Agora (The Movie)

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Agora, Alejandro Amenábar’s costume melodrama starring Rachel Weisz, is loosely based on one version of the story of how the ancient library at Alexandria was destroyed (perhaps for the second time) in the fourth century A.D.. There’s no doubt that the film has a negative view of religion in general, and of early Christianity in particular (although Pagans and Jews come off rather badly as well). But the film is not unequivocally anti-Christian, as some have charged; even the priest viewed as responsible for the most evil acts in the film is portrayed as sincerely championing charity at one point. In any case, putting aside the film’s claim to being “based on a true story” (which of course is hardly a claim to historical accuracy), what you have in Agora is a rousing pro-Rationality, pro-Science theme that is hard to find anywhere in popular culture these days, and that’s refreshing.

The film centers around Rachel Weisz’s Hypatia, a Platonist philosopher, astronomer and mathematician who (the film suggests) might have figured out the elliptical geometry of a sun-centered solar system long before Copernicus was born. When she is murdered by the superstitious, misogynistic mob, thereby becoming a martyr for reason and rationality, its enough to bring a tear to any philosopher’s eye. It certainly did mine, but I’m a sucker for bold, beautiful rationalists standing on principle and refusing to give in to brutal dogmatists.

Here’s the trailer, which, as usual, doesn’t do the movie justice-

Tony Judt’s Note To Tenured Professors

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Tony Judt was an outspoken NYU history professor, writer, and “public intellectual” who died August 10th of ALS. Eight days before his death, he gave to Charlie Rose what was to be his last interview. At the end of the interview, Rose asked him what he was most proud of in his life. After mentioning his children, this is how he responded-

I think I’ve always said what I think and not what I thought I ought to think. Whether as a teacher, an op-ed writer, public intellectual, whatever that is… It means that sometimes I was right, sometimes wrong, sometimes smart, sometimes dumb… But I never have to look back and say, oh God, I wish I hadn’t compromised on that…

I think that we, privileged, tenured professors who can’t be sacked, who can’t be told what to say, who don’t have a contract, and basically have a lifetime job if we wanted… We have an obligation to speak our mind much more than someone who could – in theory at least – suffer for expressing an opinion. There’s no justification for academic tenure if you’re not willing to say, both in and out of the University, unpopular things if you think they’re true. I think I can say that I never screwed up on that. At least, that is a source of small but real pride.

Whatever one might think of Judt’s political views (the most controversial of which, perhaps, being his promotion of a “one-state solution” for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), it’s hard to find fault with his honesty and willingness to express himself. As the mass media becomes increasingly anti-intellectual and willfully ignorant (the trend is evident everywhere other than PBS), the relative reticence of intellectuals becomes more and more troubling.

The Fox River Trail

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The Fox River Trail is a 25-mile multi-use recreational trail that runs from Green Bay (corner of of S. Adams and Polier St.) to Ott Road north of Hilbert. The first ten miles out of Green Bay are paved, which makes for a great 20-mile bike ride. East-West country roads with wooded hills (such a rarity in these parts!) to the East beckon along the way, but I didn’t have time to explore them today. I just rode from Green Bay to a few miles south of Greenleaf – about 30 miles round trip. Here are a couple of shots of the paved portion (taken with my iPhone 4 camera). As you can see, it was a beautiful August day, around 80 degrees, with very little wind…

Here’s a portion of the trail that runs along the Fox River in Green Bay-

Ron Johnson’s Willful Ignorance

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We might not have absolute proof of man-made global warming (since science never proves anything with absolute certainty), but we definitely have firm evidence of Republican Senate Candidate Ron Johnson’s willful ignorance of the science of man-made global warming. Not only does he hypothesize that sun spots are causing global warming (when he could discover with a couple of clicks that this explanation has been thoroughly debunked), he also claims that rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not a problem because “it’s sucked down by trees and helps trees grow”. Of course, if this eliminated the problem, there wouldn’t be rising levels of CO2.

Don’t get me wrong: reasonable people can and should disagree about what economic policies to adopt in response to rising levels of CO2 due to human activities, but to claim that it’s not a problem at all is simply irresponsible, especially for someone who wishes to have a great deal of power over others.

The video interview in which he expresses his views about global warming seems to be disappearing from many sites due to copyright claims, but the last time I checked it was still available here or here.

Although I probably wouldn’t support him anyway, I’d like to able to feel some modicum of pride that a fellow Oshkoshian is running for the U.S. Senate. But Mr. Johnson is making that very, very hard to do.

The Business of Education

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In an otherwise depressing New York Times article about how a few universities are addressing their budget woes by eliminating liberal arts majors such as philosophy, there is a glimmer of hope that even if four-year universities become mere vocational training grounds for businesses and corporations, this may not lead to a devaluation of the sorts of general skills that liberal arts majors provide-

There’s evidence, though, that employers also don’t want students specializing too soon. The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently asked employers who hire at least 25 percent of their workforce from two- or four-year colleges what they want institutions to teach. The answers did not suggest a narrow focus. Instead, 89 percent said they wanted more emphasis on “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing,” 81 percent asked for better “critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills” and 70 percent were looking for “the ability to innovate and be creative.”

Facebook: the last straw

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Okay, this is the last straw. I just received the following “Free iPad” scam from my wife’s Facebook address-

As soon as you click on the topmost link, you get re-directed to a page at “r.better-gifts.net”. After giving them your email address, you’re invited to fill out the following form (to get your free iPad)-

Notice the list of marketing partners from whom I can now expect to receive a call on my cell phone (that is, a call I would pay for). Who knows what further circles of hell one might enter by continuing on…

Even worse, if you click on the bottom link for more information, after logging into Facebook you get sent to this page, which is supposedly created by my wife Cheryl (she had nothing to do with it)-

Now, the problem isn’t that I would ever fall for a scam like this. I wouldn’t. Nor would Cheryl, who had nothing to do with any of this (other than being a Facebook member). But the fact that Facebook’s infrastructure allows me – and all of my wife’s other Facebook friends – to receive an email and other notifications from her account promoting this scam is the last straw. I’m out of Facebook. For good.

On Hitchens and Hospice

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A couple of media stories serendipitously came together in my experience this week: Anderson Cooper’s interview with Christopher Hitchens, which focused on Hitchens’ recent cancer diagnosis, and a Fresh Air interview with Dr. Atul Gawande on the subject of his recent article in the New Yorker: hospice medical care for the dying. Hitchens seems to be facing the likelihood of his own imminent demise with the same intellectual fortitude as the many other subjects about which he’s opined, so I’m sure he would appreciate Gawande’s article (which I hope he’s read). As it turns out, all of the nonsense about “death panels” in last year’s debate over health insurance reform obscured a very important point: not only can further treatment of disease sometimes be useless, in many cases it can be positively counterproductive. Gawande writes-

Like many people, I had believed that hospice care hastens death, because patients forgo hospital treatments and are allowed high-dose narcotics to combat pain. But studies suggest otherwise. In one, researchers followed 4,493 Medicare patients with either terminal cancer or congestive heart failure. They found no difference in survival time between hospice and non-hospice patients with breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer. Curiously, hospice care seemed to extend survival for some patients; those with pancreatic cancer gained an average of three weeks, those with lung cancer gained six weeks, and those with congestive heart failure gained three months. The lesson seems almost Zen: you live longer only when you stop trying to live longer.

However Hitchens decides to deal with the final stages of his esophageal cancer (a disease that took my own father’s life in his late 50s – an age I’m fast approaching), I hope he continues to express his opinions as freely as he has in the past. While I haven’t always agreed with him, we have far too few intellectuals who are willing to speak out on important issues these days (but no lack of anti-intellectuals who are more than willing to do so).

Ron Johnson and Charles Murray

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I was pleasantly surprised to see that the lead story in today’s Northwestern – Oshkosh’s local newspaper, which is not known for its investigative journalism – was an article digging into the educational views of Ron Johnson, the candidate who has been endorsed by the Republican party to run against Senator Russ Feingold this Fall. To make a long story short, Johnson is apparently a great admirer of Charles Murray’s book “Real Education”, a follow-up to Murray’s more famous (many would say infamous) “The Bell Curve”. I’ve read neither book, but I’ve read plenty of commentary on “The Bell Curve”, whose central thesis is that IQ determines success in our culture, and that various races differ in their average IQ scores. If I understand Murray correctly, this is supposed to help explain the social and economic disparities we observe around us. The (perhaps less controversial) argument of “Real Education”, as the Northwestern article characterizes it, is that many students are encouraged to pursue degrees at 4-year universities even though they do not have IQs high enough to successfully obtain them; hence, students should be segregated by IQ early in their academic careers, and only high-IQ students should be encouraged to attend 4-year universities. Lower-IQ students should be encouraged to achieve their potentials by fully developing their non-academic skills.

If this is all there is to Murray’s proposal in “Real Education”, on the surface it doesn’t seem unreasonable. As a professor at a 4-year public university, I am well aware that many first- and second-year students either are badly prepared by their high schools for college-level work, or else are simply incapable of doing it. However, it should be obvious that high-IQ but unmotivated students can fail, while relatively lower-IQ but highly motivated students can succeed. So, insofar as motivation levels can be hard to predict, a government policy of directing only high-IQ students to 4-year colleges is bound to be unfair. The current system of allowing students with marginal grades and test scores to enroll in college and to confirm (or disconfirm) that they are capable of doing the work seems fairer, if a bit less efficient, than directing them elsewhere from the get-go.

But it is also important to note that the liberal arts programs at 4-year universities have historically served a purpose other than merely preparing students to enter the work force: this is to help them develop an awareness of the natural and social world’s complexity, and, most importantly, to help them develop an ability to reason critically and creatively about that complexity. The concern I have about educational programs that focus entirely on occupational skills is that critical and creative reasoning skills might be neglected (as they often are in high schools that are forced to “teach to the test”), leading to a citizenry that can all-too-easily be manipulated by those in power. High-IQ students might be able to develop such skills on their own; it is precisely the average or somewhat below-average student that, it seems to me, can most benefit from even a couple of years such education.

That said, I think that educators must be careful not to dumb-down the requirements for a bachelor’s degree just to accommodate the less academically gifted. We don’t need simply more citizens with degrees; we need more citizens with degrees indicating that they have developed meaningful cognitive skills. This means that grade inflation must scrupulously be avoided. But that’s a topic for another post.