Mike Kueber's Blog

January 25, 2015

Wikipedia and Pride & Prejudice

Filed under: Book reviews,Movie reviews,Wikipedia — Mike Kueber @ 12:25 pm
Tags: , ,

Wikipedia is one of the most popular websites on the internet, trailing only Google, Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo, Baidu, and Amazon.  Of the 100 most popular websites, it is the only reference encyclopedia.  Many searches on Google for information result in a referral to Wikipedia, which I promptly click because, based on thousands of reviews, I have invariably found its entries to be thorough, well-presented, and reliable.  The website is free, but I am so appreciative that I voluntarily donate during its periodic fundraisers.

Because of my appreciation for Wikipedia, and because I like to write, I was intrigued by the possibility of creating an entry, and a few years ago I created one for my hometown of Aneta, ND based on several historical sources.  Inexplicably, however, my posts were taken down almost as soon as I had posted them, and I didn’t have enough motivation to learn why.

Then a few months ago, I finished bingeing on TV series “Californication.”  After reading the Wikipedia entry on the series, I concluded that its summary of Season Six did not do justice to the latest woman of my dreams (Faith), so I replaced it with one that focused on her, as follows:

  •   Season 6 started on January 13, 2013. Its storyline revolves around Hank’s relationship with Faith (played by Maggie Grace), whom he meets in a rehab facility. Hank reluctantly agrees to rehab, not because of a drug dependency, but rather because of depression over his role in ex-girlfriend Carrie’s suicide at the end of Season 5. Faith is a famous rock-star groupie/muse who is in rehab because of the recent death of her rock star, and ultimately she becomes Hank’s muse. Faith and Hank seem to be made for each other, but in the end Hank is too weak to move on from Karen even though it appears that their relationship has run its course.

I apparently performed the edit properly because it is still there for the world of Hank fans to read.

In the past few weeks, I have discovered a new woman of my dreams – Elizabeth Bennet – and after reading the voluminous Wikipedia entry on Pride & Prejudice, I decided to squeeze in some of my thoughts on the 2005 movie adaptation vis-à-vis the book, as follows below.  I have found this activity challenging and enjoyable and plan to do more of it in the future.

Below is Elizabeth Bennet as played by Keira Knightley in the 2005 movie adaptation.  This scene shows her surprise as Darcy helped her into a carriage.

z_pp3_20_Elizabeth_in_the_carriage2

The storyline for Joe Wright’s movie differs from Jane Austen’s novel in the following significant ways:

1. The book begins with the most famous opening line in the history of literature – “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Although Deborah Moggach’s script includes this line in its opening scene, the movie deletes Moggach’s opening scene – namely, Bingley moving into Netherfield. As Austen would have said, Penny-wise; pound foolish.

2. In Chapter Three of the book, at the first Meryton Assembly ball, Darcy dances only with Bingley’s two sisters and “declined being introduced to any other lady,” including Elizabeth, whom he describes to Bingley, within earshot of Elizabeth, as “tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.” In the movie, Darcy is introduced to the Bennet girls immediately and he rejects Elizabeth when she asks Darcy if he likes to dance and disparages her to Bingley with the “tolerable” description. Even more significantly in the movie, Elizabeth actually got into a verbal sparring match with Darcy regarding how to win a woman’s affection and decisively won the match by suggesting that a man could win a woman’s affection by “dancing, of course. Even if ones partner is barely tolerable.” As the Moggach script notes, “Darcy looks startled. He has no idea she heard him. He blushes.” This is easily one of the script’s most remarkable adaptation of Austen’s storyline, not only for eloquent put-down, but also for highlighting a dominant theme in a book that Jane Austen initially titled, “First Impressions.”

3. In Chapter Six, the Bennet daughters “dined in company” with Darcy and Bingley four times within a fortnight of the Meryton Assembly ball. During one of those gatherings – an evening gathering at the Lucases – not only do Elizabeth and Darcy engage in some additional verbal sparring, but afterwards Darcy admits to Miss Bingley that he had “been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow….. Miss Elizabeth Bennet.” None of these encounters are included in the movie, and thus the viewers are privy to Mr. Darcy’s incipient transformation.

4. Both the book and movie contain several scenes related to Jane taking ill at Netherfield. Chapter Eight of the book contains dialogue that articulates Darcy’s escalating estimation of Elizabeth – “I am afraid, Mr. Darcy,” observed Miss Bingley in a half whisper, “that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes.” “Not at all,” he replied; “they were brightened by the exercise.” But the movie efficiently remedies this omission of growing affection by creating a farewell scene in Elizabeth and Darcy “share a look.” When Darcy surprisingly takes Elizabeth’s hand to help her into a carriage, her look of surprise at this act is probably the movie’s most memorable image. Never a better example of a picture worth a thousand words.

5. During Darcy’s dance with Elizabeth at the Netherfield ball, the movie contains a wonderful, memorable comment from Elizabeth when asked by Darcy if she often talks while dancing – “No, I prefer to be unsociable and taciturn.” Chapter 18 in the book contains a longer, more thoughtful quote – “I have always seen a great similarity in the turn of our minds. We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a proverb.” To which he responds with wit – “This is no very striking resemblance of your own character, I am sure. How near it may be to mine, I cannot pretend to say. You think it a faithful portrait undoubtedly.”

6. After the dancing at the Netherfield ball, Chapter 18 describes a supper, during which Mrs Bennet was exceptionally and loudly obnoxious in bragging about the potential marriage of her Jane to Mr Bingley, and all of this was within earshot of both Darcy and Elizabeth. He was disgusted; she was mortified. Although this scene is critical in explaining why Darcy subsequently tries to break up Jane and Bingley, the scene is not referenced in the movie. This is a major shortcoming in the making of a cohesive, plausible storyline.

7. In Chapter 26, Mrs. Gardiner advises Elizabeth against hooking up with an impoverished Mr. Wickham, and Elizabeth accepts the advice. Later in the chapter, Elizabeth writes to Mrs. Gardiner that Wickham has moved onto a lady who recently inherited 10,000 pounds, and Elizabeth hypocritically accepts Wickham’s behavior as reasonable. None of this is mentioned in the movie; rather, Elizabeth merely notes that the militia moved out of town for the winter, and the viewer is given no explanation for the end of her budding romance with Wickham or for Elizabeth’s nonchalance with regard to it.

8. In Chapters 32 and 33, Darcy has several interactions that encourage him to propose to Elizabeth in Chapter 34. None of those interactions other than a dinner at Rosings are in the movie, which causes his sudden obsession with her to seem nonsensical.

9. In Chapter 34, Darcy leads up to his proposal by saying, “In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” In the movie, he says, “Miss Bennet, I have struggled in vain but I can bear it no longer…I love you. Most ardently.” This line, not from Austen, is one of the most memorable from the movie.

10. In Chapter 40, Elizabeth tells sister Jane about Darcy’s marriage proposal. This makes Darcy’s subsequent interest in Elizabeth less nonsensical to Jane. Jane is never enlightened in the movie.

11. In Chapter 52, Elizabeth and Wickham, after his marriage to Lydia, come to an accommodation, with her saying to him, “Come, Mr. Wickham, we are brother and sister, you know. Do not let us quarrel about the past. In future, I hope we shall be always of one mind.” By contrast, in the movie Elizabeth refuses to look at him and turns away.

12. In Chapter 58, when Darcy asks Elizabeth if her “feelings are still what they were last April,” the book’s narrator simply says that Elizabeth “immediately, but not very fluently gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change… as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances.” In the movie, Elizabeth takes Darcy’s hand but only says, “Well, then. Your hands are cold.” Only the script provides the transparency we have come to expect from Elizabeth – “I am very happy to inform you that not only have my sentiments changed there are no other words which could give me greater pleasure.”

13. In Chapter 59, Mr. Bennet is pleased to learn that Darcy, not Mr. Gardiner, bailed out Wickham, “So much the better. It will save me a world of trouble and economy. Had it been your uncle’s doing, I must and would have paid him; but these violent young lovers carry every thing their own way. I shall offer to pay him to-morrow; he will rant and storm about his love for you, and there will be an end of the matter.” This comment shows great insight and is hilarious, but it didn’t make the movie. Instead, the movie has Mr. Bennet merely say, “Good Lord. I must pay him back,” and Elizabeth responding, “No, you mustn’t tell anyone! He wouldn’t want it.”

14. The book contains no indication that Mr. Bennet feels any strong affection for Mrs. Bennet. To the contrary, the book contains explicit verbiage indicating an absence of respect. But in the movie, there are two scenes showing affection – (1) early in the movie, they kiss after Mr. Bennet informs Mrs. Bennet that he has already called on Bingley, and (2) late in the movie, they appear to be moving toward a kiss (in bed, no less) after discussing the engagement of Jane to Bingley. Neither of these displays of affection were included in the Moggach script.

15. The book fails to provide Darcy with an opportunity to impress Elizabeth with his virility or masculinity. By contrast, the 1995 BBC adaptation includes a famous “Lake” scene with Darcy in a wet shirt as he encounters Elizabeth at Pemberley. Apparently, scriptwriter Moggach planned to capture this same sentiment by creating a scene where Elizabeth sees “Darcy, exhausted, rides into the stable yard. In the corner is a trough and pump. He strides up to the pump, puts his head under it and douses himself with cold water. From a window Elizabeth looks out at Darcy. Darcy looks up and for a second catches Elizabeth looking down at him. She turns from the window.” Filmmaker Joe Wright remained true to the book and excluded this scene from the movie.

16. The book ends with Elizabeth playfully asking Darcy to “account for his having fallen in love with her.” The movie ends similarly, albeit not in Moggach’s script, with Elizabeth playfully telling Darcy the endearments he will be allowed. The final one is the most famous – i.e., “You may only call me Mrs. Darcy when you are completely and perfectly and incandescently happy.”

 

 

 

July 30, 2011

Moral relativism

A few weeks ago, I blogged favorably about secular humanism even though it is a term that most conservatives view suspiciously.  Earlier this week, the NY Times had an article on moral relativism, which is a similarly suspect word, and I wondered if it, too, has an undeserved bad reputation.

Regarding my blogging on secular humanism, I posted the following definition of the term:

  • A philosophy that espouses human reason, ethics, and justice, and the search for human fulfillment. It specifically rejects religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience or superstition as the basis of morality and decision-making.  Secular Humanism is a comprehensive life stance that focuses on the way human beings can lead happy and functional lives….  Fundamental to the concept of Secular Humanism is the strongly held viewpoint that ideology — be it religious or political — must be thoroughly examined by each individual and not simply accepted or rejected on faith.  Along with this, an essential part of Secular Humanism is a continually adapting search for truth, primarily through science and philosophy.”

Based on that definition, I concluded that those values strike me as imminently reasonable for America, especially as our nation becomes more diverse religiously.  Although an Archbishop of Canterbury had warned that Christian tradition “was in danger of being undermined by a Secular Humanism which hoped to retain Christian values without Christian faith,” I didn’t think that was a significant criticism of the philosophy.  In fact, the criticism reminded me of the term “cultural Jew,” and Judaism has been able to deal with that.

In my blog, I also noted that “theologians have blamed Secular Humanism generally for moral relativism and specifically for the prevalence of drugs, sex, feminism, pornography, abortion, and homosexuality,” and that brings me to today’s subject – moral relativism.

According to the NY Times article, “The Maze of Moral Relativism,” by Paul Boghossian:

  • Relativism about morality has come to play an increasingly important role in contemporary culture.  To many thoughtful people, and especially to those who are unwilling to derive their morality from a religion, it appears unavoidable.  Where would absolute facts about right and wrong come from, they reason, if there is no supreme being to decree them? We should reject moral absolutes, even as we keep our moral convictions, allowing that there can be right and wrong relative to this or that moral code, but no right and wrong per se.”

When I first read this passage, I thought the concept of moral relativism sounded akin to secular humanism, but further examination and closer readings reveal critical differences.

The website “moral-relativism” defines the term as, “the view that ethical standards, morality, and positions of right or wrong are culturally based.”

The website “gotquestions” uses contrast to provide a definition:

  • “Moral relativism is more easily understood in comparison to moral absolutism.  Absolutism claims that morality relies on universal principles (natural law, conscience). Christian absolutists believe that God is the ultimate source of our common morality, and that it is, therefore, as unchanging as He is. Moral relativism asserts that morality is not based on any absolute standard. Rather, ethical ‘truths’ depend on variables such as the situation, culture, one’s feelings, etc.”

My personal bible Wikipedia describes three types of moral relativism, none of which is appealing to me:

  • Moral relativism may be any of several descriptive, meta-ethical, or normative positions. Each of them is concerned with the differences in moral judgments across different people and cultures:
  1. “Descriptive relativism describes the way things are, without suggesting a way they ought to be. It seeks only to point out that people frequently disagree over what is the most ‘moral’ course of action.
  2. Meta-ethical relativism is the meta-ethical position that the truth or falsity of moral judgments is not objective. Justifications for moral judgments are not universal, but are instead relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of an individual or a group of people. The meta-ethical relativist might say “It’s moral to me, because I believe it is.” 
  3. Normative relativism is the prescriptive or normative position that, because there is no universal moral standard by which to judge others, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others – even when it runs counter to our personal or cultural moral standards.

Because I found moral relativism unappealing, I decided to consider moral absolutism or moral universalism.  According to Wendy Connick in TailoredContent.com, moral universalism is:

  • “… the philosophy that argues for the existence of a universal ethic. Certain behaviors are simply wrong regardless of the circumstances….  Universalism is based on the idea of a ‘rational test’ that can be applied to any ethical dilemma. The exact nature of this test varies widely among different factions of universalists. For example, utilitarianism states that the correct rational test is ‘Does my action create the maximum good for the maximum number of people?’ If the answer is yes, then a utilitarianist would say that the action is morally correct.  Moral universalism in the form of human rights has become widely accepted in the past several decades. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, issued by the United Nations in 1948, and the Geneva Conventions (which define fair treatment of prisoners of war) are based on the theory of moral universalism. In other words, human beings all have certain rights and to deny those rights is always immoral.”

PhilosophyBasics.com says:

  • Moral Universalism is the meta-ethical position that there is a universal ethic which applies to all people, regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexuality or other distinguishing feature, and all the time. A universal ethic is a moral system that applies universally to all of humanity, and thus transcends culture and personal whim. The source or justification of this system is variously claimed to be human nature, a shared vulnerability to suffering, the demands of universal reason, common themes among existing moral codes, or the mandates of religion.  It is the opposite of Moral Relativism, the position that moral propositions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances.”

Based on these descriptions, I believe the differences between secular humanism and moral relativism are greater than the similarities.  Secular humanism is a quest for ethics, justice, and human fulfillment. Moral relativism doesn’t bother with the quest because it’s all relative.

The import of last line in the quote from the NY Times article is what I missed during my first reading – “We should reject moral absolutes, even as we keep our moral convictions, allowing that there can be right and wrong relative to this or that moral code, but no right and wrong per se.

I disagree.  Some moral codes are better than others, and the better ones will prevail over time.

July 7, 2011

Secular Humanism

A few days ago on talk radio, I heard the host disparage a politician as a “secular humanist.”  Although I hadn’t heard the term used for several years (I don’t often listen to talk radio), I recalled that conservative pundits and sages in the past had used this term in connection with the moral decline of America (abortion, drugs, sex).  It was time, I decided, to take another look at these people and their quasi-religion.

According to my Bible (Wikipedia), Secular Humanism is:

  • A philosophy that espouses human reason, ethics, and justice, and the search for human fulfillment. It specifically rejects religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience or superstition as the basis of morality and decision-making.  Secular Humanism is a comprehensive life stance that focuses on the way human beings can lead happy and functional lives….  Fundamental to the concept of Secular Humanism is the strongly held viewpoint that ideology — be it religious or political — must be thoroughly examined by each individual and not simply accepted or rejected on faith.  Along with this, an essential part of Secular Humanism is a continually adapting search for truth, primarily through science and philosophy.”

That is quite a mouthful.  Although those values strike me as imminently reasonable for America, especially as our nation becomes more diverse religiously, the problem is that Secular Humanism doesn’t recognize a role for religion in government, and starting in the mid-20th century, according to Wikipedia, religious fundamentalists and the religious right began using the term in hostile fashion.  In 1943 a prominent Christian (the Archbishop of Canterbury) warned that Christian tradition “was in danger of being undermined by a Secular Humanism which hoped to retain Christian values without Christian faith.”  (That reminds me of a term –cultural Jew – that I encountered when I was studying what it meant to be a Jew, and a few weeks ago I saw the concept applied to
Catholicism for the first time when a writer claimed to be a cultural Catholic.)  Theologians have blamed Secular Humanism generally for moral relativism and specifically for the prevalence of drugs, sex, feminism, pornography, abortion, and homosexuality.

Does faith have a place in political decision-making?  Kevin Phillips in his book Theocracy was gravely concerned about the presidential actions taken by George W. Bush because Bush suggested that he was acting as an agent for Christ/God.  Of course, that is simply an extension of Bush’s belief in American exceptionalism.

Although the values of most of our Founding Fathers were informed by their Christianity, it is significant that they did not directly include religion or God in the Constitution other than to provide for Freedom of Religion and the so-called separation of church & state.  As America attempts to be a just and moral government that enables its citizens to search for personal fulfillment, it seems logical that its decisions must be based on reason rather than one any
specific religious doctrine.

July 3, 2011

Was American immigration policy racist before 1965?

During the annual meeting of the State Bar of Texas, I attended a session that discussed American immigration policy.  One of the speakers, a professor from Rice University, charged that American immigration policy was shameful and racist prior to the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965.  I recalled that, until 1965, there was a quota on immigrants-per-country based on that country’s population in the U.S., but I didn’t think that amounted to racism.  The Rice professor didn’t elaborate on his charge, so I decided to verify.

I confirmed that the Immigration Act of 1924 included a National Origins Formula, which restricted immigration on the basis of existing proportions of the population.  The admitted goal of the Formula was to maintain the current ethnic and religious composition of the United States, and it had the effect of giving low quotas to Eastern and Southern Europe (Italians, Catholics, and Jews).  The law’s impact varied widely by country – e.g., immigration from Great Britain and Ireland fell 19%, while immigration from Italy fell more than 90%; of the 155,000 permitted entries, 86% were from Northern European countries, with Germany, Britain, and Ireland having the highest quotas.  Ironically, immigration from Latin America was not restricted.

The 1924 Act also limited immigration to persons eligible for naturalization, and since Asians were not eligible for naturalization under the Naturalization Act of 1790 (because they were non-white), they were effectively banned from immigration.  Chinese immigration had been prohibited since 1882.  The Asian ban was repealed in 1943, but only small numbers of Asian immigrants were authorized until the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965.  The Act of 1965 abolished the National Origins Formula and replaced it with a preference system that focused on immigrants’ skills and family relationships with citizens or residents of the U.S.

The preference system doesn’t sound very different from a National Origin Formula, although it would shift preference toward those nationalities that immigrated more recently.  Principal sponsor Senator Teddy Kennedy argued:

  • “First, our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually. Under the proposed bill, the present level of immigration remains substantially the same…. Secondly, the ethnic mix of this country will not be upset…. Contrary to the charges in some quarters, [the bill] will not inundate America with immigrants from any one country or area, or the most populated and deprived nations of Africa and Asia…. In the final analysis, the ethnic pattern of immigration under the proposed measure is not expected to change as sharply as the critics seem to think…. It will not cause American workers to lose their jobs.”

Upon signing the Act of 1965, President Johnson took a more high-minded tone:

  • “This [old] system violates the basic principle of American democracy, the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man. It has been un-American in the highest sense, because it has been untrue to the faith that brought thousands to these shores even before we were a country.”

Contrary to Kennedy’s assurances, according to Wikipedia, the 1965 Actresulted in new immigration from non-European nations which changed the ethnic make-up of the United States.  Immigration doubled between 1965 and 1970, and doubled again between 1970 and 1990.  The most dramatic effect was to shift immigration from Europe to Asia and Central and South America.”

Based on this information, one can reasonably conclude that the National Origins Formula was not a racist policy.  In fact, I believe that admitting immigrants to ensure the ethnic and religious status quo makes more sense than limiting immigration to those with recent family connections in America.  Contrary to LBJ’s claim to taking the high road, I think the National Origins Formula allows for meritocractic selection, whereas the family-preference law provides for legalized nepotism.  Tell me which is more American.

There is no denying, however that the Chinese and Asian Exclusion Acts were racist, and those policies were not fully repealed until 1965.  Thus, the Rice professor correctly charged that American immigration policy was racist until 1965.  But he levied his charge during a discussion of illegal immigration from Mexico, and he might have elaborated that his charge applied to Asian immigration.

March 8, 2011

Donald Trump for president – are you serious?

Filed under: Economics,People,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 3:28 am
Tags: , , , ,

My conservative friend in San Antonio surprised me a few weeks ago when he said he was supporting Donald Trump for president.  I was surprised because, although my friend occasionally takes extreme positions, those positions are usually based on a groundswell in the talk-radio community and I was not aware of talk radio coalescing behind Trump.  But today, I was listening to Neil Cavuto on Fox TV, and he reported on a poll that listed Trump as the presidential favorite, closely followed by Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty.  Maybe there is something going on.

Upon taking a closer look at the poll, however, I was able to learn that the FOX reporting was extremely misleading.    The poll was conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, and the people polled were regular Americans, but not necessarily Republican voters or even any voters.  Furthermore, the polled people were asked if they had a favorable impression of Trump, Romney, Pawlenty, and Speaker Boehner.  Fox did not report the results for Boehner, probably because they wanted to present the results as a straw poll on the presidency.  The percentage that viewed these persons favorable was Trump–26%, Romney–25%, Boehner–20%, and Pawlenty–10%.  The fact that the poll was also a test of name-recognition was reflected in the percentage of respondents who had no opinion: Trump–5%, Romney–20%, Boehner–37%, and Pawlenty–61%.

Furthermore, there was a question in the poll asked of likely voters in the Republican primary, and that question didn’t even include Trump.  The preferred candidate of these voters was Huckabee–39%, Romney–38%, Palin–26%, Gingrich–21%, Paul–12%, Pawlenty–11%, Santorum–6%, Daniels–5%, Huntsman–3%, and Barbour–3%.

Although the reporting on the poll was misleading, it does reveal that Trump could be a formidable candidate because of his high profile.  With that in mind, I decided to examine whether he would be able to withstand the scrutiny of a presidential campaign.

In his interview with Neil Cavuto, Trump focused on the rising price of gas, and his position was that the price was a result of OPEC greed and that the problem could be solved easily by an executive with the backbone to stand up to those evil people.  That position is quite similar to the position he took a couple of months ago with respect to China when he announced his possible presidential candidacy.  Trump appears to believe that all of America’s problems can be solved by simply telling people who are taking advantage of us that we’re not going to take it anymore.

A Trump candidacy would be reminiscent of the Perot candidacy in 1992, with them both having a track record of business success in a maverick, outspoken sort of way, but we know how Perot’s candidacy turned out.  Furthermore, Trump would be burdened with his reputation for glitz and an extravagant lifestyle, including divorces, an extra-marital affair, and a business bankruptcy.

Regarding Trump’s political positions, Wikipedia lists the following:

  • Pro-life
  • Anti-gun control
  • Repeal of ObamaCare
  • Anti-foreign aid
  • Anti-trade with China
  • Disengage from Iraq and Afghanistan

Another factor – Trump has a record of giving money promiscuously to politicians of all stripes, including Bush-43, McClain, Giuliani, Gingrich, Hillary, Daschle, Kerry, Kennedy, Biden, Emanuel, and Rangel.

In desperate times, Americans might consider an extreme candidate such as Perot or Trump.  These are not such times.

March 3, 2011

Intuition – Malcolm Gladwell v. Ayn Rand

In a recent posting, I said that I was going to follow my intuition to abstain from caffeine although there was no significant medical reason for the abstention.  My use of the word “intuition” reminded me of a discussion of that subject in this week’s Time magazine.

The last page in Time magazine is devoted to a section called “10 Questions.”  This week, the guest-answerer was David Ferrucci, the IBMer who programmed a computer named Watson, which recently won a Jeopardy contest with two past champions.  The Q&A with Ferrucci was fascinating.  One of the questions concerned intuition:

  • IBM talks about Watson’s being used to diagnose diseases. Can a machine make intuitive leaps like the ones Dr. House makes on the TV show?
    “That’s a tough question, because I wonder what intuition really is. It’s probably a process like connecting the logical dots, but we call it intuition simply because we’re not fully conscious of the process.”

Initially, I thought the Ferrucci definition sounded like a polite way of saying that intuition is intellectual garbage, but then I compared it to a dictionary definition of intuition – “the act or faculty of knowing or sensing without the use of rational processes; immediate cognition.” 

I should have known that someone smart enough to build Watson would not give a nonsensical answer.  In fact, I think Ferrucci’s offhand definition was more informative the dictionary definition, but both definitions suggested that an individual can attain knowledge with consciously thinking.

Of course, the idea of knowledge without rational processes would be heresy to my favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, who famously said:

  • As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy.  Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation – or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single solid weight: self doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind’s wings should have grown.”

A contrary argument has been made by one of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell, in his third-best book – Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.  In Blink, Gladwell describes mental processes that work rapidly and automatically from relatively little information – something he calls thin-slicing.  He believes that many spontaneous decisions are as good as—or even better than—carefully planned and considered ones.  Gladwell believes experts are especially able to thin-slice, but this ability can be corrupted by their likes and dislikes, prejudices, and stereotypes (even unconscious ones).  Experts can also be overloaded by too much information (e.g., analysis paralysis).

To settle the argument between Ayn Rand and Malcolm Gladwell, I turned to Wikipedia, which seemed to side with Gladwell:

  • The term intuition is used to describe thoughts and preferences that come to mind quickly and without much reflection.  The reliability of one’s intuition depends greatly on past knowledge and occurrences in a specific area. For example, someone who has had more experiences with children will tend to have a better instinct or intuition about what they should do in certain situations with them. This is not to say that one with a great amount of experience is always going to have an accurate intuition (because some can be biased); however, the chances of it being more reliable are definitely amplified.
  • Intuitive abilities were quantitatively tested at Yale University in the 1970s. While studying nonverbal communication, researchers noted that some subjects were able to read nonverbal facial cues before reinforcement occurred.  In employing a similar design, they noted that highly intuitive subjects made decisions quickly but could not identify their rationale. Their level of accuracy, however, did not differ from that of nonintuitive subjects.
  • Law enforcement officers often claim to observe suspects and immediately “know” that they possess a weapon or illicit narcotic substances. Often unable to articulate why they reacted or what prompted them at the time of the event, they sometimes retrospectively can plot their actions based upon what had been clear and present danger signals. Such examples liken intuition to “gut feelings” and when viable illustrate preconscious activity.
  • Intuition is a combination of historical (empirical) data, deep and heightened observation and an ability to cut through the thickness of surface reality. Intuition is like a slow motion machine that captures data instantaneously and hits you like a ton of bricks. Intuition is a knowing, a sensing that is beyond the conscious understanding — a gut feeling. Intuition is not pseudo-science.
  • INTUITION may be defined as understanding or knowing without conscious recourse to thought, observation or reason. Some see this unmediated process as somehow mystical while others describe intuition as being a response to unconscious cues or implicitly apprehended prior learning.

So, the consensus is that intuition is a valid concept, and it can be efficient and effective in the right situations.  But I think the world would be better off if people relied less on their intuition and more on conscious reasoning of the kind described by Ayn Rand.

February 21, 2011

Michael Medved defends President Obama

While watching my favorite Sunday-morning talk show – Reliable Sources – I heard Howie Kurtz interview conservative talk-show host Michael Medved about a recent op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal.  According to the interview, Medved and his op-ed piece took to task those conservatives, like Rush Limbaugh, who argue that President Obama is intentionally trying to weaken America. 

Although I find it hard to believe that any reasonable person would think that about our president, I confess that conservative talk-show host Michael Savage comes close to that position in his book Trickle Up Poverty.  And I do recall Limbaugh asserting several months ago that he wanted the president “to fail.”  So I decided to read the op-ed piece to learn what evidence Medved could marshal to support his thesis.

In the op-ed piece, Medved quotes from four conservatives:

  • Blogger Victor Sharpe said, “My fear is that Obama is not naïve at all, but he instead knows only too well what he is doing, for he is eagerly promoting Islamic power in the world while diminishing the West.”  There is certainly a lot of raw meat in the quote, but who is Victor Sharpe and why do we care what he says?
  • Erstwhile vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin said on a radio show, “What I believe that Obama is doing right now—he is hell-bent on weakening America…. What Obama is doing” is “purposefully weakening America—because he understood that debt weakened America, domestically and internationally, and yet now he supports increasing debt.”  This quote seems like the typical vapid, vacuous comment that comes from Palin; I don’t detect any serious effort to accuse the president of evil intent.
  • Dinesh D’Souza’s best-selling book, “The Roots of Obama’s Rage,” is being pitched with a promise to “reveal Obama for who he really is: a man driven by the anti-colonial ideology of his father and the first American president to actually seek to reduce America’s strength, influence and standard of living.”  This quote, not even from the author, seems merely to indicate that the president wants to pursue a less aggressive international policy.
  • And finally, Rush Limbaugh said, “I think we face something we’ve never faced before in the country—and that is, we’re now governed by people who do not like the country….  There’s no question that payback is what this administration is all about, presiding over the decline of the United States of America, and doing so happily.”  This quote reads a lot like the D’Souza blurb – i.e., a president who is less enthused about American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny than his predecessors. 

Based on these quotes, I don’t think Medved made his case.  The only serious charge – that the president is loyal to Islam, not America – is made by someone who isn’t even profiled in Wikipedia.  How obscure is that?  Palin’s charge is empty rhetoric, and D’Souza and Limbaugh merely charging that the president prefers a less muscular America.  These three pundits aren’t charging the president with conflicting loyalties; they are merely using rhetoric to rouse their constituencies.

February 15, 2011

Singularity

The cover story is this week’s issue of Time magazine is titled 2045, subtitled The Year Man Becomes Immortal.    The subtitle is a bit misleading because the subject of the article is technological singularity, which is defined as “the moment when technological change becomes so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.”  Immortality is not a major component of singularity, but Time has incorporated the two, probably to make the story (and cover) more attractive to Time’s readership.

Singularity is an extension of Moore’s law.  Intel co-founder Gordon Moore noted in 1965 that the power of computers doubled every two years and predicted that this exponential growth would continue indefinitely into the future.  Moore’s law has proven accurate to this day.  The concept of singularity is similar in that, once computers have the brainpower of a human (approx. in 2023), they will be able to take over the further development of computers, and God knows where humanity goes then.  The year “2045” is the predicted date when a computer will have more brainpower than that of all human brains combined.

That’s where the Time story veers into the subject of immortality, or what the singulatarians call life extension.  Unlike most popular articles on aging, the singulatarians think old age is something easily manageable.  According to biologist Aubrey de Grey: 

  • People have begun to realize that the view of aging being something immutable… is simply ridiculous.  It’s just childish.  The human body is a machine that has a bunch of functions, and it accumulates various types of damage as a side effect of the normal functions of the machine.  Therefore in principal that damage can be repaired periodically.”

Singulatarians are confident that aging will be solved, either with advanced nanotechnology or by transferring our minds to sturdier vessels such as computers or robots.  With this in the offing, one of the leading singulatarians, 63-year old Raymond Kurzweil, is focused on surviving to Singularity.  I’m 57-years-old, and maybe I should start focusing, too.

We are already in the age of Wikipedia.  I am continually amazed at how comprehensive that encyclopedia is.  For an example of its superb work, read its article on Singularity.  Wikipedia already seems to have the combined knowledge of the world.

Ironically, the Book Review section in this week’s issue of Time magazine included a review on a book – Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age, by Susan Jacoby – that discusses the fantasy of living well in old age.  Annoyingly, neither the review nor the Singularity article referenced each other.  According to Jacoby:

  • We need to face reality and base both our individual planning and social policy on the assumption that by the time men and women reach their eighties and nineties, not the best but the worst years of their lives generally lie ahead.  Anyone who lives beyond 85 has about a 50-50 chance of winding up in a nursing home – just as he or she has close to a 50 percent chance of developing dementia.”

Are Jacoby and the Singulatarians on the same planet?

February 11, 2011

Saturday Night at the Movies #4 – The Fountainhead

Several months ago, I blogged about The Fountainhead, the 1943 book by Ayn Rand. Because I enjoyed the book so much, I was eager to watch the 1949 movie by the same title.  Although the title was on back-order at Netflix, it finally came in yesterday, so today – mission accomplished.

Ayn Rand wrote the movie adaptation, and if you know anything about her philosophy, you know that she is not amenable to input or compromise.  In fact, the refusal to compromise is probably the principal characteristic of the book’s/movie’s protagonist, Howard Roark.  Thus, Rand’s movie adaptation is remarkably true to the book.  You might even say that the adaptation is too true to the book.

I’m not an expert in writing screenplays, but I have read that movies should have three acts – the first to introduce the characters and the story, the second to create a conflict, and the third to resolve the conflict.  I don’t think books are supposed to fit neatly into that framework and because Ayn Rand’s adaptation closely followed the book, her adaptation doesn’t have a three-act structure.  That caused the movie to appear like a biography, a bit anti-climactic.    

The Fountainhead stars Gary Cooper and Patricia O’Neil.  At the time, Cooper was already an established 46-year-old star and O’Neil was a 23-year-old ingénue in her second movie.  (I had only seen O’Neil much later in her career – Hud with Paul Newman and In Harm’s Way with John Wayne.  Although Cooper was married, he started an affair with O’Neil that endured several years and included an abortion at Cooper’s insistence.    

Consistent with Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, The Fountainhead shows the struggles of an individual (Howard Roark, the architect) who strives to do great work because that fulfills him.  This is a struggle because there are many people (parasites and looters) who do nothing but live off those who do the work.  The parasites try to facilitate their looting by adopting societal rules that individuals have an obligation to work, not selfishly for themselves, but for the greater good of the community.  One of Rand’s claims to fame is that she argues selfishness is better than altruism. 

Conservative politicians are seeing increased relevance in Rand’s objectivism as America seems to be moving more toward collectivism and against individualism.  Although Barack Obama says that he has nothing against people getting rich, you can sense that his heart doesn’t really believe that.  In fact, his speeches clearly reveal that he values collectivism more than individualism.  That’s why he proudly claims his “community organizer” heritage.

According to Wikipedia, The Fountainhead scored 82 on the Rotten-Tomato test.  I think that is about right.

Rand has said that The Fountainhead was an overture to her book, Atlas Shrugged, which extends Rand’s philosophy of individualism (objectivism) beyond the artistic field of architecture in to all of business.  Lovers of that magnum opus are excited that a film adaptation is due out this spring.

February 3, 2011

Secession in the 21st century

I recently blogged that I admire Rick Perry’s vision of federalism, as described in his book Fed Up.  My estimable historian friend from Austin, Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez, responded that Perry’s version of federalism, with some reference to secession, dated back to ante-bellum days and was supposedly extirpated by the Civil War.

Robert is a lifelong Texan who was doubly blessed to graduate from both Texas A&M and UT-Austin Law, yet he is an unabashed supporter of the Union.  By way of contrast, I am a transplanted Texas from North Dakota who is drawn to the principle of States’ Rights. 

Robert recently earned his Masters Degree in History with a Civil-War emphasis, and during one of my visits to Austin a couple of years ago, we discussed the issue of States’ Rights in the context of secession.  I wondered how the northern states could have felt so strongly about the Union in 1860 that they were willing to go to engage in America’s deadliest war to prevent secession.  After all, this country had seceded from England less than a century earlier. 

I suggested to Robert that there was no way people in the 21st century would fight and die over whether a state – e.g., California – should be allowed to leave the union; especially if the war did not involve a huge moral evil like slavery (or some would say abortion).  Academics call my position “The Choice” theory of secession.  As Thomas Jefferson said:

  • If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation…to a continuance in union… I have no hesitation in saying, let us separate.”

Robert disagreed with Jefferson and me.  He believed that Americans still adhere to the precedent established by Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.  This is called “The Just Cause” theory of secession – i.e., secession only to rectify grave injustice.  The problem with that theory is that a grave in justice to me might be a minor accommodation to you. 

Since then, I have asked other friends the same question, and they tend to agree with Robert.  Further, a Zogby poll in 2008 reported that only 22% of Americans believe a state or region should have the right to secede.  Union, forever. 

Perhaps I am fundamentally a pacifist – like Jimmy Stewart in the movie Shenandoah or Mel Gibson in The Patriot.  I believe in what America stands for, but if some part of America doesn’t want to be a part of that team, I wouldn’t block their exit.

Wikipedia provides an interesting list of reasons to allow secession and a contrary list to prohibit it.  Maybe it’s just me, but the pro-secession list seems long and substantive while the anti-secession list seems short and fluffy.

Arguments to allow secession:

  • The right to liberty, freedom of association, and private property
  • Consent as important democratic principle; will of majority to secede should be recognized
  • Making it easier for states to join with others in an experimental union
  • Dissolving such union when goals for which it was constituted are not achieved
  • Self-defense when larger group presents lethal threat to minority or the government cannot adequately defend an area
  • Self-determination of peoples
  • Preserving culture, language, etc. from assimilation or destruction by a larger or more powerful group
  • Furthering diversity by allowing diverse cultures to keep their identity
  • Rectifying past injustices, especially past conquest by a larger power
  • Escaping “discriminatory redistribution,” i.e., tax schemes, regulatory policies, economic programs, etc. that distribute resources away to another area, especially in an undemocratic fashion
  • Enhanced efficiency when the state or empire becomes too large to administer efficiently
  • Preserving “liberal purity” (or “conservative purity”) by allowing less (or more) liberal regions to secede
  • Providing superior constitutional systems which allow flexibility of secession
  • Keeping political entities small and human scale through right to secession

Aleksandar Pavkovic, associate professor in Australia and the author of several books on secession describes five justifications for a general right of secession within liberal political theory:

  • Anarcho-Capitalism: individual liberty to form political associations and private property rights together justify right to secede and to create a “viable political order” with like-minded individuals.
  • Democratic Secessionism: the right of secession, as a variant of the right of self-determination, is vested in a “territorial community” which wishes to secede from “their existing political community”; the group wishing to secede then proceeds to delimit “its” territory by the majority.
  • Communitarian Secessionism: any group with a particular “participation-enhancing” identity, concentrated in a particular territory, which desires to improve its members’ political participation has a prima facie right to secede.
  • Cultural Secessionism: any group which was previously in a minority has a right to protect and develop its own culture and distinct national identity through seceding into an independent state.
  • The Secessionism of Threatened Cultures: if a minority culture is threatened within a state that has a majority culture, the minority needs a right to form a state of its own which would protect its culture.

Arguments against secession:

Allen Buchanan, who supports secession under limited circumstances, lists arguments that might be used against secession:

  • “Protecting Legitimate Expectations” of those who now occupy territory claimed by secessionists, even in cases where that land was stolen
  • “Self Defense” if losing part of the state would make it difficult to defend the rest of it
  • “Protecting Majority Rule” and the principle that minorities must abide by them
  • “Minimization of Strategic Bargaining” by making it difficult to secede, such as by imposing an exit tax
  • “Soft Paternalism” because secession will be bad for secessionists or others
  • “Threat of Anarchy” because smaller and smaller entities may choose to secede until there is chaos
  • “Preventing Wrongful Taking” such as the state’s previous investment in infrastructure
  • “Distributive Justice” arguments that wealthier areas cannot secede from poorer ones
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