[Repost] Simulating an Epidemic

3Blue1Brown back with another awesome video!! Check it out!

“I Don’t See Color”: Racism

Personally, few things are more infuriating when you can see that there is a problem and others can also see that there is a problem but the supervisor/teacher/parent/authority figure denies it or just claim not being aware of it. Sometimes, it’s laziness. Sometimes, it’s an “ignorance is bliss” defense but it is indefensible to those who are affected.

This is essentially what color-blind racism is. It boils down the present as to be just being the present with no historical, social or political influences taken into account and looking at an individual as having full agency instead of being one part of many within our society. None of us are truly self-made beings; our values and beliefs are shaped by the society we grow up in, our attitudes and behaviors are modelled by those we deem role models, and punishments and lessons teach us what’s right and wrong. It is not until we are at a significantly ripe age mentally that we are even able to self-reflect and see the effects of our environment and the people around us on our development and what we hold dear. However, these are just values and beliefs and behaviors that everyone is subjected to within a society. Other factors like gender, race, class, sexuality, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, etc. limit us in other ways.

Our societal systems ascribe certain essential attributions to groups of people under each of those categories and these attributions may come in the form of stereotypes but also manifest within our policies, our culture, how employers hire new employees, the production and consumption of media, and similarly pervades every other facet of society. There might be some inclination of guilt if one is privileged by such a system that disadvantages everyone else but again, the individual often has little to do with the power structure already in place so rather than a passive hopelessness and paralysing guilt, there needs to be a proactive effort to seek out the ways how this privilege manifests and to challenge it wherever it is seen in your life. As he does best, here’s James Baldwin on color-blindness in 1968:

Here’s a transcript for some of what he says that are particularly relevant today:

“I don’t know what most white people in this country feel, but I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church that is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday.

That says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means I can’t afford to trust most white Christians, and I certainly cannot trust the Christian church.

I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me — that doesn’t matter — but I know I’m not in their union. I don’t know whether the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobby is keeping me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools we have to go to.

Now, this is the evidence– you want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.”

**If you haven’t read or seen any of his work, I highly suggest checking them out.**

Let’s look at a modern-day example:

The San Francisco Housing Crisis

There are several examples I would like to look at within the context of this housing crisis. First, there is the invisibility of poverty that is relegating the homeless people of San Francisco to the sidelines and the physical fringes of society because people don’t want to see them and local governments take great pains to keep them out of public spaces. Then, there are the historical processes that started with slavery and continues today with redlining, income inequality and other everyday cases of racism that further push and keep minority populations down the socioeconomic ladder.

Then, there is the circular relationship between reality, perception and discrimination. There is a racist preconception existing in the American psyche that black men (especially those of lower socioeconomic status) are violent and a danger to society and themselves, that black women are nymphos that have kids from multiple men and live off of government welfare.

The perception of black people as being the majority of the homeless and the meritocratic assumption that people are homeless because they’re lazy and/or are drug addicts leads to less effort to support the homeless community and ignores existing racist institutional practices and historical maltreatment which does nothing to alleviate the problem and so the cycle continues.

News footage shows us the homeless population in these urban centers as being predominantly black, which is not reflected in the statistics (over 30% of the homeless population in SF are black while they make up less than 10% of the city’s overall population).

The statistics above show us two things: 1) African-Americans are overrepresented in the homeless population, 2)African-Americans are overrepresented in the media.

People naturally seek out what confirms their preconceptions (confirmation bias) and the media footage proves that. That confirmation strengthens the previous biases and justifies them. Meanwhile, the underlying reasons why this huge population of people are homeless remain untouched.

Why are there so many single mothers caught in the mass evictions in San Francisco? Does it have anything to do with the over-policing of black communities that often land black men in jail? Perhaps the lack of access to adequate education and the school-to-prison pipeline that lock members of the community out of a job market that increasingly sees a college education as a minimal requirement, therefore keeping them poor and uneducated? Is it the lack of good financing options/de facto segregation that pushes minority populations out of desirable housing markets and into situations where they’re more likely to default?

It’s all three and more. What mass incarceration is doing to the men of minority communities, eviction is doing to the women. It pushes the narrative of this dysfunctional community of thugs and loose morals and a regressive lifestyle. But hearing the news stories and seeing the pictures of homeless black women with their children don’t tend to evoke these discussions about how the system has consistently treated them as second-class citizens or why so many of the minority populations have ended up concentrated on the lower rungs of the social ladder.

Color-blindness ignores all context and points at an individual’s shortcomings to blame for their situation in life. Why are there so many single black mothers? Because the men were taken away to be locked in jail. Why were the men committing crimes? Crimes rates are higher in majority-minority communities and also for lower-income communities. Is it because these communities had more criminals or were there just more policing? In these communities and for those targeted as part of the “efforts to crack down on crime”, even (jay)walking can turn into tense, potentially life-threatening encounters.

As far as it goes, fraud and embezzlement are as much stealing as larceny or burglary and the former often involves far greater amounts of money but it’s easy to see how the treatment of those convicted of them differ vastly from each other.

However, even that is questionable because we’ve seen over and over again how the criminal justice system treats those who pass through it. As far as it goes, fraud and embezzlement are as much stealing as larceny or burglary and the former often involves far greater amounts of money but it’s easy to see how the treatment of those convicted of them differ vastly from each other. The way we see those crimes as a society and how they’re portrayed in the media are certainly different because it’s not that richer people don’t commit crimes, it’s that their crimes and their actions are afforded more privacy and, with more power and better lawyers, they can more often get out of convictions (just look at what’s come into light since #MeToo).

There are so many layers to how our society and its institutions consistently favor some over others and once you start looking, it never ends. It’s hard not to get overwhelmed. For example, social mobility in the US is minimal; very few actually move up the socioeconomic ladder. For a country where social mobility (i.e. The American Dream) is lauded as one of the nation’s great virtues, its social classes are remarkably stable. That’s because social and cultural capital figure into how many and what type of resources people have access to and the ways upwards are increasingly exclusive and hostile to those trying to move up.

Intergenerational wealth is also a huge factor; there is very little an individual can amass against the power and influence of a fortune that’s been accumulating for several centuries; even more so in a country with minorities like African-Americans who literally didn’t have any money for most of American history and were kept from any significant means of supporting themselves even after “liberation”.

“…there is very little an individual can amass against the power and influence of a fortune that’s been accumulating for several centuries…”

Let’s talk about something else. Native American mascots:

I could only find partial clips on YouTube but the entire documentary is worth watching.

There is this notion that everyone is somehow “equal through consumption”. You can see it in how minority cultures are seen as things to be appropriated and gentrified. For example, black culture has long been commercialised to great success by celebrities and artists to be “edgy” and “counterculture” but the people that the cultural symbols came from whether it be the way they speak, the clothes they wear or the music they create, the original creators and holders of this culture are ridiculed and seen as uneducated, “ghetto” and a multitude of other stereotypes and slurs.

It is the same way with Native American mascots. We say, “What? It’s just a mascot. It’s not hurting anyone.” But it is. By commercialising and making a cultural symbol a commodity, a spectacle, it is the erasure of the original purpose and meaning of this symbol. It is the usurpation of what a community holds dear and is part of their identity. But it is not all abstract either. The reactions to abolishing Native American mascots are very real. Activists get attacked, spit on and receive death threats. If it is only a symbol, only for fun, as they say, then why such a hostile reaction to doing away with it?

It’s the sense of entitlement and the interruption of the comfort people had twisting another people’s sacred symbols for their own entertainment. This interruption of their comfort zone, this accusation of racist intent, of insensitivity. How dare they make me uncomfortable in a place I should belong?

Of course, this sort of casual comfort with disregarding the sanctity of others’ culture doesn’t limit itself to thoughts and “harmless” fun for sports games. Something else that Charlene Teters (the Native American woman speaking in the documentary) mentions later on is that the vestiges of Native American culture are doubly precious because its preservation has been fought for through bloodshed and struggle. To diminish that culture is to mock those ancestors who died being ripped from their homes, those that died fighting to protect their people and their lands, those initial Native Americans struck down by foreign disease and the Native children that were “re-educated” through Indian boarding schools.

That is what people don’t think about when talking about political correctness. That is what people don’t think about when they see paraphernalia for sports teams with Native mascots in gift shops. It should be. It’s not some abstract concept about what is an “appropriate” opinion in polite society. It affects real people. Looking at it from a colorblind stance where you only see the mascot as a harmless bit of fun during football halftimes is willful ignorance of a people’s heritage and history. A true understanding of the situation requires knowledge of history and an awareness of others and their perspectives.

“…politics is what gets to decide if you are counted as a person. It decides your rights and your access to resources and public facilities…. whether the law will protect you or hang you out to dry.”

Then, there are those like the Yale professor in the James Baldwin video above that was about to say “Not all white people are racist!” and more or less did complain about Baldwin “pulling the race card”. You might complain, “why does everything need to be political?” But you have to remember that politics is what gets to decide if you are counted as a person in this country. It decides your rights and your access to resources and public facilities. It decides whether the law will protect you or hang you out to dry.

Things like the Census are integral to this. For example, the first Census had three categories: free whites, all other free persons, slaves. Since it is a Census year in 2020, this is a reminder to take the Census seriously because it not only determines the distribution of representatives, it also determines the resources allocated to a population and if minorities are undercounted, as they likely will be, then the government funds set aside for our development won’t reach the communities that need it.

Only those who can live comfortably knowing that their government and elected officials will represent them and have their best interests at heart can afford to hold the worldview that the personal, the moral and the political can be separated. For the rest of us, colorblindness makes us invisible and that is deeply problematic where the visibility of a population dictates how kindly we are treated.

More Reading Material

Police Bait Truck: Entrapment?

Bubble Tea and How it Figures into East Asian-American Identity

Race, Class, and the Framing of Drug Epidemics

**Featured Image is of the payroll of African-Americans, both enslaved and free, that built the Capital.**

[Repost] Race, Class, and the Framing of Drug Epidemics

Highlights:

A cursory reading of national media seems to confirm this long-standing narrative of White, middle-class drug users as victims, not criminals. For example, the New York Times’ coverage of suburban drug users has invited sympathy and identification with the people in the stories, encouraging the reader to see themselves, their child, or someone they know in the stories of good people raised in loving families who became opiate addicts almost by accident. The accompanying pictures to these articles show white people hugging as they leave drug treatment and well-dressed parents looking at pictures of the son or daughter they’ve lost to heroin. Photos of attractive and smiling teenagers—someone’s children—remind us of the promise and potential extinguished by an overdose. And yet, the Times is also savvy enough to contextualize this new drug panic when they write, “In Heroin Crisis, White Families Seek Gentler War on Drugs” (Oct. 30, 2015). They subtly remind the reader that non-White addicts get punishment and harshness when they refer to the White opiate crisis as a “new era” characterized by “striking shifts… some local police departments have stopped punishing many heroin users.” It is only because the users are White that a redemptive narrative of families and police coming together to stop opiate use can gain traction in print and in legislative bodies.

“Heroin or nothing,” as Steven, a man I met at the syringe exchange, put it. Those were his options. He’d broken his back several years before, and opiates helped with the lasting pain as he continued in manual labor, working odd jobs and moving furniture. But treating the physical pain now meant dealing with the “pain in the ass” of the system, of the methadone treatment providers and probation officers. Steven was among the many people I encountered who had initially started using legally obtained opiates to treat pain from work-related injuries, only to find their access limited by increasingly stringent state prescribing regulations. People like Steven turned to heroin not because they preferred it, but because they could no longer get prescription painkillers.

Conversations with addiction medicine providers echo the judgment about which some of the drug users I’ve spoken with complain. In the New York Times’ coverage of the suburban opiate panic, doctors identify with their patients, perhaps even knowing them socially. This is not the case in Vermont, where the class divide between doctors and patients is wide. Even the most sympathetic physicians I spoke with endorsed monitoring and coerced treatment. One said that there was “no high-level thinking in Vermont” and “no one understands the medical piece.” When I asked about the best way to treat addiction, this doctor told me it was suboxone (buprenorphine) combined with “tight control… put an ankle bracelet on them and tightly monitor them… If you mess up, you go to jail. Folks do best when there are consequences.” Other medical providers were frustrated with their patients, viewing their poverty-related struggles such as lack of transportation or difficulty finding employment as “excuses” for not succeeding in recovery. Their patients’ continued smoking and poor eating habits are also a regular source of frustration. One doctor who called addiction a “disease” insists that the criminal justice oversight of a sick person is not a contradiction, but a mechanism to ensure sorely needed “accountability.”

Read more: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1536504217742391

[Repost] Racism in the Bedroom

“These people are so repressed,” Sarah laughs. “You just have to talk to them sometimes, and they’re shaking. I know as a black woman I am always going to be fetishised to an extent – and the darker you are, the more you are. “They think we are naturally very sensual, all of us are Rihanna.” She laughs at the absurdity. “They are very threatened but secretly, they want to be with us, they want to be like us, they want to taste us and touch us. If they could, they would have one of us in their houses in a room, just kept there, for when needed. That’s exactly what they did not that long ago! And they’d love it again.”

It’s strange to hear an educated British person speaking in such crude racial stereotypes, “us” as these forbidden black fruits that “they” are salivating over. But then sex and relationships are one of the last remaining bastions of unreconstructed racial prejudice.

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/jan/13/black-woman-always-fetishised-racism-in-bedroom

Philosophy Essay: Against Representation

**This was for my ARTI/PHIL/PSYC 3550 class as my final essay and in summary, this essay argues against the classical models of cognitive science where representation is seen as essential to artificial intelligence. Final grade was a B+, so there are points where there might be thin spots, but overall, if y’all have any thoughts or points of disagreements, leave’em in the comments below. :)**

Introduction

Throughout much of our study and development of human cognition and its replication in the various forms of artificial intelligence, there has been an underlying assumption from which we have based our work on– that to replicate intelligent thought and intelligent behavior requires extensive representation. However, representation isn’t only unnecessary but that it would actually be detrimental to our efforts to create true artificial intelligence and our understanding of our own cognition if we keep the level of representation that we currently implement in our machines.

Embodied Cognition

“A machine can exist in an abstract plane where it can crunch numbers detached from the physical world. We, on the other hand, are enmeshed in it.”

A key difference between us and the machines we create is in our embodiment. A machine can exist in an abstract plane where it can crunch numbers detached from the physical world. We, on the other hand, are enmeshed in it. Our bodies constantly feed us information about the environment and we have no way of disconnecting from it. Our cognition is fundamentally embodied and our bodies affect the way we think and vice versa. 

This can be shown in our use of language. Language is a cognitive tool that both permits the expression of and the limitations of our cognition and how we use it tells us a lot about how we think. Since so much of our cognition is expressed and shaped within the constraints of our language, Language shows us just how much of our cognition is rooted in our bodies. For example, warmth is associated with affection (“warming up to someone”), weightiness is associated with value and importance, and exposure to immoral or unethical instances causes a feeling of uncleanliness [1]. In these cases, it shows that there is a reciprocal relationship between our cognition and our physiological form. 

This strong connection between body and mind means we often never have to completely hold our thought processes in our brains. For example, if we are working out a math problem, we can write it down and refer back to earlier steps to help complete later steps. This way, we only have to store the current step of the process in our brain, make the immediately relevant calculation and then the information can be stored and kept track of on an external medium. Since our brains are limited in its energy stores, it saves a lot of energy by processing information in small chunks and to externalise it like this. Rather than wasting time and energy replicating a model of the problem space internally to manipulate, we can just reference reality to inform us on what to do next. This ties back to cognitive technology [2] where external mediums can be used to bolster our cognitive processes and therefore, become an extension of our cognition. It makes sense, then, that since we can save energy, increase our cognitive abilities and make use of a body we were born with, a lower level of representation and a more embodied cognitive process will allow us to make better use of the body we possess and our energy resources and therefore, is a much more efficient way than the fully representational classical models. We will see how this need for efficiency means that, in our brains, just the minimal level of representation is used to allow us to “scrape by”.

Efficiency Argument

The human brain and its mysterious inner workings that we try to replicate in artificial intelligence have been shown to use far less representation than we thought. We can see this in all the ways that the brain fails to notice what should have been significant details like in the famous Gorilla Experiment [3] where participants, upon being asked to watch a clip of a basketball game, fail to spot when a person in a gorilla suit walks through the middle of the game. If the brain used the same level of representation as our machines, then all the participants should have made a complete internal model of the basketball game and noticed the gorilla. Instead, it seems that the brain is selective in its attention and by doing so, restricts the amount of information it needs to process at one time and is, therefore, more efficient.

” Rather, it seems that, for the most part, our brains can get by with as little representation as possible to be functional and be generally correct when it comes to problem-solving.”

Besides incomplete representation, the brain is also prone to a phenomenon called gist memory[4] where our memory can be, at times, approximative and at worst, unreliable. In a task where participants are asked to remember words with similar associations like “ice”, “snow”, and “winter” from a list, participants often say they remember a word, like “cold”, that wasn’t present on the list but also shared those associations. Other shortcomings like the notoriously unreliable eyewitness testimony have further exposed just how little our brain represents from the world. Rather, it seems that, for the most part, our brains can get by with as little representation as possible to be functional and be generally correct when it comes to problem-solving.

Evolution Argument

However, we are not the only ones capable of exhibiting intelligent behavior. In fact, much of intelligent behavior doesn’t need a brain but rather an interlocking system of simple operations that, when viewed gestalt, suggest intelligence. Roboticist Rodney Brooks coined the term “subsumption architecture”[5] to describe such a structure. We need to look no further than our own bodies for an example. Our immune system possesses remarkable adaptability and complexity[6] that, if we didn’t know any better, we might have thought that the individual cells within our body possess their own intelligence. From the outside, the operations of the cells that make up our immune system seem to be a conscious, coordinated effort but each cell is actually just responding to certain stimuli released by other cells like proteins or hormones. 

This sort of organisation can be seen in organisms like ants where they use very simple chemical markers that elicit simple behaviors that, when repeated within a colony of thousands or millions of members, can forage for food, wage war, maintain fungus farms and aphid herds, and build floating rafts to survive floods. Brooks himself built creatures based on crickets that showed how intelligent behavior like finding mates which require pathfinding and spatial reasoning can actually be the result of very simple physiochemical reactions within the body[5].

Therefore, not only is representation not needed at all for certain intelligent behaviors but even for the human brain, representation is only very minimally used. However, there is more to our intelligence than merely problem-solving and so far, it doesn’t seem like they’ve been accounted for. 

Rebuttals

Imagination, for one, hasn’t been accounted for. Imagination, according to Merriam-Webster, is “the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality”. This means that, necessarily, to be able to imagine means that the things we imagine must not already exist and therefore unable to be represented. It can be argued that our imagination is actually just a composite of previous experiences (representations) put together in novel ways to make something technically “new”. However, it must be considered that just because representations of something exists doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily real. For example, illusions and hallucinations causes a person to represent something that isn’t actually there. I am of the thought that the false representation of a non-actual object cannot be truly considered to be represented the same way we represent what’s real[see 7]. In the same vein, although I cannot yet explain the presence of these false representations, I argue that imagination, due to its focus on the non-actual, does not in fact rely on representations or at least, the type of representation as we currently understand it to be.

“We don’t know why it is so, it just feels right.”

Second, our memory, it might seem, also depends on representations. After all, memory is formed through the encoding of past experiences. However, I argue for limited representation, not the total elimination of representation. It is true that a certain type of memory (fact-based, non-phenomenal memory) may be represented but it still doesn’t account for other types. Muscle memory, for example, is formed through repetition of a movement and once formed, is accessed without conscious effort. This is different from the explicit content that makes up represented memories. Similarly, ability-based memory also seems to lack representation. For example, when teaching another to drive, it is hard to articulate the feeling of the car, how to know how far to turn or how far the hood extends past the steering wheel. Perhaps a better example can be found in our use of language. We can usually go about our day and communicate with no problem but once we are forced to slow down and explain the finer details of grammar or convention, we are often stumped. We don’t know why it is so, it just feels right. Efficiency once again plays a role here. By cutting out the thinking part of certain operations like driving a car or figuring out grammar before speaking, the brain doesn’t need to waste resources “reinventing the wheel” and rather, just knows that certain stimuli should entail certain reactions. You don’t need to think, “the light is green and green means go” before pressing the gas pedal. You do it automatically. This way, the process cuts out thinking and representing entirely and can go straight from sensing to reacting.

It was given for a long time that the representational theory of mind would be the basis on which we can produce higher cognition in our own creations but now we know better than to let that be the end-all-be-all. With a better understanding of the reciprocal relationship between our bodies and our cognition, studies that reveal just how little our own brains rely on complete representation, and the fact that not everything that looks intelligent is intelligent, it seems that representation is actually a rather inefficient and insufficient explanation for all the miracles we are capable of.

References

[1] McNerney, Samuel. “A Brief Guide to Embodied Cognition: Why You Are Not Your Brain.” Scientific American Blog Network, Scientific American, 4 Nov. 2011, blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/a-brief-guide-to-embodied-cognition-why-you-are-not-your-brain/.

[2] “Chapter 9: Extended Minds?” Mindware: an Introduction to the Philosophy of Cognitive Science, by Andy Clark, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 192–211.

[3] Simons, Daniel, director. Selective Attention Test. YouTube, YouTube, 10 Mar. 2010, www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo.

[4 ]Makin, Simon. “What Happens in the Brain When We Misremember.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 9 Sept. 2016, www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-happens-in-the-brain-when-we-misremember/

[5] Brooks, Rodney A. “Intelligence Without Reason.” The Artificial Life Route to Artificial Intelligence, 2018, pp. 25–81., doi:10.4324/9781351001885-2. 

[6]Chaplin, David D. “Overview of the Immune Response.” The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Feb. 2010, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2923430/

[7] Loar, Brian. “Transparent Experience and the Availability of Qualia.” Consciousness and Meaning, 2017, pp. 273–290., doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199673353.003.0016.

[Repost] The Green New Deal, Explained

December 2019 Quote of the Month

A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” -James Madison

[Repost] Bad typography has ruined more than just the Oscars

[Repost] How to Test Your Emotional Maturity

When the world hurts us, we mustn’t first think of how to hurt it back.

[Art] Trust

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