Sunday, November 27, 2016

You're in Mexico. Speak English? Please tour responsibly.

This past week, my family and I went on vacation to Cabos San Lucas, Mexico. While I knew the city was a haven for tourists, I was hoping to be able to try out some of my four years of Spanish (before we left, Maria had told me and Chase that we'd better be speaking fluent Spanish when we got back). We made our way through customs and TSA for an early flight to Houston and, from there, Cabo.

Arriving at the airport, I immediately noticed the signs throughout the airport. Each one contained English first and in larger print with Spanish smaller below. I was surprised, but it made sense: Cabo's an incredibly popular spot for tourism. After we got our bags and I almost unknowingly drank a sample of tequila (which I assumed was some kind of juice) that a very nice woman gave to me in front of my parents, we were greeted by a swarm of taxi drivers eager to attract passengers. We approached one, loaded our bags, and made our way to hotel as beautiful mountains whirred by.



In between the airport and our hotel was a small town filled with shops and beset on either side of the road by buildings that sat in an uncanny state between appearing to be under construction or partially demolished. Beautiful candy-colored buildings paved the way to our hotel, and I noticed the property values seemed to increase as we grew closer to the hotel.

As I suspected, the area was heavily gentrified by the lavish hotels on the shore. I had heard about the poverty and lack of economic opportunity found in places with heavy tourism before, as Mr. Hawig had explained that during his time in Hawaii, many of the local folks had told him that many of the people there grew up and worked at the hotels on the island. This fact had made me somewhat uncomfortable throughout the trip and I decided that the literal least I could do was be as nice as possible to all of the staff there and try to speak Spanish to them when I could, as they had fluently learned English to accommodate me.

But speaking Spanish turned out to be much harder than I had been expecting. I'm at a point in my language acquisition where I have to flip a mental switch in order to speak and understand Spanish, or at least anything more complicated than what was learned in Spanish 1. Often times when we were at one of the resort's numerous restaurants, I would plan out how to say what I would like to eat and any little bits of casual conversation, but when the time came, I froze and reverted back to my native English. The only Spanish I spoke that same level one Spanish. My grammar had gotten better when it came to conjugation, but in essence, my Spanish was no better than my eighth-grade sister's.

In the age of Trump it is more important than ever to learn another language, especially Spanish. And yet, I knew that before this trip and still didn't show it. What good is learning a language when you never use it? Language is a way of knowing, but it is also a form of knowledge. To learn something without ever putting it to use is no different than never having learned it at all, and that's what I did this week.

Traveling is interesting. To be in a completely different country that speaks another language is a remarkable experience. It humbles you, lets you know that people and places outside of your country exist, and, in theory, lets me know what it's like to be a global student and citizen. However, tourism has changed this, especially when it comes to the relationship between the U.S./Europe and poorer countries. The world has become the West's theme park, where poorer countries learn English and dilute their cultures down into easily-identifying souvenirs. But who can blame them? A high demand to enjoy their beautiful locales and is economically beneficial.

So how can we tour responsibly? How can other cultures be respected, appreciated, and enjoyed without being turned into cheap imitations? Is this a condition we can reverse? I don't really know any of the answers, but these questions are often on my mind because of my desire to travel.

Pero ahora, voy a trataré de hablar español un poquito mas en mi vida.

You're in Mexico. Speak English? Please tour responsibly.

This past week, my family and I went on vacation to Cabos San Lucas, Mexico. While I knew the city was a haven for tourists, I was hoping to be able to try out some of my four years of Spanish (before we left, Maria had told me and Chase that we'd better be speaking fluent Spanish when we got back). We made our way through customs and TSA for an early flight to Houston and, from there, Cabo.

Arriving at the airport, I immediately noticed the signs throughout the airport. Each one contained English first and in larger print with Spanish smaller below. I was surprised, but it made sense: Cabo's an incredibly popular spot for tourism. After we got our bags and I almost unknowingly drank a sample of tequila (which I assumed was some kind of juice) that a very nice woman gave to me in front of my parents, we were greeted by a swarm of taxi drivers eager to attract passengers. We approached one, loaded our bags, and made our way to hotel as beautiful mountains whirred by.



In between the airport and our hotel was a small town filled with shops and beset on either side of the road by buildings that sat in an uncanny state between appearing to be under construction or partially demolished. Beautiful candy-colored buildings paved the way to our hotel, and I noticed the property values seemed to increase as we grew closer to the hotel.

As I suspected, the area was heavily gentrified by the lavish hotels on the shore. I had heard about the poverty and lack of economic opportunity found in places with heavy tourism before, as Mr. Hawig had explained that during his time in Hawaii, many of the local folks had told him that many of the people there grew up and worked at the hotels on the island. This fact had made me somewhat uncomfortable throughout the trip and I decided that the literal least I could do was be as nice as possible to all of the staff there and try to speak Spanish to them when I could, as they had fluently learned English to accommodate me.

But speaking Spanish turned out to be much harder than I had been expecting. I'm at a point in my language acquisition where I have to flip a mental switch in order to speak and understand Spanish, or at least anything more complicated than what was learned in Spanish 1. Often times when we were at one of the resort's numerous restaurants, I would plan out how to say what I would like to eat and any little bits of casual conversation, but when the time came, I froze and reverted back to my native English. The only Spanish I spoke that same level one Spanish. My grammar had gotten better when it came to conjugation, but in essence, my Spanish was no better than my eighth-grade sister's.

In the age of Trump it is more important than ever to learn another language, especially Spanish. And yet, I knew that before this trip and still didn't show it. What good is learning a language when you never use it? Language is a way of knowing, but it is also a form of knowledge. To learn something without ever putting it to use is no different than never having learned it at all, and that's what I did this week.

Traveling is interesting. To be in a completely different country that speaks another language is a remarkable experience. It humbles you, lets you know that people and places outside of your country exist, and, in theory, lets me know what it's like to be a global student and citizen. However, tourism has changed this, especially when it comes to the relationship between the U.S./Europe and poorer countries. The world has become the West's theme park, where poorer countries learn English and dilute their cultures down into easily-identifying souvenirs. But who can blame them? A high demand to enjoy their beautiful locales and is economically beneficial.

So how can we tour responsibly? How can other cultures be respected, appreciated, and enjoyed without being turned into cheap imitations? Is this a condition we can reverse? I don't really know any of the answers, but these questions are often on my mind because of my desire to travel.

Pero ahora, voy a trataré de hablar español un poquito mas en mi vida.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Polls Suck: I'm super done with this election and pollsters are stressing me out


"The possession of knowledge carries an ethical responsibility.” Evaluate this claim.


It's the weekend before the election on November 8th. I'm behind on a lot of homework and I'm having an early Thanksgiving with some of the extended family on my mom's side when politics come up. My cousins, adamant Trump supporters whom I love and disagree with, were quite convinced that he will win, thanks to several polls they had seen. I however, knew that while the race is quite close, Clinton is currently projected slightly more favorably than Trump, thanks to what I had been seeing on FiveThirtyEight's projections. I've trusted this source for a while due to the fact that throughout their podcasts and on their website, they have acknowledged the limitations to their projections while also seeming to take everything they could into account. This, combined with the excerpt we read in TOK from Nate Silver's book (which I need to buy) The Signal and The Noise, lead me to believe that what I had read was fairly accurate and trustworthy.




Statistics, especially concerning voting and the election, are often times misleading, faulty in methodology, or wrong in the predictions they set up. Frequentists believe that you increase the accuracy of your data by increasing the amount of data you have to work with, while Bayesians believe that taking priors into account, and basing predictions off of that allows you to predict with a system where the outputs of the formula become the inputs of the subsequent formulas, which make predictions less objective but, at least in the case of political polling, more accurate. However, neither of these methods can account for everything. It is not possible to track every variable, and yet so few polls own up to that, even though they all face that same problem.

It is my belief that with statistics, there is an ethical responsibility to admit the limitations of the studies. One would think this is obvious, but especially with network political polls, any study, no matter how shoddily conducted, carries an authority behind it based solely on the name attached. I myself am far too trusting of the information I see from sources I trust. I don't check the fine print on the polls I see or the statistics I use when arguing my point because I trust the source, or I agree with the prediction made by the poll.

Thanks to my experience with speech and debate, I'm used to pulling specific discreet polls or pieces of data to support my arguments, but this has left me with a sort of compelling desire for accuracy in data. This is really stressing me out because I try very hard to base my decisions on the facts at hand, and when "facts" are tainted by bias and polls are more about supporting a preconceived notion than finding out the truth, sifting through data becomes a real hassle. Like the quest for any kind of absolute truth, we can approach, but never truly find the infallible knowledge we seek. Statistics we look at should consider this. I do not look deeply into the methodology of the polls I find, but I shouldn't have to. When speaking from a place of such authority, those who compile and publish data have an ethical responsibility to seek truth rather than claim to have it in order to push an agenda. Bias is found in anything someone creates, even in the more accurate Bayesian statistics, but that bias is something that should be acknowledged, rather than denied. We can attempt to reduce the biases we have, but the strict objectivity of frequentism often leaves us with erroneous predictions. As a result, the only choice we have left is to accept that our biases are an indelible part of ourselves and whatever we put out into the world, and as a result, become more skeptical of the information we are fed.

I'm just ready for this election to be over so maybe we can turn 2017 into a year of healing from this dumpster fire of a year. This year, we've seen candidates advocate for sexual assault and come under FBI investigation, it's 80 degrees in November, there are apparently two-headed sharks, and David Bowie died. If we were able to use more accurate polls, that might start us off on a better path for next year, but our priors aren't very optimistic for that.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

TOK IRL 1: Beauty and Math


It's late Sunday evening and after diving into the latest season of Netflix's dark technological satire series, Black Mirror, I decided to give in to a guilty pleasure of mine: Keeping Up With the Kardashians. It's wonderfully dull. Nothing happens, but there's so much drama. While starting on the tenth season, I began to see how the two shows converged, specifically with Black Mirror's season 3 opener, "Nosedive".



"Nosedive" features a woman named Lacie as she attempts to climb the social latter in a world governed by a social media system in which people are rated out of five stars for their social interactions. It's brilliant satire because it is only a slightly varied version of how we already behave. As social media is full of numbers describing people, we use those numbers to hierarchically compare ourselves to others, with Kim Kardashian sitting at the top. For as long as there has been a number to ascribe to a person, their worth has been based on that number.

Immediately when watching, I thought back to our TOK discussion about math and beauty. The video we watched in the class claimed that all beautiful faces follow the Golden Ratio of 1.618. It made me uncomfortable, as while I understand that humans naturally find an adherence to ratios and symmetry appealing, I felt trapped by the idea that beauty was no longer in the eye of the beholder, but rather in the natural trends in thinking that humans have. From that standard of beauty, I saw the possibility for legitimate justification for calling a person "ugly". One can sidestep the immorality of that act if they claim that they're only pointing out adherence to a ratio, and that is what beauty really is.

But if we accept the mathematical justifications there, it's entirely possible that we'll see them other places, where the data is used to support a previously held belief, enforcing a norm. Assigning a number value to one's face or body based on the deviation from "beautiful" ratios, and using that as justification for belittlement is what men have been doing to women for years, but now with a mathematically-backed standard to work from.

My fear is that, based on the status quo we have, people are not at a place where we could look outside of that standard, once set. People find comfort in numbers. They can feel fine arguing any position so long as there is a number behind it. The problem isn't even whether or not beauty really is based on math, it is where we go from there. We've only recently began dismantling Eurocentric beauty standards that place thin white women on top. Even though people of color can adhere to the mathematical standards, we still cannot remove the idea that calling someone beautiful makes someone else ugly.

The question, then, is what to do about it? While I cannot argue against the beauty of adhering to mathematical ratios, I do think we need to expand our considerations on types of beauty, and weigh those equally. All people are beautiful in some way. Subtle imperfections give us character, make us unique, and, as Mr. Brewer has stated in his blog, make us beautiful. Beauty does not exist as a Platonic ideal; it is constantly around us, but not always recognized. Beauty is a destination with many roads, one of which is paved by math, and another by an appreciation for deviancy from that math. Beauty is a strong enough concept that it can hold the staggering diversity of the human form. If we can work towards that, we can remove some of the classification and comparisons that inspired "Nosedive," we can appreciate the Kardashians and all their Ideal beauty, and we can look to each around us not as a competitor to aspire to or look down upon, but as a single peace of the mosaic that is Beauty.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Ways of Knowing Reflective Blog: Language

I feel like my lesson was good at prompting more questions than answers. Of course, this has its drawbacks too, but it is my belief that any good discussion should leave you wanting more and should compel you to research more, on your own. I was surprised at how much I had felt this, even though it was my project. I felt like our video on post-structuralism did a good job of explaining a pretty complicated subject, and even if it didn't have everyone on the same page, I felt that our discussion did a good job filling in the gaps. I also felt that Emily's slide about the Linguistic Relativity Principle vs. Noam Chomsky's idea of innate knowledge of grammar was a success and that brought about good discussion. The concepts we spent the most time discussing showed me where our content was working, and post-structuralism and structuralism was something we'd hinted at in the past so the discussion already had some ground to stand on. I feel like our background with these ideas was what made them work so well in the discussion, as we'd gotten our feet wet with these concepts in the first weeks of TOK.

However, the main weakness I noticed immediately once we started presenting was that our presentation was a bit all-over-the-place when it came to our concepts, especially the slides I had worked on the most. Our presentation wasn't as pointed and specific as some of the others (specifically, the emotion group). I'd chalk this up to a lack of communication between Emily and me. She did a great job being specific with her content and I spread myself too thin over all the different concepts in language. Next time, I'll try to communicate better and make a general thread of discussion to link all the points we bring up. However, I am glad that my TOK classmates were able to jump through such a wide variety of topics without getting lost. That's a real talent my classmates have and I'm very thankful that they were good sports about it.

If I could add anything to the lesson, it'd probably be a Vsauce video on language. His videos are all really long, so that's why I stuck to the TED Talk, but I watch Vsauce just for fun and think it would be really good at sparking discussion. Additionally, I'd probably drop the first couple of slides. They were intended to be lighthearted openings to the importance of language, but ended up sounding like tangents to the main ideas we presented. As a whole, I enjoyed taking on the role of teacher (and I'm really scared that I'll end up being a teacher for my career. I'm sure I'd enjoy some of it but it's not something I'm aspiring to right now). I also learned, or rather, became absolutely certain, that when I have to present on a topic I'm really interested but not very knowledgeable in, I end up taking the spread out bits from that topic and throwing them in even when they aren't necessary or helpful for the main idea. I like talking about those interesting tidbits, but I'm not good at throwing out the unnecessary parts in order to preserve the main idea. I'll try to learn how to kill my darlings, and hopefully get better at developing an argument free of superfluous and less relevant information.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Looking Up to My Little Sister

I get in debates much more often than I should. Any normal person would know when to shut their mouth, or realize when an issue isn't as important as they're making it out to be. Any normal person would set their opinions aside in order to keep things happy and agreeable. But not me. Like my mother, I feel the need to get the absolute last word in. I cannot stand people dismissing my opinions. I have developed l'esprit de l'escalier into an art form. And my twin is the same way. That's why we're debate partners. We both get that trait from our mom, and that makes debating or arguing with her absolutely impossible.

But unlike my mom, I am the least confrontational person I know. I can debate the facts of the matter with absolute confidence, but when the issues are personal, and about other people, I always try and keep the peace.

And yet, while my mom did not manage to share that trait with me and my brother, she gave it in spades to my little sister, Savanna. And it is the most incredible thing in the world to watch. To see her stand up for herself with unrestrained fury and confidence against the junior high brats that bring her down is stunning. It is like watching a tiny version of my mother, and they are absolutely horrifying when working together. Savanna is one of the most genuine people I know, and it is heartwarming how mature she is even when she's three years younger than me. She is so much better about that than I was when I was her age, and she's growing up to be an incredible young woman.

So yesterday when I saw her come home from school in tears, I was devastated. Petty people craving drama to make their boring lives more interesting had been talking about Savanna behind her back when she had been nothing but nice to them. The little girls had finally gotten to her, and even though I knew Savanna was not going to let them win, it hurt to see her confidence broken for even a second. She was curled up in a little ball on the couch. She now only shrugged softly, and I realized that she must have gotten more of her crying out when mom picked her up from school. She had put on a brave face for her two older brothers, and I was even more sad for and proud of her at that moment. No one hurts my sister's feelings and gets away with it. And that isn't me being a protective older brother; that's her not tolerating disrespect. She fights her own battles and she fights them well.

Her confidence and genuine behavior are both something I have always admired, but she's also inspired me to be better myself. Throughout junior high and into my freshman year, I was one of the petty people my sister is constantly at odds with. I used to gossip, and I used to constantly be in drama, and wouldn't mind my own business.

But after experiencing first hand the harms that can come from that, I had to sit back and examine myself. And that self-awareness was what made me realize how pathetic and pointless my actions were. This all sounds pretty juvenile, but that self-awareness really opened my eyes in other areas. It made me realize that I never wanted to be a source of negativity, and the way to do that was to get rid of the negative habits that made bring about more negativity.

It is my strong belief that both positivity and negativity diffuse. Negativity inside will spread outward, but so will positivity. Self-awareness and self reflection helped me understand how negative I was and how I had to remove that in order to have a better life. Since then, I've worked hard to cultivate a positive idea of myself, as well a positive view of everyone else. Negative people that contribute to a cycle like the one that made my sister cry are probably dealing with the same lack of contentment and poor self esteem that I had when I was in their position, and so I try to empathize with and be patient with them on their journey toward becoming a better person.

Seeing that Savanna never had to deal with those same problems that I did makes me so proud of her, but also guilty for everything I had done at that time. I'm not perfect. There are times even now that I will still fail miserably and get involved in the childish habits I've worked so hard to avoid, but I know that I'll always have my little sister to look up to. Now I've just got to teach her how to debate...

Monday, August 8, 2016

Learner Profile Reflection

For me, the traits at the top of my IB Learner Profile weren't very surprising. I've always considered myself to be a Thinker, a trait which was common amongst my fellow diploma candidates. But with that, I've also considered myself to be an Inquirer, and acknowledging these two traits only puts a name to something I've known for a long time.

Being a Thinker isn't uncommon, but it can make things a little difficult. Not all of my friends are Thinkers, so that limits the scope of conversations I can have with them. There's nothing wrong with them for that, but I do love being able to speak to fellow Thinkers about the big issues keeping me up at night. I love having another like-minded individual to bounce my ideas off of, and I've been blessed to have my twin brother to help me through that. We're on the same wavelength. He and I can shoot ideas back and forth, and I can always get a new perspective from him or get help developing my own thoughts. And one of the main reasons I'm excited for the IB program is the fact that I'll be able to have a diversity of opinions to face. Being able to disagree respectfully is one thing that I've been meaning to work on, and I believe IB will make me even better at that.

But aside from being a Thinker, being an Inquirer is an aspect that's just as important to me. I've always enjoyed questioning things to understand my beliefs. I've learned to love those questions that haunt you as soon as you find yourself alone; the kind of questions that can send you into a little existential crisis. To me, those are so important because they make us more fully engage in the world around us. Whether the questions are philosophical or moral or theological, by grappling with them we come to a better understanding of ourselves. As a young person, I had those questions but only recently felt like I could talk openly about them and in turn learned to love them.

And strangely, that inquisitive nature shapes me down to even my taste in movies. David Lynch's 2001 film Mulholland Drive is my all-time favorite film, and one of the reasons I love it so much is its ambiguity. It's a puzzle, but not the kind you can ever really solve. The movie forces you into that kind of uncomfortable uncertainty and calls you to take joy in that. By never really being able to solve the movie, it exists to be discussed to no end, to further that inquiry for the sake of inquiry rather than as a means to an end. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is similarly open ended, and these frustrating movies hold a special place in my heart.

Finally, I'm supposed to address what it means to say that I know something. To tell you the truth, right now I really don't have a clue what that means. I felt pretty comfortable with saying that I know things, but after this course I'm not very certain anymore. In class we talked about how truth is a pretty weird concept, especially when it comes to language. That makes me really uncomfortable, because language is the form by which we receive almost all of the things we hold to be true, but also the way by which we claim to know things. To lose the sense of truth in that mean of communication gives way to doubting the truth of what has been told to us. It's a little unsettling to think about, but it's not enough to lead me to any feelings of nihilism or doubt in the beliefs I already have. I'm sure I'll learn more about what it means to know something as the course continues, but right now it's all a bit uncertain.