Monthly Archives: September 2014

Control Theory

So last semester I took a class called “Spacecraft Control.” In this course, I was supposed to be learning the details of control theory as it relates to spacecraft flying through…wait for it…space. It had to do with all sorts of interesting things such as aerodynamic braking, outgassing (spacecraft flatulence), spin, wobble, differential equations, and all sorts of fun things. I should note here that this class is the sequel to a class called “Spacecraft Attitude Dynamics,” which makes the acronym, SAD. This is appropriate, because while I’m sure the professor was actually talking about spacecraft control things, my classmates and I had no clue what he was talking about, and managed to pass the class by bullshitting our way through the final presentation. Sad, huh?

This is only relevent because of what I want to talk about here today. I was recently asked in another class to think about all the different ways that I am being controlled in my life. Whoa. None, right? I am a free spirit, independent of outside influence, fighting the good fight atop the mound of mindless sheep out there that make up most of America. Well, actually…no. It’s naive and frankly, quite stupid to believe that.

The truth is, we are constantly being controlled. Every day. When you drive your car, you are controlled by traffic laws, stop signs, traffic lights, the slow car in front of you, the speed limit, traffic cops. You don’t have to listen to any of those things, I know. But when you break the laws there are penalties, and if you don’t pay, there are repercussions. More control. When you get to your destination you are being controlled to. At school, you have to go to class, you have to behave a certain way, you have to dress a certain way. At work, you’re controlled by your boss. If you don’t conform to this controlling power, you get fired. Before you go to school or get a job, you’re controlled by your parents. They are the be all end all of your life. They control what you eat, when you sleep, what you where. Not all control is bad. Babies would be pretty much screwed without it. But as we get older we start to realize that our bosses have control over us, our professors have control over us, and so on. So we take control of the things we can to compensate for it.

We do this in all sorts of ways. The picture you have at your desk. The watch you wear. The crazy socks, the colorful clothes. What you eat. The cross pendant or David’s star that’s hanging around your neck, or the little Buddha that you keep with you. The car you drive. All these things are freedoms you get to take into your own control. But how free does this really make you? Not all that much.

You see, even these freedoms are controlling you. You need to eat healthy foods to be, well, healthy. Or you can be unhealthy, but then you won’t live as long, and you are controlled by a primal need to matter to people, rapidly. You may wear a fun watch, but it will still control you because the very nature of time is controlling. Be here at this time, time is always passing, your time might come at any second, tick tock tick tock. You have a freedom of religion, but religions control you too. There’s rules to follow and places to be on Sunday and things to wear and the like. And in religions that are focused inward, like Buddhism and Confucianism, there’s self control. This might be one of the better types; if you’re going to be controlled, you might as well control the controlling.

But there’s still hope for you, you might think. What if you’re an individual who controls other people? What if you have power? What if you have a lot of power? Well, good for you. But, you are controlled by the people over whom you reside. Unless you’re a dictator. But even then, you are no doubt controlled in part by a small group of aids who you trust, some who you actually should, and some who are actually out to get you. What if, by chance, you are a dictator who is above the control of your aids? What if, by chance, you are in control of all the people of the world, and noone is in control of you.

Wow. This is an interesting (and completely hypothetical) scenario. I won’t keep you in suspense. You are still being controlled. You are on a planet in a solar system in a galaxy in a cluster (who knew?) in the universe. Your planet has a magnetic feild, and a gravitational field. You can’t jump as high as you want. You can’t drive a hypothetical car with unlimited power as fast as you want because your speed will be aerodynamically limited. Even if you have power over all the earth, you can still be locked in a room, because you can’t walk through walls. You’re controlled by your DNA. You’re limited because you’re a human. The vastness of space is such that you could never master it all because you physically couldn’t handle it. You could have power over all the earth and still get hit by a bus and be smushed like a bug. You are controlled by the neurons in your brain. There are things out there that you can not wrap your head around because of the way your brain works. Things you can not imagine because of the world you live on. If you had control over all the people of the earth, you would be in control of a fraction of a pixel in a picture of a fraction of a solar system in a galaxy in a cluster in the universe. There’s probably more things you don’t know are controlling you than you could ever imagine. Which is simultanousely awe inspiring, incredible, utterly terrifying, and most importantly, terribly true.

So, after thinking through this, the answer is, you’re always going to be controlled. Whether it’s by social norms, other people, the laws of physics, or the shear fact of your insignificance in the universe, you’ll always be controlled by something. And I will too. We can’t escape it. We can just be aware of it, take control of the things we can, and let the rest be as it may. Thanks for reading. See you soon.

Liar, Liar

So I’ve been watching a lot of House, M.D. recently.  Which is cool.  And it’s been making me think about what would happen if I was riddled with a life threatening illness that needed to be diagnosed, which is actually unrelated to what I want to write about here.  It’s also terrifying to think about, since Greg House is a fictional character and can’t actually save me.  There are actually a few interesting questions you can take away from any given episode of the show if you so choose.  But one of the interesting themes is ‘everybody lies’.

Everybody lies.  If you want to stay in TV land, you can go watch another show called Lie To Me, which is also about people lying.  The idea is that everybody lies and the question isn’t if, rather, why.  Why do we lie?  Well, for all kinds of reasons.  White lies, lies by omission, there are all kinds.  But some of the most interesting lies are the ones that we don’t even realize we are telling.  Because we are telling them to ourselves.

Self-deciept is kind of a cool thing.  And kind of terrible.  It all depends on your perspective.  It manifests itself everywhere.  People who eat animals, like cows and chickens, lie to themselves about the pain that the animal went through in order for for it to be eaten.  That’s not just speculation, it’s actual science.  (Actually, it’s psychology, so, more or less science.)  You see, most people wouldn’t condone the killing of thousands of animals, or the conditions in which chickens are farmed, but they like chicken and beef, so the animals must not feel that much pain.  The coolest part of it all is that we don’t even realize that we do it.  Brains are so cool.

Some other scientists (ok, actually, psychologists) have done some research and have actually found that people are more likely to lie to themselves if they are relatively ‘worse off’ than other people. The article, by William von Hippel and Robert Trivers, actually suggest that the reason we lie to ourselves has to do with the process of evolution.  In evolution, the best people survive.  Survival of the fittest, said Darwin.  Well, according to von Hippel and Trivers, creatures don’t just try and make themselves look better in the eyes of other creatures, they also make themselves look better in their own eyes.  Self deception.

These same dudes also suggested that we can create false memories about things in order to alter our perception.  This translates into convincing yourself you performed better on a test than you actually did.  This one is also pretty cool, because we can alter the memory so convincingly, that we don’t even know we’ve been lied to.  By ourselves.

There are a ton of other really cool ways in which we lie to ourselves.  For instance, when doing research, we will stop when we find information that supports our theories, even if there is a lot of unsearched data.  The fear of finding information that doesn’t groove with our hypothesis leads us to go on in ignorance, convincing ourselves that we are difenitely right, even though not all the data has been analyzed.  Another interesting thing is that people have been found to locate photos of themseves that have been altered to make them appear more attractive faster than unaltered photos.  Hmm.

The final, and potentially most interesting thing, has to do with our perceptions of control.  We like to be in control.  So, when we’re not in control, we will convince ourselves that something is.  This something could be a government that has a great amount of control over it’s people, for the good of the people, of course.   It could also be God.  In fact, a study done by Norris and Inglehart in 2004 showed a correlation between insecurity and religion.  Countries where citizens had little control over things like food and shelter, also had a high rate of religion.  Interesting. Granted, the US is an outlier in those statistics.  Also, interesting.

Deceit is interesting.  Self-deciept is more interesting, because we really don’t know when, or to what extent, we’re doing it.   We lie to ourselves to avoid the truth, whether that truth is hard to swallow, makes us uncomfortable, or is simply…inconvenient.  Everybody lies.  The only real question to ask yourself is, why?  Thanks for reading, see you soon.