Saturday, July 25, 2009

Questions for the Hive Mind

I have been preparing for the GRE the past few days. The new analytical writing section does present problems for evaluation: how does one know one is doing an ok job? It just struck me today that perhaps I could use the hive mind to see how I am doing. So I'm going to paste below the two essays I wrote today. Could you, gentle readers, give me feedback about my language? Examples: too long! Cut out the dross! Make your sentences shorter and less pompous! Cut to the chase! Etc. Feedback on my writing style would be much appreciated (feedback on the content would be great too).


Issues topic. 45 minutes. Both the development of technological tools and the uses to which humanity has put them have created modern civilizations in which loneliness is ever increasing.


In this essay, I am going to offer a historical narrative to back up the claim that our modern technological innovations, along with the way of life they helped usher (or in other words, the way we used them), have made us lonelier than we were before. To do this, I will sketch briefly how life was before, and immediately after, the Industrial Revolution. I will then sketch how modern life is today and bring out the trade-offs that this change in the way we live has entailed.

Two hundred years ago, before the Industrial Revolution began in Europe, most of the world’s population lived in villages, in what can be described as closely-knit communities. The number of occupations were limited: one could be a farmer or an artisian of some sort (like a carpenter, or a blacksmith) or a trader who sold certain goods. Families were bigger and extended families lived closer together. Occupations were, more often than not, heriditary. A carpenter's son was most likely to first be an apprentice to his father, and then become a carpenter himself, staying on in the same village and becoming a part of the same community where he grew up. (He could not, for instance, opt to become a blacksmith.) Women probably helped in the occupations as well but officially did not work at all. They also performed all the housework, which was much more back-breaking then and presumably got married into one or the other of the local families in the community. There were hardly any new arrivals in the community which meant that a community tended to be static: as older people died, their descendents succeeded them.

Most importantly, there was no difference between one's work life and one's personal life, as there is in the modern world. One's "colleagues" at work were also one's family and friends. The customers were also people one knew, perhaps even by name. There was, in other words, an overlap into what today one could call the private sphere and the work sphere. Transactions were social rather than market-based. Life was less impersonal than it is now. This society had a lot less freedom when it came to choosing occupations or in doing something different from one's family - and yet, there was also a concrete sense of belonging, of being rooted in the present and in tradition. One knew exactly what one's place in the community was. There was less loneliness.

The Industrial Revolution changed all that. The establishment of factories meant that rural populations moved away from rural areas into the now-burgeoning urban areas. They did this because this offered them a way of avoiding the poverty and the number of limited jobs in rural areas. To be sure, the conditions in rural areas were not the best: overcrowding, bad sanitation, and pollution was rampant, the conditions in factories were horrible and often dangerous -- yet it was a marginal improvement.

Yet the new arrivals in the cities found themselves ungrounded -- they lived in impersonal communities where they did not know many people. There was hardly any family around. When they bought things, it was often from people they did not know. They changed jobs often and so their work "colleagues" changed often too. All of this contributed to a sense of dislocation -- a sense that one did not know what one was doing, what one's place in this world was, or in other words, loneliness.

Things are not so much different today. In the West, conditions in factories are now much better and the number of white collar or "services" jobs have increased. Pollution has gone down. Yet the conditions that the Industrial Revolution gave birth to have only intensified. We maintain a strict separation between our work life and our personal life. Our transactions are impersonal, market-based. We buy our daily groceries at an impersonal supermarket rather than from soemone we're friends with. We rarely talk to our neighbors, many times because we spend most of our time working and the rest, catching up with our family. The size of the family has decreased; the connection to one's extended family -- cousins, aunts, uncles -- have decreased too. We may be more free today in terms of the occupations we choose, or the rights we enjoy - but we lack the grounding that our ancestors enjoyed, their sense of rootedness and place.

To conclude, all major social changes involve trade-offs. The technological innovations of the past two hundred-odd years have improved our lives substantially. In the West, at least, the number of people who live in back-breaking poverty are few. New technologies have made us efficient at work and made many new things possible: air travel, space travel, satellites, television, the internet. They've also increased an individual's freedom and today an individual is free to choose his occupation, his mate, his faith or his place of residence. But in doing all this, they've cut us off from the rootedness and the sense of place that our ancestors had. We're more lonely today, we search more for our place in this world. Most of us would also argue though that this is only a fair trade-off.

Analysis of argument essay (30 minutes). Six months ago the region of Forestville increased the speed limit for vehicles traveling on the region's highways by ten miles per hour. Since that change took effect, the number of automobile accidents in that region has increased by 15 percent. But the speed limit in Elmsford, a region neighboring Forestville, remained unchanged, and automobile accidents declined slightly during the same six-month period. Therefore, if the citizens of Forestville want to reduce the number of automobile accidents on the region's highways, they should campaign to reduce Forestville's speed limit to what it was before the increase.


In the passage, the author makes the argument that the increased rate of accidents in Forestville is caused by the increase in speed limit that the town enacted six months ago. The claim is closely argued but could be considerably strengthened if the author provided more data. In the essay that follows, I will outline some of the deficiencies in the argument and also what the author could do to fix them.

First, let us consider the merits of the argument. The author compares the accident rate of Forestville to that of the neighboring town of Elmsford and finds that the rate in Elmsford decreased slightly over the same time period that the rate in Forrestville increased by 15%. This is a good point. Forestville and Elmsford are reasonably close which means that their traffic is roughly similar (the same cars pass through both towns) and they presumably have many similarities in terms of climate and road conditions. It is certainly possible that the accident rate in Forrestville increased while that in Elmsford fell because the speed limits in Forrestville were raised six months ago.

That said, this is hardly a water-tight argument. First the six month window is too small to reach any definitive conclusions. It is possible that this jump in the accident rate is just statistical noise and that the accident rate will fall back to where it was before and stay there. Or it is possible that that the with the speed limit raised, drivers had a problem adjusting to the limit. Once they are used to it, the accident rate could fall to the same level as before the speed limit was raised.

Secondly, the author seems to have ignored other factors that could have been responsible for the increase in the accident rate in Forestville. For instance, is it not possible that certain roads passing through Forestville were closed in those six months, leading to increased traffic on certain other roads and hence an increased accident rate? Or could it be that the snowstorms that occured in the last 6 months could be the cause of the the increased accident rate? Could it be that the roads passing through Forestville are more winding and curved (reflecting perhaps that it is situated at a higher altitude) that is responsible for the accidents? To some extent, the fact that Elmsford did not experience an increase in its accident rate mitigates these points. But a more thorough investigation is needed on this score to eliminate other factors that could have been responsible for the increase.

To summarize, the author's argument definitely has a certain plausibility. But he needs to eliminate other possibilities and provide more data before a categorical case can be made that Forestville's rising accident rate is caused by its recently-increased speed limits.

Friday, July 17, 2009


This line from Christopher Durang (via David Edelstein) is probably the finest, most concise dissection of Equus:
“You’re afraid of feeling, of emotion. That’s wrong, Prudence, because then you have no passion. Did you see Equus? The Doctor felt it was better to blind eight horses in a stable with a metal spike than to have no passion. In my life I’m not going to be afraid to blind the horses, Prudence.”
Ha. Now, unlike the plodding movie starring Richard Burton, I should mention that reading Equus was a thrilling experience although I missed watching the one that played in New York recently (and yes, starred Harry Potter).

Thursday, July 09, 2009

A. O. Scott on Bruno

I've always thought that the Sacha Baron-Cohen brand of humor, in which we get to both, laugh at his antics (which we know, are exaggerated) and at the people who get taken in by them (to whom, of course, we also feel superior to) was not as funny as people seemed to think it was*. But read A. O. Scott on Bruno since he expresses these thoughts so much more elegantly.

* And no, I never did get to see Borat, but don't really think I missed much by seeing it.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

inamorata, anyone?

A. O. Scott shows off his vocabulary today. Inamorata, anyone?
As in the previous installment (also directed by Carlos Saldanha), one element of “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” manages to be authentically charming, and also to make moderately ingenious use of the 3-D techniques that otherwise just add to the jostle and noise. I’m referring, of course, to the dialogue-free sequences, unrelated to the main plot, that involve a plucky proto-squirrel known as Scrat and his quixotic pursuit of an acorn. This time Scrat is distracted by love, and he and his inamorata, who is also his rival for possession of that acorn, breath whimsical, inventive life into the movie.