28/03/2009

Jumping Other People's Posts

While I was taking a short blogging break, others were busy producing interesting stuff.

John Althouse Cohen puts in another application to Bartlett's Familiar Quotations blogging about the old given all the suffering in the world, god can't be both benevolent and almighty problem the proper term for which I keep forgetting and am too lazy to look up. For your convenience, a bit of context, and the aphorism in bold type:
Even those who argue for exceptions to society's general "don't torture people" rule tend to rely on scenarios where the suffering caused by torture is far outweighed by preventing others from suffering -- the classic "ticking bomb," etc. This still implies that suffering itself is the basic unit that we're looking at in making moral assessments. So people are quibbling over a very narrow exception -- maybe an important exception, but not one that calls into question the fundamental "torture is bad" consensus.

And so, no one takes the position: "Hey, go ahead and torture as much as you like! It's sure to be a net plus in the end -- it'll be a learning experience, or it will be a ringing affirmation of our own free will, or something." Well ... no one applies this to human beings. But it's regularly applied to God. Bizarrely, God is held to lower moral standards than humans are.
For much more context, go here. (And here's a follow-up.) Contrary to what the excerpt may suggest, the post is not called "Richard Dawkins Is My God". In fact, the title's much funkier than that.

***

Michael Blowhard argues:
If you support the NEA, don't you need to convince us that American culture has been better since the NEA began than it was in the pre-NEA era? In other words, don't you need to argue that the NEA has actually accomplished something worthwhile?
I'm quoting this as part of my continuing effort to provide Methods & Statistics teachers with material. The problem here is, of course, that the first sentence does not follow from the second one at all. Whereas everybody knows that correlation does not necessarily signify causation, it is little known but also true that the absence of a correlation does not necessarily signify the absence of causation. I have read at least one statement to the contrary in the serious social science literature.

However, just like the presence of a correlation puts the ball into the field of those who want to argue against causation, the absence of a correlation puts the onus on those who want to argue for causation.

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Novelist and blogger J. Robert Lennon asks his readers:
When it comes to endings, what the hell do you want? I ask this because "lousy ending" is perhaps the number one book review complaint.

[...]

I have never read a review in which the reviewer suggests alternate endings that would work better. They never say what they want! They only say they were disappointed.
This reminded me that I was going to write about how Carsten and I recently saw Revolutionary Road and were disappointed about the ending in exactly the same way. I'm even going to say what we want! (SPOILERS AHEAD! BIG TIME!)

Revolutionary Road, set in 1955, deals with the Frank and April Wheeler, married with children, who live in a suburb. Frank has a boring office job, April is a housewife. Dissatisfied with their standard middle-class American suburb lives, the Wheelers, who feel, as Wikipedia puts it, "unique and special", plan to move to Paris. But with April pregnant again and Frank being promoted at work, the plan is torn to pieces amidst fierce fighting between the two.

April tries to abort her child and dies in the process. Frank moves to the city with the children and is forever scarred. Life in the suburbs goes on.

The film deals, in a very impressive way (8/10), with the notion that there has to be a more exciting life than this. One may find the idea clichéd, but it's a cliché for a reason: The notion, it appears, is widespread among affluent, intelligent people. And that's the problem with the end: April's death is overly dramatic. The very strength of the film is its topic's generality, and April's dramatic death almost erases this strength, making the depicted lives special.

We agreed on what should have been the film's last scene. Some ten minutes before the end, April and Frank have a fight over breakfast. The plan to move to Paris is forever buried. Standing on the porch, April watches Frank leaving for work in the car. That should have been it. I personally opted for the camera to pull back and show a shrinking April standing among the neat houses and uniform lawns: forever caught in the suburbs.

We guessed that Hollywood had added the overly dramatic ending, but, according to Wikipedia, it's straight from the book.

More generally, the most disappointing endings - and I'm also looking at you, Douglas Coupland of Girlfriend in a Coma - are the ones that, in hindsight, taint the whole narrative. (Update: Andrew Gelman agrees.)

3 comments:

John Althouse Cohen said...

John Althouse Cohen puts in another application to Bartlett's Familiar Quotations...

Heh, thanks!

jrlennon said...

I think writers get insecure about their endings...we perhaps sense what kind of ending is called for, but if it's unorthodox or undramatic, we may begin to think it's wrong somehow. Not many of us are capable of ignoring the templates for endings that the culture has embedded in our imaginations, myself included...and definitely not Richard Yates...though I remember Revolutionary Road as a pretty good book nevertheless.

I sometimes think that the part of our brains that turns everything into a narrative exists to make complex things seem more simple, so that we aren't forever frozen by difficult decisions and situations. Confounding that impulse is one thing that a good story can do.

Thanks for responding to my post!

LemmusLemmus said...

Robert,

I think your idea on the function of the mind's tendency to construct narratives (or, for that matter, personalities), is pretty much the standard view in psychology. (You may want to google "schema psychology".) Believe it or not, I've blogged about that (and the problems this brings for social research) in the context of commenting on Lolita - here. Of course the effect is magnified when there are templates for what a proper narrative looks like.