Free Speech — A View From Yale

In the last few years, there’s been an increasingly polarizing discussion around freedom of speech and values in the US — especially on college campuses. It reminded me that in contrast to the he said / she said of political debate, Yale took a much more thoughtful view on the topic starting 4 decades ago.

Yale’s President Peter Salovey referenced these two issues in his freshman addresses of 2014: On Freedom of Expression at Yale and 2015: On Calhoun College. Most people haven’t dealt into these items so I’m summarizing them here.

The Press View vs. On The Ground — Yale Students As Separated As The Press Makes Them Out To Be

Two years ago, there was a big conversation at Yale around the treatment of people of color at Yale. Eventually this made it into the national news and from the news reports, you’d think that the campus had fractured irreparably into two sides — the free speech supporters and the protesters.

When I went to campus and asked people about this, the real situation was very different. Most people said that they didn’t realize a lot of the issues that people of color were having and they wanted to learn and listen more. The news narrative was about picking sides, the reality on campus was about coming together.

Freedom of Speech and The Woodward Report

Yale has been thinking about freedom of speech for decades. The ’60s were a very hard time on the Yale campus — with important (and sometimes destructive) protests and counter protests. In order to thoughtfully determine it’s policy on speech on campus, Yale looked to C. Vann Woodward, a professor of the American South to come up with a policy on how to deal with this issue. President Salovey summarizes the report in his freshman address in 2014. The full report makes for a dry, but fascinating read on how similar issues of freedom of speech and protest were 40 years ago. The key points of the report is highlighted in the initial quotes:

And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter.

John Milton, Areopagitica, 1644

If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought – not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., U.S. v. Schwimmer, 1928

Here are some major points from the work:

  1. The purpose of a university is to create knowledge: “The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching. To fulfill this function a free interchange of ideas is necessary not only within its walls but with the world beyond as well. It follows that the university must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual freedom.”
  2. Value the pursuit of truth over consensus:  “For if a university is a place for knowledge, it is also a special kind of small society. Yet it is not primarily a fellowship, a club, a circle of friends, a replica of the civil society outside it. Without sacrificing its central purpose, it cannot make its primary and dominant value the fostering of friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility, or mutual respect. To be sure, these are important values; other institutions may properly assign them the highest, and not merely a subordinate priority; and a good university will seek and may in some significant measure attain these ends. But it will never let these values, important as they are, override its central purpose. “

Woodward also talks about doing all of this in a forum that avoids malice and gamesmanship. We all need to be searching for the truth together.

The Renaming of Monuments and Calhoun College

This one is even more interesting because we were able to watch it unfold at Yale. John Calhoun was most famous for the espousement of slavery as a positive good for black people.

To follow some of the key points, President Salovey formally started the discussion in his freshman address of 2015 titled Launching a difficult conversation where he laid out the key issues. In a surprise decision, Yale decided not to retain the name of Calhoun College because it didn’t want to whitewash history and avoid the american legacy of slavery. However, this caused quite an uproar on campus. While the notion to remember an age of slavery is important to education, having to live in a college named one of this country’s most famous racists does not drive forward the best values of the university.

So President Salovey convened a renaming committee. The committee eventually decided to rename Calhoun after creating a set of principles  on renaming. These principles point to the naming of buildings and monuments as representing the values of the university. The monuments we have represent cornerstones of our culture and become of a formal representation of “Who we are.” The key findings of the committee are:

  • There is a strong presumption against renaming a building on the basis of the values associated with its namesake. Such a renaming should be considered only in exceptional circumstances.
  • Principles to be considered:
    • Is a principal legacy of the namesake fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University?
    • Was the relevant principal legacy significantly contested in the time and place in which the namesake lived?
    • Did the University, at the time of a naming, honor a namesake for reasons that are fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University?
    • Does a building whose namesake has a principal legacy fundamentally at odds with the University’s mission, or which was named for reasons fundamentally at odds with the University’s mission, play a substantial role in forming community at the University?

Going Forward

When looking at freedom of speech there’s a lot to be learned from thoughtful deliberation that we don’t get in today’s national conversation.

Dr. Seuss Books Read by Celebrities

Audible has a large number of Dr. Seuss Books read by Celebrities. Here’s a sampling.

Green Eggs and Ham and Other Servings of Dr. Seuss which includes my favorite — One Fish Two Fish read by David Hyde Pierce

  • “Green Eggs and Ham” read by Jason Alexander
  • “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” read by David Hyde Pierce
  • “Oh the Thinks You Can Think!” read by Michael McKean
  • “I’m Not Going to Get Up Today” read by Jason Alexander
  • “Oh Say Can You Say?” read by Michael McKean
  • “Fox in Socks” read by David Hyde Pierce
  • “I Can Read With My Eyes Shut” read by Michael McKean
  • “Hop on Pop” read by David Hyde Pierce
  • “Dr. Seuss’s ABC” read by Jason Alexander

The Cat in the Hat and Other Dr. Seuss Favorites

  • The Cat in the Hat read by Kelsey Grammer
  • Horton Hears a Who read by Dustin Hoffman
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas read by Walter Matthau
  • Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? read by John Cleese
  • The Lorax read by Ted Danson
  • Yertle the Turtle, Gertrude McFuzz, and The Big Brag read by John Lithgow
  • Thidwick, the Big-Hearted Moose read by Mercedes McCambridge
  • Horton Hatches the Egg read by Billy Crystal
  • The Cat in the Hat Comes Back read by Kelsey Grammer

The Epistemology of Google

e·pis·te·mol·o·gy — the theory of knowledge, 
especially with regard to its methods,
validity, and scope
— Google Definitions

“Daddy, what is the meaning of life?” says the child.

“It’s complicated,” says the dad.

“Why don’t you ask Google?”

Laugh if you will but the question makes perfect sense to kids. Google knows everything doesn’t it? “What’s the weather?,” “How do I get to San Francisco?”, and even  “Why is the sky blue?” The big question is: “What doesn’t Google know?” Or, stated another way, “What knowledge can’t we outsource to Google?”

Knowing Facts vs. Gaining Understanding

It really comes down to two different kinds of knowledge: knowing facts and gaining understanding. The Farnam Street blog has a good description of this  and there’s a great video of Richard Feynman explaining it.  In summary:

  • Knowing Facts. You know what something is called and what it looks like. This is the type of information that Google is very good at.
  • Gaining Understanding. Taking various bits of information and really making it your own? This is the type of thing that you can’t ask Google because it’s about changing who you are (i.e., learning).

One good way to know the difference is the difficulty of what you’re reading or watching. If you can read it quickly you’re probably reading for facts. Reading for understanding requires you to sit down at the foot of the author and realize that things may not make sense in the beginning. I think of true learning as fundamentally changing myself. Kind of like in the Terminator 2 movie where the T-1000 changes his shape in the face of adversity.

Knowing Facts

So what does Google know:

  • Define a word (like epistemology)?
  • What’s happening in the news?
  • Who starred in the princess bride?
  • When is Mothers Day?
  • How many teaspoons are in a tablespoon?

Rad Bradbury had a great section on knowing facts in Fahrenheit 451. The book is a metaphor on how books can be explosive with ideas. But the government can provide so many facts that people don’t have room for ideas:

“Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely `brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.”

Filling in the Gaps

Data and facts can be useful but you need a framework to use them. William Poundstone has a great book on the topic called Head in the Clouds: Why Knowing Things Still Matters When Facts Are So Easy. Poundstone’s key point in the book is that Google can’t teach you what you need to Google. In order to do that, you need a framework of understanding.  Facts are like bricks in a wall of knowledge. There can be some gaps and the wall will maintain its structural integrity. But if we remove too many, you have bricks hanging in midair and the wall collapses.

Gaining Knowledge

Gaining knowledge is about more than gathering facts. The best guide to gaining knowledge is from How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren. The book was written in 1940 and revised in 1972 and it holds up incredibly well. The key idea is that to read a book well, you don’t just read the words or learn the key points. You need to understand the knowledge inside that book and let it change you — which takes effort. For a summary of the key points, the Farnam Street blog does a good write up. But if you really want to learn from these guys, you really have to read the book.

In short, the book says that an engaged reader needs to ask the following questions:

  1. What type of book am I reading? What do I hope to gain by reading it?
  2. What is the author’s high level points / argument?
  3. How does the author make this argument? At this point you don’t agree or disagree with the author by bringing any predefined prejudices to the argument.
  4. After reading the whole argument, going back and asking “Is it true in whole or in part?”
  5. For the pieces that you find true, “What are you going to do about it and how does it change your world view?”

In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury talks about what makes an engaged reader. These are the people the government is concerned about. As one of the rebels says, there are three things needed to engage with a book:

  1. Quality Information: “What does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more `literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail.”
  2. Leisure: “[When] you’re not driving a hundred miles an hour, at a clip where you can’t think of anything else but the danger, then you’re playing some game or sitting in some room where you can’t argue with the four wall televisor…. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be, right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest, ‘What nonsense!'”
  3. Action: “The right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the inter-action of the first two. “

If this all sounds difficult, that’s the point. You can’t expect to have other people do your thinking for you. You need to pose questions and answer them. You need to argue with the author once you’ve understood him or her.

Why is this Important?

Google in many ways is like the world’s most awesome encyclopedia or your friend with a photographic memory who watches TV all the time. He’s  a great guy to have around but not someone you should trust with important decisions. In an age when you can type a few keystrokes and feel like you’re changing the world it’s hard to put in all that effort.

But getting back to the original question, the reason that Google can’t answer “What is the meaning of life?” is that it needs to be figured out by living. It’s a question that’s only answered by learning and discussion. Basically, it requires gaining knowledge throughout your life.

The Goal by Elihu Goldratt

The book The Goal by Elihu Goldratt is one of the best business books I’ve read. I was assigned the book in business school but it holds up even better in the real world. The key idea is that in a factory, the entire production of any part is limited by the machine with the least capacity. And similarly, the entire production of the factory is limited by the capacity bottlenecks. So you can have a whole factory at work, all the machines are working as fast as they can but they’re just piling up inventory in front of that key machine that has limited capacity. In a software development shop, it’s the IT operations group might be the bottleneck like in the book The Phoenix Project. In a strategy shop it’s the amount of time people want to devote to reading and implementing these projects. When looking at any knowledge business you see lots of people doing work but most of these people are creating work that prevents the constrained resource from getting its critical work done. Once you look for the constraints, you start to see the world in a very different way.

The other thing about The Goal is the way the book is produced:

  1. Goldratt hired a co-writer Jeff Cox, a novelist, who brings out the lessons of the book in a very easy to digest format. He even ties in some personal problems and office politics to make the book more engaging.
  2. The audio version of the book is dramatized as a play. There are a host of actors playing the different parts. When Alex is on the machine floor, you can even hear the machines at work. This is certainly the best produced business audiobook I’ve ever listened to.
  3. Apparently there’s also a movie that can be used for training purposes. It’s the most expensive DVD I’ve ever seen at $895 a copy! However, for those of you who are fans of the book, you can see an excerpt of the famous Herbie scene online for free!

Amusing Ourselves to Death

One of my favorite books is Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. 30 odd years ago Postman wrote about the transition from written media to visual (or now digital) media — at the time focusing on the move to radio and television from print. It holds up surprisingly well even as the move accelerates. Postman’s son wrote a great piece about how the book holds up after 30 years in the Guardian “My dad predicted Trump in 1985 – it’s not Orwell, he warned, it’s Brave New World. The ascent of Donald Trump has proved Neil Postman’s argument in Amusing Ourselves to Death was right.” The forward of the book is one of the most interesting pieces I’ve ever read so I’m reprinting it here:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Stone Soup At Work

I was talking with one of my mentors recently about how things work at large corporations. He was telling me that when there’s a successful project at a big company there’s a lot of people looking for credit:

It’s NOT the person who had the idea who gets the credit
It’s NOT the person who executes the idea who gets the credit
It’s the person who’s best at taking credit for the idea who gets the credit

This reminded me of the old folk story of stone soup:

Some travelers come to a village, carrying nothing more than an empty cooking pot. Upon their arrival, the villagers are unwilling to share any of their food stores with the hungry travelers. Then the travelers go to a stream and fill the pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and place it over a fire. One of the villagers becomes curious and asks what they are doing. The travelers answer that they are making “stone soup”, which tastes wonderful, although it still needs a little bit of garnish to improve the flavor, which they are missing. The villager does not mind parting with a few carrots to help them out, so that gets added to the soup. Another villager walks by, inquiring about the pot, and the travelers again mention their stone soup which has not reached its full potential yet. The villager hands them a little bit of seasoning to help them out. More and more villagers walk by, each adding another ingredient. Finally, the stone (being inedible) is removed from the pot, and a delicious and nourishing pot of soup is enjoyed by all. Although the travelers have thus tricked the villagers into sharing their food with them, they have successfully transformed it into a tasty and nutritious meal which they share with the donors.

Maybe I’m being a little bit cynical here. The story of stone soup is really one about how collaboration can get people to do more than they initially thought. But it still pisses me off when the guy with the stone claims to be the genius behind the soup.

“Our Genes Ourselves” OR Are Humans Monogamous?

Having a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old, it’s easy to ask the question “Why did you do that?” If I had super brilliant kids, they might respond, “My genes made me do it.”

There are a lot of things that we think we control or decisions we think we make that are really rooted in evolution. Take for instance this quote from Stephen Pinker’s How The Mind Works which could be titled “Oh Cheesecake, Why Do I Love Thee So … Even As You Pad My Belly With Fat?”:

We enjoy strawberry cheesecake, but not because we evolved a taste for it. We evolved circuits that gave us trickles of enjoyment from the sweet taste of ripe fruit, the creamy mouth feel of fats and oils from nuts and meat, and the coolness of fresh water. Cheesecake packs a sensual wallop unlike anything in the natural world because it is a brew of megadoses of agreeable stimuli which we concocted for the express purpose of pressing our pleasure buttons.

Cheesecake itself is not good for us, but each of the elements of cheesecake would have been strongly beneficial to our ancestors. Now that we’ve settled that one, what other questions can evolution help us with? How about this one, “Are Humans Monogamous?”

Robert Sapolsky, in his Great Courses Series, Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality, uses biology to answer this question. Sapolsky divides species into 2 types: tournament species (polygamous) and pair bonded (monogamous). In a tournament species, males spread their genes by mating with any females around. Once they pass along their genes, they abandon their mate and look for someone new. Pair bonded males bond for life and are very paternal.

There are clear traits that call out how each species has evolved. In a tournament species, males are built for fighting. They are much larger than females, have huge canine teeth and much larger skulls (but not brains) than females. They often have weapons like giant antlers. Females, not looking for a fight, look very different from the males. In pair bonded species males and females look much more similar.

So what are humans? Based on the physical markers, males and females are relatively equal in appearance. Males have large canines but not huge. And men are bigger than women but not terribly so. So the biological answer is that humans aren’t polygamous or monogamous. The official classification for homo sapiens is “tragically confused.”

What is in a name?

Michael Schur, a writer on The Office and Parks and Recreation has put some very subtle jokes about names into his work on these shows. I learned about Schur from Mindy Kaling and Amy Pohler’s autobiographies.

Gwendolyn Trundlebed (The Office)

From The Believer:
I love crazy names. It comes right from Monty Python and Woody Allen—nothing in the world makes me giggle more than a funny name. It became a thing I started doing when I wrote. If a person came into a store and said, “How much is this apple?” that person would have an insane name. When I was writing on The Office, I wrote a character who literally didn’t have a line, but I made her name Gwendolyn Trundlebed. When I got to set to shoot the scene, I found out that the production team had run with it. They read her name and did their job—they imagined, What is the office of a woman whose name is Gwendolyn Trundlebed? The whole thing was pink, with unicorns everywhere. It looked like a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory set or something. I had to say, “Oh no, I’m really sorry. This is just a normal human woman, and she is named Gwendolyn Trundlebed because that’s a combination of two words that make me laugh.”

Wonderfully Named and Credited (but Not Speaking or Spoken of) Characters on Parks and Rec

From Variety: “I have this belief that most people you meet in life aren’t named Bill Smith,” Schur says. “From early on I thought, ‘Part of what’s going to make (the city of Pawnee) feel real is if people have weird names.’”

Over the years some of the silliest and strangest “Parks” names weren’t even heard on the show.

“There’s a whole family, the Lerpiss family,” Schur explains with delight. “You’ve never heard the name Lerpiss on the show, but there’s probably ten or twelve characters who have had the last name. It doesn’t play into any episode and there’s no plot that relates to it.

“If you look up Lerpiss on IMDb, we wrote character descriptions for them and how they’re related to each other. A lot of businesses in town are like the Lerpiss Moving Company or the Lerpiss Mortuary. There’s a whole other show about this very dynastic but also completely powerless family in Pawnee.”

Schur’s favorites:

  • Judy Zappossoppazzappossopaz
    Schur: “Originally it was Judy Zappos, and I was like ‘You’re gonna have to clear that.’ So I wrote Zappos backwards and it was Judy Zappossoppaz. Then I liked Zappossoppaz so much that I added that whole thing and it became Judy Zappossoppazzappossopaz.”
  • Officer Randy Killnose
  • Mona-Lisa Saperstein
  • Trodd Frankensteip
    Schur: “He comes back (in the final season).”
  • Tyrion Fonzarelli
  • Toni Toné Strunkfuster
  • Gretzky-Susan Pelligrino
    Schur: “I love hyphenates … and a lot of ‘k’ sounds.”
  • Typhoon Montalban
  • Ssassandra Ssassnorp
  • Summer Olé-Kracken Frogfrong
    Schur: “Probably my favorite. It comes right from Monty Python. We also created the opposit

Pictures at Weddings OR Experience the Moment Don’t Capture It

I just left a wedding and I saw the most amazing thing. The bride and groom made sure that people were not going to take pictures during the wedding. It’s mixing enormous amount of sense because:

  1.  They will be taking the world’s worst pictures of the bride and groom.
  2.  It’s also distracting to everyone who sits there.
  3. They aren’t really even experiencing the wedding there just spending a lot of time figuring out how to take the best picture.
  4. The bride and groom have hired a professional photographer

This also reminds me of a picture of how people change in the way that they experience life due to mobile phones. When the pope was chosen in 2005 everybody was there actively awaiting the decision. Also it must have been pretty a pretty wonderful experience. Everyone was probably talking to other and being in the moment and just having this wonderful communal excitement. In 2013 when the pope is chosen everybody had their mobile phones out my does it take a picture to post on Facebook. It feels like that moment was memorialized better but at what cost?

Nontransitive Dice

Nontransitive Dice are pretty amazing things. Basically, in these dice, when they are set up pairwise, one die will beat another 2/3 of the time. However, there’s no “best” die. Even though A beats B and B beats C, A DOES NOT BEAT C. I bought a wonderful pair of Efron’s Dice from the Museum of Math.  For the math nerd, you really have to get a set. They’re amazingly interesting and they really teach kids about probability in a wonderful way!

Without going into all the details, normally, when you play dice you assume transitivity:

  • If B beats A
  • And if C beats B
  • Then C beats A

Which sounds obvious; however, it’s not. take, for example, the game rock, paper, scissors.

Rock-Paper-Scissors from Wikipedia

In this case:

  • Rock beats scissors
  • Scissors beats paper
  • But rock DOES NOT BEAT paper.