Conservation is Conservative

When I went to MIT, I did not set out to be a confrontational conservative; I wanted to study the politics of the environment because I thought it was important and something about which most reasonable people could agree. However, I quickly came into conflict with a democratic socialist, Prof. Kilo, but the reasons why are instructive. The initial conflict occurred when I read his book on democracy, which turned out to be primarily about camouflaged socialism. His argument was instead of experts making economic decisions, people would vote on them. This didn’t make sense to me because Hayek argued that socialist central decision-making committees, councils, or soviets, would have sufficient information to make accurate or beneficial economic decisions. If people voted on all major decisions, then from where would people get their information? In the 21st century, that would be from the media, but the California initiative process shows what a mess that would be with people making important decision based on little or inaccurate information. But perhaps this is what Kilo wanted, with political power centralized in the hands of the media? After all, the media have been key drivers of communism and socialism over the years.

My argument was partly driven by an understanding of computational theory supported by practical experience, always a dangerous combination when tangling with a theoretical Marxist. Computational theory, as developed by Alan Turing, provided a way to address great big heaping piles of logic in the form of Turing machines. Policy and complexity both have this same, great big heaping piles of logic quality to them. Political theorists often want to discuss individual if-then-else statements, or game theory, which “boils down” and abstracts reality so that closed-form solutions can be achieved. As an engineer, I greatly appreciate this Cartesian activity, but it’s not reality. Turing made the point that even with a well-understood and specified computer program, you can’t predict ahead of time if it will stop or halt. So how can, with complex policy questions, politicians and  political scientists make these outrageous pronouncements and have any expectation that they will, in fact, come true? Perhaps such policy prescriptions are not intended to be true and help the public in the long-term but help the politicians themselves in the short-term? And if this is the case, what kind of punishment will they experience due to their failure?

When I was programming, my code-base quickly got to the level where, even though I wrote the code, I could not predict what would happen. Here I was, the world’s expert on this code, by definition because I wrote it, but I could not predict what would happen. And this code is far simpler than the complex social systems politicians, policy makers, and political scientists so confidently manipulate. Because I could not predict what would happen when I changed my code, I modified my behavior to checkpoint my code, make small changes, and then back out those changes if they did not work out. This is what a prudent engineer does because it helps to preserve the value of or “conserve” the code. Recognizing the value of a resource and seeking to retain and maintain it is, by definition, conservative.

Political entrepreneurs do the exact opposite. They propose wild, outlandish, and implausible policies that may sound good on the media or in a graduate seminar, but are almost guaranteed to fail in the real world. That is, such proposal are “radical”, which is defined as:

avery different from the usual or traditional : EXTREME

bfavoring extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions

cassociated with political views, practices, and policies of extreme change

dadvocating extreme measures to retain or restore a political state of affairs

When I pulled this definition, its source gave an example of, “the radical right.” Love it! I argue that making extreme, radical policy changes and then moving on to make even more radical changes without ever stopping to review the efficacy or consequences of those changes is almost entirely an activity undertaken by the left. The result of this activity is using up and depleting resources or stores of value. It may make the proponent of the policy wealthy, but it is not good policy.

The book, Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China (2001) by Judith Shapiro makes exactly this argument. That is, the Chinese communist revolution resulted in horrendous environmental degradation because it was an exercise in maximizing political power and exploiting value, what environmental political economist (and Nobel Prize Winner) Elinor Ostrom calls Common Pool Resources (CPRs). The Chinese communist revolution was an exercise in making large, radical changes quickly and was most certainly not interested in understanding natural or social systems first before acting, which is at the heart of conservatism. Such understanding is also at the heart of science, which is why I argue that Marxists are most interested in scientism — leveraging the lexicon and status of science to increase their status and influence others — rather than true science.

Explaining this, I realize how naive I was. I thought that Kilo must have thought these issues through, that I must be wrong, and that my raising these issues would lead to a conversation, and that Kilo would teach and I would learn. After all, because this argument applied computational theory to political systems, it seemed a very MIT document. That is not  what happened. Instead Kilo exploded! He started yelling, asked me how I could do such a thing, and that I deserved to receive an F on this work, but he would be magnanimous and give me an incomplete. I didn’t know what to say because this response was so completely unexpected, so I went away. I thought about it, went through the logic, formed my arguments, and went back to Kilo’s office thinking that this was just a simple misunderstanding. That turned out not to be the case. As soon as I tried explaining, Kilo interrupted and shouted me down, “You’re paper means nothing! NOTHING!” I stopped talking because I realized that I had treaded on some dangerous ground, but I realized something else also. If my paper meant nothing, then why was Kilo so upset?

 

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Oscar and Complexity

Professor Oscar was old-school, which is to say honest, intelligent, and not at all Marxist. Oscar was a rare guy in the political science department, what we called Course 17, because he was an MIT undergraduate, who are the real stars because they’re doing such amazing work at such a young age.

Nevertheless, when I met Oscar, he was quite far along in his career, and though I took a class from him — international relations — it was his complexity syllabus for which I remember him. I really wanted to take that class from him, and to be honest I don’t really remember why, but I felt intuitively that what he was trying to say was important. Part of that may be driven by mathematical intuition — there was just something there that I didn’t yet understand.

I took the syllabus with me to Kansas Polytechnic in Manhattan after getting thrown out of MIT by the Marxist Prof. Kilo. It was surreal being on campus because it was such a long way from the east coast, but I was confident in my capabilities and research program. Moreover, I chose Kansas Poly because it had a burgeoning computational social science program and a Straussian political philosopher. The first semester I was just trying to keep my head down. I was taking philosophy of social science from Prof. Waterman, and he asked me to stay after class. Things went well — which I believe I’ve already talked about — and the conversation led to a 3-course independent study of cognitive science, chaos theory, and Oscar’s complex social systems syllabus as a capstone.

After reflection, I increasingly understand complexity in relation to Marxism. They are completely opposite in so many ways. Tocqueville famously compared and contrasted Russia and America saying:

The American struggles against the natural obstacles which oppose him; the adversaries of the Russian are men; the former combats the wilderness and savage life; the latter, civilization with all its weapons and its arts: the conquests of the one are therefore gained by the ploughshare; those of the other by the sword. The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends, and gives free
scope to the unguided exertions and common-sense of the citizens; the Russian centres all the authority of society in a single arm: the principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter servitude. Their starting-point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems to be marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.

The key tension here is that between nature and men. Working effectively in nature requires understanding the causal relationships of nature, which as best discovered through science. Working effectively among men requires understanding something other than nature that requires something other than science — perhaps the science of persuasion.

Marx was greatly by the science of LaPlace, specifically its status, predictability, and atheism because his work seemed to provide a way to help Marx gain what he really wanted, political power. However, there are significant problems associated with applying the scientific method to social systems because of the complexity and temporal scale. The types of experiments and successes for which science is most successful concern engineering and physics, but those experiments feature a limited number of carefully limited and specified interactions over a limited time so multiple experiments can be performed to determined repeatability. Two aspects make applying science in the social realm difficult: the complexity of social system and their extended temporal scale, on the order of decades, which makes repeatable experiments difficult. Consequently, history has shown that the Marxist pretenses of science amounts to little more than scientism, an exaggerated trust placed in the ways of science that is misapplied to areas in which it is not as effective. I have a problem with Marxism at MIT because of its history of failure, but perhaps it is this commitment to science, however facile, that makes some think that Marxism has a place at MIT. I however argue that the key goal of Marxism is not the way of science, which is honest and disciplined, but the way of political persuasion bordering on deception, which is not.

LaPlace was famously an atheist, a stance that was attractive to and adopted by Marx. The reasons for this are complex, but let us attempt to understand this in the arc of history. There was a religious period that gave way to the enlightenment, which also goes by the name modernity. At Kansas Poly, for comprehensive exams, I wrote an essay on Machiavelli who cast aside religiosity, which was ineffective in politics, for a less traditional set of behaviors, which had been shown to be more effective. This verge from religion to science it taken as an unquestioned truth in our modern society. However, I argue that there is a second verge between science and complexity for the aforementioned reasons — science is great for simple and temporally constrained physical systems but is less so for complex and temporally unconstrained social systems.

For these complex social systems, the received religious wisdom has proven superior to the so-called scientific insights of socialism that have proven so problematic in the Soviet Union many other places, most recently and notably in Venezuela. There are a host of analysis and explanations why this is the case, most notably by Hayek and Simon, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974 and 1978 respectively. Hayek wrote the famous polemic, The Road to Serfdom (1944), but here I want to emphasize his, “The Theory of Complex Phenomena: A Precocious Play on the Epistemology of Complexity” (1967), which makes the case that scholars and intellectuals have been thinking about complexity for quite a while. Simon’s theory of bounded rationality makes the case that people’s cognitive capability is small compared to the complexity of the world around us. Bounded rationality holds that people tend to make decision based on a few and certain number of factors and, when stressed, those factors become even fewer and more certain. This key consequence of bounded rationality is that the complexity of social systems makes the prediction and power envisioned by LaPlace and Marx impossible. Needless to say, Marxists have not responded well to having their intellectual ambitious blunted.

21st-century trade complexity

Most Americans assume that the US is still a country, and in some ways it is, but in some ways it isn’t. That is, there are myriad trade ties that reduce the sovereignty of the US. There are reasons for this, such as Riccardo’s theory that argues trade increases the wealth of everybody. This theory is true so far as it goes, but it is a very simplified view of reality, a model. It doesn’t account for the complex details of the modern trading system, details that can overwhelm the theory’s intended outcomes.

Traditional economics is focused on these simple theories and models for which closed-form solutions exist. International political economy, the way I understand it, confronts complexity head on with modern computation. There are multiple interrelated factors revealed by such a perspective, the first of which is recognizing who the players. The game of trade is played less by countries properly understood than trading blocs, and depending on how you count, there are five: 1) NAFTA led by the US, 2) EU led by Germany, 3) Middle east led by Saudi Arabia, 4) Far east led by China, and 5) Russia.

Moreover, the goal of the trading system is not to increase the wealth of the national populations, which is nationalism; more predictably and demonstrably, the trading system exists to increase the wealth of the insiders, a combination of globalism and socialism. To understand this, go back to the end of WWI. Germany had to pay reparations for the war, but how to get money into their hands that could be repaid? Recall that the magazine Foreign Affairs is published by the Council on Foreign Relations, which was founded by David Rockefeller right after WWI. He realized that arguing for free trade himself would be ineffective, so he funded think tanks, universities, and scholars to make the case for free trade, effectively founding the field of international relations (IR). They don’t tell you this when signing up for an IR PhD program. Note also that the birth of IR was problematic with the League of Nations, the Depression, and WWII. However the 20 years crisis between WWI and WWII allowed economics and IR scholars to get the policy correct and found Bretton Woods, the World Bank, and US in short order after the war. These institutions served the world well in the 20th century, but are becoming more problematic in the 21st.

Course 17: Oscar

Professor Oscar was, what I like to call anyways, a true MIT person. He had been a mathematics major, Course 18, as an undergraduate. It was a little-known secret among the more honest graduate students that the undergraduates at MIT were the real stars because they were doing graduate-level work as undergrads. Oscar got his PhD at an Ivy League school before coming back to MIT to teach Course 17. Oscar’s class was a 3 hour marathon session in which we discussed the papers the we had read the week before. I was scheduled to take this course the semester after the Kilo debacle. At this point, all I could do was put it behind me because there was nothing else to do.

Oscar’s class was “unusual” because he didn’t teach the basics because he assumed that you already knew them. He taught the alternatives. This was a bit of an issue for me because, as an engineer, I never had the basics, but I was up for the challenge. Oscar’s alternatives class was unusual. We met in an odd classroom on Vassar street, far from the Course 17 department. I learned lots in that class about the secondary literature — that is, published articles about a core work, geography, and complexity. For Oscar, and my appreciation of and work with Oscar, it all came down to complexity.

His style was a tad unhinged because it seemed he was trying to transmit truths that he could not quite articulate, which seemed to frustrate him. He would sometimes attempt to convey an alternative viewpoint and punctuate it with the phrase, “And they don’t teach you that up the river!” He might have been pointing across the Atlantic to London, Paris, or Reykjavik, but we all understood that he meant the Charles River and Harvard. I would frequently ask questions, more based on the feel of the mathematics rather than any sort of logic or reference to the readings. He would respond, and the conversations sometimes went on for quite a while. As the class was three hours, there was a significant break. My fellow graduate students would come up to me and say, “You seem to get Oscar, and I’m still trying to figure him out. What’s up?” I just said it was our similar math background. There’s something about doing math problem sets that could kill normal students, night after night, that engendered a certain perspective and camaraderie. This was also why Oscar agreed to be my thesis advisor.

Part of Oscar’s mania has to do with the nature of mathematics and complexity. Young mathematicians have a desire to know everything — as least I did. It seems possible when one is young and naive, but with every success comes ever greater challenges. Working in mathematics at a high-level is like climbing a mountain but when you get to the top, one sees even higher mountains in the distance. Climbing every mountain is impossible, but unless one recognizes that and accepts one’s limitations, the risk of insanity and suicide is real. Students say the MIT colors are blood on concrete, but they seldom laugh about it. Studying complexity is like that because there is no ultimate truth, just an ever receding cascade of insights. This is the intellectual task to which Oscar had applied himself.

One day, I was walking down the hallway of the department and thinking to myself. “Would it be great if I gone done with classes and passed my comprehensive exams? And wouldn’t it be great if I passed my exams and wrote my dissertation? And wouldn’t it be great if I got my degree and became a professor? And wouldn’t it be great if I got tenure? And wouldn’t it be great if I got tenure at an elite university?” Just then Oscar came around the corner carrying a pile of books, shaking his head in a unfocused and overwhelmed manner, and walked right past me. I wasn’t even sure if he knew I was there. And in that moment I realized, “No, it wouldn’t necessarily be great. In fact, it could be downright dangerous.”

Chaos, Marx, and MIT

I have had these questions that have persisted for decades that concern Professor Kilo, MIT, and Marxism. Communism and it’s rebranded version of democratic socialism, to my way of thinking, have a track record of unmitigated failure and are responsible for unimaginable destruction, most notably regarding the Soviet Union, but also with a host of other cases and examples of well. Rather than list them, I’m going to explain them though a series of puzzles. As this is a blog, my goal is to actually articulate the puzzles to save and return to them later. Nevertheless, it does answer some questions I’ve had for a while.

I just watched the BBC documentary, High Anxieties: The mathematics of chaos (BBC, 2008), which was provocative for historical, emotional, and philosophical reasons. John L. Casti’s Five Golden Rules: Great theories of 20th-century mathematics — and why they matter, taught me that it takes quite a while for the consequences of mathematical innovations to become known and apparent. High Anxieties (HA) makes some claims regarding the philosophical consequences of chaos theory, which for me explain some ongoing puzzles surrounding Marxism, the first one being, “What are Marxists doing at MIT?” For me, Marxism is the philosophy of 20th-century failure, and with Venezuela now, the 21st-century as well. So to rephrase, what is this philosophy of failure doing at MIT, one of the greatest technical schools in the world?  HA, for me, provides the seeds of an answer, which are unsurprisingly historical in nature.

HA goes back to 18th century Paris and the Eiffel Tower which was built for the 1889 World’s Fair and was then the tallest structure in the world, a title it held for 41 years until it was surpassed by the Chrysler Building. Philosophically though, the Eiffel Tower has its intellectual roots of the technological optimism of Pierre-Simon LaPlace, who is sometimes called, “The French Newton.” That is, LaPlace viewed the world through scientific and technical eyes, and of course his contributions were both significant and legion. Somewhat controversially, LaPlace argued for a strong determinism, that if enough information could be gathered, then everything could be known and future events predicted. These themes resonated with the ambition Marx and Engles, who wanted the social sciences to achieve the same success as the natural sciences and to use that as a weapon against the church. Churchich (1990) makes the case that,

Marx and Engels are fascinated by LaPlace’s ideas, especially his determinism, materialism, and atheism. These concepts dominate their positive science. They are pleased that in LaPlace’s Treatise on Celestial Mechanics, “the Creator is not even mentioned.” (p. 205)

What this determinism leads to is a kind of technological optimism that informed the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, also known as the “Century of Progress International Exposition.” The fair was held in the depths of the depression, but its optimism gave people hope of a brighter future, a future that could be controlled, predicted, and designed and not subjected to the vicissitudes and whims of an uncaring and potentially vengeful Creator. The technological optimism of the 1893 Paris and 1933 Paris continues in the 21st-century in form of Silicon Valley, which helps to explain why Marxism has a place at MIT.

Marxism at MIT is fine, but there’s just one problem: it doesn’t work. And really, shouldn’t ideas promoted at a technical school like MIT, you know, work? My Prof. Kilo moment happened when I wrote a term paper explaining that his entire philosophical edifice was utter rubbish. If I really think about my motivations, I thought that I was correct or else I wouldn’t have written the paper, but I though there was about a 1 in 5 chance that I was actually correct because he was a big time tenured MIT professor and I was just a master’s student. His reaction was so violent and negative, I wondered, “Why is he getting so worked up?”

We could go through the chaos work of Prof Edward Lorenz and show why Kilo was wrong and I was correct. Could even review the work of Hayek, Simon, and Ostrom to make the same point, but something deeper is at work. Kilo became so angry because he felt he was being attack and moreover, I believe, he suspected I was correct, which I didn’t really know until almost two years later. Tom Wolfe said he was so prescient because he didn’t focus his stories on money, he focused them on status. Kilo’s entire self-image, career, and status were tied up in his “scientific” Marxism. Imagine the power to predict history and control markets — amazing! And here I was telling him that his dreams weren’t to be — of course he was angry, and I was naive, but correct. The question now is, what to do about it? I believe there is a math-based answer, but it isn’t what LaPlace, Marx, and Kilo envisioned.

The Third Man

What underlies the enduring appeal of spy fiction? There is certainly a vicarious element to it: the ability to experience an individual experienced the heightened sensations associated with duplicity and danger. However, while I grew up with Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne, and Le Carré’s George Smiley, it’s been relatively recently that I’ve come to appreciate the legacy of the espionage genre. For me, it began with Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), and I had no idea that Hitchcock was a spy author. But there are decades of spy films that lead up to the golden age of Bond, and Alfred Hitchcock was a major contributor to the genre. The three films that are currently on my mind are The Lady Vanishes (1938), The 39 Steps (1935), and The Third Man (1949), which isn’t by Hitchcock but if indeed informed by him. I watched TLV, which was directed by Hitchcock in 1938, and while it was interesting for historical reasons, I didn’t find it very entertaining and didn’t watch  after NbNW, Notably, Hitchcock’s first directing credit was in 1922, so he was well into the game when he started exploring spy and espionage themes.

The Third Man was remarkably modern, set as it was in post-war Vienna, it had the four key elements to any espionage movie: violence, beautiful women, exotic locations, and deception. Let’s take each in turn starting with violence. Spy movies, and the spy novels on which they are based, have to have a certain amount of violence because, let’s face it, part of the reason people watch spy movies if for the vicarious pleasure of experiencing something that one normally wouldn’t. Too much violence or dangerous action, such as car chases, can desensitize an audience. For example, the recent remake of Total Recall (2012) by the end was just a blur of explosions — it got to be too much. The Third Man starts off with an unseen murder but ends with a chase scene in the fragrant sewers of Vienna, which were surprisingly well lit… I wonder if they still are?

Second is beautiful women. I remember my sexual awakening with Barbara Bach in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) which, sad to say, featured Roger Moore as 007. Watching spy films through the decades reveals the enduring appeal of beautiful women, but society’s conception of beauty does tend to change over the decades, which is demonstrated by the leading ladies in the spy movies.

Third is exotic locations. There is an undeniably escapist element to spy movies and spy fiction that allows the viewers and readers to remove themselves from their everyday existence, if only for a little while. There is also the school of thought that says travel allows people to learn new things and expand their horizons. Too much expansion however equates to escapism, which can be a problem as Socrates said (and I paraphrase), “Travel is no cure for the mind.”

Fourth is deception. Travel allows for the opportunity to recreate one’s self and present one’s self as somebody else. This is actually the core of spy novels and movies, deception. It is a modern concept as Machiavelli said essentially that to be good, one must be a little bad. Espionage too gives license to do things that are usually considered bad — such as lie, seduce, and commit acts of violence — for the greater good. The novel is actually a better vehicle for espionage than film because it reveals this internal dialogue and conflict better than film, which can overwhelm the viewer with images of violence, feminine beauty, and exotic locations. These are all however mere distractions from the core question of modernity.

Course 17: Kilo

I was really bugged about this rationality paper for Prof. Kilo, who had degrees from the best Ivy League schools, a reputation for being smart, and an intimidating manner. Let me take a moment to explain my reasoning behind taking this goofy rationality class. I had studied artificial intelligence (AI) with a Course 6 (EE/CS) alumnus professor at Kansas Poly, Prof. Thayer, so I had an okay background in cognition and computational theory. However, I thought it was important to see how Course 17, political science, thought about how — people thought. The course was strange. It was team taught by multiple faculty, who gave lectures mostly on probability and game theory. Now of course that all makes sense given the impact of Judea Pearl on AI, but at the time I saw no empirical referent. That is, I didn’t see how all this discussion of cognition actually mapped to cognition in the real world because it all seemed to assume that actors had unlimited information and cognitive capacity to process that information, which just wasn’t plausible because it didn’t square with computational theory. A visiting professor lectured one afternoon on prospect theory, which argued people viewed equivalent positive gains and negative losses very differently. This made sense to me because it was based on experiments that showed how people’s actual cognition varied from strict rationality.

The class met in a small and dark room just off the Infinite Corridor, and I kept reading and figured that at some point I would “get it,” but I just never got it. It wasn’t just me though: after the last class, I saw another student in the hallway who commented to me in a low, conspiratorial tone, “The end of an error.” I went to see Kilo, and he was decidedly unhelpful. He just told me to write a paper on something. He had written a book on democracy, so I read it in hopes of figuring out what he was interested in as well as coming up with a paper topic. To put it bluntly, Kilo’s book was like the worst book I ever read — just plain dumb! His “idea” was that in an ideal society people would vote on everything. As an engineer, I figured it didn’t make too much sense to have people vote on circuit and software designs, and so I didn’t make sense to have people vote on all manner of public policy. Not only that, but the California recalls, referendums, and initiatives haven’t helped run the state any better or more efficiently. At the time I was familiar with the work of Friedrich von Hayek, who won the Nobel in Economics in 1974 and wrote that the central planning of the socialist economies did not have sufficient knowledge of the economy and computational capacity — that is, rationality — to process that knowledge even if they did, to set prices, which caused their economies, like that of the Soviet Union, to fail. The idea was that prices are best set in a decentralized manner by people throughout the economy in a distributed manner. Note that this does not sit well with politicians who, as a rule, have a nigh on insatiable appetite for power and its correlate, centralization.

So I reasoned that it was pretty obvious that having people vote on everything instead of having a central committee decide on everything was an analogous situation in that it still introduced excessive centralization. That is, how do people learn enough about an issue to vote and decide? Mostly people learn through television, and that introduced centralization because those who produce the programming can shape what ideas people are exposed to and how they are exposed to it. It seemed to me that Kilo was simply trading one form of centralization for another, so the societies the implemented his voting scheme would suffer the same fate as the Soviet Union because it would hinder the distributed decision-making necessary for a healthy economy because of limited information and limited rationality to process that information. I figure Kilo must have thought this through because it was so obvious — after all, the argument was based on the work of a Nobel Prize winner, so it wasn’t like it was secret — and after the fall of the Soviet Union, such concepts were certainly policy relevant. I wrote this up, but I was pretty sure I was wrong because Kilo had such a sterling academic background and reputation that he was sure to have thought of this, but I trusted my teacher that he would correct me gently, that I would learn something, and that this paper would likely lead to a productive conversation.

The first indication that there was trouble on the horizon was that Kilo did not turn my paper back and did not have a grade for me. I had already received three A’s, so I thought I was doing well, but this was my first semester in Course 17, so I didn’t really understand how things worked. He finally told me to meet him in his other office across the MIT campus. The building was an old wooden structure that had warped with age, which kind of had an out-of-kilter, fun house feel. I knocked on Kilo’s door and was invited in. The office was spare, and he was seated behind his desk, and I sat in a chair in front. There was a fading yellow light from the sunset. Kilo didn’t look me in the eye, and took the time to kill a fly before turning to me. He asked me how I could have done such a terrible thing. He said that was the worst paper he had ever seen as a professor. Kilo said the standard was clear, and I didn’t meet it. He said I had earned an F, but he was going to do me a favor and give me an incomplete. Kilo said he had checked my other grades, and he wanted to know what I had to say for myself. I was caught completely by surprise and didn’t know what to say. I told him my motivation that I hoped we could have a follow-on conversation, and he said he didn’t think that was possible. The paper was so bad that it was unrecoverable and couldn’t be re-written. He then said perhaps we should talk in couple of weeks after I had a chance to think about it.

It was dark when I left Kilo’s building, and the walk across campus was surreal. I felt as if I was in a fog. I felt sick. I had left my job, and started my studies in a whole new field, and it had all been going so well but in a single meeting, all my hopes and dreams had been dashed. How could I have been so wrong? I went back to my room and reviewed my logic and arguments, and it all still made sense to me. I scheduled another appointment with Kilo, and made my way to Kilo’s fun house, which to be completely honest, wasn’t that fun. I went into his office with as much confidence as I could muster. I apologized for the paper and said I was sorry that it had upset him. I then tried to guide the conversation in a productive direction by stating what I had been trying to do, to which Kilo interrupted and shouted me down, “Your paper meant nothing — NOTHING!” I looked at him evenly as he composed himself and said there was little benefit for us continuing this conversation, and it would be best if I just concentrated on my next semester’s classes. That made sense to me, and I left Kilo’s office. As I walked across campus this time though, I felt strangely better because even though I had an incomplete on my record, I thought to myself, “If my paper meant nothing Professor Kilo, then why were you so upset?”