Friday, May 27, 2005

Yet another study has come out to highlight how different women's minds are from men's. Their findings, which include an implication that men tend to be overconfident of their ability to solve puzzles, are probably valid. Men as a group may indeed have a higher opinion of their own abilities -- such has been the basis of a lot of really bad sitcom humor. Women as a group may indeed be more collaberative and risk-averse in nature and less eager to compete, especially with the opposite sex.
To which I'd have to reply, So what?
The highest performing women in the study appear to have been as logical, rational, competitive and intellectually advanced as the highest performing men. They may even have been just as rude and tactless as the men. Does that mean that they must have made a mistake when filling out the "gender" portion of the registration? Perhaps the error was with the researchers. Maybe the high performing women were really men named "Sidney," "Gerry" and "Kris" and the researchers mistook their gender.
Or maybe, just maybe, these studies are completely beside the point in predicting the abilities and behavior of individuals. I'm in my late 40's and I like a lot of the music my teen-aged son listens to. Does that mean one of us is not really the age and/or gender we say we are?
When opportunities are stage managed to get the highest number of an under-represented group into the mix, studies like this can be helpful. We should all care whether schools and colleges in minority-majority areas are doing a good job of educating their citizens. That's why it is at least marginally valid, for instance, to count the number of Spanish and Native American students who enter, and succeed in, the University of New Mexico's undergraduate honors program.
Studies that rely on percentages and group behavior can give you a rate of expected success and failure of a group. They are absolutely useless, however, in actually predicting the success or failure of individuals. They can lead to dangerous stereotyping. It is also dangerous to judge strangers based on their similarities to people you are close to. I suspect that some of the over-reaction to the comments Lawrence Summers made about women and science were in response to his using his own daughters as examples.
I would love to be able to generalize about the abilities and attitudes of high school and college students based on my own children and my niece and nephews. Both my daughter and my niece are level-headed young women, competitive athletes, good students and sensible in their dealings with boys. My son and all my nephews are good students, good athletes, to varying high degree creative and artistic as well as kind and fair in their dealings with other people. In my opinion, this world would be looking forward to a much better future if I could trust my small sample group to be truly representative.
If I say that they are all athletic, though, that doesn't begin to tell you which of them were offered athletic scholarships in school, or how important that was to any one of them. If I say they are all nice people, that doesn't even predict which of them you would like if you met them.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


inheriting Social Security?

The Cato Institute is running an ad in favor of Social Security reform. The arguments they give are presented in three categories: Ownership, Inheritability and Choice. I would expect any plan favored by this particular group (the Cato Institute is famously pro-free enterprise and politically libertarian) to feature investment choices for individual workers.
I haven't looked at their most recent specifics, but many of their past suggestions have been clear-headed and realistic in focus. Choice I can see. But what part of original Social Security safety net addressed ownership and heritability? President Bush talked about turning retirement accounts into family wealth at one (probably more than one) of his town meetings in the spring, and it had caught my ear at that time as well. Am I missing something? Is what I learned back in high school in the 1970's wrong?
It seems to me that we may be confusing the language used to sell the retirement safety net to the public at large with the program as it was actually set up. The plan that we now call Social Security was always a "pay-as-you-go" system. That means the contributions of current workers paid for the benefits of current retirees. Otherwise, where would the money for the original beneficiaries have come from? If social security accounts were actually owned by individual workers, there would be no looming crisis for baby boomers. The money would have been sitting there waiting for us, instead of paying for current programs.
I am a big fan of the Cato Institute. But here is what I think is un-American about their plans for Social Security: The program was never intended to be a protector or enabler of inherited wealth. I was taught that the rule of society by a few well-known and well-propertied families was one of the main things our forefathers came here to get away from. Is that a misreading of history?

Sunday, May 22, 2005


an old joke

I just saw this, it's not new or original but I liked it...
(Original was 2 Conservative and 1 Labour British MPs:)
The story is told of three congressmen, two Republicans and one Democrat, on some fact-finding trip (read: boondoggle) and find that their hotel has one room with two beds and one single. They agree to accommodate along party lines - the two Republicans will share the twin room.
At breakfast the first morning, the Democrat bumps into one of the Republicans and asks him how he slept. "Awfully! My colleague is a terrible snorer." Says the Democrat, "Ok, I know what to do. You take my room tonight, I'll share."
Next morning, the two meet again. Asks the Republican, "How did you sleep?"
"Oh, fine," says the Democrat.
"Didn't he snore?"
"Well," says the Democrat, "As we went to bed, I said, ‘kiss me goodnight, dearie' and he stayed awake the entire night."

Friday, May 13, 2005


art and science: academic questions

A college student sent me the outline draft of a paper she was working on. My questions are in italics....

There is a striking difference between trying to answer the questions of life through the eyes of science and trying to use religion and art works to find meaning in life. Although both kinds of thinking are products of human creativity, people have created a huge gap between the two sides and even set up an opposition about which kind of thinking is the "right" way. Humans used to have ultimate faith in the idea that God would eventually provide all the answers, or if He did not give the answers in this life, the belief in an afterlife would save humans from the futility and finitude of physical existence. Science has begun to overthrow blind faith in a god by disproving certain things in the Bible and other religious documents. Why have humans made the gap so wide and therefore irreversible? Where does this increasing gap leave humans (what
comes next in the process)? Can we really be satisfied with merely scientific ends (do we need religion and if so does the individual need it or does society need it)?{Are you willing to accept this dichotomy? Are you arguing that the pursuit of science is free of ethical underpinning?}

Works of art used to be revered as the real embodiment of Divinity (example: Greek statues of gods actually were the god, not a mere representation). "Art no longer affords that satisfaction of spiritual needs which earlier ages and nations sought in it" (Hegel's Aesthetics 10). Art is not as closely linked with religion as it once was; it has become more of a pastime than something really meaningful. {Might this reflect our constant modern need to be entertained? Could this also reflect our attitude toward religious observance?}

According to Freud's The Future of an Illusion, humans have a fear of nature (26). In order to defend ourselves against nature and make communal existence possible, mankind created culture. All works of culture are a product of the human need to protect itself against nature's wrath. In the natural sciences, man merely tries to understand nature and is still "helplessly paralyzed" under the power of nature. In order to escape this paralysis, we anthropomorphize the forces of nature as acts of an "evil Will" and place a personified God as the creator of nature. By placing nature in the realm of humans, we are no longer required to fear it as a spontaneous element of destruction. Man can now try to appease and bribe the personified creator as if He had the same human desires of man. If humans can succeed in appeasing God, then he will theoretically either stop the destruction of nature, or provide an afterlife to make up for physical life. Thus man is able to believe that he has a certain amount of control over nature. {How is this supposed feeling of control reflected in art? Is art also about control?}

"...(T)he young scientists now feel that they are part of a culture on the rise while the other [artistic, literary intellectual culture] is in retreat" (C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures 19). Humans have a need to understand everything and in order to do this they turn to science or religion. Religion provides indirect answers that must be accepted solely on faith. Science, on the other hand, provides results which can be physically tested and proven. Science is closer to physical human experience. Man has begun to give up some religious dogma in order to trust something real rather than something intangible and (in many cases) unexplainable. {How does imagination further the cause of science? Is this different from the artistic impulse?}

C. P. Snow presents the "two cultures" as the scientific culture and the "traditional" culture. The traditional culture is concerned with literature, art, and religion. "There seems to be no place where the cultures meet." This is largely because "the two cultures can't talk to each other" (Snow 17). The things that one culture find interesting and worthwhile are the most pointless pursuits for the other culture. A person from the scientific side may not have read many works of Shakespeare or Kant, but the person who has read such things may not know what is meant by mass or acceleration. The cultures do not wish to know even the basics of the

other culture, so they grow farther and farther apart. They will continue to grow apart as long as they cannot communicate and exchange interests. {Again, is it part of your thesis that the two be mutually exclusive?}

Can man continue to widen the gap or is there to be an inevitable end to one side? It seems that, logically, religion should decline in order to allow the rise of science to continue. Society, however, (according to Freud) needs religion so that humans will have a defense against "the crushing supremacy of nature" (37). Religion provides a father figure for society so that the individual is not forced to cling to his father of childhood. Without society, each individual would be driven by individual instincts and chaos would be the result as each human killed according to his immediate drives. Religion allows man to be bound into a society and the laws of such a society (driven in many cases by the morals sprung from religion) prevent chaos. So, religion is necessary to prevent chaos, but it is really just an illusion man uses to escape the fact that nature as a whole is much more powerful than man. If science can bring man a greater understanding of nature, it seems as though science should be able to supersede religion because man will no longer fear the power of nature if he understands it. According to Freud, however, it is "natural to man to personify everything that he wishes to comprehend, in order that later he may control it" (39). Not with science, but with religion does man personify nature and make it a product of a "person" (God). If science is to take over completely, man must let go of his need to control everything. The need to control is innate (for Freud) and so man can never escape religion. Science seems to be eliminating religion, but science cannot control, it can merely get a closer understanding of something. The personification inherent in religion is still necessary. {What about those branches of science that bring technological advancement? Don’t they point to a scientific attempt to control the natural world?}


update on Fredy Neptune

Just a note on the availability of the book: Fredy Neptune came out in hardcover in 1999. I very much doubt there was ever a paperback. Check your local public library. The Rio Grande Valley library system in Albuquerque has two copies under call number "821 Murray." That's call number 821.914 at the Evanston Public library, on the second floor.
And if you discover a taste for the long narrative poem, look for Moses, a narrative by Anthony Burgess (1976). The Chicago Public Library has a few copies under either fiction or call number PR6073.I4678M6.

Friday, May 06, 2005


If you didn't read "Fredy Neptune" when it first came out, go find a copy.

I have been running around doing errands today, so I'm cheating by using an old book review (a brief) I wrote of one of my favorite books, back when I used to read for a living.....

Fredy Neptune: A Novel in Verse by Les Murray (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), hardcover, $27.50

My house is small, so I give away most of these review copies after I finish them. This one's a keeper. Murray's narrative poetry is easier to read than most prose, and certainly moves faster. The form serves as shorthand for what could have been a long, unwieldy saga in prose. Trimmed of the unnecessary baggage of setting and explanation, it's a fictional piece of oral history. A poet constructs sentences and phrases according to speech patterns and lyrical rhythms, and that's exactly how this book is written.

The story runs from a little before the beginning of World War I to a little after the end of World War II. The narrator is Fred Boettcher, a hyphenated Australian whose childhood language is German. As if being a German-speaking subject of the British crown isn't complicated enough, Fred develops leprosy while roaming the Eastern Mediterranean and eventually loses tactile sensation throughout his body. With the numbness comes phenomenal strength; our hero reckons it's because he can't feel the strain on his muscles.

Fred (a.k.a. Friedrich, F.W. Beecher, and Fredy Neptune the strongman, among others) may be numb, but he has feelings. He encounters some of the most horrifying events of this century and manages to be present for some of the best-known. Always trying to return to his family in Australia, he sails all seven seas, appears as an extra in Hollywood movies, and rescues a retarded teenager from castration in Hitler's Germany. And that's before breakfast.

Physically, he is largely uninjured by the violence that surrounds him, but he remembers everything and takes it all very much to heart. He goes everywhere and does everything, but rarely in first class. Instead, he finds out what trench warfare is like for the soldier at the bottom, what riding the rails is like for a starving hobo, and what welfare is like for the landless. He handles his forays into society with irony and his frequent descents with humor.

Get over your fear of long poems. Read this.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005


This was from mid-April:

Yesterday when I turned on my television I happened upon George Stephanopoulos interviewing Maria Shriver about her new book, And One More Thing Before You Go.... She was talking about the experience of sending a daughter off to college. I was a little confused. Maria Shriver doesn’t have a daughter in college. Her oldest child was born in 1989, which would make her a freshman or sophomore in high school. So what makes Ms. Shriver (or Mrs. Schwarzenegger) such an expert on this experience? Well, she says she’s got nieces and friends’ daughters that she is close to. Here’s a news flash for the former NBC reporter: It’s not the same when it’s not your kid.

I’m not here to criticize Maria Shriver Schwartzenegger, who appears to be a genuinely thoughtful and articulate woman. It is to her credit that she focuses in her book on her real experience, as a daughter taking in words of wisdom from her mother. My quarrel is not with the first lady of California for taking the opportunity to push her new book on national television. What bothered me about the interview was how totally removed it was from anybody’s real life.

The Schwartzeneggers have four children. None of them will ever have to worry about how they will afford college, or whether their high school is spending too much money on drug and weapons searches and not enough on academic programs. Once they graduate, they will be able to get jobs in whatever field interests them. The opportunities will be there. What executive wouldn’t want to interview a child of Maria and Arnold, a Kennedy grandchild to boot? Even if that illustrious offspring is lazy or untalented (which there is no reason to expect) their mere presence on the payroll would be an unmatchable piece of public relations.

I have a daughter in college. I happen to think that she is a brilliant student and totally worthwhile person -- and there are even people not related to her who agree with me. I have had conversations with other parents who have kids in college, and we worry about things that are not part of the Shriver-Kennedy-Schwarzenegger nexus. We talk about things like, will my child get enough financial aid to stay at the college where she is so happy and successful? Will she be able to attend an overseas program in her major or will the airfare cost too much? If she decides on a career in the arts, or international economics, or sports management, will she be able to get a job?

As Americans, my children have access to more opportunity than most of the world’s people. But I worry. I worry that a society that is more interested in celebrity than skill will require them to settle for less in life than is available to Chelsea Clinton and Paris Hilton. I worry that, in a system based less on merit and more on connections, they will not be well-connected. Maria Shriver talked about giving back to the community. That is a very noblesse oblige sentiment. I worry that in order to remember the “little” people, you more and more have to be one of the “big” people to start with.

Shriver has always had a choice. I hope my children will have choices, and that the choices they make will be charitable and altruistic. I hope that at some point we will go back to being the kind of society where achievement is more respected than inherited wealth and name recognition. I hope that there are still people in the media and publishing world who respond to more than just being “famous for being famous.” I hope that people who buy into the idea of fame for its own sake realize that they themselves may have accomplished more in life than a famous name.

Americans still have a chance to build a society free of useless aristocracy and dedicated to equal opportunity. I worry that we’ll be so dazzled by celebrity worship that we’ll let that chance go away. Ultimately, this isn’t about my daughter, or Maria Shriver’s niece. It’s about returning to values that can make America and the world a better place for generations to come.


TV comment: Grey's Anatomy

O.K., here's a preview of the way my mind works. I'm not going to talk about the runaway bride because that is one particular spoiled symbol of regressive values who has gotten way more than her share of attention. I'm even less interested in the sad example who "found" a finger in her chili. While I wait for the ridiculous but entertaining and strangely compelling "Boston Legal" to come back on the air, I've been putting up with yet another good-looking-actors-working-the-hospital drama, namely "Grey's Anatomy." First of all, I'm not nearly as interested in their social lives as the writers seem to think I should be. The best workplace dramas and comedies stay with (surprise!) the workplace. Second, I fail to see why -- with all the better looking and more interesting women working in the vicinity -- almost all the men in this particular hospital are so smitten with the ordinary-looking, squeeky-voiced whiner Meredith Grey. I do give points to this and other recent "dramas" for enforcing the soap opera appearance standard on the men as well as the women. If we can't go to an entertainment world where people look normal, at least hire model types for the male as well as the female characters.

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