Saturday, July 31, 2010

Review of Inception [Bryan]

[Spoiler alert! Don't read this if you plan on seeing the film.]

Ellie and I went to see Inception last night. It was great fun, a really imaginative film, a wild and dark ride. Of course, half of the time I wasn't sure what was going on or why, whose dream we were in, and what the rules were governing the dream world. I'm not sure the logic of the world made sense, but I suppose that is to be expected.

What interested me most was the idea of a "totem," an object that the characters use to determine whether they are dreaming or whether they are awake. The main character, for example, uses a top that he spins whenever he needs to distinguish his dreams from reality. In his dreams, apparently, the top never falls over; it just keeps on spinning. Why he can't simply dream of his top falling over is never explained.

In philosophy, finding a "totem" is the Holy Grail of intellectual achievements, although no one calls it that. The "totem" is a criterion that helps us distinguish between reality and fantasy, between the world as it is and what the mind creates. How can we know for sure that we are not dreaming? How can we distinguish the world "out there" from our biases, wishes, and fantasies? Many philosophers have tried to create such a totem. Indeed, one might say that scientific method is really just one big "totem" that attempts to do precisely this -- distinguish the "real world" from our mind's creations.

[At this point, a real philosopher would give you a long discourse on Immanuel Kant, who argued that concepts like time and space were really just creations of the mind, but I will spare you that particular lecture.]

The film calls into serious question the idea of a totem. Remember, no justification is given for why the totem works as it does; it is something the characters simply assume. Of course, I wanted to shout, you could dream of a top falling over -- why not? But I came to realize that the failure of the totem is precisely the point. At the end of the movie, the hero seems to make his final break with his fantasy world, but the ambiguous ending alerts us to the possibility that no break has been made, and that he may have simply moved from one fantasy to the other. In the last moments, the hero gives up on the idea of his totem: he has found a reality he desires and, as he rushes to his children, does not wait to see if the top falls or if it continues spinning. He has either (a) given up on his totem or (b) he no longer cares about distinguishing fantasy from reality.

So, obviously, the question of the film is whether we can ever find a totem, that is, whether we can ever distinguish reality from our dreams and mental creations. But it also questions whether we should want to find such a thing: Do we not need our fantasies, myths, and dream creations? Could we ever survive without them? The film seems to say no and in that sense, it echoes the philosophy known as Pragmatism, which basically posits that no totem is possible, that human beings construct a world to serve their interests, and that we should judge our discoveries not by how they relate to an unknowable truth but by how they serve human interests. We should embrace our dreams if our dreams can survive the test of human life.

There is a lot to be said for that position. But I guess I still cling to my totems as a matter of faith. Perhaps, for me, the idea of a totem, of being able to distinguish the real from the imagined, is precisely the fantasy I need to believe in.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Origin of the phrase "hue and cry" [Bryan]

Some people have asked me where the phrase "hue and cry" comes from. The Columbia Encyclopedia says:
The "hue and cry," formerly, in English law, is the pursuit of a criminal immediately after he had committed a felony. Whoever witnessed or discovered the crime was required to raise the hue and cry against the perpetrator (e.g., call out "Stop, thief !") and to begin pursuit; all persons within hearing were under the same obligation, and it was a punishable offense not to join in the chase and capture. The perpetrator was promptly brought into court, and if there was evidence of his having been caught red-handed, he was summarily convicted without being allowed to testify in his own behalf. The hue and cry was abolished in the early 19th cent. Possible modern survivals are the obligation to serve on a sheriff's posse and to assist a police officer in pursuing a suspected culprit.
So, there you have it. What this has to do with our family, I have no idea, other than it is a phrase suggesting clamor and chaos. I thought it would be a fun name for a blog. At the very least, it is much better than the name of YOUR blog.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Trip to Pennsylvania

We spent last weekend in our neighboring state of Pennsylvania. Activities included visiting the interesting town of Hersey ("the sweetest place of earth"), hanging out with Ellie's brother Sam and wife Emily (who live in Allentown), and touring the historic district of Philadelphia. Pictures below:

Stephen ready for adventure.

Nora and Andrew at the Hersey amusement park. The scale of rides was only matched by the scale of the crowds.

Here, Andrew is able to combine his two passions in life -- candy and cars.

At the Hersey "World of Chocolate" tour.

Independence Hall.

Here is a bell of some sort. Not a good one. There is a crack is on the other side.

Sam is interning for Air Products -- the biggest company you've probably never heard of. Very impressive operation they have going there -- even a waterfall!

We finished with a Philly steak sandwich at Jim's Steaks. Yummy.

Here are our intrepid and patient hosts. Thanks Sam and Emily for treating us so well!

Some consistency, please -- UPDATED with new chart [Bryan]

The next time people start complaining about the budget deficit, ask them whether they support the extension of President Bush's 2001 tax cuts for wealthy Americans. If they say yes, something is obviously amiss in their reasoning. As you can see below, nothing has increased the deficit over the past years more than Bush's tax cuts . Strange how, for some people, we can't afford to help the unemployed or to help states retain school teachers, but we can always afford wars and tax breaks for the wealthy.

I'm not saying all of the Bush-era tax cuts are necessarily bad, or that they should not be temporarily renewed during this recession. I'm just pointing out the inconsistency of championing both deficit reduction and the extension of massive tax cuts.

Meanwhile, Obama signed into law the Wall Street reform bill today. This brings the list of his legislative accomplishments to: Wall Street reform, health care reform, stimulus package (too small, it turns out, but still very important), the much-needed overall of the student-loan system, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, new credit card industry regulation, a national service bill, expanded stem-cell research, and the land-protection act. Not bad, not bad at all. Of course, if we don't get more jobs soon, nobody will care.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Calling Doctor Scott [Bryan]

When we arrived in Columbus, we needed some quick medical care and we looked up the closest family doctor we could find. We found one, a male doctor in his fifties, a few miles from our house in a rundown part of town. He works out of a grungy basement practice, which serves, as far as we can tell, mostly lower-income, Medicaid patients. Since then, we have been too lazy to change our provider, and have stuck with this fellow. On the plus side, this doctor has not qualms about bending the rules for our benefit. "Now, I can't tell you that your wife can take some of the medicine from this extra-large bottle of pink eye medication I just prescribed," he will say with a wink. "It would be against the rules," he will repeat, "so I can't tell you to share it when she comes down with it, as she will." Of course, I would then share, thus saving us money and an extra trip to the doctor. A doctor who cares more about patients than rules is a valuable thing.

On the downside, this doctor reminds us both of the Michael Scott character from The Office. He is loud and obnoxious, with an hugely inflated sense of his own sense of humor. He can be heard shouting things to his nurses down the hall that border on impropriety. Every once in awhile, I have to stop and think, "Did he really just say what I thought he said?" Not an office visit goes by without us coming home with new stories of our doctor's antics.

I'm thinking we might change soon. Or not.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Well, how was it? [Bryan]

If you are a guest at somebody's house, and you like the food, you really should say so. Unless you didn't like it, I suppose. Or, unless you ate so much that your actions speak louder than any words. Otherwise, you should always praise the food. The less you eat, the more praise you need to give. Also, don't assume that the woman has done all the cooking!

Just had to get that off my chest.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Appreciating the BOM [Bryan]

I have a strange relationship with the Book of Mormon (BOM). It has been one of the most important books in my life, a book I consider to be a sacred text. And yet, I have sometimes felt uncomfortable, even a little ashamed, of some aspects of it. It really is a strange book, sometimes awkwardly written, full of seemingly simplistic didactic moral tales ("be good and God will protect and reward you"). Its picture of human life, where angels constantly visit people and where the good prosper while the wicked are justly punished, often doesn't square with life as I experience it.

Enter Grant Hardy's new book, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide (Oxford University Press, 2010). This book has given me a renewed appreciate for the literary qualities of the BOM. Hardy's idea is that we should focus more on the three major internal editors: Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni. If we do this, the literary complexity of the book emerges. What has impressed me most about Hardy's work is that it has allowed the BOM to better speak to life as I understand it.

Consider the following example. The major editor of the book, Mormon, presents himself as a historian who uses history to teach moral and religious lessons. Now, in my experience, it is often very difficult to draw lessons from the past. There are always holes in the stories we want to tell, exceptions to the lessons we want to draw. Often, history shows that the distinction between "good guys" and "bad guys" gets blurry and that human success is always intermingled and often inseparable from human failure.

Mormon, for his part, wants to teach us a lesson that wicked people meet a bad end. To make this point, however, Hardy shows how Mormon has to edit out certain events that don't seem to fit his moral story. Take one example, of many. The people of Ammonihah are portrayed as some of the greatest villains of the BOM -- their biggest crime is burning innocent women and children in a orgy of religious bigotry. This evil people eventually meet their just end as their city is conquered and annihilated by a Lamanite army. This all supports Mormon's thesis: bad guys meet a bad end. The problem is, though, that other people were conquered by the Lamanite army at that time, as well, as Mormon briefly notes. "Some around the borders of Noah," he notes, were also killed (see Alma 16:3) What about these people? Did they deserve it, too? Later, we hear only that they were strategically "weak." Nothing is said about this city being particularly wicked. If they were wicked, presumably Mormon would have told us since this data could have been used to support his point. The reality, it seems, was a bit more messy than his simple lesson would admit. Hardy shows us many examples like this of how there exists a complex reality behind the lessons the BOM editors want to teach. They are trying to construct a comprehensible story in the face of a complex reality that sometimes escapes their finite human understanding. As Paul says, we all see through a glass, darkly.

This realization about the BOM editors made me feel a closer connection to the book and its very human (and now more true-to-real-life) characters. The world that exists behind the scenes of the BOM matches more closely the murky world as I experience it. The editorial lessons are helpful, inspired, and true, but these glimpses of the underlying complexity open the door for continued searching, continued meditation, continued grasping for greater light and knowledge. In this sense, the Book of Mormon invites us to enter a world, not only of eternal truths, but also of continued questions; a world not only of inspired words, but also of a need for personal inspiration; a world not only full of simple moral tales, but also full of the tragic richness of human life.