Monday, August 30, 2010

Disaster Relief

Consider the following thought experiment, which I present as a series of questions.

1. Would you donate to help feed a starving and homeless person, who has no money to feed himself because he lost all his money gambling, or has spent all his money on drugs and similar vice?

Probably not, I might guess. On to the next question, then.

2. Would you donate to help feed a starving and homeless person, who is a victim of a natural disaster?

Most likely yes, assuming that one is not in greater need. Now, finally:

3. Would you donate to help feed a starving and homeless person, who is a victim of a natural disaster, given that it is also known that the person is the same fellow as in question 1?

There are two possible answers, and both raise interesting thoughts.

If we agree to help the person, then the strange scenario is that from the position of the drug addict/gambler, a natural disaster is more favorable than no natural disaster. The position may also be inconsistent.

Conversely, if we refuse to help the person, the scenario becomes somewhat morally distasteful. Should we then introduce background checks or means testing prior to dispensing aid? Or should we just dispatch help to areas which are more 'deserving' or 'worthy' of assistance?


Everyone talks about leadership and its importance, but this is quite clearly problematic. Not everyone can be a leader, and the use of the word "can" is meant in both senses. Some lack the ability, and furthermore the scenario where everyone is a leader and leading simultaneously is patently absurd.

Perhaps we should consider the opposite art of followership, for the very emphasis on leadership projects a skewed perception of affairs. Should all the credit and blame lie solely on the leader, the man on the top? Of course not. And then, if we acknowledge that it is the entity as a whole that is important, why then do we only teach people leadership, but not equivalently teach people to follow?

In my conception, followership may be more complex and less monolithic than leadership, for the sole reason that whereas leadership goes from one to many, followership goes from many to one, and many to many. There are a variety of roles that can be adopted as a follower in a team, each offering various possible benefits and detriments. Finding the right mix, and teaching it, is probably difficult.

Clearly, I ramble on too much about a subject about which I know nothing about. However, I do find the emphasis on leadership amusing, but then again, I suppose it's not every attractive to tell an employer that "I'm trained in followership'"!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Asking Questions

I think everyone should give some thought to the art of asking useful questions.

Perhaps the most useless form of question are one-syllable questions, like "How?", "Why?", or "What?", being quite so open-ended and ambiguous that it is entirely likely that the received reply, if any, would answer all but that which you desired to learn about. The sole exception is when your aim is not to learn something specific, but rather to gain insight from the way the question is interpreted.

It should therefore first be required that questions be more specific, or at least multi-syllabled. But even questions that appear specific can fail to be good questions. Situations can, and often, occur when the intent or context of the question is not understood. A seemingly simple question can have multiple answers, only one of which is most valid for a specific context. One might encounter such situations when a young child asks a straightforward question, for example, "Why are the police chasing that man?". One might have to estimate the level of intelligence or knowledge of the child when answering, "Because the man did bad things" may suffice for very young children, but is clearly insulting for an older child who of course knows this and merely wants to know the crime committed.

In the technical and academic arena (where I 'work') this problem is quite ever-present. Whenever a person asks a technical question, I have to determine the appropriate level of expertise of the questioner before answering. Some people desire only a general or intuitive overview, whereas others are more interested in the details. It is particularly hard to answer questions like "How do you do X?", especially if X consists of multiple parts, only one or a few of which are your major contributions. One has to quickly decide if interest is in the general entirety of X, or in the areas of new contribution.

But of course, one can always clarify the question, which also buys more time for the formulation of a response.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

On Self-Depreciating Jokes

It's somehow acceptable for a person to make fun of his own race or culture, but when an outsider makes jokes of the same thing, it's suddenly racist or offensive. We find it to be good humor when we joke about our nation, but feel defensive if a foreigner supplies the same material. That's some double standards there. Are jokes really non-transferable?

Might it be because there are two possibilities, that of a joke being in good jest, and that of it being offensive to some degree? And, since one cannot conceivably (or at least, sanely) have reason to raise a joke to offend oneself, it must therefore be interpreted that the joke was intended for the purpose of humor. A religious joke told by a man of the faith cannot possibly have a malicious intent, and hence must be meant to invoke humor; whereas the same joke by a different purveyor might have the slightest possibility of being told in ill will, and it is this slightest possibility that mars the joke.

Another explanation, perhaps simpler, is that it is acceptable to laugh at yourself, but not to be laughed at. Thus, the person who tells the joke is important, and depends on whether he is an insider or an outsider. Is it then possible to reduce this phenomena to mere in-group/out-group dynamics? It seems trite, though.