Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Week and I on dogs, security, and emotions

One of my favorite news magazines is “the Week” which does a great job of presenting many sides of issues rationally and objectively, I have a real hard time finding any bias in it. I highly recommend this publication. Here are some notes from a recent issue.

From “The Week” March 10 2006

Americans spent $14.3 Billion on dog food in 2004. That’s $10 billion more than we spent on baby food - The Washington post

I am beginning to believe that the ratio of dogs to babies is a clear sign of the downfall of a population. What city in the US tops the list? … San Francisco has more than four times as many dogs as children under 5. Do people eventually crave the unconditional affection of a semi-consciousness being that much? Is it any surprise that a city with the highest population of frustrated tyrants and wannabe social engineers desires as many of their own test subjects as possible to lead around? There are so many dogs in San Francisco that the city is contemplating collecting Dog waste in order to generate power. You can take your dog to a clothing pet store on Gough Street called, tellingly enough Babies Says one patron “"I absolutely love this store but not as much as my dog Arkus Barkus probably does. We just bought him the coolest sweater and more toys.” San Francisco dog owners are not owners any more, but Guardians, according to it’s Dog Court Whats next, a doggy bill of rights?

What changes are bred in a population that leads them to value pets over children? With some 2/3rds of American house holds owning pets and few and fewer having children, one has to ask what the consequences of these trends will be. When a society as a whole starts to value getting a pet over having children (ok, im biased being a cat lover, but hey, at leasts cats are semi independent and not inept retarded parasites like most dogs) Who will be the productive beings of new generations creating the new technologies and making the new discoveries to lead man into space and beyond? It won’t be Arkus Barkus, that’s for sure…

Loving County in west Texas is the emptiest county in the United States, with only 71 people, two roads, and on café spread among its 645 square miles. Still, it recently received $30,000 in anti-terrorism funds from the Department of Homeland Security - The New York Times

Great, what a wonderfully efficient use of funds, I believe Bin Laden specifically mentioned Loving County as a target in one of his audio tapes.

On Booting Summers out of Harvard
“The truth is far shabbier,” said Peter Beinart in The New Republic. The faculty forced summers out “because he wanted them to care about something beyond themselves.” Even among academics, tenured Harvard Ph.D.s lead an absurdly pampered life. They teach an average of only 28 weeks a year. Their courses and publications are built around “obscure micro topics” of interest to themselves and maybe a few dozen people in the world. Summers had the audacity “to ask various departments to explain why their research mattered,” and to argue that undergraduates deserved a better education for their $41,000 a year. By all accounts, the students loved him for advocating their interests; according to a Harvard Crimson survey, they felt he should stay by a 3-to-1 ratio. Summers is gone for one reason: He asked Harvard “to serve the nation, not merely itself” In academia today, that’s apparently too much to ask.

Peter Bienart is one of my favorite liberal writers, up their with Christopher Hitchens, he is the editor of The New Republic, and is usually extremely rational and principled, as his comments on the ousting of Harvard’s president demonstrate.

Stop thinking so hard
When it comes to big life decisions, it’s best to think with your gut. A new study has found that thinking too hard and too long, in fact, leads to decisions you’ll later regret. Researches at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands asked 80 people to think over major life choices, such as the purchase of a house or car, or a move to a faraway town. Half of the participants were then given a series of puzzles and brainteasers to distract them before they gave an answer. With little time to agonize, these people made snap decisions – and ended up being more satisfied in the end. People who deliberated carefully – delving deeply into the data and drawing up lists of pros and cons – ended unhappy with their choices. The results indicate that complex problems are better sorted in our unconscious minds, which have an instinctive wisdom in weighing multiple factors. “At some point in our evolution, we started to make our decisions consciously,” Ap Dijksterhuis tells New Scientist. “And we’re not very good at it. We should learn to let our unconscious handle the complicated things”

Whew, where to begin on this one. First off the description of this experiment begs further investigation, but presuming the conditions of the experiment were up to par and it was all handled very scientifically, then as an admirer of Rand I have to recognize how much this study coincides with a lot of what she said about *what* exactly our emotions are. If they are the logical extensions of our deepest convictions, it’s clear why this works. There is no ‘instinct’ or mystical gut reaction involved. The brain is a complex distributive network pattern recognition system and will recognize and react to things without the hindrance of the conscious mind recognizing it. Over analyzing a difficult choice could move you farther and farther away from those reflexive long ingrained reactions to scenarios. But embellishing a gut feeling when you do not base your emotions on rational goals or values is more dangerous, since your intuition will lead you down whatever random whim happens to catch your fancy. One wonders how these people can conduct decent scientific experiments when they toss around things like “instinctive wisdom” but I’ll have to chalk this up as empirical edification of Rand’s assessment of our emotions.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

This weekend I saw a performance of the musical Chicago at the university my friend is attending. I had not yet seen this story on stage or in film, and was not overly familiar with it beyond having to do with some dancers and murder. The performance I saw was very enjoyable as far as productions by college students go, and a good friend of mine had a major role in it. Overall the cast did a good job on the show. But the story itself is terrible; philosophically. In fact it should be renamed to “How to get away with killing your husband by promulgating moral relativism”

The Author and Philosopher Ayn Rand, whom I am a great admirer of, wrote often about how art should serve as a philosophical ideal, representing the way things ought to be in order to inspire us and provide ‘spiritual fuel’ as she said. Most art serves both as a reflection of predominant cultural philosophical trends and a driving force behind those cultural ideas, unfortunately the philosophical ideals being promulgated by much of the art we experience today is very unhealthy when held up to any standard with life as it’s core.

Everybody forms their ideas about philosophy, including ethics and their purpose in the world, primarily through the people, movies, music, and art that surrounds them. Of course some develop those ideas through deep introspection, but these are the exception that make an active effort to study philosophy. The ideas I chastise in Chicago are present all over the place in media and in the saying and phrases people repeat to themselves in order to get by. I don’t know whether the writers of Chicago, which came to Broadway in 1975, really embraced this ethical ambiguity and were trying to promulgate those ideas or were merely reflecting predominate ethical trends, but the philosophical ‘crime’ remains the same. They are either aiding and abetting or are an active participant in the undermining of any rational philosophical basis for ethics, advocating worldviews which lead to a lot of pain and suffering.

With that, let me give a refresher to those who may not have seen this show in a while and an overview to those who have not seen it at all. The show starts out with Roxy cheating on her husband. The man she is cheating on her husband with is ready to walk out right after they finish doing the deed and Roxy, insulted by this, shoots and kills him. She convinces her husband that the man was a burgler, but during questioning by police she confesses to the nature of the crime. She is carted off to a jail where women who are charged with murder reside.

At this prison we are given a song by these women accused of murder called “he had it coming” where each proceeds to not only admit that she murdered her husband / significant other (in one case murdered him and the person he was having an affair with) but to essentially (as the song title shows) blame it on the victims. The theme of the song was satirical and had the audience laughing. I sat stunned, what if we had a prison of accused rapists who were singing a song called “she had it coming” How would they react to that? Or a group of Homophobes singing about how their gay victims were asking for it (this was the same school and cast which performed the Laramie project a few months earlier, where the perpetrators of the murder of Matthew Shepherd claimed just that) The audience would have been, rightly so, absolutely horrified, but when it is women talking about murdering their cheating boyfriends and husbands, it’s funny?

We are then treated with a song by a reporter insisting that there is a little bid of good in all of us. It’s a nice thought, superficially, that even in the worst person there is some good. But to say something like that means you must be holding actions up against a standard of good and bad, or right and wrong, in the first place. When we look at actions, like murder or rape, and compare it against the norm and find it to be bad, surely we must recognize the degree or the severity of the infraction. Stealing something is bad, but it is not as wrong as killing someone. Likewise morally virtuous actions must have a caliber associated with them. Slowing down in traffic to let someone merge is a decent thing to do when necessary, but how virtuous is it compared to staying true to your deepest ideals in the face of overwhelming opposition? So while Stalin may have been nice to his puppy, the fact that he had millions of people murdered can never be overshadowed no matter how many ‘good’ things he has done. While some of his actions might have been good, because of how many evils he had committed there is no way one could assert he has some good in him. Maybe if Stalin could live in a labor camp for a few million years he might be forgiven, but until then it corrupts the notion of good and bad to assert he had some good in him.

Additionally, such a statement undermines the very concept of good and bad, even though it purports to be based on it. If you accept without condition that everyone has some good in them it means that no matter how many horrible things they do, they are never completely vile. Conversely, it means that no matter how hard someone tries, he can never be good. This is because every statement automatically implies it’s corollary, and if one asserts that even in the worst of us lies some good, they are also asserting that even in the best of us lies some evil. So even though you are using good and bad to judge actions, no person can be good or bad. We hear this ethical abduction all the time in many forms, most commonly as “well, nobody’s perfect” with it’s implicit statement ‘so I won’t try to correct my faults’ left unsaid. Why even try? When no matter how hard you try you are destined to fail. This saying and idea is nothing less than one of the remnants of original sin in the secular west.

We are then treated to a duet by one of the inmates, admittedly guilty, and the prison warden about how there seems to be no class or ethics in society today. The talk about theft and bad manners, but conveniently avoid the topic of murder. Everyone tells me this was intended to be hypocritical, but the prison warden was no murderer and was part of the duet, so that interpretation is disingenuous.

The one woman who was innocent was found guilty and hung because she refused to lie, to admit to a crime she didn’t commit, and blame it on the victim. The two female leads, who both wantonly and callously murdered their significant others, got off through a series of lies and appeals to the jury. In the end they were freed and went on a road show together, and the play closes with the narrator saying “That’s America”

America is where the guilty get away with murdering their husbands by blaming it on the victim through legal maneuvering and the innocent hang for crimes they did not commit? Only in the eyes of the artistic intelligentsia of 1975 New York.