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Peacefulness - innate or acquired?

The two world wars, the genocidal wars in Rwanda and Darfur, the US Iraq war, and the even bloodier Iran Iraq war that preceded it, all these produce a horrifying image of the modern era. Yet many academics like Steven Pinker tell us that humanity are actually living in the most peaceful period in the history. Images of destructive modern warfare notwithstanding, violence has been in decline over long stretches of history. Our ancestors were in fact far more violent than we are today.

We tend to romanticize the past, fantasize that early societies as simple, just and peaceful. Yet just the opposite is true. Tribal life may sound idyllic. But avenging for aggression is often the code of justice, as such cycle of violence ensures. In more organized society, people get executed for deeds that's considered minor infraction today. Life is cheap in the old days.

This lead me to rethink peace on a personal level. The conventional thinking is that children are born friendly and peaceful, only to have learned violence from the vicious society they grow up in. Peacefulness is assumed to be the natural state of a person.

I think people have it backward, just like they have in the case of global violence. A person's true natural state is not quite peaceful but often cruel and brutal. It will be a revelation to get over the romanticized image to actually observed the confrontation among peasants or less educated people and what they do to resolve conflicts. It is actually culture and education that do the most to promotes the cooperation and resolve conflicts without resort to violence. Peaceful character to me is more acquired than innate.

I consider myself a somewhat of a pacifist. Yet I don't really held peace as a core value when I was a children. While I was not a bully, I was captivated by war stories, spent hours in shoot 'em up games, cheers when a hero slain or bloodied the villain in movies. But somewhere along the line I have made a moral decision - violence is wrong in most cases. I begin to look at the same war stories with a new perspective of those who suffered. And I feel repulsed when I saw overtly violence in media.

I was rereading the classical Chinese novel Water Margin (水滸傳), a story of medieval bandits rising up against the corrupted government officials. I was absolutely appalled by the horrific violence committed by the supposed heroes. In Chapter 31, the hero Wu Song returns to officer Zhang's home to avenge for his plot against him. First Wu Song killed the servant he encountered. Then He found and killed Zhang and his collaborators. He ran into the madam and killed her too. Then he slaughtered the maids, slaughtered more women, and even slaughtered the children. The only thing that slowed him was that his sword blade was dulled from too much killing. Merciless scenes like this can be found throughout the novel. Remarkably the same novel seems just and entertaining when I grow up. It only starts to appall me when I reread it in my 20s.

To have a better idea about the human's natural state with regard to peace has a implication for me as a parent (and for non-parents who care to nurture the future generations). Like many parents of this generation, we are not incline to use weaponry as toys and tend to restrict viewing of violent pictures. Yet some of my restrictions just seem futile. While I tried hard not to let my son has any toy gun, sometimes he will just play with a stick or some angled object as an imaginary gun. There is something in a boy's mind that prompt him to project his power over others. Eventually I become more relax on restrictions. Censoring alone does not preserve peacefulness. People are not innately friendly and peaceful as one suppose. Empathy, cooperation and reciprocity are really acquired skill from observing and practicing in the society when they grow up. My son will have a lot to learn in the years to come.

2010.11.27 [] - comments

 

The Imaginary World of Children

Like many young children, my 4 year old son is engaged in a lot of imaginary play. Lately he has been making a lot of drawing. He uses his color pens to depict his world with so much creativities. Below is one of our favorite - the helicopter friends (each of his friend becomes a helicopter in this drawing).

Helicopter friends drawing

Sometimes he makes me to do a drawing also. I can only scribble stick figures. Still it is fun and it frees my mind to the imaginary world too.

2010.11.19 [] - comments

 

Charting San Francisco Ranked Choice Voting

Last Tuesday, 5 of San Francisco city supervisor's seats are opened for election. San Francisco uses ranked choice voting. Each voter can mark multiple candidate in order of preference. In the initial round, if the top candidate did not get a majority of votes, it goes into instant run-off. The candidates with the fewest number of votes are eliminated. Its votes are transfered to the remaining candidates according to the next preference on each ballot. This process repeats until one candidate obtains a majority of votes among the remaining candidates.

This year 4 out of 5 of the district election has headed for instant run-off. The most crowded field are the 14 candidates competing for district 6 seat and the 21 candidates competing for the district 10 seat. The preliminary election result released (Nov 6) shows the epic battle of over 10 rounds of instant run-off before a candidate wins. To visualize how the process play out, I have charted the election data below.

The colored lines connects the candidates in each round. A circle marks the front-runner and a cross marks the candidates eliminated. Each time a candidate is eliminated, those votes are transfered to the remaining candidates. This "lift" up the line of the next round. In district 6 we can see that the relative position of the top 3 candidate are unchanged through out the process, with Jane Kim leading all the way. District 10 is more dramatic, with the front-runner status pass around the top 4 candidates. We see that Marlene Tran has propelled to the front-runner in round 15 after Teresa Duque was eliminated in round 14 (marked by the red cross). Interestingly no one but Tran has received much of Duque's vote. In a similar fashion, Dewitt Lacy's elimination lift up Maria Cohen. And Steve Moss' votes have passed mainly to Tony Kelly. Finally Lynette Sweet's vote goes mostly to Maria Cohen, making her the winner in under the preliminary result.

The election department is expected to release the final result in a few weeks. It will possibly change the result in a close race such as district 2. I will updated the chart once the data is available.

I have also made a first pass chart that I find not as informative.

To view the election chart it requires a web standard compliant browser with SVG support, e.g. Firefox, Chrome, Safari or Opera. IE 8 or below is not supported. Thank you.

2010.11.08 [] - comments

 

Experienced Detective

I've written a summaries on the Barbara Strauch's book on middle age brain in the last article. There is a point about matured people excel due to their experience. I haven't seen a convincing neurological basis to support this. Even the author said in the book that it is a cliché.

In the last few days I happened to embroiled in a community discussion for exposing an obscure connection between an art academy and their religious cult backers. I surprised myself to have sniffed the connection base on some faint clues. Can this be an demonstration of how 'experience' works? I try to retrace my thinking to see how the academy raised my suspicion that led to my research that confirmed their connection.

First of all some background. The institute in question is Fei Tian Academy of the Arts California. It opens in my neighborhood a few months ago. Its core activity seems to be a classical Chines dance school. In addition it offers Chinese language, cultural and academic classes.

2 years ago I ran into some promotion of a big classical Chinese dance performance in New York. I did not attended. But it has nevertheless left an impression. Later the show has came to my home town in San Francisco. When the school has opened this year, I immediately recognized it as the institution behind the dance performance. Once again I am surprised by the reach of this one art group. (Don't artists supposed to be struggling?)

It is one thing to see a one time show, it is another thing to put your children to some afterschool program that you don't know well. This prompts me to research the school and I quickly find its connection to Falun Gong. I am not a fan of the cult. Needless to say I decided I will have no involvement with the school.

What I'm really interested in this article is to reflect on how I detected this suspicion. The school facility actually looks quite attractive. They are also riding the wave of rising interest in Chinese language from main stream US students. It looks like they are well positioned to play an important role here. There does not seem to have anything inappropriate with the school. Instead there are only a number of faint clue I have sensed:

  • The performance claim to show case the essence of Chinese culture. Yet I have not seen performance of this kind, a dance extravagance that claim to present Chinese tradition, put on in China before. It gives me a familiar yet foreign feeling. (Although I admit my exposure to dance is limited.)
  • There is much higher than average amount of promotion for this performance. It was pushed as a must see show. I found the promotion borderline as hard sell.
  • There seems to be a lot of grassroot involvement in its promotion. (Those people either do it for ethnic pride, otherwise grassroot mobilization is also a hallmark of Falun Gong.)
  • I am not able to readily find the history or heritage of the Fei Tian academy. It has just parachuted in San Francisco. I expect every institute with merit to have a history or a founding story. (Actually once I dig the web, it is easy to find that they are established by Falun Gong partitioner around 2006.)
  • They appear to be very well funded, big show, state of art facility. Who fund them? (Looking back this is one of the most suspicious clue, although I have probably only consider it subconsciously.)

I feel vindicated to have identified the Falun Gong connection. I wonder if this is a case of being experienced as it is described in Barbara Strauch's book.

2010.11.03 comments

 

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