Friday, June 22, 2012

This Mad, Mad, Mad World

The prosecution in the Breivik case announced yesterday that they would seek an insanity verdict. Apparently, there were two psychiatric evaluations of the mass killer which contradicted each other, and the prosecutors decided to side with the one pronouncing him insane. There seems to be a circular logic at work here. Why did Breivik commit his egregious crime? Because he is insane. And why is he insane? Because he committed that egregious crime.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


I have often pondered the phenomenal success of "The Matrix" trilogy, particularly the first movie which came out in the distant 1999. I still haven't met a student who hasn't watched it, despite its ancient release date. The promotional web site created for it carried a few philosophical essays, and I read an additional philosophical collection which was published the old-fashioned way. There is now also "The Matrix 101" web site dedicated to "Understanding The Matrix Trilogy." Yet, nothing I read over the years provided a plausibe solution to the problem I was turning in my head. Until I had one of those miraculous flashes of insight Jonah Lehrer writes about in "Imagine."

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The first-person shooter revisited

I was looking the other day at an old article by science writer Sandra Blakeslee. It came out in 2003, during her earlier stint at the NYT. The title says it all: “Video-Game Killing Builds Visual Skills, Researchers Report.” 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Another gem from “The Stone”

Philosophy professor Christine Overall directs the following appeal to the readers of “The Stone,” the NYT philosophy blog: “Think Before You Breed.” Under this heading, she is “arguing for the need to think systematically and deeply about a fundamental aspect of human life.” Prof. Overall believes that as far as kids are concerned, “the burden of proof – or at least the burden of justification – should … rest primarily on those who choose to have children, not on those who choose to be childless.” Why? Because “the choice to have children calls for more careful justification and thought than the choice not to have children because procreation creates a dependent, needy, and vulnerable human being whose future may be at risk.” Therefore, “the individual who chooses childlessness takes the ethically less risky path.” As I was reading this, I had two thoughts. First, the continued marginalization of academic philosophers in the Anglo-Saxon world, and the spread of these best practices to less advanced societies in the coming decades, may be essential to human procreation. Second, the Athenians who condemned Socrates for the kind of critical thinking he championed probably knew what they were doing. Pity they acted too late, only after their beloved city had fallen to the dumb Spartans.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Condemned to freedom – or at least to fretting over it...

A couple of years ago the NYT started a philosophy blog, “The Stone” (this was a key piece of evidence cited recently by Carlin Romano in support of his provocative thesis that America, usually seen as an “ ardently capitalist, famously materialist, heavily iPodded, iPadded, and iPhoned society,” in fact now “towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece, Cartesian France, 19th-century Germany, or any other place one can name over the past three millennia”). Academic philosophers posting on “The Stone” have debated many topics, but one seems to have become a perennial favorite – the old dilemma about free will.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Earthly Chronicles

Ray Bradbury died yesterday aged 91. Science fiction writers are now routinely criticized for overimagining the technology of the future. As we now know, the first expedition to Mars did not take place in 1999; so Bradbury can be similarly faulted. Yet, in other ways he saw it all coming.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Lessons for life

The Atlantic carries an article (“Moneyballer”) about the new star in American college basketball, Harrison Barnes. In high school he was an honor student, sax player, bible aficionado, etc. When he had to make that crucial decision, he opted to go to college instead of jumping right into the NBA. He also chose to stay in college, at least for the time being, though after his freshman year he would have certainly been a top-five draft pick. Why did he do it? As a business major in college, Barnes has picked some key insights from brand-management theory. On the basis of these, “he believes remaining in college for at least one more year will eventually increase his endorsement potential.” In his own words: “The longer you stay in college, the better a brand you build.”

Friday, June 1, 2012

That virtual object of desire

The title of a NYT article proclaims “wasting time is new divide in digital era.” It says efforts to give the kids of the digital have-nots access to computers and the internet have had a paradoxical result – they are wasting considerably more time online than the children of better-off families.