Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Who Knows What is Good or Bad?

Last night I watched James Cameron’s Titanic. One of the twists of the film’s story is that Jack, the protagonist, was not supposed to be on that ship. Just before the Titanic sailed he won two tickets in a poker game with two Swedes. When one of the Swedes realized that the other had bet and lost their tickets to America, he punched his friend out. This appeared to be a disaster for the Swedes, and a triumph for Jack and his Italian friend.

After boarding, Jack and his friend ran down the corridor of the great ship’s third-class compartment, and Jack shouted, “We’re the luckiest sons-of-bitches in the world!”

This makes me think of a Chinese parable: One day a farmer’s only horse disappeared. When his neighbor came to console him the farmer said, “Who knows what’s good or bad?” The next day the farmer’s horse returned accompanied by a wild horse, and the neighbor came to congratulate him on his good fortune. “Who knows what’s good or bad?” said the farmer. The next day the farmer’s son broke his leg trying to ride the new horse, and the neighbor came to console him again. “Who knows what’s good or bad?” said the farmer. When the army passed through, conscripting men for war, they passed over the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. When the man came to congratulate the farmer that his son would be spared, again the farmer asked, “Who knows what’s good or bad?”

In the movie, Jack and his friend ended up dying, and the Swedes were now the luckiest sons-of-bitches in the world.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Portal of Awareness

In an earlier blog post I wrote about the “umwelt,” the individual view of the world created by a creature’s unique physiological ability to perceive its environment. For example, the internal model of reality of a blind bat is built through sonar, which creates a very different umwelt than that of a keen-eyed hawk that can spot a mouse from hundreds of feet in the air.

As another example, my husband Arthur is always smelling things that I can’t smell, and he’s often astonished at my inability to detect odors that he finds strong. But those smells just do not exist in my umwelt.

I thought of umwelt again because Arthur is working on an archival project, transferring tapes of singer-songwriters he recorded in the 1970s into an audio-editing software and burning CDs. One musician’s songs are marred by a hideous tape squeal—to my ears. Arthur couldn’t hear it and none of our friends could hear it either. But to me it was so loud it made the CD unlistenable. Arthur and I opened that musician’s computer file and I manipulated the EQ setting, creating a narrow band of lowered volume that I slid up and down the frequency scale until I’d removed the squeal (at about 8300 Hz). Then I played a song, toggling the EQ on and off as Arthur tried to hear the squeal. What was loud and obvious to me was completely nonexistent to him. This sound did not exist in Arthur’s umwelt.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Don't Want To. Must.

Filmmaker Fritz Lang is best known today for his masterpiece Metropolis. He made other great films, one of which is entitled M.

M is a powerful film about compulsion and free will. Spoiler alert: A serial killer is murdering children, and the police are struggling to find the perpetrator. In their desperate hunt, the police harass the city’s criminals in their hangouts and generally interfere with their business. The criminals realize that to get the police off their back they need to find the murderer themselves.

Peter Lorre plays the murderer, and he brilliantly portrays the emotions generated by his compulsion: lustful attraction, agonized repulsion, and the irresistible pull towards action.

The criminals catch Lorre and put him on trial. Lorre tries to explain that he couldn’t help himself: he was compelled to commit the murders and regretted them later. At one point he cries in anguish, “Don’t want to. Must! Don’t want to. Must!” One of the criminals is assigned to play Lorre’s defense counsel, and he offers an inspired argument: if Lorre was truly incapable of acting otherwise, he couldn’t be found guilty.

I’ve given away the outlines of the plot, but this film is well worth watching both on its general merits, and also as a powerful statement about free will, the uncontrollable nature of compulsion, and what that means about punishment.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Is There Such a Thing as Race?

Think about race. What comes to mind? If you’re like most people, you think of White (Caucasian), Black (Negroid), and Asian (Mongoloid). Maybe with a little reflection you add Native American. (The terms in parentheses are the scientific names for these races.)

These categories basically conform to the racial categories I grew up with, which we crudely called white, black, yellow, and red.

Now ask yourself: What is the meaning of race? Does it mean there are significant differences between groups based on variations in physical characteristics? Does it mean differences in abilities as well?

Do you think one race is superior to others in athleticism? Do you point to the number of black football and basketball players, or the winners of the 100-yard dash at the Olympics?

Do you think that one race is superior in intelligence? Do you point to the results of IQ tests that show Caucasians and Asians with higher average IQs than those of Negroid extraction?

Let’s think of regions of the world. What race are Mexicans—are they white? What race are Egyptians—are they black? What race are Indians—are they Asian? What race are Australian aborigines? Think about Europe. Are the blond, blue-eyed, fair-skinned Norwegians the same race as the dark-haired, dark-eyed, dark-skinned Spaniards? How do you draw the lines that separate races? What is the basis for the categories?

Now let’s think of specific people. What race is the current president of the United States? Barack Obama is commonly called the “first black president.” But he is equally Negroid and Caucasian. He is just as much “white” as he is “black.” To label him as a member of just the one and not the other is absurd.