Monday, June 28, 2004

SLO But Steady Progress

Well, actually, the progress on the Smallest Graded Betti Numbers project has been quite immediate: we’ve proved a way to read the Hilbert function right off the associated simplicial complex. This is a very good thing, as it gives us something we can write a paper on already. And we haven’t even cracked open our main problem of identifying minimal graded Betti numbers for a squarefree monomial ideal.

This weekend was OK. Saw Fahrenheit 911 and was impressed by the quality of the movie; it was the first Michael Moore film I’d seen, and it was more entertaining and more moving than I’d expected. As far as the actual content thereof, of course it’s biased and unfair. But what the movie does do is paint a coherent picture of what’s wrong with the foreign policy of George W. Bush, and what the reasons for that might be.

(Nota Bene: When I write "coherent", I don't necessarily mean "accurate". I don't know whether it's accurate. But I do mean "coherent".)

I like my routine here at the Cal Poly REU. I meet with my group (Matthew and Joey) and Dr. Richert at 9 each day, then work/eat/check my e-mail/blog, then meet with Matthew and Joey again from about 3-5 and compare ideas. Then there's dinner with the rest of the REU participants, and typically we get together for a game of spades, or touch football, or DDR, or wandering around downtown SLO. I'll have fun this summer.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Life in SLO Motion

Here I am in San Luis Obispo, California.

Saturday I awoke at 5 AM to catch the flight to Los Angeles. I had a great conversation with carpenter Darnell, who was on vacation with his wife; they had missed their flight to Vegas the day before, and were trying to rent a car in LA to drive there and enjoy the rest of their reservations. He told me he was applying to become a firefighter, but would only be hired if the local tax increase would pass, and asked what I was going to research this summer. I explained quotients of polynomial rings, which doesn't scratch the surface of what I will be studying (more on that later), but I was impressed at how quickly I explained and how quickly Darnell grasped the concept. Especially on four hours of sleep.

Then I took the LA public transit system (carrying over 90 lbs. of luggage) to Union Station, having a short talk with a family visiting from New Zealand (asking, unfortunately, if they were from the UK) and with a mother visiting her sister and children in Compton. I had lunch (no restaurants in Union Station; I've never been so happy to see a Denny's sign across the road) and boarded the Amtrak train.

There I sat next to a carpenter (again!), this one a man who had surfed each day of his life till he was 35, quit for 5 years, and now was trying to break into professional surfing after impressing some famous surfboard maker. This, in addition to playing the guitar and starting to market inventions (bike trailers, floors that raise and lower). He seemed to have quite an interesting life.

The sun was going down over the ocean as the train went north; the scenery was beautiful, with horse ranches and mountains everywhere I looked. I arrived in SLO, met my roommates, got cheap burritos, and played Phase 10 till 2 in the morning California time (making a 23-hour day for me).

Sunday and Monday were medleys of barbecues, campus tours, and Ultimate Frisbee. The weather is unbelievable, the campus is great to walk through (although eerily empty this summer), and the student apartments they gave us are incredible. As one of the other REU participants remarked, "It's like The Real World for math nerds!"

But ah, yes, the math. This morning I and two others met with Dr. Richert to discuss our project in Smallest Graded Betti Numbers, and I can say that I finally comprehend the title of our investigation. (No, I don't think I'm able to explain it.) The next few weeks should tell whether we're going to discover something new or just stay stuck; the professor hasn't looked into our question before, so there's little but instinct to go on as of yet.

So all is well, and this is shaping up to be an excellent summer.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Voting and Morality I:
Introduction and Disclaimers


Last week, when I said I wanted to write about the heavier issues here, this is precisely what I meant. I’ve been thinking a great deal the last several weeks about the morality involved in one’s voting decision, what role the Church has to play, and what the Church does and doesn’t say about participating in a democratic republic.

This really came to the forefront of my mind with the recent uproar over pro-abortion Catholic politicians and withholding Communion, which is sort of a tangential issue. The most recent impetus, though, is a survey I read in TIME this morning. When self-identified Catholics were polled on the question “Do you think the Catholic Church should be trying to influence the way Catholics vote?”, 70 percent answered “No”. Now, granted, that question may have been interpreted by many as a more extreme one, namely “Should the Catholic Church tell Catholics to vote for a particular candidate or a particular party?” But as posed by TIME Magazine, the question is one I can’t imagine answering “No” to.

Just about every organization that cares about the state of affairs (the NEA, Greenpeace, NRLC, NAACP, etc.) wants to influence the way its members vote. Your beliefs about what events are good or evil, your beliefs about what actions are right and wrong, will influence your voting. A person’s opinion that the war in Iraq was unjust, for example, is based on his or her understanding of justice and the nature of humanity; if the principles that led to his or her opinion were self-evident, then all reasonable people would agree with him or her. This is not the case (despite what Ann Coulter and Michael Moore will tell you, I have met intelligent men and women of good will in both the Democratic and Republican parties), so political beliefs do in fact rest on presuppositions of the most fundamental questions. A Catholic should reflect his or her beliefs in voting as surely as an Objectivist or Marxist would.

The fact that 70% of Catholics could hold what I see as cognitive dissonance tells me that others have been very successful in rhetoric. Those who say that “religious beliefs have no place in politics” know that their own opinions on ethics and the good of humanity affect their votes. “Separation of church and state” does not,not, not mean trying to compartmentalize the way one sees the world. But many pundits have been covering religious issues lately as if Christians have a duty to do just that.

OK, so just what role should religious beliefs play in politics? This, of course, is not entirely an abstract question for me; I have my ideas of the way government and society ought to be run. If I were simply writing what I think about voting, I don’t think it would matter to most people. But instead, I want to explore carefully and thoroughly on this blog what my Church teaches on the ethics of voting. My goal is really to catechize myself in preparation for November (I still don’t know who, if anyone, I will vote for in the Presidential race), and thus your comments and objections are priceless to me. I’m doing this on the blog because I think it’s interesting, because it will motivate me to actually do the research to back up what I think I remember the Church teaches, and because perhaps others are asking these same questions at the same time.

So I begin with a few disclaimers:

1. I am fallible, and my explanation of a Church teaching is not the same as the teaching itself. I may well misinterpret parts of what I read, I may not find what I need to read and understand, I may poorly state what I do comprehend. If I seem to be saying something ridiculous, remember I do not have an imprimatur on this blog.

2. I am taking Catholic theology and tradition as a source of authority. I will try and expound everything in a way that shows it is consistent with reason, and I believe the points are compelling even without the authority of the Church, but I will not in general attempt to prove my conclusions to a non-Catholic.

That said, I intend to make the next few posts a series of preliminaries in ethics: explaining the vital distinction between the good/evil and right/wrong pairs, defining proportionalism and explaining why the Church rejects it, discussing “double effect” and delineating carefully what cases is does and does not apply in.

I won’t make this series the sole content of my blog, but I intend to continue it sporadically through November, or until I don’t have anything more to say (yeah, right).

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Little Ado About Nothing

Well, here I am back home in Saint Charles, Missouri. My Friday final went all right, as far as I can tell (well, there was one part of #5 I had to “leave as an exercise to the grader”, if you know what I mean). So I’m here for a week, leaving Saturday for San Luis Obispo and the study of Graded Betti Numbers. But lest you think I’m taking a break from education, I’ve learned the following over the past few days:

I’ve been wearing my shoes three sizes too large.
The Rocket is vincible (this is a very good thing).
My sister is no longer obsessed with cows.
Applause can spoil a good homily.
Timing is everything when trying to move things to Storage.
You can gauge the quality of a Chinese restaurant by their vegetables.
The Detroit Pistons rock.

Actually, when you put it all together, it doesn’t look like that much. Maybe my brain needs me to get back into action.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Where I've Wasted My Evening

Frustrating. Impossible. And addictive.

I had actual goals when I came home. Drat.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Idea Blogging, Part II

I told you before that I had more to write on the topic of why blogging on serious issues is not morally neutral. First, I want to make clear that the choices are not simply "blog about it" and "don't think about it at all". I will consider the issues of my age and the issues of any age, whther I use this medium to share my thought process or not. However, I would do well to be cautious of supplementing my discussions and reading with blogging on heavy matters, for several reasons.

A blog is too asymmetrical to be a dialogue. I get the "prime time" and the appearance of authority at Orthonormal Basis, as I was saying last time. Thus, I ought to be more responsible for the interpretations and objections that will arise from my posts. It's the same thing that gives rise to my griping about homilies. A bad homily doesn't usually give me the evidence to charge the priest with formal heresy, but that's not the point. The responsibility for reconciling his homily with the teachings of the Church should belong to the priest, not the congregation. At the very least, such a priest has done wrong by being unclear; at worst, he is preaching a different Gospel.

In private conversation, it's not as important to weigh every word and examine all my logic, as the people with whom I'm discussing the ideas can easily call me to task. When I have a public forum such as a blog, though, the responsibility incumbent on me is greater, as a comments-box critic does not appear to be on equal ground of credibility. Moreover, the concepts I advance will be judged on the merits of my exposition. One sloppy argument will undermine my point, whether it be correct or not; thus it is even more important that I not be careless as in my debates with friends. If I cannot express myself well in this blog, it would be better for me to wait on idea-blogging until I am ready to be articulate.

Secondly, there's an effect not only on those who read, but an effect on myself in the fact of my writing. Public expression always tempts one to conceit, as one can see in stereotypes of the narcissistic performer or the temperamental architect or the condescending novelist. The particular temptation in idea-blogging, or in publishing opinions publicly, is to grant oneself the authority of one's sources. This is particularly insidious when dealing with the Church.

I've seen too many Catholic bloggers grant the infallibility of the Church to their own interpretation of what the Church teaches. I'm guilty of this too. It's so difficult to have the mental discipline of Saint Paul, who prefaced his opinion on the situation of a Christian married to a non-Christian by writing "I, and not the Lord, say this" (1 Cor 7:12). The way I see this passage (particularly in light of the command in 1 Cor 7:10 from "not I, but the Lord" that a Christian marriage should not divorce) is as follows: Paul did not mean his thought was contrary to divine revelation; clearly he believed what he had to say was the truth. However, he had the humility to state that the conclusion was not contained in the knowledge they had on the authority of God; rather, his statement was based on his reasoning, contemplation, and experience, and was not infallible. To admit this in one's argument takes some courage.

What happens all too often in St. Blog's is that a person will start from authoritative truths, and then use their personal wisdom and reasoning to reach a conclusion about another topic. This is well and good, and in fact this sort of thinking constitutes much of the moral life. But, unfortunately, the person will then go on to say that the Church teaches the conclusion, or that a good Catholic must accept it. A serious and common example, committed by both sides: "It is morally unacceptable for a Catholic to vote X for President" is not taught by the Church. It may in fact be true about X, as it has been true about many politicians before. And as such, it is right to argue from Catholic doctrine on social and political issues that a vote for X is an immoral act. But that chain of reasoning is not doctrine, and I ought not treat it as such. I should also be wary of quoting my interpretations of others as if I could speak for them directly.

Thirdly, idea-blogging can so easily lead to personal fights. I remember a recent series of disagreements on The Passion between two bloggers, which took over both blogs for a time. The debate segued into a sequence of insults, as one accused the other of being party to anti-Semitism and the second questioned what kind of a Catholic the first was. It was ugly to see, and a scandal to St. Blog's. Certain blogs have developed a symbiotic system, by which each links to the other only to contradict them.

Sarcasm is deadly in print, as it becomes indistinguishable from contempt and condescension. Often, the bloggers I read bait their regular commenters with sarcastic remarks about what sort of replies they expect. Or, instead of posting their own content, they devote themselves to the task of attacking other blogs. I particularly abhor the practice of "fisking", where A copies a post written by B and interrupts it every few sentences to ridicule B, posting the finished product on A's own blog. This changes nobody's mind and only serves to incense anyone who agrees with B and massage the ego of anyone who agrees with A. On this front, I hope that I have been respectful in disagreement, but I know how arrogant I can be.

Finally, having this forum distracts me at times from life. It makes me think in terms of "what will I write about this?" when I'm out doing something, or in contemplation, or in a debate, instead of focusing on what I am presently doing. Never mind that my posts seldom come out quite like I intend them. I can pretend that I'm being productive by the very act of thinking about blogging, a practice remarkably akin to daydreaming. It was said of St. Thomas Aquinas that once, at a banquet, he abruptly slammed his fist on the table and exclaimed, "That ought to settle the Manichees!" Only in my more grandiose moments do I think it's best for me to spend my life preparing to write, like Aquinas; I have some of the talent, but I need to devote myself to other things as well.

So, these are reasons I ought to be careful about blogging on the heavy things, and they are not negligible. However, there is good in this as well, as I've written before. If I know what I am doing, and if I set out with humility and respect, I can grow in knowledge and truth, and help others to do the same.
It’s the most gorgeous day of the year on the U of C campus*. Temperatures are in the mid-80s, the sun is shining brightly, but obscured just enough by clouds that it doesn’t feel like baking. The massive trees on the quads (what variety, I’ve never bothered to learn) are letting through tiny moving snippets of the light, as a gentle breeze crosses the campus. And there’s nobody to see it. A few weeks ago, when spring was just beginning to emerge from late winter, there were hordes of students out on the quads, reading and eating and even laughing at each other. Today, it’s completely deserted, save for a campus tour for the rising high school seniors, and a family pushing a baby in a stroller. Why, you ask? Because today also happens to be Monday of

Finals Week, Spring 2004
Woche den Final, Fruh 2004… a moose once bit my sister…

I, however, am pretty much free; only my Friday final for Algebraic Number Theory remains. Last week I prepared a final presentation for Genetic Engineering on how to create bacteria that would decompose Styrofoam (pulling an all-nighter in the process), and took the final for Algebraic Geometry. I already know, I think, how I did in that class: Ryan and I went to talk to Mr. Baily before the weekend about the class. He opened the door, put up his hands in the "don't hurt me!" position, and exclaimed, "You both got A's!" Then I talked to him and asked if he'd be willing to write a recommendation letter next year, to which he replied "Certainly... who are you again?" (Note: Mr. Baily is at least 80.) So maybe I didn't get that grade...

Anyway, I'll be returning to St. Louis at the end of the week and leaving for California on the 19th. It's an exciting few weeks.

* Of course this wasn't taken today. But it's really cool nonetheless.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Why I Am A Blogger

Or, more specifically, I want to deal with the question of why my blog deals with matters of faith, ethics, policy, philosophy, and the like. I blog about everyday events because it keeps me in touch with friends who read this, and because I'll want to remember details later on. But "idea-blogging" is a different animal entirely.

I've been thinking about these things for a couple of days, ever since Athanasius at Summa Contra Mundum wrote a post about a Catholic blogger my age who had fallen on some tough times. He wrote that it might be a bad idea for the young to blog about so many heavy issues, particularly those that affect your own spiritual and moral life.

Now, after reflection, there's something to what he meant by that. Blogging about one's opinions, or writing them for publication in any form, is not a neutral act, even if nobody should read it. Of course it's not inherently bad, or to be looked down upon; the very fact we have so many great works in the Catholic tradition belies that thesis. But not every man is a Saint Augustine, and having a soapbox like this can give you the impression your formulations are worth reading.

In this blog, I am more public than the commenters, and I always have the last word. The format makes my reflections seem more creditable than they do when I'm merely speaking to my friends. It links to my temptation to feel superior, to believe that I'm educating my friends, to think that it really will matter to other people when I finally put up that post about the ethics of voting and the Catholic conscience. It can be a real ego trip sometimes, knowing that other people read my posts on a regular basis. There's also the fact that I like to argue, perhaps to excess.

But there's still a lot of good in blogging these ideas, I think. As long as I keep in mind that I'm still forming a great deal of my thought, that those pesky commenters have things to teach me, and that winning or losing an argument does not necessarily correspond to being correct or incorrect, writing my reflections publicly can be a great help to me.

I'll probably add to or edit this post, by the way. I don't think I really express well the realization that giving oneself a forum is a moral act which is sometimes right and sometimes wrong.

Friday, June 04, 2004

The Things I Will Do if I Am Ever the Hero. Hilarious superhero/sci-fi/fantasy cliche busting. Examples:

8. If an associate begins to transform into something large and threatening, I will immediately act to neutralize the threat, and not wait until the transformation is complete. Likewise, if an enemy begins to metamorphosize into something else, I will immediately start whacking away at it, instead of watching in fascination.

25. I will never travel back into the past in order to prevent the current situation. It never works.

28. Anything that appears to have been too easy--escaping the Evil Overlord's fortress, defeating the Eldritch Horror, etc.--probably was too easy.

39. I will never say "This one is mine!" and engage in a one-on-one struggle with the Evil Overlord or any of his henchmen; however, I might say "This one is mine!" and stand back while, by prior arrangement with my comrades, all available firepower is pumped into the now-distracted target.

46. After killing a few dozen faceless, anonymous grunts in the Legion of Doom without a second thought, I will not suddenly take a merciful attitude with the Evil Overlord, his family, his lieutenants, or anyone else with a speaking part.

53. If I lose a hand and have it replaced with a prosthesis, the prosthesis will have a functional weapon built in to it. I can use it to surprise Bad Guys and open canned goods.

68. I will not trust a being with an inordinate number of tentacles.

77. I will wear a utility belt. Not everything I need will be kept there, but I will pretend that I am helpless without it in order to fool the Evil Overlord.

97. Any artifact named as if it were a part of somebody, especially if it really was once a part of somebody, is a Talisman of Purest Evil, will only be dealt with in a manner pursuant to its destruction.

102. If an opponent does not die when his/her/its head is cut off, but instead starts groping for it, I will give the head a good kick to delay reattachment.

Also, check out The Normal Innocent Bystander's Survival Guide:

2. If the Evil Overlord announces to the world that he has reformed and wants only to help people, throw a party, and give away money; don't go. Not even if he's playing Prince's music. Especially if he's playing Prince's music. If he's lying, you'll be a hostage or a statistic. If he's telling the truth, catch the next one.