Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Reclaimed Dominance

by Conroy

O2 Arena - ready for tennis
This past week the ATP season was concluded at the O2 Arena in London with the World Tour Finals, which matched the Top 8 players from 2010. The event is little noticed outside of dedicated tennis fans, with almost all of the coverage aired in the United States shown on the specialty Tennis Channel. That's unfortunate, because the event's unique round-robin format guarantees multiple intriguing matches between the world's best tennis players.

To qualify for the World Tour Finals (the latest in a series of names for the year-ending tournament) a player must be ranked within the Top 8 based entirely on results from the current calender year (which coincides with the actual rankings at the end of the year), or be ranked in the Top 20 and win one of the season's grand slams (which is a rare scenario in the Federer-Nadal era). Usually, one or more of the Top 8 are injured and a substitute has to fill in, but this year all of the Top 8 were able to compete, which only upped the anticipation for high caliber play. The qualifiers were, in order:

Monday, November 29, 2010

Project: War and Peace - Post 2

by Conroy

I've finished Volume 1 of War and Peace, and as promised in my first post on this reading project, I'd like to discuss my impressions, reactions, and the general features of the novel that interest me. I'm taking a liberal approach to what I will discuss, avoiding a set structure for each post. I don't know what lies ahead in Volumes 2 through 4 and the Epilogue, and I may very well want to focus on different elements (characters, plot points, themes, etc.) after each volume as I feel appropriate.

War and Peace is massive in scope, both peace and war are covered in Volume 1 (the first 294 pages of more than 1,200), and Tolstoy is a master writer, fully in command of his creation. As such there is a plethora of interesting features to discuss and I am going to feel at liberty to write at length for each of these posts.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Into the Sky

by Conroy

A few years ago, while on vacation in Australia, I decided on impulse to go skydiving. Perhaps I was under the spell of being far away, off on an adventure, ready to experience whatever wild opportunity came my way. (Or maybe it was the girl from Dallas I met on the plane over from L.A. - and on the same tour I was on - that influenced me.) Whatever it was, I'd never really considered jumping out of a plane before.

We arrived at the airstrip early in the morning, and proceeded to wait for hours while the weather cleared. Finally, I suited up, received some basic instruction (I would be falling in tandem with an instructor), and signed a waiver noting my understanding that there was the (unlikely) chance of a catastrophe. Seven of us, three groups of jumpers and our pilot, climbed into a tiny single propeller plane. I was a little concerned that the pilot was wearing a wife-beater, shorts, and sandals, but after a half hour he managed to bring us to our jump altitude of 12,000 feet over the Gold Coast of Queensland. When we climbed above the clouds I felt butterflies in my stomach for the first time...I was about to jump out of a functional plane. We got the signal that we would be going in one minute...one of the instructors opened the door. I was to be the third of the three groups to jump. The first group...a panicky Aussie girl and her short but muscular instructor edged to the open door...with a simple shift to their side they were gone. Moments later the second group was in position and after a short delay vanished through the door. It was my turn...and then a sudden feeling flashed through me...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Emotions: A Survey

by Conroy

The range of human emotions is really incredible. I say human emotions because I'm sure other species have emotions, they just don't experience as many and with so much nuance. A dog certainly knows affection, and a deer knows fear, but I doubt either feel resentment or envy. Even really intelligent species like chimpanzees and dolphins cannot know nostalgia or ambivalence.

What are emotions? Well there are numerous involved psychological and biological theories none of which are very interesting to me. Emotions, what we "feel", are clearly part of the make-up of the complex human mind. They may serve some fundamental purpose in our existence, are manifestations of our high cognition and deep perceptions, or are just byproducts of our brain's particular neurological and electro-chemical structure. Most likely parts of each of these and more. What I am certain of is that emotions are one of the core elements that make humans special. Emotions can be good and bad, productive and damaging, subtle or overpowering. I couldn't imagine an existence without emotion, nor would I want to. Emotions can be dark and enervating but also bright and rejuvenating. Emotions remind us that we're alive.

In this spirit, I decided to get a handle on the spectrum of human emotions. Independent of any other taxonomy, I grouped emotions into ten categories. Psychologists will undoubtedly find my system contradictory and incomplete, but so be it. Interesting is all I hope for. In no particular order:

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Law & Morality - The Man Responds

In his most recent post, Conroy responds to my assertion that law and morality are not co-extensive. He helps to clarify the relationship, makes some excellent points, and raises several fascinating issues. Here is my response:

First, it is true that adultery is not always immoral. The same can be said of killing, lying, and stealing. I would add, though, that the word "adultery" carries a negative connotation and a presumption that the exceptions mentioned by Conroy don't apply. In an open marriage, for instance, I doubt either spouse would describe their behavior as "adulterous," and independent observers may or may not agree. Consider the difference between the terms "murder" and "killing." "Murder" is an unjustified killing, by definition. According to the predominate moral code of our society, murder is immoral, but killing need not be: self-defense is not immoral. The term "adultery," like "murder," implies wrongfulness—in this case, deceit, infidelity, "cheating." People might choose a different  term to describe extra-marital sex in the examples that Conroy raises. The more neutral term "extra-marital sex" is an example; perhaps "swinging" for an open marriage would be another. It's also important to note that some cultures regard the act or practice of adultery as more or less immoral than others, which supports Conroy's point.

Law & Morality - Counter-Point

by Conroy

I felt compelled to respond to The Man's latest post where he argued that the law and morality are not co-extensive. Instead, the two systems can be modeled as a venn diagram where there is some overlap between what acts are covered by law and what acts (and attitudes) are covered by morality, and some exclusive regions of both, actions that are immoral but legal and actions that are moral but illegal. The Man's conclusion is that law and morality while addressing many of the same activities, are very different systems. I'd like to explore this argument further.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Law & Morality

The law, no doubt, embodies some moral values—it is, to a considerable extent, informed by moral intuitions. Unjustified killing, for example, is both morally repugnant and illegal. As is rape. But law and morality are not co-extensive. Law's aim is not to enforce morality. Consider the many immoral acts, such as lying when not under oath, or committing adultery (in most states), that go entirely unpunished by the law. Government peculations, too, are often shielded by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. And a man can sometimes stand by idly, despite being a good swimmer, and watch another man drown, yet escape any punishment. Osterlind v. Hill, (1928) 263 Mass. 73, 160 NE 301. To the court in Osterlind, it didn't matter that the defendant had a moral obligation to assist the drowning man—this poor man who held to the side of his capsized canoe for 30 minutes crying out for help while the defendant did nothing—the harsh fact was, he had no legal obligation.

Is the law, then, merely a subset of moral prescriptions and prohibitions? That is, does morality determine the content of the law? No. I don't think it does. Because in addition to leaving many immoral acts unsanctioned, the law also punishes some acts that are moral, or at least by most people's standards are not immoral. Many so-called white collar crimes fit into this category, such as insider trading, including the 6-month rule. (I mean, come on: Martha Stewart?! She didn't do anything immoral.) She does raise a social status issue, though, and it's worth noting that although buying, selling, and using illegal drugs may appear to be immoral activities, this is primarily because of the distasteful character of those who choose to engage in them despite their illegality. These activities are considered immoral, not because morality looks to the law for guidance, but because the law creates incentives for moral people to substitute into other activities, leaving the less moral to take their place. Then, the activity becomes distasteful—the result of a selection effect. Finally, note that morality among the "less moral" can itself be a crime. "Honor among thieves" is not condoned by courts. 

Although the law and morality overlap to a significant degree, they are two very different systems.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Post Number 2: Smoothed Edges

by Conroy

In my first post on this blog I presented my broad views of man, listing what I consider to be ten fundamental characteristics of our species as individuals. I promised to follow-up with two additional posts noting my views on society and the universe, respectively. Together, I intend for these three posts to constitute a personal philosophy (or as I prefer to term it a non-philosophy) about man and this world.

For this post about society, consider these song lyrics:
"...and when you're no longer searching for beauty or love / just some kind of life with the edges taken off / When you can't even define what you're frightened of / this song will be here..." - from the song "The Fear" off of the album This is Hardcore by Pulp.
This song, penned by the highly literate Jarvis Cocker and set to an off-key and eerie guitar line, is about an individual's choice in approaching the challenges of the world, but I think we can expand the point to encapsulate society: our collective attempt to take the edges off of life.

I have eschewed the Top 10 list format of the fist post in favor of a catechism, reducing the long, rich history of man and the complex, widely-varied institutions and achievements of our species to one desired outcome - taking the edges off of life.

What do you mean by taking the edges off of life?
The universe is indifferent to life in general and humankind in particular. If God exists, he isn't an active force in our universe (there will be more on this critical perspective of mine in my future post about the universe). All we can say is that life exists, and we exist. But critically, the life of the individual is temporary, we are all mortal. We will all die one day. Some of us will die young, some will die painfully, some will live to be old, some will experience many great things. There are none among us who can know what might lie beyond death, if anything at all. As a result, we have a fundamental desire to live. However, living can be hard.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Top 250 - Update

by Conroy

There is a new page on this site that lists my Top 250 (and Top 100) songs, which were initially provided in this earlier post. I'll periodically update this page as revisions are made to the list. Readers will be alerted to updates, including revised statistics and details of significant changes, through update posts like this.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Symbolic Voting?

"Modern politics is just as you should expect it to be when votes are cast by ignorant people taking advantage of a low-cost source of emotional gratification." - Jamie Whyte, "Fewer Voters Are Better Voters"
Americans across the nation will take time away from their busy lives today to do their part in keeping our democracy alive. But why? Many economists argue that voting is irrational—the costs outweigh the benefits. A lawyer can't rack up billable hours standing in line at the voting booth (at least not ethically!). True, voting doesn't take as long as it used to, but it still takes time away from other productive activities. And time is money. So the cost of voting is obvious and unavoidable.

The benefit, on the other hand, is less clear. One person's vote is unlikely to swing an election, so if the benefit of voting is the influence that one vote will have on the outcome, there's little point in doing it. That time would be better spent billing clients, browsing the Internet, or reading this blog. But people do in fact vote, despite the balance of costs over benefits, creating a puzzle sometimes known as the "paradox of voting."  A commonly suggested answer is that people enjoy voting; they're not voting for results; they're voting to vote. Hence, the "emotional gratification" referenced in the provocative quotation that prefaces this post. People vote for the same reason they eat potato chips—they like it.

But in his book "Law and Social Norms," Eric Posner argues that the common answer is wrong. In fact, people vote, not because they like it, not because it's fun per se, but because they care about their reputations. And voting, as a symbolic act, reinforces the opinions that their peers hold of them, as to whether they are cooperative, trustworthy people. That's why it's embarrassing not to vote. It sends a signal that you don't care to participate in our political system; that you aren't willing to pay the small price of a few hours of your time to help your country solve its problems. The effect that voting has on one's reputation tips the cost-benefit scale.

The hypothesis that voting is intrinsically enjoyable also tips the scale, so why should I believe the one over the other? Here are some supporting reasons and facts (suggested by Eric Posner) in favor of the voting-as-symbolic theory:

Monday, November 1, 2010

Project: War and Peace - Post 1

by Conroy

Over the next few months I am embarking on my next major reading project, Leo Tolstoy's monumental War and Peace. I've done major reading projects before. I've read James Joyce's Ulysses twice, and was overawed and enriched by the experience both times (and I'm going to read it again in the coming years). The Man and I simultaneously read Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, a major disappointment.

I've been wanting to read War and Peace for a long time but been hesitant because, well, Tolstoy wrote in Russian, and I don't speak or read Russian. That means I have to read an English translation, which can be a dicey proposition. The power of a great literary work is a combination of character, plot, themes, style, and language. A good translator should be able to capture the first three, but the last two are far more difficult. A great writer is idiomatic, and his art cannot be separated from the particularities of his language. Only the most thoughtful and talented of translators can successfully convert style from one language to another. Moreover, the sound and flow of a work is inherently connected with the language in which it is written. I see no way that this aspect of a work can be fully realized in a translation.

That being said, there is a new (2007) translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky that has been highly praised. The translators have made a concerted effort to maintain the idiosyncrasies of Tolstoy's writing, staying as close as possible to his style, limiting the amount of interpretation, omissions, and substitutions (synonyms, colloquialisms, etc.). This new translation gives me hope that my reading experience in English will come close to reading in the original Russian.

Now my reading War and Peace is one thing, but why should I write about it? Well, I think many others are interested in Tolstoy's masterwork and perhaps my experience will be of interest. Few novels, maybe none, are as broad in scope and replete in developed, detailed characters. My goal in these posts will be to provide reactions to what I have read: story, character, themes, details, style. The book is divided into four volumes and an epilogue. I'll follow this structure and post after I've completed each volume and the entire work. As for now, I haven't read a page, so I have nothing more specific to say about the novel. However, a bit of background may be useful for me and my readers.

Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy was a genius, hopefully in my reading I will discover his supposed unmatched eye for insightful detail. His ability to master a wide tapestry of characters, plot lines, and themes; his broad vantage point and inimical eye for detail; and perhaps above all, his ability to imbue his book with true humanity. As I read I must also consider the artist. As Paul Johnson's biting biographical sketch reveals, Tolstoy knew of his genius. He thought himself better than men, an equal of God in his art. War and Peace includes many characters, including historical personages (Napoleon, Marshal Kutuzov). Tolstoy may attempt to be true to life (and mostly to history), but a careful reader must be aware that a man who thinks himself god in his art may feel that he can distort and interpret as his right. A man who is better than the rest of mankind could stray into didacticism and abandon what Joyce identified as the key to true art, stasis, genuine objectivity that presents without prejudice. Still, Tolstoy claimed that he was most at peace when deep in his writing, so the best of the man and artist may have been put down on the pages of War and Peace. I shall learn from the first word.