is up to us (humans) to determine meaning and purpose. From there, he trots out stock standard utilitarianism, dressed up in fancy cosmic garb: Human consciousness is but a flicker in the history of the universe. If the totality of suffering outweighs the totality of pleasure, then the existence of the universe would have been a bad thing. If vice versa, then it is good. And therefore—and I’m not kidding, this is a direct quote—”It is our responsibility to be nice to one another.”

Really? That’s the best that he could do? OK, I understand he had limited time. But this was frankly so vapid I had to double check that he wasn’t trying to be humorous or ironic (I don’t think he was). “Being nice” is essentially a non-answer. How should I be kind? By what standard? Are there other worthy pursuits for humans other than being kind? If conflicts arise between these other pursuits and being kind, how should we resolve them?

Grayling’s formulation of utilitarianism is also problematic. Put aside the issue of how we measure pleasure and suffering. I think it is enormously unhelpful to think in aggregate terms of total pleasure versus total suffering over human existence. What if 51% had more pleasure on average and 49% had more suffering? Would you really say that this is a good outcome for humanity? What if there was 1% who had super-charged pleasure that outweighed the 99% who had fairly bad suffering on average? By Grayling’s standard this would be a good outcome. However, if we are to use utilitarianism, then I think it is more meaningful and worthwhile to take into account the pleasures and sufferings of individuals. I really expected more from this distinguished philosopher.

Up to this point I was quite unimpressed, with the exception of the entertaining Peter Doherty and his meandering but passionate defence of science. Helen Razer, Australian radio presenter and writer, was up next. She provided a welcome and refreshing change to the stolid fare before her. Razer’s sharp insights matched her strident tone and forceful delivery. She made two main points in her talk:

  1. Doubt is more valuable than any belief. She was careful to distinguish it from denial. Rather, for her doubt means to always question her beliefs, and to aspire to strip herself of beliefs.
  2. The optimistic belief that humans can change the world for the better is useless without action.

The second point in particular stood in marked contrast to previous speakers who, generally speaking, gave sugary platitudes about how they believed in the power of humans to overcome challenges, change the world, etc. It felt good to hear someone call them out on it. All the solidarity and sentimentality in the world will not bring back Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body had been recently reprinted and retweeted a million times for all to see. Razer was a contrarian, but not just for its own sake. She aimed to expose the shallowness and laziness of our “good” beliefs, which can disarm and satisfy us even when there is so much good that needs to be done.

Razer also made a point about the banality of good I had never considered before. First coined by Hannah Arendt, the banality of evil is now commonly understood to mean how evil can become normalised and be perpetrated in seemingly unremarkable, ordinary conditions. Razer posits that “the real terror of good is that it is also banal.” As I understand her, she means that doing good is quite unremarkable and does not match the lofty rhetoric of optimistic belief-peddlers—it is hard, repetitive, uninspiring, and difficult to notice. However, if we really want to make the world a better place, we should stop resting on our beliefs and start doing, one small action at a time.

Even for all the disappointment I endured, this was a worthy message to take home.*

* Jon Ronson was the final speaker, but his talk was so different that it’s worth addressing in a separate post.

Self-Sabotaging Social Systems

A bunch of interesting stuff I’ve read and heard over the past week has prompted me to discern an underlying theme—the capacity within a social system to sabotage itself even as its adherents strive to more fully implement its ideals in practice.


The first piece is an article by Yanis Varoufakis, a former academic thrust into the consequential role of finance minister for the new leftist Greek government. The article is sharply written, critiquing both Marxism and neoliberal capitalism in the context of the contemporaneous economic and political problems in the EU. What struck me most was this:

Every non-Marxist economic theory that treats human and non-human productive inputs as interchangeable assumes that the dehumanisation of human labour is complete. But if it could ever be completed, the result would be the end of capitalism as a system capable of creating and distributing value…

If capital ever succeeds in quantifying, and subsequently fully commodifying, labour, as it is constantly trying to, it will also squeeze that indeterminate, recalcitrant human freedom from within labour that allows for the generation of value. Marx’s brilliant insight into the essence of capitalist crises was precisely this: the greater capitalism’s success in turning labour into a commodity the less the value of each unit of output it generates, the lower the profit rate and, ultimately, the nearer the next recession of the economy as a system. The portrayal of human freedom as an economic category is unique in Marx, making possible a distinctively dramatic and analytically astute interpretation of capitalism’s propensity to snatch recession, even depression, from the jaws of growth.

If you suppose, as I do, that there is indeed an “indeterminate, recalcitrant human freedom” that underpins the creation of things—all objects and ideas, not just stuff that is amenable to economic valuation—then this Marxist critique of capitalism becomes extremely powerful.

I’ve always thought about the problems with capitalism in concrete terms—the way it can overturn communities, the environmental damage that is often overlooked, the seemingly inevitable growing inequality. These problems, in turn, create pressures that undermine the capitalist system. But perhaps there’s also a more fundamental problem that is inherent within capitalism itself—the more that people are dehumanised and commoditised in the name of ‘productivity’ and ‘efficiency’, the less capitalism is able to create and distribute (economic) value. That is a fascinating idea.


The second piece is an ABC Radio National feature produced by my friend Allison Chan titled God on Campus: theology and the secular in higher education. She explores the history of theology as a course that is taught in universities, the sometimes fraught role of government in funding such teaching, and more broadly the place of Christianity in the public sphere.

The thematic element I drew from this piece is not about faith (that’s my next point!), but rather a seemingly innocuous idea that came up during the interviews—that universities provided with public funding should be ‘accountable’ for the ‘results’ they produce. OK, calling this a social system is a bit of a stretch. Suffice it to say that it is an ideal to be striven towards.

Here is the problem that arose for me as I listened. Of course, it is bad for universities to be unaccountable for the funding they receive, wasted resources and all that. So, they should be accountable. But how do we determine it in practice? By what metrics?

Take theology, the subject of the piece. Should it be about improving critical thinking? Hm, that might be a bit hard to measure. What about the number of people that go on to serve in formal ministry? Or maybe the income generated through charity work? That would be more doable. But what happens when the numbers-based benchmarks are not being met? Does that mean funding should be cut, unless changes are made to get the ‘results’ we want?

In that case, universities teaching theology will have a subtle but unmistakable incentive to achieve those benchmarks—an incentive that is, I would argue, not aligned with the purpose of teaching theology in the first place. Of course this is also an issue more broadly in the teaching of humanities. What’s the point of resource-constrained governments spending money on universities if they are not preparing students for jobs in the ‘real world’? Good question, but we should also consider what we are losing by taking a strict ‘results’-driven approach to accountability.


The last piece is a short commentary by Elizabeth Bruenig on a recent poll that found 57 percent of Republicans agreed that Christianity should be established as America’s “national religion”, and why that would be terrible for Christianity. Essentially:

Were Christianity named our national religion, it would only be dubbed such to serve a particular national purpose, that is, to straighten out our morals or boost morale for our confrontation of terrorism abroad. But to do this would be to force Christianity into the servitude of particular national interests, which would only further the degree to which the Christian faith is already wrongly conflated with specific American political aims. But the goals of Christianity are in no sense specifically American, and understanding them as such only instills divisiveness between American and global Christianityand that’s ultimately contrary to the unity sought by the Christians of the world. In other words, establishing Christianity as a national faith would force Christianity into submission to American politics, morphing it into a servant rather than a guide of political thought.

While not many respondents would’ve thought through the full implications of what they were agreeing to, I can understand their sentiment. Specifically, Christianity may constitute their identity or worldview, and they would like to live in a country where this is officially ratified as good and right. More generally, Christianity may be associated with positive notions of service, charity and idealised notions of a ‘better’, Anglocentric past (these are Republicans after all)—therefore they would like the country to be more like this.

This gets to a question that was also raised in the Radio National feature: what is the place of Christianity in the public sphere? Broadly speaking I think Christians can take three positions on this:

  1. Withdrawal — Live within their own communities, no influence in the public sphere (this is also what some of the more aggressive secularists and atheists would like to see)
  2. Presence — Advocacy, service, dissemination of Christians ideas and values
  3. Authority — Christian values and practices have legal force.

My thought that social systems can undermine themselves is directed at the third position. It is understandable that Christians would like more power to influence society, to shape it in ways that they believe is right. But this is actually antithetical to the gospel message. Christians are taught to follow Jesus’ example and give up power for others, not to seek power over others. Christians live by biblical principles out of love and gratitude, not to enforce those principles on others through legal compulsion.

Public participation through authority is not only contradictory to what Christianity teaches, but it is also a kind of self-sabotage. Authority leads to imperfect people abusing their power. Also, as Bruenig noted, Christianity would become entangled with national interests and politics in a way that diminishes its standing and its universality.


Let me be clear: I am not against the systems that I’ve written about.

Capitalism has on balance improved the quality of life for billions of people today. Many of humanity’s major challenges (some of them self-inflicted)—social, economic, environmental—need to be addressed, to varying degrees, by the (appropriately regulated) free market. Of course I’m in favour of accountability in teaching and against universities wasting money. And I also think that Christian ideas and values have profoundly shaped modern Western societies for the better, even in light of historical wrongs (which are numerous and complex),

My point is that these social systems, when implemented in their purest form, are not only potentially detrimental to society but also to themselves.

That still leaves a bunch of questions. Are systems self-regulating to the extent that they will sabotage themselves if they go too far? Even so, should there be countervailing forces in society to prevent a system from doing so and causing harm as result? What do these forces look like for each social domain and how can we create and sustain them? Is there some ‘happy medium’ in each domain that we can or should adhere to?

If you ask me, philosophy is still a very worthwhile pursuit!

On Political Correctness

It’s been another busy month, but there has been no shortage of good stuff to link to.

One article that has been doing the rounds is Jonathan Chait’s piece on political correctness. Chait defines political correctness in the article as:

[A] style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate … Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach.

Chait provides examples of speech and conduct that have been suppressed, dismissed and/or aggressively dealt with because they offend or are otherwise at odds with certain beliefs and ideals held by the left.* These beliefs and ideals often revolve around identity, such as gender, race and sexual orientation.

Broadly speaking, an animating goal for the left is equal treatment and respect for all groups. In particular, this entails advocacy on behalf of certain groups who have historically been marginalised, oppressed and deprived of power—for example, women, non-whites and LGBTs.

Chait makes the point that in their strident efforts to attain this goal, there are those on the left that act in ways that are decidedly antithetical to liberalism. This is not merely an intellectual problem—it is also detrimental for the left if people sympathetic to the movement do not provide self-reflection or criticism for fear of backlash, and those the movement seeks to appeal to are driven away by the coercive and overbearing culture.

Even if you don’t agree with everything (or anything) that I just outlined, keep an open mind and go read the piece.

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I’d like to add two observations in response to the article.

Firstly, it was both remarkable yet unsurprising that many of the heated disagreements with Chait settled on ad hominem attacks on his own (‘privileged’) identity. Chait even pre-empted this in his original article:

I am white and male, a fact that is certainly worth bearing in mind … If you consider this background and demographic information the very essence of my point of view, then there’s not much point in reading any further. But this pointlessness is exactly the point: Political correctness makes debate irrelevant and frequently impossible.

Rather than engaging with Chait’s examples and arguments, these critics basically proved his point by going straight for de-legitimisation based on his identity.

The broader observation to be made here is that, psychologically speaking, we all tend to see in and ascribe to others our own sensitivities and fears.

For certain people on the left who spend a significant amount of time and energy advocating for leftist issues, they tend to see the world in terms of oppression, grievance and identity. Criticism from an outsider is just another instance of illegitimate use of power. Any attempt at engagement by those in ‘privilege’ positions (white, male, hetero) can be dismissed as ‘whitesplaining’/‘mansplaining’/ ‘straightsplaining’.

Secondly, I think that this whole hubbub can be boiled down to one of priorities.

For the people Chait describes, the illiberal means justify the ends. The worthy goal of promoting an equalist agenda may entail the silencing of people opposed to that agenda. (For an example that I’ve written about, see the Brendan Reich episode).

Chait sees this as deeply problematic:

Liberals believe (or ought to believe) that social progress can continue while we maintain our traditional ideal of a free political marketplace where we can reason together as individuals. Political correctness challenges that bedrock liberal ideal. While politically less threatening than conservatism (the far right still commands far more power in American life), the p.c. left is actually more philosophically threatening. It is an undemocratic creed.

For Chait, his first priority is a commitment to a “free political marketplace” where an open exchange of ideas can take place. One can argue about the extent to which this is possible in practice given existing biases, power structures, etc., but I would side with Chait and consider that it is nevertheless a crucial goal to be striving for.

 

Finally, I want to point to an interesting response from Ross Douthat to Chait’s piece. Douthat argues that, contra Chait, political correctness is often not self-defeating and actually achieves the aims of its wielders. Indeed, “if your primary mission is to ensure that your definition of ‘expanded freedom’ triumphs, why wouldn’t you use the levers of coercion available to you?”

Douthat answers his own question by pointing to a deeper question—it is not just about who wins and who loses, but rather, even in victory, is the idea right or wrong? I think it’s a great analysis that is well worth quoting at length, with emphasis added:

The strongest answer, as I’ve tried to suggest before in debates about pluralism, has to rest in doubt as well as confidence: In a sense of humility about your own certainties, a knowledge that what looks like absolute progressive truth in one era does not always turn out to look that way in hindsight, and a willingness to extend a presumption of decency and good faith even to people whose ideas you think history will judge harshly. If you just say, “I believe in free debate because I’m certain than in free debate the good and right and true will eventually triumph, and I know that coercion will ultimately backfire,” you aren’t really giving the practical case for coercion its due. Better to say: “I believe in free debate because I know that my ideas about the good and right and true might actually be wrong (or at least be only partial truths that miss some bigger picture), and sometimes even reactionaries are proven right, and we have to leave the door open to that possibility.”

The problem with political correctness, in this sense, isn’t that it necessarily hurts the causes it claims to advance; sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it just helps them win. It’s that like most systems of speech policing (which of course held sway in traditional societies as well) it excludes the possibility that those causes might be getting big things wrong, and thus it hurts the larger cause of truth.

I don’t think Chait would disagree with this, but I think it’s a slightly harder argument for him to make than me, because even though he’s (per his critics) a white male neoliberal sellout he’s also still basically a political progressive, with a Whiggish view of history somewhere in his bones. And then it’s a still-harder argument for him to address persuasively to those, further to his left, for whom the possibility that capital-H History might not be with them on all fronts strikes at the very heart of their self-conception and worldview.

Hence the easier-to-pitch claim that P.C. just doesn’t work, that it alienates potential allies, that it poorly serves its own ideas. Which indeed it does, at times. But when it doesn’t, when it works, the deeper problem remains: Sometimes the ideas themselves are wrong.

* For other examples, see this piece by Freddie deBoer, who is not a Chait fan.

Farewell Phillip Hughes

2014 has been a wretched year, with bad news headline after bad news headline. But the latest tragic event has hit a lot closer to home for me. Phillip Hughes, an Australian cricketer 3 days shy of his 26th birthday, has died. His family decided to switch off life support two days after he was struck behind the ear by a cricket ball while batting in a domestic game.

Hughes’ death has brought about a huge outpouring of grief nationally and also in the international cricket community. I’m adding my contribution to remember him and explain why he was important to me.

Perhaps the biggest reason is that we were so close in age. I have a friend who played against him in club cricket back in the day. I was barely out of high school when news circulated of Hughes’ precocious talent and exciting potential, punctuated by making history as the youngest player to score a century in the Sheffield Shield final.

At age 20 all things seem possible, but it still feels remarkable when great things actually happen. To play for Australia must have been such a big thrill for him. For me it was inspiring to see that our generation was breaking barriers and going places. I still remember being hunched in my cubicle one evening at my casual call centre job, impatiently refreshing the 2G flip phone data connection to receive updates from the South African tour. I remember the feeling of exhilaration upon finding out that he had scored twin centuries in the Durban test, making history once again.

Watching Hughes was a treat. I only ever saw him on TV, but it was always captivating. I have a certain affinity for lefties — I loved Gilchrist’s explosiveness and Hussey’s smoothness. Hughes had an unorthodox style, but he was similar to them in that every time you watch him, you knew something exciting was going to happen. His penchant for slashing at balls got him into trouble more than I’d like, but it certainly made for compelling viewing.

Finally, I respect how Hughes conducted himself. He was dropped several times from the Test team, and each time he went about his business diligently, plundering runs in domestic competition to put himself back in contention. There was never any drama, on-field or off. Hughes was a humble man who loved the game, and by all accounts he was well-loved by those who knew him.

Thank you Phillip Hughes, for inspiring me as a fellow Gen-Yer, for bringing us joy through your craft, and for being a great example in life. You will be sorely missed.*

* I also give my deepest condolences to Sean Abbott, the young man who felled Hughes. He was simply trying his best for his team, and now this incident will haunt him forever. Mike Carlton put it best:

Young men are not meant to die as Phillip Hughes did. Nor to bear the burden now laid upon Sean Abbott.  How infinitely sad.