Apps are dead. Long live AI!

Consider this: I want to book a flight from Atlanta to New York for next weekend, and want to get the cheapest ticket available. I also I want it to be with an airline that is connected to my rewards program, preferably on a flight that has wi-fi. How would I do it? I will present two scenarios:

The traditional app way:

  1. I open up my phone and search for flights in the American Airlines app.
  2. I filter it to get a cheap flight that has wifi
  3. Unfortunately it’s too expensive, so I open up my Delta app and repeat the process.
  4. I finally find a flight with a good price, I select it.
  5. I log in and input my credentials
  6. I follow the on-screen instructions and pay with my credit card
  7. I get the ticket and add it to my phone

This is the fastest way you can obtain a flight today. It’s not bad, but I do have to sit down to do all the process. Now entertain for me please, the following vision of an AI-based interface:

The AI way:

  1. I open up my phone, hold a button and say, “Find me a cheap flight from Atlanta to New York for next weekend, make sure it has wi-fi.”
  2. The AI replies, “I found you a couple flights. The top choice is a non-stop Delta flight that departs at 10:00am and costs $250. Would you like me to buy it?”
  3. I reply back, “sure!” and the AI responds, “Great! I put your ticket in your phone”

The AI interaction in this situation is superior to the traditional app interface. It’s faster, more engaging, and makes the hassle of booking a flight less so. Now, I’m not saying that every single interaction should be replaced by AI. There are indeed some instances where its better off that you see a screen and make a decision for yourself. But the fact of the matter is that having an AI is like having an assistant: it reduces logistical hassle and presents you with curated information that is relevant and useful.

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Because of the superior productivity that AI provides, I believe that apps will be supplanted by AI services as the primary interface we have with our digital devices. In the long-run, natural conversation (whether it’s in speech or in a text conversation)  with AI programs, designed to serve particular needs, will be the go-to approach for us to interact with our devices.

I envision a future where there will be a “general” AI installed on your device (think of Siri or Alexa), connected to multiple AI services that specialize on a particular subject eg. Finance, biology, football, etc. These specialized modules will have large corpuses of data specific to their topic and allow users to get information or perform tasks particular to that area of knowledge.

There are some who would say, “this is great! AI will take over and we wouldn’t have to work anymore!” Which I completely disagree. Automation does not equal lack of work for people. It simply means that we can better allocate our skills to other areas. Creating all of these different AI services will mean that thousands of developers will be needed to build them, and millions of people will be required to run the companies that collect, assemble and input all of human knowledge into artificial intelligent systems.

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Artists, writers, thespians, anthropologists, designers and a whole host of creative people will be required to create the scripts and personalities that run these systems. Far from making people unemployed and heralding the death of humanities, the mass-production of AI services will be a renaissance for the humanities as it explores how to re-create an artificial human mind that can service its creators.

Should we become worried if these AI systems become our robot overlords, as Hollywood movies and Elon Musk portray? You’ll find out in my next blog post, so stay tuned!

The real problem of AI

I’m going to cut right to the chase here. There’s a growing problem in having advanced AI algorithms taking over human tasks while possessing little, to non-existent ethical benchmarks that assess their actions.

Think of these AI systems as a small child. They will learn about the world through their senses, and depending on their experiences, they will draw conclusions about the world. In the same manner, what we feed into our AI systems will determine how they think and how they’ll act. What happens then, when a robot acts in a way that is advantageous to it’s program but disadvantageous to the welfare of people?

Suppose an autonomous car is travelling along a road. It detects a small object. We would see it as a child (probably who’s run away from his home) and is lying down in this desolate road. The truck senses the size of the object but doesn’t think its poses any risk to it’s driving. It can’t veer around because the road is small, and it has a high priority override to deliver express packages by the evening. The truck judges the risk of the object to the truck to be minuscule, so it proceeds. Ending the life of the child.

This is one such example of what could happen if we don’t properly train our AI to make good moral judgements. A proper judgement requires full knowledge of the situation, so as to assess all the facts. It requires a conceptual idea of good and evil, in order to pursue good and prevent evil, even if it’s at the cost of economic gain. It also requires the proper capacity to judge circumstances. These and many other such considerations need to be put into the algorithms of our ai.

I mentioned something that is extraordinarily important. So important, and striking, that you probably just missed it. The concept of imbuing machines with notions of “good” and “evil.” These notions are necessary, because they are the last reins of judgement when we decide to do something. I might be asked to collaborate on an insider trading scheme. I could feel the pressure to act accordingly because if not my manager could fire me. I could feel the allure of the money that I will be making. However, I know in my heart that this would be the wrong thing to do. And so, refusing all personal gain and instead facing all to lose, I refuse to cooperate, because I sense it is the wrong thing to do.

Similar judgement should be imparted on our robots as they slowly start to overtake more complex, personal jobs from us. AI robots are designed to maximize productivity. But in the case that harm could be done, it must recognize the consequences of its action and act in the way that is best for the prosperity and flourishing of its creators. It should be the last line of defense for any person living near an ai system, so that they might be assuredly protected from unintended harm.

I cannot say how the concept of good and evil will manifest in an algorithm. It seems like so much more intuitive than a set of logical parameters. I might try to tackle this on another post.

 

#Throwback to 400AD

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I walked this morning to Starbucks, as I usually do on Sundays, and decided to take a break from reading the Lord of the Rings series. Much as I love Tolkien’s epic, sweeping tales, I wanted to go for something more intimate and philosophical – enter St. Augustine.

His book The Confessions, has been a profound influence in my life. I think I first read him when I was 20 and find him endlessly relevant to our times. Yes, who knew a 1500 year-old book could compete with an AI chatbot? Below is an excerpt from Book 10, Chapter 27:

 

Late have I loved you,
O Beauty so ancient and so new,
late have I loved you!
You were within me, but I was outside,
and it was there that I searched for you.
In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
Created things kept me from you;
yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all.
You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.
You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.
You breathed your fragrance on me;
I drew in breath and now I pant for you.
I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.
You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

I have no words to follow this poem. Anything I would dare to add would not do it justice. Thus, I’ll end this post here and provide an excerpt on St. Augustine where you can learn more about this titanic figure of Western civilization. I hope to find more of my Augustinian readers out there 🙂

Also, you might be wondering why I posted an image of a child laughing. I chose it because that’s exactly how I feel when reading Augustine -joyful and completely at ease. His life fits inside the mold of my soul. Reading him talk so eloquently brings me an extraordinary sense of pride for my faith and affirmation that everyday of our lives we can build, brick by brick, the foundations of love that hold up the eternal City of God.

 

St. Augustine, born in Roman N. Africa to a devout Catholic mother and a pagan father, was a notoriously rebellious Catholic teenager who cohabitated with a girlfriend, joined an exotic Eastern cult, and ran away from his mother.

Augustine became a brilliant and renowned teacher of public speaking and was appointed by the emperor to teach in Milan, Italy, at that time the administrative capital of the Western Roman Empire. While there, he happened to hear the preaching of the bishop of Milan, Ambrose, who baptized him in 386.

St. Augustine ultimately renounced his secular career, put away his mistress, and became first a monk, then a priest, then the bishop of Hippo, a small town on the N. African Coast. The voluminous writings of this Early Church Father span every conceivable topic in theology, morality, philosophy, and spirituality. St. Augustine of Hippo is commonly recognized as the great teacher in the Western Church between the New Testament and St. Thomas Aquinas.  He died in AD 430.  (bio by Dr. Italy)

What I learned from building a neural network. Hint: the robots are coming!

I’m taking a developer certification for using IBM’s Watson AI, and one of the learning requirements is to understand the basics of artificial neural networks. In order to retain the information better and to understand the underlying processes, I decided to actually create a neural network, with the help of Stephen Welch’s excellent “Neural Networks Demystified” video series. You can see part one below:

I honestly did not expect it to be so complicated. Of course, it’s machine learning, it’s not supposed to be easy; but still, the amount of equations that described even the basics of a neural network were…out of my comfort zone to say the least. Nevertheless, it was eye- opening. Artificial neural networks (ANN) are a mathematical and programmatic representation of how neurons and axioms work. I am not going to delve into the mechanics of it, but it suffices to say that these ANNs are the beginnings of a general artificial intelligence: one that can think, understand and display intuition.

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A demonstration of how Artificial Neural Networks mimic real, biological neurons. Source: InTech

The implications for this kind of technology are profound. It got me thinking about the economics of implementing such a system, only to realize that we are already in the midsts of a global upheaval thanks to the introduction of machine learning algorithms.

In 2011, Marc Adreessen, an early investor in Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and many other Silicon Valley “unicorns,” wrote:

“Software is eating the world.”

His statement still holds true, but I’d change it slightly to say, “AI is eating the world.

Unfortunately, the general public’s conception of AI is limited to Hollywood movies, and is almost completely abstracted from the real-life implementations of this technology. Many are unaware of how much this technology has infiltrated their lives. You can attribute your Netflix binging and endless Youtube video watching to the power of machine learning algorithms providing you with “suggestions” and “recommendations.” These services profile every move of yours, every bit of information, to pinpoint your demographic and provide you content that statistically fits with other people like you.

Yes, in AI, you are just a statistic.

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But AI does much more than that. Look no further than autonomous cars, self-running factories in China, and virtual assistants to see how this technology will seep into every industry of the market.

With such a powerful tool in our hands (quite literally), it is unfortunate that the labor market, and the institutions that feed into it, are not prepared for this transformational change. Most universities don’t have AI programs in place. Coding is still seen as being in the realm of engineers and nerds. Companies still operate with old OS versions of Microsoft Vista and use fax machines to exchange information. A large portion of the economy is simply lagging behind when it comes to it’s ability to change and adapt to an AI-based economy.

Now, this is not all fault of their own. Artificial Intelligence is a very complex subject, as I initially discovered. It requires advanced mathematics, advanced programming experience and a good amount of years in the practice to develop an effective AI architect. The amount of resources invested to produce such a focused individual is akin to the training regiment of a special forces soldier. It takes a lot of time, energy and talent to produce this worker of the future. However, such a worker will become indispensable for the future economy.

AI is like having a self-replicating mind. Another mind that does not need to be fed, does not sleep, does not complain, does not need health insurance, and is millions of times more powerful in mathematical computation than any person alive. It is the virtue of a capitalist society to employ such a tool if it deems it economically advantageous. It would be illogical not to employ it.

But herein the crux of the matter: A few amount of people will be extremely productive in the creation of wealth thanks to their use of AI, but what will become of everyone else?

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Greater productivity is the holy grail of economics. It means the country can produce more, for less, at a faster pace. Global productivity exploded after the industrial revolution, thanks to industrial machines. Then, it sharply increased again with the advent of computational machines. Now, it’s due for another increase with the advent of commercial artificial intelligence. Here are three reasons why I believe the rise of AI is bad news for the global labor market:

1) Job replacement will happen faster than job creation

2) Productivity will be focused in a corporate oligopoly

3) “Enormous Data” will provide these companies a competitive advantage over the rest of the market

 


 

Job Replacement

This is a big one, especially since it’s become so politicized in the last couple of months. Jobs are always replaced by the coming of newer technologies. When the car became mass produced, the horse carriage industry (the traditional mode of transportation for centuries) underwent an irreversible decline. However, the collapse of this industry was supplanted by an even greater upswell of economic wealth created by the car: stables were supplanted by gas stations, horse drivers by valets, streets needed to be paved, cars needed to be maintained, manufacturing increased in order to keep up with the demand, etc. Thus, older technologies are usually supplanted by newer ones thanks to the new jobs it creates.

In an article for MIT Technology Review, Joel Mokyr, a leading economic historian at Northwestern University commented on the increasingly fast pace of disruption:

The current disruptions are faster and more intensive…It is nothing like what we have seen in the past, and the issue is whether the system can adapt as it did in the past.

He further states how jobs that require automation -usually reserved for the lower classes of workers- will be the most susceptible to this change. If these workers are to keep their jobs and adapt to the new AI economy, they must obtain a degree in computer science or a similarly technical field, as well as a specialization in whatever field they will be working in. This kind of education is expensive, and it falls within the responsibility of the government to fund for their re-education. These blue-collar workers usually do not have the resources to pay for a college education. If the government doesn’t help these workers, they simply won’t be able to re-educate themselves for the changing market needs and will fall into poverty. David H. Autor supports this view in his piece for the Journal of Economic Perspectives, “Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The History and Future of Workplace Automation.” He argues that, due to the rapidly changing dynamics of the AI economy, job displacement will rise significantly if education programs for low-skilled workers does not take place:

…human capital investment must be at the heart of any long-term strategy for producing skills that are complemented by rather than substituted for by technological change.

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A Minnesota factory worker with Google Glass 2. Source: Wired Magazine.

Nevertheless, he’s still fairly confident that AI will not completely displace jobs, but rather complement them. Many blue-collar workers such as plumbers, electricians, HVAC installers and others will use AI to become more productive in their jobs, but not necessarily be replaced completely by it. I agree with his view. Microsoft and Google have both released virtual reality goggles that are being tested to aid workers in their day-to-day work lives. The machine tells the maintenance worker where to put the screws on, where he can find the part that’s missing, etc. In fact, Google has already implemented a revamped version of it’s hyped Google Glass product on a factory in Jackson, Minnesota (This is an highly interesting article which I will probably comment on another time. You can find the original article from Wired magazine here). I do not want to dwell on these commendable efforts. Rather, I am much more concerned with the employees of large corporations that perform task-intensive jobs day-in and day-out. Think of the thousands of workers in Foxconn factories building iPhones, or truck drivers delivering merchandise. It is estimate that self-driving trucks, “could threaten or alter 2.2 million to 3.1 million existing U.S. jobs.” What will happen then? A commenter for the previously mentioned MIT article had some truthful insight when he wrote:

The problem is not the technology: it’s the implicit and explicit social and business agreements we have presently in society.

The ultimate problem with job displacement is not so much an issue with unavoidable technological advances that will lead people without jobs. It’s that us, as a society, have failed to properly organize ourselves to fit the needs of the market and put in the required resources into the training and well-being of our workers. Public companies are put under immense pressure to perform, and have put profits over its people (not that it’s a new issue). If we are to avoid a massive displacement of jobs, we need government and businesses to employ appropriate measures to protect its workers by providing them with the necessary education and skills that will enable them to stay competitive in an AI economy It is our duty to use our God-given talents to help others, and therefore the virtue of a good society to provide means for its people to achieve this end.

 

Corporate Oligopoly

Ah, we enter into a favorite topic of doomsayers and conspiracists. The idea that a few companies will reap most of the profits from a market is far from new: Six movie studios receive almost 87% of American film revenue (boxofficemojo.com), Facebook and Google account for almost 50% of the online ad market and are responsible for 99% of online ad growth, Russia is still controlled by a few oil producers, etc. The list of examples would be endless, and oligopolies aren’t always bad for an economy. They can streamline the production process for goods and services, lower prices for consumers, and provide greater profits to its shareholders.

I strongly believe the AI market will inevitably become an oligopoly (if it isn’t one already), and profits will become even more concentrated in the future. Facebook, Alphabet (parent company of Google), Amazon, Alibaba, Microsoft and Netflix are the leading technology companies in the world. They’re all S&P 500 stocks, have delivered returns much greater than the market, are leading the world in AI implementation and innovating at the fastest rates as well. They also show no sign of slowing down. They have methodically disrupted every industry they have touched -the release of a trademark from Amazon was enough to plunge meal-kit delivery company Blue Apron by more than 30%-, and have digitized many of their processes. They have also concentrated the wealth of these industries among relatively small teams. WhatsApp was bought by Facebook for $50 BILLION and had only 50 employees…50 EMPLOYEES.

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Careful there! Each one of these employees is worth $1 billion

Due to a talent shortage in data and AI, these companies compete one another by offering perks and stock options to employees. Startups also frequently do this, as a way to defer salaries to its employees while it starts earning money. Its fine and all, except when these companies grow to enormous valuations and the first few employees hold the majority of the company’s wealth. Amazon still pays its warehouse employees $12 the hour (per Glassdoor), while the company’s valuation is worth $500 billion and its CEO is the richest man on earth (as of July, 2017). A recent article by the Guardian newspaper showed how Nicole, a cafeteria worker for Facebook’s headquarters, still lives in a garage with her family and barely making ends meet. “He doesn’t have to go around the world,” said Nicole. “He should learn what’s happening in this city.” She’s referring to Zuckerberg’s highly publicized world tour that started as his new year’s resolution to “get out and talk to more people.”

“They look at us like we’re lower, like we don’t matter,” said Nicole of the Facebook employees. “We don’t live the dream. The techies are living the dream. It’s for them.” Source: The Guardian

It’s unfortunate cases like Nicole’s that highlight the growing divide between the middle class and the high class being populated by techies. In a new report highlighted by CNBC, a record number of Americans were millionaires in 2016 – there was also a record 50% decline in the people who qualify as middle class, and “One in three say they couldn’t come up with $2,000 if faced with an emergency.” Thus, the corporate oligopoly has concentrated the wealth of the new economy to it’s founders, and the promise that the masses will be liberated to freelance and work on their own thanks to new digital technologies, is shown to be false, except for a fortunate few.


The Rise of Enormous Data

Think Big Data was too big too handle? Enter Enormous Data. Seriously. It’s the new buzzword in the industry.

Stay tuned for updates and I appreciate your comments and suggestions.

Sources:

Law & Order: Episode 2

See the first post here.

The previous post finished with a question. I hope to finish this one with an answer. I asked “how do we know what kind of laws are necessary?” and, “can they be prevented from infringing on an individual’s rights?” Since these questions are so large and encompass thousands of years of discussion, and since this thread was created to answer a single web post (also, I consider myself far from being the ideal person to give an authoritative response in this topic), I will digress here to focus on exactly one question:

“Don’t like your rights taken away? Don’t try to take the rights of others.”

Please, please see my first post for context, before reading on. I know you will ignore this but at least my conscience will be clear…. Still haven’t read the first post? Fine then, let’s continue.

We stated in the previous post that no matter how much freedom a state has, it will still have opinions, for laws decidedly tell what is acceptable or not (at least in the civic arena, not necessarily in the moral sense). If a state has opinions, it will decidedly not allow you to hold certain views. This is unescapable.

If a state makes it illegal to steal, it doesn’t matter if your opinion is that stealing is ok. The state’s laws will be enforced on you. If you don’t like it, you cannot belong to that state. But what if you consider stealing to be your “right” as a human being? Well, what does it mean to have “rights?”

It seems to me that rights are proclamations of things that makes us inherently human

Why’s that? Because rights seem to denote privileges. You might say that animals have rights, or even trees have rights. But to say that humans have rights is altogether something above and beyond what we would consider animal rights. A dog does not have freedom of expression. It does not have a right to property, or freedom. It has rights that protect it and keep it alive and well, but the aforementioned human rights are extraneous to the dog. We instead, call them essential to our species.

Think of Thomas Jefferson’s famous preamble to the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Rights are intrinsic values that are essential to humanity. Although you would like a dog very much to have a good life, and see it is good for it to have one, it is not a right to the same degree as a human would demand. Why? Because we have intellects, and the capacity to will. An animal is guided by instinct, but a person can determine him/herself.

The statement at the beginning of this post is true. We cannot take away the rights of others, because they are intrinsic to themselves. But the context in which it is written in mistaken. Rights should help us achieve goodness. Why? Because rights aim to perfect that which is essential to ourselves. We allow a person to have property because that way he can determine himself and his future. We allow people to have food & shelter because man is not a beast and requires suitable housing to live and prosper. We permit life because it has been begotten to us by our Creator and mourn when it is taken away.

Therefore, personal rights direct us to our intrinsic goodness and happiness, but prevent us from achieving it when guised under our own opinions and prejudices 

Although a person is free to eat rotten meat, the good thing to do would be to prevent that person from exercising that right for the purpose of his overall well-being. The person might think it’s a delicacy, and create an opinion page on the New York Times as to the rights of people to eat rotten meat, but the fact is that the law is protecting him, in order for him to continue expressing those rights which he has twisted to his own designs.

We can now both affirm and refute our statement in question. No, we cannot take away the rights of others, but the reason is not because the person has simply said “it’s his right,” but because we can recognize what are the intrinsic values that make him essentially human and thus what is conducive to his flourishing.

Thanks for reading! I have decided to keep this thread, “Law & Order,” as a topic of discussion when it comes to matters of politics and the philosophy of the state. In no way am I attempting to replicate, profit or make use of the name of the actual TV show.

 

 

The Road Ahead

The Road Ahead or The Road Behind
by George Joseph Moriarty

Sometimes I think the Fates must
Grin as we denounce and insist
The only reason we can’t win
Is the Fates themselves that miss

Yet there lives on an ancient claim
We win or lose within ourselves
The shining trophies on our shelves
Can never win tomorrow’s game
You and I know deeper down
There’s always a chance to win the crown

But when we fail to give our best
We simply haven’t met the test
Of giving all, and saving none
Until the game is really won

Of showing what is meant by grit
Of fighting on when others quit
Of playing through, not letting up
It’s bearing down that wins the cup
Of taking it and taking more
Until we gain the winning score

Of dreaming there’s a goal ahead
Of hoping when our dreams are dead
Of praying when our hopes have fled
Yet losing, not afraid to fall
If bravely, we have given all

For who can ask more of a man
Than giving all within his span
Giving all, it seems to me
Is not so far from victory

And so the Fates are seldom wrong
No matter how they twist and wind
It is you and I who make our fates
We open up or close the gates
On the road ahead or the road behind.

Law & Order: Episode 1

I recently came across this image on my twitter:

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I don’t know who originally made it, or posted it, but I do have a an issue with its conclusion. The basic structure of the argument is that, if you don’t like something that a person is doing, then you don’t have to participate in it. To put it more broadly (and I think this is the essence of what the author intended), a society should be organized with limitless freedom to it’s population; not agreeing with a certain behavior or product, or service, does not give you the right to restrict it or eliminate it. Hence, “Don’t like Wal-Mart? Don’t shop in it.”

I will first start by immediately ignoring the obvious fallacy in the logic. If I were to follow the syllogism, I could just say, “Don’t like murderers? Then don’t talk to them.” Instead, I will delve deeper into the intention of this argument and try to come up with something that is worth more debating.

Based on current events, I believe this argument stems from a fear that government will unnecessarily infringe on an individual’s personal life, or that a particular group will make attempts to curtail certain behaviors, products or services based on their beliefs. This is clearly shown by the gun debate, or the legalization of marijuana. They are hotly contested issue where the question of liberty is at its center. Some of the frequently used arguments used by its proponents are that freedom must be protected at all costs, and should be held superior to any belief, opinion, individual, group, or state. The guaranteeing of freedom would protect the people from a descent into tyranny -a sentiment strongly felt by the founding fathers.

However, that is not all the founding fathers believed in.

You see, for any society to function, there cannot be unlimited freedom. There must be rules. There must be laws that govern the land; and if there are rules, there are, as courts imply, opinions. Opinions indeed, govern the land.

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Not a single smile was given that day

Picture a soccer game. If I decided for myself how I wanted to play, I could pick up the football, run with it to the goal line, punch the referee, and do whatever I desired. But that wouldn’t be soccer! If I want to play soccer, I must abide by the rules of the game. Rules keep the game going and allow everyone to have a chance at fair game. So it is with society (or as Aristotle would call it, the state).

There must be set rules for the state to function properly and the community to live peacefully.

Having rules means that some people wouldn’t be happy. But it would be absurd to have a game whereby everyone could do as they desired. Thus, laws that maintain order are necessary in any state to maintain the community together and disputes to be resolved. Now, any sane person would agree to this argument. However, the issue remains as to what degree of law will be imposed on the people. If we put too much, we’ll end up with a tyrant, as Russia has shown. If there is too little, the situation could devolve into anarchy, as the French revolution dramatically demonstrated. We need “the right amount of laws.” How would we know what kind of laws are necessary? Can they be prevented from infringing on an individual’s rights? And how would that look like?

Stay tuned for the next episode of Law & Order.

Bring in the Gargoyles!

Have you seen modern architecture lately? Doesn’t it seem to you rather…boring? They’re all made out of steel and glass (some adventurous architects use wood). They’re all square or some weird polygon shape. They’re built to be as transparent as possible and evoke a sterility that rivals that of a hospital.

Seriously, it seems as if the pristine whiteness of undulating surfaces scoffed at our plebeian status as organic beings.

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“Look mom! A giant mirror!”

Some would contend in saying that the perfect geometry of the building is evocative of our scientific advances. To that, I agree, and well applaud the advances that have been made in this area of thought. It is unfortunate however, that man cannot be wholly expressed in the scientific terms we use to describe a rock, or a chimpanzee. Man is both spirit and body, and as such expresses an infinity of reflections that transcend time and space -akin to a diamond radiating a single light source into a dazzling array of radiance. Shouldn’t we design our houses in much the same way? The great profession of Architecture has always been imbued with this spiritual significance.

Architecture has never simply been about a utility construction, meant to house us from the elements. It’s an art.

It might have been true in the beginning of our evolution, but it developed from there to become a status symbol. A way for great kings to assimilate themselves to the gods (think pyramids of Giza), a dwelling place for those we love (Taj Mahal) or as a sign of defiance against the evil powers of the world (such as the Freedom Tower). To reduce architecture to linear, geometric shapes in flat color tones is severely limiting, to say the least.

Renowned architect Norman Foster agrees with this, saying in an interview with Architecture Daily:

Architecture is an expression of values – the way we build is a reflection of the way we live.

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If we are to seek a complete understanding of ourselves, and imbue this insight into solid, standing structures, I would suggest a different approach than the modern trend seems to suggest. I suggest going 1000 years, in fact, to the Gothic cathedrals of Western Europe. These marvelous edifices have stood against the elements and preserved remarkably well the people who dwell inside.

More importantly however, is these building’s ability to make your head look up, and stay there: in other words, it inspires our soul.

The roofs aren’t merely flat, and white, with ventilation systems and electric cables. The arched roofs look like the inner belly of a whale. It’s star-studded patterns evoking a canopy of rock, or a constellation of stars. The cold rock is imposing and aloof, yet it manages to entrance us, to draw us into the deep mysteries of God.

Abbot Suger (not sugar -it’s french) invented Gothic architecture, and after seeing his newly built church exclaimed in De Administratione:

‘When … the loveliness of the many-coloured gems has called me away from external cares … then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven.’

(source: Victoria and Albert Museum)

The “one foot on earth, another in heaven” is a fitting description of the emotions that gothic cathedrals often create. Of course, not everyone want to live in count Dracula’s home, and creating every condo on earth in the Gothic style is overkill.

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Looks like Count Dracula is home

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However, I would propose a revival of this design to the current generation of architects. It would be a fascinating thing to see this relic of quiet antiquity imposing itself in the bustling streets of New York City, or Chicago. One group of people have thought of this though. A boutique design group, Mark Foster, have submitted a design for what could potentially be the world’s only gothic skyscraper.

gothic

With 3D printed Gargoyles and all, this could be the face of what could become a new era in architecture. One where angels and demons are carved in stone, and look intently at us, puny humans, tweeting and posing selfies on the streets below. The true image of the modern era.

Four things a man must learn to do

Four things a man must learn to do,

If he should make his life more secure.

To think without confusion clearly,

To love his fellow men sincerely,

To act from pure motives only,

To trust in God and heaven securely.

I got this poem from John Wooden, legendary NCAA coach who would lead the UCLA Basketball team to 10 NCAA championship wins in 12 years and a record number of consecutive wins. His wisdom is rooted in what some of his fellow team players described as, “old fashioned.” But really, what is so old fashioned about timeless wisdom?

This poem, with its “timeless virtues” that it extolls reminded me of a very ancient book that still applies to us today, just like Wooden’s wisdom. I recently read through Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, an incredible book which I recommend everyone to read (though you can skip the chapter on Magnificence -there’s nothing quite magnificent about this tedious philosophical discourse). There was one particular idea that has struck me deeply which I think resonates well today:

That living a good life requires education, discernment and experience. That a good life cannot be achieved through our natural instincts alone.

Let me unpack this because there’s A LOT going on this statement. One of the great sins of our time, I believe, is the belief that we can determine for ourselves whether something is good or not through our feelings. Now, there is some truth to this. To some extent, we are all able to innately tell whether something is good, like helping a person in need, or terribly evil, like murder.

Unfortunately life has more gray areas than 50 shades could muster. It can be sometimes difficult to tell what is good, and what is evil. How would we know what to choose? Our feelings are not exactly a benchmark whereby we can judge properly: have you ever seen a judge decide a case because he just “felt like it”?

To view it from another angle, it is difficult to tell, especially for younger people, to know how to act and how to feel. I mean, how to properly act in whatever situation, and what should be the “right way” to feel about others. It is easy to go into extremes. For example, being in traffic really stresses me out, and I can be easily tempted to flip off or curse at people who go too slow in front of me or cut me off in my lane. Instead, I decide to swallow my anger and drive peacefully. In another example, someone takes advantage of me by ripping me off in a sale, but I don’t want to seem uncharitable so I let the person do it and just let it pass by. In both cases, extremes of emotion and action were displayed, and were not the proper response to take.

Aristotle teaches us that we should find the “mean” of every circumstance. That is, the measured, middle way to respond to every circumstance. Only then can we properly guide our emotions and actions to virtuous effect. Now, not all situations require a “middle approach.” I man rapes my wife and I see him walking down the street, I’m not going to simply communicate my displeasure of his action. A more extreme action will be taken to incur justice. The point is that there are some times where extreme acts an emotions are necessary and sometimes they are not. The question then becomes, how would I know how to properly react? What would be the circumstance required? Therein is the crux of this whole issue I’ve been trying to bring up.

To be continued in another chapter.

 

The making of a story

It was a warm Thursday evening. The sun was high in the cloudless sky. The air was filled with the murmurings of cicadas and the singing of birds. A small bee colony hanged in the corner of the tiled roof where Matthew lived.

He was young, but living alone. His house was small but served its purpose well. Unlike most of his classmates, he chose this house outside the main town of Oxford. It was a 30-minute walk to the college, yes, but the quaint house had everything he needed. It was also the only one he could afford.

After waking up from a short nap, he went to the kitchen to serve himself a glass of water. He looked past the kitchen window to the green countryside, with its rolling hills and patches of forest. He felt a desire in his heart to run, and feel the wind pass his face -the feeling of freedom. He put on some running shorts, not bothering with a shirt, and put on his trusty old running shoes.

Over and under the English countryside he ran. Past the meadow of Mr. Green’s farm, up over the gardens of Mrs Wales, a twisting trail that Matthew had run so many times, he could do it blindfolded. He got to the turn of a large hillside beside a lake which marked the third mile. his was about halfway through his loop, before he could reach the road that would take him back home.

But Matthew stopped suddenly. There was a fence that blocked the field in front of him, tall and sturdy, it imposed its will across the landscape as if to say, “You cannot pass.” He looked to the left, and then the right; the fence extended as far as he could see. Saddened but still determined, he trotted closer to the fence. It had sharp, razor wire lines that went up about six feet high. This was a recently put in place -it wasn’t there the previous weekend, and the steel was still smooth and shiny. Matthew looked for a way to get around the fence, or find a weakness in it that he could exploit.

He walked for a few minutes in one direction, then turned to the other direction. He started jogging up the hill, hoping to find some hole or failing in the fence. About half a mile below, he saw a small brook crossing beneath the fence, with a small ravine that he could probably get through.

Mathew ran down like the wind towards the brook. The water was stagnant and green with algae. He dipped himself into the shallow stream and went under the fence. He came up, but a stray piece of wire cut him slightly in the shoulder. He quickly climbed up to solid ground and checked his shoulder, there were a few drops of blood in his hand. It didn’t matter though, he got to the other side, just as he desired.

He started again with his run, now striding faster than before. His shoes made noises when he stepped, his calfs had strains of green algae and his shorts were dripping wet. His shoulder was bleeding slightly, causing him discomfort as he swayed his arms back and forth. It didn’t matter.

Matthew kept running along the English countryside, feeling the wind past his face and freedom in his heart. There would never be a wall to conquer him.