Wednesday, July 2, 2014

my teaching philosophy

In an application I sent out to one of the universities I'm applying to, I was asked to write a "personal statement" that contains a detailed account of my teaching experience and my teaching philosophy. I thought this was a welcome challenge. I might have overdone it by sending the university a 5-page, single-spaced document, but the directions did say "detailed."

I don't think I said everything I had wanted to say, but what I've written below captures at least 90% of what I think and feel. I've cut and pasted only the last half of my personal statement below—the half dealing with my teaching philosophy. Agree or disagree as you will.


Thanks in part to those linguistics and pedagogy courses I took in college back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and thanks largely to my own experiences in the classroom, I have formed a clear teaching philosophy. I cannot claim to implement this philosophy perfectly, but it represents an ideal toward which I strive. In a nutshell: the ideal EFL classroom is student-centered and task-oriented. The teacher never lectures, and to the greatest degree possible, students are encouraged to take control of their own learning. In Korea, students are generally trained to be passive in the classroom; most of the classes they have with Korean professors will involve lectures. Classes on English grammar or literature will also be teacher-centered lectures, and the lecturers will speak primarily in Korean, which I find ironic. Students do little more than take notes during these sessions; they are not encouraged to question the professor or to “flex their English muscles”; instead, they sit in silence, just writing. How constructive is this? In my view, class is much more exciting and beneficial when the students take control and the professor stands back to let this happen. The professor, in my ideal classroom, is merely a guide or a facilitator; it is the students who are in the driver’s seat, even teaching each other lessons from the curriculum or completing tasks individually or in teams. People learn more when they are given responsibility: to learn to ride a bicycle, one must actually get on a bike, not merely hear a lecture about bike-riding.

In French pedagogical linguistics, a distinction is made between parler de la langue and parler dans la langue: speaking about the language versus speaking in the language. The former is a bad idea, but this is what happens when professors lecture on English grammar in Korean. The latter is a superior approach because it exposes the students to more actual English and forces them to think about what they are hearing. Linguist Stephen Krashen put forward the “I + 1 hypothesis” decades ago; the idea is that, if the students’ ability is at level I, the teacher must speak at level I + 1 to force the students to make an extra effort at comprehending the teacher’s utterances. Lazier students might resent this kind of challenge.

I also disagree with modern “oral proficiency” and “communicative” approaches that sacrifice the teaching of grammar for some vague, airy-fairy notion of “fluency.” These modern approaches do indeed get students producing English faster than the old-school methods ever did, but their major disadvantage is that the students, though speaking with confidence, often cannot speak well. Their speech tends to be garbled and incoherent, shot through with errors, and this is because the students have not learned the necessary grammatical structures on which to hang their ideas. When a Korean student says, “I go school” or “When you homework?”, I hear a grammar issue. Teaching EFL students how to structure “Wh-” and “yes/no” questions, how to reply intelligibly to such questions, and how to frame their thoughts in an organized manner is an essential part of a good language curriculum.

A personal example of the flaws of “oral proficiency”-oriented programs: my brother Sean went through a French curriculum that stressed communicative competence over grammar. Because I am fluent in the language, I would often try talking with my brother in French. I found that his pronunciation was not bad, and he was able to reply to my questions with short bursts of verbiage, but longer utterances were beyond him. When I took a look at Sean’s French writing, I saw it was atrocious: my brother had learned little to nothing about verb conjugation, grammatical gender, tense control, or any of the other myriad details that make one’s language clear and coherent. This was not Sean’s fault: the curriculum had failed to stress the structural, technical aspects of French, favoring instead a fuzzy, holistic approach that produced students who could gabble in French, but who had already begun to form a raft of bad speech habits that would be hard to undo later on in life.

This brings me back to EFL in Korea. Most of my Korean students have formed terrible speech habits because no one has bothered to correct their technical errors. I have taught writing classes in Korea in which my students were horrified to see how much red ink I had scrawled all over their short essays. This horror is the direct result of a lack of mindfulness caused by curricula that emphasize production and fluency, but neglect to consider correct grammar, mechanics, and so on.

There are, unfortunately, Western teachers in Korea who buy into the myth that “Korean students don’t need to learn more English grammar” or “Korean students have had enough grammar.” True: Korean students might be very good at recognizing grammar errors on a quiz, but that says nothing about those students’ ability to produce grammatically correct language. The problem with the “Koreans have had enough grammar” crowd is that these people do not realize that Koreans might have a good storehouse of passive grammar, but they have next to nothing when it comes to active grammar. The same goes for vocabulary: university students will have studied English for years, and will have a large mental lexicon of passive vocabulary (i.e., the vocabulary that is recognized through listening and reading), but they will have precious little active vocabulary (i.e., the vocabulary that one relies on when speaking and writing). Active vocabulary can only be developed through proactive use, which is again why lecture is a terrible way to teach English. Passive students will never develop active vocabulary.

In that sense, I do agree with the oral-proficiency school that the students need to be speaking, speaking, and speaking some more. But unstructured speech, “free talk,” and the avoidance of error correction are all harmful to students’ FL learning. Grammar drills and other focused exercises must be part of a language curriculum, however corny and old-school that might sound.

I have, lately, been encouraging my intermediate students to engage in a round-robin English activity in which the students take over, entirely, the responsibility of teaching, while the teacher stands back and monitors, providing occasional correction and leading the post-activity review segment. In my round-robin classroom, the students are divided into four teams. Each team is assigned a certain amount and type of content to teach. Team 1 will teach its material to Teams 2, 3, and 4; Team 2 will teach its material to Teams 1, 3, and 4, and so on. This is done in three rounds, with the combinations of teams rotating every round. Each team teaches its own material three times (and becomes expert at it by the third round); each team is taught different material by each of the other teams. By the end of three rounds, all four teams will have been exposed to all four teams’ material. The material itself is designed to be internally reinforcing, so there is a good bit of repetition and overlap, among the teams’ lessons, to aid students in remembering what they have learned. My intermediate kids love the round-robin approach; I told them that it provides them a small taste of American-style graduate-school seminars, in which it is incumbent on the students, not the professor, to provide the material for a given day’s lessons. My feeling is that you learn when you teach, and teaching something is an excellent way to take responsibility for it.

There are two other aspects to my pedagogical philosophy: I favor the use of behavioral objectives and the use of humor. Behavioral objectives stand in contrast to cognitive objectives. A cognitive objective might be something like, “By the end of the class, students will have developed an appreciation for Impressionist art.” The words develop and appreciation are frustratingly ill-defined in this context. Meanwhile, a behavioral objective will focus on things that are tangible and, where possible, quantifiable. For example: “By the end of the class, students will write a two-paragraph report summarizing the work of one Impressionist painter and expressing a well-defended opinion about that painter’s work.” As a pragmatist, I have a strong bias toward behavioral objectives because they can be used to measure students’ progress. As for the use of humor in the classroom, this should be so obvious as to go without saying. Humor softens the hard edges of social interaction in a classroom full of unfamiliar people. In Krashen’s terms, humor “reduces the affective filter,” lowering stress levels and allowing for better learning. It is an invaluable tool, not to mention one of the teacherly qualities for which an instructor will be long remembered.

To sum up, then: I am a strong advocate of student-centered, task-oriented FL learning. I am an enemy of lecture as a teaching method because it encourages student passivity and does nothing to improve students’ active vocabulary and active grammar. I believe in the old-school notion that grammar is absolutely crucial for good and proper production of language, but I speak here of grammar as it applies to the productive macroskills—speaking and writing. I also think that the teacher, far from being the center of attention in class, ought to be as far away from the center as possible, to allow the students to take charge of their own learning. While I am not against using Korean on occasion as a time-saving device, I believe that FL students should be exposed as much as possible to the target language, not to lectures in the students’ native tongue. Finally, I am a pragmatist who advocates the use of measurable, tangible behavioral objectives in lesson planning, and I also advocate the use of humor as a way to reduce stress and facilitate better learning.

These are some of the modest insights that I have gained from years of teaching. They have stood me in good stead, but because life is always evolving and people are always learning, I know that this philosophy will, inevitably, evolve as well.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

la formation et l'usage du subjonctif en français

I talked, a while back, about when to use the subjunctive mood in French. This time around, I'd like to talk about how to conjugate verbs properly in the subjunctive. It's not that hard. After you read the following, you can reinforce your knowledge by reading about the subjunctive mood over at


The basic rule for forming a subjunctive conjugation, both for regular verbs and for many (if not most) irregular verbs, is this:

que + [verb stem] + [verb ending]
[NB: The "que" isn't always present, but it's generally there.]

The verb stem is formed this way:

3rd-person plural conjugation (ils form), minus "-ent"

The verb endings are almost the same as the endings for regular -er verbs; just watch out for the nous and vous forms:


So, for example, if I wanted to use the regular verbs parler, choisir, and attendre, their subjunctive conjugations would look like this:

PARLER (ils parlent... parl- + endings)

que je parle
que tu parles
qu'il parle
que nous parlions
que vous parliez
qu'ils parlent

CHOISIR (ils choisissent... choisiss- + endings)

que je choisisse
que tu choisisses
qu'il choisisse
que nous choisissions
que vous choisissiez
qu'ils choisissent

ATTENDRE (ils attendent... attend- + endings)

que j'attende
que tu attendes
qu'il attende
que nous attendions
que vous attendiez
qu'ils attendent

Many irregular verbs also follow this pattern:


que je sorte, que je parte, que je dorme, que je connaisse
que tu sortes, que tu partes, que tu dormes, que tu connaisses
qu'il sorte, qu'il parte, qu'il dorme, qu'il connaisse
que nous sortions, que nous partions, que nous dormions, que nous connaissions
que vous sortiez, que vous partiez, que vous dormiez, que vous connaissiez
qu'ils sortent, qu'ils partent, qu'ils dorment, qu'ils connaissent

The "e-consonant-er" verbs (jeter, appeler, préférer, etc.) generally follow the regular pattern except for the nous/vous forms:

que je jette
que tu jettes
qu'il jette
que nous jetions (only one "t"!)
que vous jetiez (one "t"!)
qu'ils jettent

que je préfère
que tu préfères
qu'il préfère
que nous préférions (accent aigu!)
que vous préfériez (accent aigu!)
qu'ils préfèrent


For almost all of the above types of verbs, the nous/vous forms look exactly like the nous/vous forms of the imperfect tense.

Some verbs, however, form their stems in an irregular way:

savoir ➞ sach-
faire ➞ fass-
pouvoir ➞ puiss-
aller ➞ aill- / all- (nous/vous forms only)
vouloir ➞ veuill- / voul- (nous/vous forms only)
prendre ➞ prenn- / pren- (nous/vous forms only)

avoir ➞ totally irregular:
que j'aie
que tu aies
qu'il ait
que nous ayons
que vous ayez
qu'ils aient

être ➞ also totally irregular:
que je sois
que tu sois
qu'il soit
que nous soyons
que vous soyez
qu'ils soient

There's more, but that ought to cover the basics for now.


In my other post, I talked about when to use the subjunctive mood. Be especially careful about verbs like croire and penser, which do NOT take the subjunctive in the affirmative, but which DO take the subjunctive in the negative, because the negative is an expression of doubt. Examples:

Je pense qu'il est cinglé. (I think he's nuts.)
Je ne pense pas qu'il soit cinglé. (I don't think he's nuts.)

Elle croit que son amie est là. (She thinks her friend is there.)
Elle ne croit pas que son amie soit là. (She doesn't think her friend is there.)


So! If you've read this post thoroughly, and you've read the other post (to which I've linked twice), then maybe you're ready for a two-part quiz. Part I will be about whether to use the subjunctive. Part II will concentrate on how to conjugate the subjunctive.

Part I: to use, or not to use...?

Ask yourself: do I use the subjunctive in this situation, or not? Choose the correct conjugation, whether it be indicative or subjunctive.

1. Il faut que tu (es / sois) là à 3 heures.

2. Il pense que son frère (est / soit) doué aux langues.

3. Elle veut que sa mère (est / soit) plus compréhensive.

4. Il est absolument impératif que tu (sors / sortes) la poubelle!

5. Oh là là, comme je suis contente que tu (es / sois) venue!

6. Je doute fort qu'il (peut / puisse) le faire.

7. Je crains (craindre = to fear) que tu (n'as / n'aies) tort.

8. Il me dit qu'il (sait / sache) jouer du piano.

9. Nous savons qu'il (est / soit) nécessaire d'étudier.

10. Gérard ne (veut / veuille) pas prendre son déjeuner dans la cafétéria.

11. Etudie afin que tu (réussis / réussisses) à l'examen.

12. Avant que tes parents (ne sont / ne soient) ici, il faut nettoyer la maison!

13. Nous (sommes / soyons) contents que tu te trouves parmi nous en France.

14. Bill ne s'approche pas du tigre de peur qu'il (n'est / ne soit) mangé.

15. La seule chose que je (sais / sache), c'est que personne n'est parfait.

ANSWERS (highlight inside the brackets to see): [ (1) sois; (2) est; (3) soit; (4) sortes; (5) sois; (6) puisse; (7) n'aies; (8) sait; (9) est; (10) veut, (11) réussisses; (12) ne soient; (13) sommes; (14) ne soit; (15) sache ]

Part II: proper conjugation

Conjugate the verbs properly.

1. que tu (connaître)

2. qu'on (réfléchir)

3. qu'ils (avoir)

4. que je (mettre)

5. que tu (appeler)

6. que vous (vouloir)

7. que je (être)

8. que nous (aller)

9. qu'elles (vendre)

10. que tu (prendre)

11. qu'on (haïr, to hate)

12. que nous (manger)

13. que vous (savoir)

14. qu'on (pouvoir)

15. qu'ils (faire)

ANSWERS (highlight inside the brackets to see): [ (1) saches; (2) réfléchisse; (3) aient; (4) mette; (5) appelles; (6) vouliez; (7) sois; (8) allions; (9) vendent; (10) prennes; (11) haïsse; (12) mangions; (13) sachiez; (14) puisse; (15) fassent ]


Friday, May 31, 2013

my students

Here are Sabrine (left) and Christine (right), my two Science Chicks, sitting on a bench outside of Bonefish Grill in Centreville, Virginia, while we waited for Christine's mother to come pick her daughter up:

Sabrine's off to MIT, and Christine, if she tries very, very hard, might be off to TJHSST, our local "magnet" school, and one of the top science/tech high schools in the country.

Dinner at Bonefish Grill was quite good, despite the lack of decent air conditioning. All three of us ate fish: baked salmon for me, grilled trout for Sabrine, and grilled tilapia for Christine. We talked a bit about what sort of interaction there had been between Christine and Sabrine in my absence; I was surprised to find out that tonight was the first night that Christine and Sabrine had met face-to-face. I had originally paired these two young ladies together in the hopes of kick-starting Christine's drive to study science—a requisite for studying at TJ.

During dinner, Sabrine played the Big Sis and peppered Christine with some science-related questions, asking about Christine's areas of interest (genetics and computer programming) and talking about her own areas of interest (biology, prosthetics, etc.). We also talked about what lay ahead for Sabrine as she contemplated MIT. Sabrine told me about MIT's Byzantine dorm-assignment system, which involves a series of lotteries. She also had more immediate concerns: her opera recital on Saturday, and her upcoming speech to her graduating class as its valedictorian (literally "goodbye-sayer" in Latin; vale = goodbye, and dicere = to say/tell). I have no worries for Sabrine's future; she's got a strong personality and is blessed with drive and direction. Good for her. I joked that I expected to be reading some of her published work in the years ahead.

Dessert was a massive brownie shared by the girls, while I went for my usual crème brûlée. Sabrine couldn't understand how anyone could possibly like crème brûlée; I explained my love of the textural contrast. We talked a bit about French food; Sabrine, who had been to France, wasn't all that impressed with French haute cuisine; a lot of it came off as flavorless and pretentious to her, although she enjoyed French onion soup. I'm not a fan of French onion soup, but I agreed with Sabrine in principle; my own experience with good, rib-sticking French cooking had come courtesy of my time with my buddy Dominique's family in Carquefou. Maman and Papa were proud of their jardin potager, from which came most, or all, of the vegetables that ended up on our dinner table. Their cuisine wasn't anything like hoity-toity haute cuisine; it was simple, unadorned, unpretentious, and delicious.

Eventually, conversation slowed to a halt, at which point the girls whipped out their cell phones. We adjourned to wait outside for Christine's mom; while we waited, I took the above picture, which was a second attempt: the first pic mortified Sabrine, who complained that her bangs were all over the place, thus necessitating a re-take. Christine's mom showed up; Christine's little sister hid in the back of Mom's car; I waved at her and she waved back, an amiable shadow. Christine gave me a $15 Starbucks gift card; she and I had actually met earlier at the Starbucks about an hour before our appointed 6:30PM rendezvous: Christine's sister had been engaged in a piano lesson, so Christine and her mom had nothing to do but retreat to Starbucks to get out of the 90-plus-degree heat.

Parting was sweet sorrow: I knew that the three of us would never have the opportunity to meet like this again. Sabrine will be off to MIT before we know it; Christine will spend her summer doing whatever it is that little Christines do; and if I get my dream job at a Korean university, I'll be gone from my current job by the end of the summer.

But that's life, right? Every present moment is a window into the future, a future with many branching possibilities. It felt good to see both Sabrine and Christine today—Sabrine on the cusp of moving to the much larger world of MIT and a Bostonian life, Christine perhaps on the verge of entering a prestigious magnet school. I'm older, forty-three years old, so my own horizon has narrowed and my own set of possibilities is no longer quite so limitless, but even I stare hopefully into my own future.


Monday, February 25, 2013

the Tao of Chance

Some days back, I rented "Being There," a 1979 film starring Peter Sellers and directed by Hal Ashby. I had seen bits and pieces of "Being There" before, but had never sat down to watch the entire movie. The story centers on Chance the gardener, who tends the Washington, DC estate of the Old Man, an unnamed character who dies at the beginning of the film. Chance looks upon the old man's corpse without registering much understanding or deep feeling, and the housekeeper, Louise, initially yells at Chance for not recognizing the significance of the Old Man's death. Louise quickly repents of her anger, though, for she recognizes that Chance has the mind of a child, and that he is absorbed by only two things in life: gardening and TV. She tells Chance that she and he will both have to leave the home, and bids Chance farewell. Chance soon finds himself on the street, and the rest of the movie portrays Chance's misadventures as, like his cinematic descendant Forrest Gump, he finds himself inadvertently walking the halls of power and prestige, with-- eventually-- thousands of people hanging on to his every word. Chance's encounters with people (business magnates, Russian diplomats, and even the US president) are characterized by how charmed his interlocutors are at his simplicity and honesty. Time after time, people mistake Chance for someone more profound than he actually is, not realizing that Chance's constant retreats to the metaphor of the garden are a function of the fact that gardening, and TV, are all that Chance knows.*

A few days before I saw the movie, I read my friend Steve Honeywell's review of it. Steve understood why people thought this was Peter Sellers's greatest performance, but Steve was frustrated, I think, by most viewers' reactions to Chance: like the characters that Chance encounters in the film, many viewers also take Chance to be a profound being, one perhaps touched by the divine-- a Christ-figure, or in Steve's language, a "Zen Buddhist saint, a person who is purely and totally in 'the now' because he has no effective mental past and no real conception of the future." Steve then asks a crucial question in which he summons me, djinn-like, to provide an answer:

But how saintly is [Chance] if he got that way through no design of his own? How much wisdom really falls from his lips if he doesn’t understand the wisdom himself (Kevin, I expect an answer on this)[?] The final (and I admit, truly wonderful) shot of the film only emphasizes this impression.

So Steve has very kindly given me a metaphysical mission. I see this mission as having two phases, each answering a different question. The first question is: is Chance, as portrayed in the movie, really a Christ-figure or a Buddhist saint? The second question is Steve's own question: how much of a saint/divinity can Chance be if he doesn't understand what "wisdom" he utters, and if his wisdom, far from being earned, comes through "no design of his own"?

1. Christ-figure? Buddhist saint?

Christ-figures are fascinating subjects. They appear often in stories and movies: Melville's Billy Budd has been interpreted as such a figure; more recently, JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Wachowski Brothers' Neo (from "The Matrix") have been viewed through a christic lens. Some Christ-figures have, arguably, appeared before the Christ himself: the Suffering Servant image in the book of Isaiah ("by his stripes are we healed") has been retroactively interpreted by Christians as a prophetic reference to the coming of Jesus.

I think, though, that we need to set some ground rules when talking about Christ-figures. What does it take to be classified as one? I'd say that it takes more than the ability to perform miracles: a Christ-figure must walk a sort of via dolorosa, and must do so for the sake of all humanity. Strangely enough, just such a figure is visible in Charlton Heston's movie "The Omega Man," a zombie-apocalypse film based on the novel I Am Legend (and later remade into the movie "I Am Legend," starring Will Smith in the Heston role). In "The Omega Man," Heston's character, Dr. Robert Neville, is one of the few people to survive the zombie-virus outbreak. Because he is a scientist, Neville, who is immune to the virus, uses his own blood to create a serum that can counteract the effects of the virus and restore the infected zombies to normalcy. In this version of the story, however, the zombies are sentient and are led by Mathias (Anthony Zerbe in fine, evil, B-movie form), who rallies the infected against Neville. The zombies eventually kill Neville by casting a spear at him while Neville, having just given his serum to a group of uninfected people for replication, is standing in a public fountain. The spear strikes Neville's side; Neville slumps into the crystal-clear water and dies, arms spread wide in a beatific gesture reminiscent of Christ on the cross. Blood and water flow.

Robert Neville is a true Christ-figure. He hits all the right notes: if "zombiism" symbolizes human sinfulness, then Neville, with his immunity, is inherently pure and naturally free from the shackles of sin. His solution to the problem of sin comes through the redeeming effects of his own blood, thus making his serum a kind of sacrament. Neville's gift of blood is for all of humanity, which now stands awash in sinfulness. Some among the sinful will accept the serum/chrism; many won't. Neville, standing in that fountain, also makes the ultimate sacrifice in a spirit of imitatio christi. His dying posture seals the deal, reaffirming the Neville/Christ analogy. (Note, too, that "Neville" comes from the French neuve ville, or "new city," itself perhaps a biblical reference to a new phase in human/cosmic history.)

Resurrection imagery may also be a factor for Christ-figures. Harry Potter was killed by the Avada Kedavra curse: as the celestial Dumbledore tells Harry in Heaven's anteroom (a sort of cleaned-up version of London's King's Cross station-- "King's Cross" itself being a significant hint at Harry's Christlike nature), the young man is free to move "on"-- i.e., heavenward-- if he so desires. This means Harry is definitively dead, although he has the power to, like a bodhisattva, turn back from Heaven's gate to complete his unfinished work. Dumbledore has also told Harry over the course of Rowling's seven books that Harry is a being filled with love, and this self-sacrificial love is what makes him powerful. Christ's life is characterized by universal love; this, it seems, is an essential component of a Christ-figure. Harry is also carried forward by a sense of mission that is crystallized in the fifth book (Order of the Phoenix) when he hears the prophecy about himself and realizes that he will be-- must be-- the one to take down Voldemort.

Meanwhile, Neo's path in "The Matrix" cleaves to a christic death-resurrection-ascension paradigm. Neo's character, as conceived by the Wachowski Brothers, follows something of an intertwined, double-helical path, simultaneously tracking both the Buddha's enlightenment and Christ's fulfillment. But Neo qualifies as a Christ-figure not only because of the resurrection moment after Trinity(!) revives him, but also because he can perform miracles, and because he operates in a spirit of liberating love for all enslaved humanity. Once Neo realizes who he is and what he's about, he moves forward with a sense of deep purpose. As a being who confounds the rule-bound nature of the computer-generated Matrix (perhaps symbolizing the sin-shackled nature of the world), Neo is Christlike because he is a death-transcending, messianic figure of promise.**

So I would contend that, to qualify as a Christ-figure, a character in a story or a movie should possess most of the following qualities:

•ability to perform miracles
•self-sacrificing courage
•all-encompassing love for humanity
•messianic (i.e., revolutionary/paradigm-changing/leadership) potential
•a character arc that follows a via dolorosa
•a sense of mission
•resurrection/resuscitation and other prominent tropes (crucifixion/sacrifice, etc.)

The three characters mentioned above, Robert Neville, Harry Potter, and Neo, all possess at least five out of seven of the above traits. I've charted everything out below:

Robert Neville Harry Potter
love for humanity
messianic potential
via dolorosa
sense of mission

But by the above standards, Chance is not a Christ-figure. A Christ-figure tends to be proactive and purpose-driven, whereas Chance is more of a benevolent witness to, and sometimes inadvertent participant in, the events occurring around him. Chance, being of simple mind and heart, cannot be said to be possessed of a sense of mission: he has no agenda. He is a compassionate being, true, but the film provides little evidence that Chance's compassion is synonymous with a conscious, all-embracing love of humanity. As I noted earlier, Chance's two foci in life are gardening and TV. Chance does have one distinctly Christlike trait, of course: he performs miracles-- two, in fact. The first and more obvious miracle is his walking on water, as seen in the final moments of the film. The second miracle, somewhat less obvious but present all the same, is the heart-healing that Chance brings to most of those whom he meets. Almost no one is immune to Chance's charms. But unlike Neo, Harry Potter, and Robert Neville, Chance undergoes no via dolorosa, and he certainly doesn't die a self-sacrificing death, nor does he harbor much, if any, messianic potential (although it may be that the millions of TV viewers who saw his on-camera interview might be willing to follow him to the ends of the earth). In all, Chance violates the christic paradigm in too many ways to be considered a Christ-figure. His concerns and his compassion are too parochial in scope to make him christic. It may be that Chance, taken purely on his own terms, qualifies as some sort of divine figure-- one miraculously untouched by the restrictive laws and doleful vicissitudes of nature-- but Chance's character defies any obviously Christian interpretation.

Is Chance, then, more of a Buddhist saint? There are two primary paradigms when considering Buddhist sainthood: the Theravada notion of the arhat, and the Mahayana notion of the bodhisattva. Buddhism arose as a response to the empirical fact of human suffering in all its forms, great and small. It acknowledges that being is both process and interrelationship, which immediately implies that there is no permanence or inherent self-being (aseity, to use the proper term) to be found anywhere. Even the apodictic realm of 2 + 2 = 4 is subject to the unalterable laws of interdependence: there can be no 2 without 1 or 3, and each number immediately implies the rest of the number line, just as a single flower implies the entire universe.

The arhat is nothing more or less than a person. He is not a deity. At best, we might consider him a teacher or a guide, leading us across the world to the one-person bark that we must row ourselves to cross the great river of ignorance. In Theravada thinking, this sort of person represents a saintly ideal, incarnating within himself the Buddhist virtues laid out in the Eightfold Path: right views, right intentions, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. There is a "self-propulsive" aspect to Theravada Buddhism: you don't get where you need to go unless you yourself are willing to make the effort. As with the christic paradigm discussed above, then, we see that proactivity is a crucial component of this form of Buddhist sainthood.

How does Chance measure up to this ideal? Can Chance truly be described as mindful, for example? In a sense, yes: he is very attentive to the lives of plants, and seems, on some pre-intellectual level, to radiate a tranquil, compassionate bonhomie that relaxes his interlocutors and keeps him more or less in tune with his social surroundings. Without a doubt, Chance is calm and centered and kind. But at the same time, Chance's limited intellect keeps him both naive and unaware. Early in the movie, a newly homeless Chance walks into a group of street toughs who threaten him. His response to this threat is to bring out his remote controller, taken from the Old Man's house, and to click it in an attempt to "change the channel," so to speak-- that is, to make the toughs go away. Chance seems blandly surprised when the boys don't disappear, and this surprise indicates the extent to which our protagonist has divorced himself from reality. That's as far from Buddhist virtue as one can get.

How does Chance fare when viewed through a more Mahayana Buddhist lens? Before we tackle that question, we should stop and do a bit of background work on Buddhism. Although Theravada is arguably the older form of Buddhism, "closer to the Buddha's original teachings," as some Theravadins proudly claim, Mahayana is without a doubt the more popular, widespread form. In this form of Buddhism, the saintly ideal is represented by the bodhisattva, a being that stands at the threshold of nirvana but, instead of stepping across that boundary into bliss, turns around in favor of compassionately helping others across. This form of Buddhism is less about "self-propulsion" and more about emphasizing the compassionate connections that bind all sentient beings together. Why does a Mahayana monk do what he does? "I do it for you," is the monk's answer. In the West, one of the most famous expressions of Mahayana thought is Zen Buddhism (about which I've written here, and about which style of meditation I've written here). Zen is the Japanese designation for Ch'an; this style of Buddhism has its origin in China, a country and culture in which Buddhism underwent a rather fundamental makeover. As Noss and Noss write in the 1984 edition of Man's Religions:

The general religious attitude in East Asia differs from that of India in important respects. While India tends to give the value of an illusion to nature, or at least yearns to triumph over it in thought, the Chinese and Japanese do not do this easily. They have cultivated an aesthetic appreciation of nature, which, even apart from Buddhist and Taoist influences, has reached such heights of satisfaction as to make the East Asian want to prolong life in this world as long as possible. Nature is a real and not deceptive structure of forms and forces, and it displays sublime order and beauty in both action and being. Some Chinese (like Chuang Tzu) might qualify this, seeing nature as pointing beyond itself and signifying the operational presence of the only wholly real entity in the universe-- the mysterious Tao. But even this view has had the effect of intensifying appreciation of nature.

Noss, John B. and David S. Noss. Man's Religions, 7th Edition. New York: Macmillan, 1984. (p. 232)

Some scholars refer to the India/China contrast in terms of world-denying or other-worldly (Indian) versus world-affirming or this-worldly (Chinese) religious perspectives. Zen Buddhism takes a decidedly Taoist route in its advocacy of present-orientation (to which Steve Honeywell alluded in his review), naturalness, spontaneity, and harmonious flow. Where does Chance fall on this spectrum? Is he a world-denier or a world-affirmer? From what I observed above, it seems Chance is a combination of both: blissfully unaware, yet simultaneously (paradoxically?) in harmony with his circumstances.

My own encounters with Zen monks, however, lead me to believe that Chance is nothing like them. Monks are the products of hard work and study-- of deliberate action. They may labor to attain a state of non-attainment, but their lives are always, always characterized by disciplined striving, notions of wu-wei notwithstanding. Chance, by contrast, simply is. He has attained nothing because, as the housekeeper Louise points out in the middle of "Being There," when she sees Chance on TV, Chance was simply born to be the way he is. If anything, I take Louise and her sharp awareness to epitomize the Zen ideal: like many Zen monks I've met, Louise is blunt, perceptive, and unflaggingly truthful.

Could it nevertheless be that Chance is still, somehow, a bodhisattva? One characteristic of a bodhisattva is that he radiates compassion wherever he goes. This radiation is automatic, not necessarily willed. Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is a perfect example of this. As my old Buddhism prof humorously explained, such cosmic beings are like dispensers, doling out doses of compassion automatically, volitionlessly. Chance certainly qualifies as a bodhisattva in that respect, and it's also obvious that his compassion, though perhaps unwilled, is nonetheless genuine: significantly, Chance cries when his rich benefactor, Benjamin Rand, dies in his bed. (This stands in contrast to Chance's numb, affectless reaction to the Old Man's death at the beginning of the film, and indicates that Chance's character has evolved, even if only a little.) But if a bodhisattva's job, like that of Christ, is to provide compassion for all sentient beings, then we again run into the problem that Chance's concerns are parochial and rather mundane-- not cosmic in the least.

I conclude, then, that Chance can be classified neither as a Christ-figure nor as a Buddhist saint of any type. Although he possesses some Christlike and Buddhalike traits in tantalizing quantities, Chance cannot be summed up in either Christian or Buddhist terms. His character doesn't map well onto either religious template.

But if we insist on mapping Chance onto some religious template, then I would suggest out-and-out Taoism. As I mentioned above in talking about Zen Buddhism, Taoism emphasizes such aspects of the world as naturalness, harmonious flow, spontaneity, and present-orientation. Taoism's deepest insights are of the wordless, nondiscursive, yet painfully ordinary sort: "The Tao that can be talked about is not the eternal Tao." Simple, plainspoken Chance clearly demonstrates his oneness with the Tao in true magico-religious Taoist form at the end of the movie: by walking on water, like the legendary Taoist sages of old who rode the clouds, hopscotched along mountaintops, and survived pounding waterfalls unscathed, he shows that his non-mastery of the world is itself a sort of mastery. Like Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch of Zen Buddhism (and an Indian saint reimagined the Chinese way) who famously crossed the Yangtze River on a reed, Chance has no argument with the still water of the lake on which he stands, so the lake doesn't complain when he stands on it.

Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu are both concerned with how a sage should act; they see the sage as the embodiment of certain Taoist virtues. From Chapter 33 of the Tao Te Ching:

Knowing others is wisdom;
Knowing the self is enlightenment.
Mastering others requires force;
Mastering the self requires strength;
He who knows he has enough is rich.
Perseverance is a sign of will power.
He who stays where he is endures.
To die but not to perish is to be eternally present.

Taoism may not be a perfect fit for Chance, but it comes close. Look how the above verses end: "...eternally present." Is this not the core meaning of being there? Whether Chance is even capable of making the effort to know himself and others, whether he is able or unable to master himself, whether he even knows-- consciously-- that he has enough is impossible to determine. But as my friend Nathan notes in his magnificent review of "Being There":

For one thing, the aptly-named film is a testament to a tremendous human need: the need for others to “be there” for us. All of the silliness that gets in the way of this and that hurts us, personally and collectively, could be pared away, the movie is suggesting. All Chance does, apart from speak in the language of the garden, is to “be there” for others; this fills some of them with an intense loyalty to him that overrides on more than one occasion even sexual jealousy. At the same time, the scoundrels of the movie–not so much the street gangsters in the opening scene as the suspicious journalist, the philanderer attorney who wants to enter politics, and the back-room politicians themselves–come off looking very bad indeed in comparison.

Chance is, if nothing else, present to the people around him. Like the Taoist notion of the Uncarved Block, or Chuang Tzu's tales of the Stinky Tree and the Great Yak, Chance simply is, and maybe that's enough.

2. "No design of his own"

Can one be a true saint if one has done no deliberate work to attain sainthood?

Chance epitomizes the Taoist ideal of wu-wei (non-doing, non-action): there's a sort of deliberate non-deliberateness about him. Chance can carefully examine a tree in front of the White House and conclude that it's sick and in need of care; at the same time, his lack of intellectual complexity means that he faces every human encounter with a fresh, open, and happy mind. Chance is untroubled by the world, but not through any effort of his own. His "enlightenment," such as it is, comes without exertion on his part. He was simply born that way. As Louise bitterly observes while watching Chance become a celebrity on TV:

It's for sure a white man's world in America. Look here: I raised that boy since he was the size of a piss-ant. And I'll say right now, he never learned to read and write. No, sir. Had no brains at all. Was stuffed with rice pudding between th' ears. Shortchanged by the Lord, and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now! Yes, sir, all you've gotta be is white in America, to get whatever you want. Gobbledy-gook!

This is by far the most accurate perception of Chance in the entire film, which is why I consider Louise the movie's resident Zen master. She cuts to the heart of the matter, which is that Chance is as stupid as a box of rocks. "Being There" is a comedy, and one of the movie's fundamental jokes is that people ascribe to Chance virtues that they read into him. Again consistent with Taoism, Chance is an empty vessel, a protean field of potential: he can be anything to anyone. And that is, perhaps, the film's central irony: if Chance is, in reality, an "absent presence" wherever he may be... is he truly being there for anybody? Pluck Chance out of Benjamin Rand's posh residence and plunk him down in the midst of urban blight, and Chance will produce the same effects on the downtrodden citizenry as he does on the rich and privileged. Why? Because Chance is a mirror, not an actual presence.

This may fit the idea that we shouldn't consider Chance human. Perhaps Chance is more of an angel, an uncomplicated being with an immutable nature that emanates spiritual warmth-- a being at once there (visible and audible) and not there (ethereal and intangible). Nathan, in his review, hints at this possibility when he writes:

In the movie’s events, God plays no role, but Chance effects more change than anyone, and so Chance is in effect a character foil for divine interference in human affairs–a role that is part of a tradition going all the way back to the ancient Greek playwright Menander, who personified Chance in a position formerly reserved for Olympian deities.

Whatever Chance's ontological status, we need to separate the moral worth of Chance from the moral worth of Chance's words. We commit the genetic fallacy when we dismiss a claim or argument because of its provenance, i.e., its genesis. If a crazy or stupid person says that the sun is shining outside, and the sun is indeed shining at that moment, then that person is right no matter how stupid or crazy he or she might be. It would be wrong to deny the claim by saying, "You can't trust what that person says; he's crazy!" So: can a simple gardener dispense saintly wisdom? Of course he can. But is Chance himself a saint, despite the fact that he has done nothing to attain his beatific state? This is a harder question, to which Taoism may provide an answer.

We'll start by noting, again, that Zen Buddhism takes its cue from Taoism. It uses the simple, often discourse-subverting language of Taoism to express truth, which means that Zen Buddhists frequently utter perfectly obvious inanities. As blog-friend Lorianne wrote in 2004 in reminiscing about an exchange between her and Zen Master Dae Kwang during her precepts-taking ceremony:

ZMDK: Your new name is Won Jin, which means Original Truth. So, Lori, what is this Original Truth?
L: (claps hands)
ZMDK: Is that all?
L: Your robe is gray!

And a moment later:

ZMDK: Yeah, my robe is gray: that’s plain old ordinary truth... but is it Original Truth?
L: Of course it is!

The above exchange echoes the simplicity of Chance's gardening metaphors. When the US president asks Chance for his opinion on the nation's economic future, Chance offers conditional optimism ("As long as the roots are not severed... all will be well in the garden"), refers to the progression of seasons, and ends with an allusion to the assured return of spring. Is Chance speaking truth-- even Original Truth? I should think so: Chance is responding to the demands of the present moment in the only way he knows how. By the Zen reckoning (which is a close cousin to Taoist reckoning), Chance is a Buddha. But then... we all are. So this is nothing special.

Because Taoism lifts up naturalness as a virtue, it is enough, in the Taoist way of thinking, for something simply to be what it is to express its harmony with the Tao. There's no need to overthink things, no need to bring ego into the mix. Happiness comes not from recognizing that we are all part of a great flow: it comes merely from flowing. From the Taoist perspective, then, a figure like Chance, who placidly yields to all circumstances, embodies harmony with the Tao. Chance may not fit the template of a Buddhist saint or a Christ-figure, but his words of wisdom (holy wisdom? foolish wisdom?) spring from the present moment and are consistent with his inner nature, and that's a dynamic one finds in Taoism.

Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.

The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.

Therefore the Master remains
serene in the midst of sorrow.
Evil cannot enter his heart.
Because he has given up helping,
he is people's greatest help.

True words seem paradoxical.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 78

Like the characters Chance meets, we viewers are at liberty to perceive Chance however we wish. He is a blank slate, an Uncarved Block, a mirror reflecting his surroundings. He could be an earthbound divinity, or merely a person favored of God, because as we all know, God protects the insane and the simple.*** "Being There" would never have worked as a comedy had it taken a more "Mr. Bean"-like approach. If Chance had fallen victim to a soul-crushing series of mishaps-- attacked by a gang, smashed by a car, spurned and mocked by the rich and powerful-- we wouldn't have had the same movie. Not at all. Can Chance be considered a saint? From an explicitly Christian or Buddhist standpoint, I'd say no. But from a Taoist perspective, Chance simply is who he is: a being at one with the Tao. And as a mark of sainthood, maybe that's enough.

*This makes it strange that Chance so often relies on gardening imagery to express himself, but almost never quotes anything from television.

**Both Robert Neville and Neo have been subject to critique as Christ-figures, however, because of their gun-toting, violent ways. How Christlike can these characters be, after all, if they personally participate in the annihilation of their fellow sentient beings? There are several ways to answer this critique. One is to shift the messianic paradigm slightly so that Neville and Neo are viewed through a more apocalyptic filter: the Christ we meet in the Book of Revelation is far less meek and mild than the Christ of the gospels, and is more in tune with ancient currents in Jewish messianism, in which the mashiach was seen as more of a powerful political leader who promised an upheaval of the temporal/terrestrial order; any reference to a "new heaven and new earth" was meant politically, not metaphysically. Another way to answer the critique is to take all the weaponry symbolically, the way academics do when considering a symbol like the sword in Indian thought and tradition. In India, the sword represents that which cuts away ignorance and unwisdom, leaving only unburdened, unfettered enlightenment. Sword-brandishing deities are not inciting violence; to the contrary, they are holy threshers, cultivating wisdom. There may thus be a symbolic sense in which Neo's and Neville's guns serve the same purpose: they can be viewed as releasing the foolish from their bonds of foolishness. All the same, it is perhaps because of this tendency toward cinematic violence (even Harry Potter has employed magic in a violent, combative manner, including two of the three Unforgivable Curses, and not against his arch-enemy Voldemort) that I did not include moral purity as one of the christic criteria.

***In fact, a theistic reading of "Being There" would note the invisible divine hand at work, lovingly and protectively smoothing out every path before Chance treads on it.


Sunday, December 23, 2012

language pop quiz

I pulled the following sentence, which contains an error, from an article at The Atlantic titled "Is the Ivy League Fair to Asian Americans?" Here's the sentence:

Again, the implication here seems to be that while Asian-American applicants as a group excel at tests, an important factor in admissions, their talents, skills, and other interests tend to be significantly inferior to students of other races, and having them around isn't as enriching for other students.

The nature of the error is:

(A) poor tense control
(B) faulty/illogical comparison
(C) ambiguous pronoun reference
(D) dangling or misplaced modifier

From the same article, another sentence with an error:

As I see it, we know that even well-intentioned people regularly rationalize discriminatory behavior, that society as a whole is often horrified at its own bygone race-based policies, and that race is so fluid in our multi-ethnic society that no one can adequately conceive of all the ways it is changing; knowing these things, prudence dictates acceptance of the fact that humans aren't equipped to fairly take race into consideration. [italics in original]

The nature of the error is:

(A) poor tense control
(B) faulty/illogical comparison
(C) ambiguous pronoun reference
(D) dangling or misplaced modifier


Saturday, December 15, 2012

a faulty axiological argument for the existence of God

I was alerted, on my Twitter feed, to the existence of a five-minute Prager University video by Dr. Peter Kreeft (rhymes with "strafed"), professor of philosophy at Boston College, in which Dr. Kreeft attempts to prove the existence of God by arguing that good and evil enjoy objective existence. I will lay out Dr. Kreeft's argument, phase by phase, and then demonstrate why it resoundingly fails to prove God's existence.

1. The Argument

Dr. Kreeft's argument has two principal phases:

a. Establish that all non-objective (i.e., atheistic/naturalistic) explanations for the existence of morality are unsatisfactory.

b. Conclude from the failure of all naturalistic explanations that morality has an objective basis, which must be supernatural, i.e., God.

Establishing (a) is challenge enough, but much more depends on whether Dr. Kreeft can succeed at establishing (b) satisfactorily. In the video, Dr. Kreeft breaks (a) down into five parts. This five-part argument, a systematic rejection of several naturalistic explanations for the existence of morality, begins this way:

I'm going to argue for the existence of God from the premise that moral good and evil really exist. They are not simply a matter of personal taste-- not merely substitutes for I like and I don't like.

We can therefore call this an axiological argument for the existence of God. The term axiology refers to the study of value, i.e., ethics, morals, the Good, etc. Note, too, that Dr. Kreeft is aiming to establish that good and evil are objective realities, i.e., they reside in the world, independent of any particular person's perspective.

Dr. Kreeft continues:

Before I begin, let's get one misunderstanding out of the way. My argument does not mean that atheists can't be moral. Of course: atheists can behave morally, just as theists can behave immorally.

This is an important concession, but I'm not sure how relevant it is, given what Dr. Kreeft argues later: at the end of his spiel, Dr. Kreeft seems to imply that an atheist who believes morals to have an objective basis is actually a closet theist. This comes perilously close to the claim that there are no atheists, a claim that drives most atheists crazy. (It's a bit like defining religion so inclusively that even atheists turn out to be religious. I've been guilty of making that move myself.)

Here is the transcript (all typos are my responsibility) of the rest of Dr. Kreeft's axiological argument for God's existence:

Let's start, then, with a question about good and evil. Where do good and evil come from? Atheists typically propose a few possibilities. Among these are

-human nature, and

I will show you that none of these can be the ultimate source of morality.

Why not from evolution? Because any supposed morality that is evolving can change. If it can change for the good or the bad, there must be a standard above these changes to judge them as good or bad. For most of human history, more powerful societies enslaved weaker societies, and prospered. That's just the way it was, and no one questioned it. Now, we condemn slavery. But, based on a merely evolutionary model—that is, an ever-changing view of morality—who is to say that it won't be acceptable again one day? Slavery was once accepted, but it was not therefore acceptable: if you can't make that distinction between accepted and acceptable, you can't criticize slavery. And if you can make that distinction, you are admitting to objective morality.

What about reasoning? While reasoning is a powerful tool to help us discover and understand morality, it cannot be the source of morality. For example, criminals use reasoning to plan a murder, without their reason telling them that murder is wrong. And was it reasoning, or something higher than reasoning, that led those Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust? The answer is obvious: it was something higher than reasoning, because risking one's life to save a stranger was a very unreasonable thing to do.

Nor can conscience alone be the source of morality. Every person has his own conscience, and some people apparently have none. Heinrich Himmler, chief of the brutal Nazi SS, successfully appealed to his henchmen's consciences to help them do the "right" thing in murdering and torturing millions of Jews and others. How can you say your conscience is right and Himmler's is wrong, if conscience alone is the source of morality? The answer is: you can't.

Some people say human nature is the ultimate source of morality. But human nature can lead us to do all sorts of reprehensible things. In fact, human nature is the reason we need morality. Our human nature leads some of us to do real evil, and leads all of us to be selfish, unkind, petty, and egocentric. I doubt you would want to live in a world where human nature was given free rein.

Utilitarianism is the claim that what is morally right is determined by whatever creates the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But, to return to our slavery example, if 90% of the people would get great benefit from enslaving the other 10%, would that make slavery right? According to utilitarianism, it would!

We've seen where morality can't come from. Now, let's see where it does come from.

What are moral laws? Unlike the laws of physics or the laws of mathematics, which tell us what is, the laws of morality tell us what ought to be. But like physical laws, they direct and order something, and that something is right human behavior. But since morality doesn't exist physically—there are no moral or immoral atoms or cells or genes—its cause has to be something that exists apart from the physical world. That thing must therefore be above nature, or supernatural. The very existence of morality proves the existence of something beyond nature and beyond man. Just as a design suggests a designer, moral commands suggest a moral commander. Moral laws must come from a moral lawgiver. Well, that sounds pretty much like what we know as God.

So the consequence of this argument is that, whenever you appeal to morality, you are appealing to God, whether you know it or not. You're talking about something religious, even if you think you're an atheist.

I'm Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, for Prager University.

2. My Critique

My first reaction to this video was that an axiological argument for the existence of God has to be one of the more bizarre attempts at proving God's existence that I've seen. St. Anselm's ontological proof for the existence of God, while flawed, strikes me as more rigorously logical than Dr. Kreeft's strange undertaking. St. Thomas Aquinas's cosmological proofs—the so-called Five Ways—also strike me as more tightly reasoned than this morality-centered approach, although they, too, are flawed.

My objections to Dr. Kreeft's arguments can be summed up thus:

1. In attempting to refute a mere subset of the total number of naturalistic arguments for the existence/ultimate source of good and evil, Dr. Kreeft has failed to address all the possible arguments and thus cannot proceed directly to the supernatural.

2. Many, if not most, of Dr. Kreeft's objections merely reject possibilities because they are distasteful, not for any rigidly logical reason. These are aesthetic objections, not logical objections.

3. Even if we consider Dr. Kreeft successful in having refuted all the naturalistic arguments for the existence/ultimate source of morality, Dr. Kreeft has failed to demonstrate that a theistic source for morality is the only remaining option. Buddhism builds its system of morality not upon theism, but upon the basic empirical fact of dukkha (suffering, unsatisfactoriness) and the relational, processual, intercausal nature of reality. No god is needed in this moral framework.

Science has also been exploring the question of morality. You might want to take a look at Robert Wright's talk with Dr. Steven Pinker over at (see here). Fast-forward to about minute 34, then listen as Pinker and Wright talk about the notion of objective "moral laws" (i.e., moral realism, the idea that moral laws have objective existence), which enjoy an almost Platonic status, toward which evolving organisms are converging over time—laws that govern, say, cooperative survival strategies, tendencies toward reciprocal behavior, various pancultural forms of the Golden Rule, etc. Nowhere in that discussion is God explicitly invoked.

4. At several points in his argument, Dr. Kreeft assumes what he wishes to prove. A good example of that fallacious move occurs here, early in his argument:

For most of human history, more powerful societies enslaved weaker societies, and prospered. That's just the way it was, and no one questioned it. Now, we condemn slavery. But, based on a merely evolutionary model—that is, an ever-changing view of morality—who is to say that it won't be acceptable again one day? Slavery was once accepted, but it was not therefore acceptable: if you can't make that distinction between accepted and acceptable, you can't criticize slavery. And if you can make that distinction, you are admitting to objective morality.

The notion that "slavery was once accepted, but it was not therefore acceptable" is the crucial phrase here: Dr. Kreeft is merely asserting, not arguing. He offers no support, that I can see, for his contention that slavery wasn't acceptable back in the old days: obviously it was acceptable, or it would never have been practiced! To say that slavery was never acceptable is to say it was never acceptable from a God's-eye point of view—and that's precisely where Dr. Kreeft is assuming what he wishes to prove.

5. Dr. Kreeft's argument suffers from the same problem that plagues most arguments for an objective morality: whose morality, from which culture, is the morality? There are so many moralities out there, and not all of them share certain basic tenets like "killing/murder is bad." This is Cultural Anthropology 101, folks: moralities may overlap, but as with Wittgenstein's notion of family resemblances, distant-cousin moral systems may have little to nothing in common.

6. If we assume that Dr. Kreeft has successfully made the case for theism, Dr. Kreeft still faces all the logical and moral objections to theism itself. To wit: how moral is a jealous and vindictive God? Is the petty, bloodthirsty God of the Old Testament (a God who, in Christian reckoning, sacrifices his son in the New Testament) truly worthy of worship? What about the logical problems that burden most traditional concepts of God? Divine foreknowledge is incompatible with human freedom, for example, and we associate freedom with responsible, moral action. Etc., etc.

I think that about covers my objections to Dr. Kreeft's argument. Basically, I feel that the professor has failed to make the move from "No naturalistic explanation for morality is satisfactory" to "Only theism can explain the existence of morality." His objections to naturalistic explanations are more aesthetic than logical; he fails to answer all the naturalistic arguments for the existence of morality; he fails to provide a compelling case that theism is the only inevitable alternative in the face of naturalism's failures (cf. Buddhism and science on morality); he assumes what he wishes to prove; he fails to deal adequately with the diversity of moral systems; and finally, even if he has succeeded in making the case for God, he faces a mountain of logical and moral objections to theism itself.

That any argument for the existence of God can hold water is doubtful at best. Over the course of human history, no argument has yet proven universally acceptable, and this axiological approach strikes me as one of the stranger—not to mention weaker—attempts at supporting theism.

My thanks to my brother Sean for nudging me to write this post.


Saturday, August 11, 2012

etiological fairy tale: Why the Monkey's Rear End is Red

An adult Korean ESL student of mine wrote a cute etiological fairy tale as a writing exercise. The term "etiological" means "having to do with causes." An example of such a fairy tale might be something like Rudyard Kipling's "How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin" from his Just So Stories. Kipling's tale provides a humorous explanation for the rhino's thick, wrinkled skin. The story answers the cause-related question, "How did the rhino's skin get that way?"

Without further ado, then:


Once upon a time, there was a monkey. When the monkey was eating a banana on a tree, a crab came to the monkey. The crab said, "Monkey, can you give a banana to me?" The monkey ignored him and continued eating his banana.

The crab really wanted that banana, so he said, "If you rest the banana on the tree and eat it, the taste would be much better." So the monkey put the banana on the tree. Suddenly, wind blew and the banana fell to the ground. The crab picked it up quickly, and he went into his small house, laughing all the way.

The monkey, furious, came down and said, "If you don't give me my banana, I will poop on your house!" Then the crab pinched the monkey's butt with his powerful claws. The monkey's rear end turned red as the crab pulled out all of his butt hair.

And that is why a monkey's rear end is red and hairless, and a crab's claws are hairy.

I will never look at crabs and monkeys the same way again.


Monday, July 2, 2012

this week's MGRE Math Beast Challenge

From here:

Quantity A
The number of different ways all 9 letters in the word “TENNESSEE” can be arranged.

Quantity B
The number of different ways all 7 letters in the word “WYOMING” can be arranged.

(A) Quantity A is greater.
(B) Quantity B is greater.
(C) The two quantities are equal.
(D) The relationship cannot be determined from the information given.

Go to it! My answer will eventually appear in the comments. This appears to be a permutations and combinations problem. Ugh. The obvious answer would seem to be (A), but that very obviousness is what makes me cautious.


Monday, June 25, 2012

answer to last week's MGRE Math Beast Challenge

MGRE has this to say about last week's Math Beast Challenge:

We are told that the 11th grade girls at Stumpville High School have an average GPA of 3.1, and the overall 11th grade average GPA is 3.05. Fortunately, the 11th grade has the same number of boys and girls, so rather than using the weighted average formula, we can simply conclude that the boys’ average GPA must be 3.0. Write on your paper something like:

11th grade boys average GPA = 3.0

(If you’re not sure about our quick inference, try this example: If a dozen people in a room each have an average of $10 and another dozen people each have an average of $20, then the average amount of money each person has is exactly $15, since the $10 group and the $20 group are the same size. Similarly, if this example had told you that a dozen people have an average of $10, another dozen people have x dollars, and the overall average is $15, then – since 15 is exactly halfway between 10 and 20 – you could confidently conclude that the other dozen people have an average of $20.)

We are told that all of the boys enrolled in Honors Chemistry are in 11th grade. From the first chart, add up the total number of boys: 46 + 52 + 52 + 50 = 200. From the bottom chart, we can see that 6% of boys take Honors Chemistry. 6% of 200 is 12, so write on your paper something like:

11th grade boys in Honors Chem = 12

We are told that these 12 boys have an average GPA of 3.8. And yet the average GPA for boys in 11th grade is only 3.0 – thus, we are expecting the rest of the boys’ GPAs to be much lower than the Honors Chemistry boys’ GPAs.

However, we CANNOT do the kind of “quick logic” we did above and assume that, since the Honors Chem 11th grade boys have an average GPA of 3.8 and the 11th grade boys in general have an average GPA of 3.0, therefore the rest of the boys have an average GPA of 2.2 (since 3.0 is exactly in the middle of 2.2 and 3.8). THIS IS A TRAP! We cannot conclude that the answer is 2.2, because the number of Honors Chem 11th grade boys and the number of other 11th grade boys are NOT THE SAME.

We must calculate a weighted average (to review Weighted Averages, see Manhattan Prep’s GRE Word Problems Strategy Guide). Remember that there are 12 boys in the 11th grade who are in Honors Chem and 40 who are not in Honors Chem:

[12(3.8) + 40(x)]/52 = 3.0

12(3.8) + 40x = 156

45.6 + 40x = 156

40x = 110.4

x = 2.76

The correct answer is B.


house-sitting this week

I'm house-sitting for a friend this week, so blogging is going to be spotty at best. My apologies in advance.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

la sexualité: un sondage

Voici un petit sondage fait dans onze pays (y compris la France) intérrogeant les citoyens sur leur sexualité (positions sexuelles préférées, etc.). Quelques-uns des résultats vous seront un peu surprenants, j'imagine...


Wednesday, June 20, 2012


In a term coined by Romanian historian of religions Mircea Eliade (meer-CHAY-uh ell-YAH-dih), a hierophany is an eruption of the sacred into the realm of the profane (i.e., the ordinary, not the vulgar/obscene). One suddenly finds oneself standing in the presence of the holy, a fact that disrupts the normal, mundane continuity of human existence.

I'm fascinated by theistic fiction, i.e., fiction about the presence of the holy in our midst. A great example of this sort of fiction is the short story titled "The Visitation," by sci-fi author Greg Bear. You can read a truncated version of the story for yourself here.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

this week's MGRE Math Beast Challenge

From here:

The 11th-grade girls at Stumpville High School have an average GPA of 3.1, and the overall 11th-grade average GPA is 3.05. If all of the boys enrolled in Honors Chemistry are in the 11th grade and those boys have an average GPA of 3.8, what is the average GPA of all the 11th-grade boys who are not enrolled in Honors Chemistry?

(A) 2.2
(B) 2.76
(C) 2.96
(D) 3.05
(E) 3.16

Go to it! My own attempted solution will appear in the comments.


Monday, June 18, 2012

answer to last week's MGRE Math Beast Challenge

Yes! I got the answer to last week's MGRE Math Beast Challenge problem correct! The answer was indeed 3, 5, 41, and 43. Here's MGRE's explanation:

The prime numbers less than 12 are 2, 3, 5, 7, and 11. There are five possible ages for the two children, or 5!/2!3! = (5)(4)/(2)(1) = 10 possible combinations for the children’s ages.

The prime numbers between 40 and 52 are 41, 43, and 47. There are three possible ages for the two adults, or 3!/2!1! = 3 possible combinations for the adults’ ages.

In total, there are (10)(3) = 30 possible age combinations—far too many to test each scenario looking for a prime number average age.

An alternative is to start from the resulting average age. The minimum ages of the family members are 2, 3, 41, and 43, which average to 22.25. The maximum ages of the family members are 7, 11, 43, and 47, which average to 27. The only prime number in this range is 23, which implies an age sum of (4)(23) = 92.

If the adults are 43 and 47, the sum of their ages is 90. The sum of the children’s ages would need to be 92 – 90 = 2. The minimum sum of the children’s ages is 2 + 3 = 5, so no need to continue checking these possibilities.

If the adults are 41 and 47, the sum of their ages is 88. The sum of the children’s ages would need to be 92 – 88 = 4. The minimum sum of the children’s ages is 2 + 3 = 5, so again, no need to continue checking these possibilities.

If the adults are 41 and 43, the sum of their ages is 84. The sum of the children’s ages would need to be 92 – 84 = 8. This is only possible if the children are 3 and 5.

Check: (3 + 5 + 41 + 43) = 92, so the average is 92/4 = 23, which is prime.

The correct answers are 3, 5, 41, and 43.

Interesting deductive process! I think I arrived at my answer more intuitively.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

so you think you speak Amurrican

A quick test for people who think they know American English! Select the answer that is most American and/or most grammatically correct.

1. Which is correct?

a. Thanks Fred.
b. Thanks, Fred.

2. Let's just leave this _____ .

a. between you and I
b. between you and me

3. She's a real _____ .

a. trouper
b. trooper

4. If I _____ I wouldn't have farted in the tub.

a. could have known about her phobia,
b. had known about her phobia,

5. Give this prize to _____ ate the most hot dogs.

a. whoever
b. whomever

6. Which is correct?

a. She said, "Sit down."
b. She said, "Sit down".

7. If you want to succeed in this company, _____ and don't make waves.

a. tow the line
b. toe the line

8. That was a strange proposition to Fred and _____ .

a. I
b. me

9. I try to brush my teeth _____ .

a. everyday
b. every day

10. This restaurant has a great _____ .

a. ambience
b. ambiance
c. either A or B
d. neither

11. I saw her in the woods-- _____ .

a. butt naked
b. buck naked

12. When I finally found her ring and ran up, gasping, to give it to her, she sighed and said, "_____ ."

a. Never mind
b. Nevermind

13. I'll _____ be there.

a. definately
b. definitely

14. The sky boomed with thunder and sizzled with _____ .

a. lightning
b. lightening

15. Visiting the White House is quite a _____ !

a. priviledge
b. privilege

16. I'm not _____ to being set up on a blind date.

a. adverse
b. averse

17. _____ elementary, Watson.

a. It's
b. Its

18. I felt so _____ about how disastrous her birthday party was.

a. bad
b. badly

19. Despite the chaos around him, Phineas was _____ .

a. unfazed
b. unphased

20. Which is correct?

a. I wonder where my car went.
b. I wonder where my car went?

21. She stared in frank amazement at his _____ salmon.

a. enormous, twenty inch
b. enormous twenty-inch

22. As the Titanic tilted crazily, she held _____ the railing for dear life.

a. onto
b. on to

23. Watch out for the thundering _____ !

a. hoard
b. horde

24. All that has happened has been in accordance with the _____ .

a. prophesy
b. prophecy

25. Einstein, not merely a genius, was a kind _____ he once rescued a treed cat.

a. soul;
b. soul,

How'd you do?

Answers follow; highlight the space between the brackets to see them.

[1. B; 2. B; 3. A; 4. B; 5. A; 6. A; 7. B; 8. B; 9. B; 10. C; 11. B; 12. A; 13. B; 14. A; 15. B; 16. B; 17. A; 18. A; 19. A; 20. A; 21. B; 22. B; 23. B; 24. B; 25. A]

Scale of Achievement:

25: "I am a Jedi, like my father before me."
24: "Impressive. Most impressive."
20-23: "You are not a Jedi yet."
15-19: "You will pay the price for your lack of vision."
10-14: "Scruffy-looking nerfherder!"
5-9: "Your feeble skills are no match for the power of the dark side!"
1-4: "I have a bad feeling about this."
0: "Noooooooooooo!"

What language rant topics do the above questions cover? Highlight the [bracketed area below] to see.

[1. vocative comma: always use when addressing someone!
2. pronoun case: object of preposition
3. diction (trouper = member of troupe = stalwart team player, not a soldier)
4. verb tense in conditional sentences: if (pluperfect) ➞ main (conditional past)
5. pronoun case: "whoever" is correct as subject of clause
6. US vs. UK punctuation (too many Americans forget what country they live in)
7. idioms: people put their toes up against the painted line
8. pronoun case: don't be an idiot and use a subject pronoun when an object pronoun is called for
9. adverb of frequency = every day; "everyday" = adjective meaning "ordinary"
10. spelling trivia: some words have more than one acceptable spelling
11. idioms: village idiots mishear this as "butt nekkid"
12. compounds: or, more precisely, when not to use compounds
13. spelling: there is no "a" in "definitely"!!!!!
14. spelling/diction: "lightening" comes from the verb "to lighten (a load, the sky, etc.)"
15. spelling: no "d" in "privilege"
16. diction: adverse [conditions], averse [attitude]
17. spelling/diction: it's = it is; its = possessive adjective
18. diction: with a linking verb like "feel," you need a predicate adjective, not an adverb
19. spelling/diction: only someone who had never actually read the word "to faze" would get this wrong
20. mood: "I wonder" is always declarative-- NEVER interrogative!
21. punctuation: hyphenate phrasal adjectives before a noun; no comma for non-coordinate adjectives
22. diction: the phrasal verb's infinitive form is "to hold on" not "to hold onto," which makes the "to" separate
23. spelling/diction: you'd have to be a moron not to get this one
24. spelling/diction: as above. "Prophesy" (-"sigh") is a verb; prophecy (-"see") is a noun
25. punctuation: a semicolon separates two related or contrastive clauses

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

this week's MGRE Math Beast Challenge

From here:

"The Prime of Life"

In a family of four people, none of the people [has] the same age, but all are a prime number of years old. Two of the people are less than 12 years old, and the other two people are between 40 and 52 years old. If the average of their four ages is also a prime number, what are the ages of the family members?

Indicate four such ages (check 4 slots).

( ) 2
( ) 3
( ) 5
( ) 7
( ) 11
( ) 41
( ) 43
( ) 47

Go to it! My own answer will appear in the comments section.


Monday, June 11, 2012

answer to last week's MGRE Math Beast Challenge

Well, nuts. The answer to last week's MGRE Math Beast Challenge isn't (D); it's (A). [Never pick (D), Kevin!] Here's MGRE's multi-pronged explanation:

This problem could be solved through logic, algebraically, or by plugging in numbers. For all three solutions, our first task is to simplify y – x > x – y. Notice that it has like terms that can be combined – it would be very bad to neglect to simplify this before plowing ahead with the problem!

y – x > x – y
y > 2x – y
2y > 2x
y > x

So, y is greater than x.

The logic solution is certainly the fastest. Since all of the percent changes in Quantity A and Quantity B are changes through multiplication, order doesn’t matter. Thus, the 35% increase on both sides can be ignored – it is the same on both sides, and the order in which this occurs doesn’t matter.

Additionally, the order in which the other changes occur doesn’t matter. Also, the price p is a positive number that is the same on both sides, so it can be ignored as well.

All that’s left is: Quantity A decreases a smaller percent and increases a larger percent. Quantity B increases a smaller percent and decreases a larger percent. Quantity A is definitely greater.

Or, algebraically:

Since y is greater than x, Quantity A is positive and Quantity B is negative.

Finally, plugging in numbers would also work. To make things easy, make p = 100, and make x and y easy percents, like 10 and 50, making sure y is greater than x.

Of course, we still had to simplify y – x > x – y in order to pick valid numbers, and this method is even faster if we realize we can ignore the 35% change on both sides.

See sample solution with p = 100, x = 10, and y = 50 below. (To decrease by 10%, multiply by 0.9. To increase by 50%, multiply by 1.5. To decrease by 50%, multiply by 0.5. To increase by 10%, multiply by 1.1).

Quantity A
100(0.9)(1.5) = 135

Quantity B
100(0.5)(1.1) = 55

Quantity A will be greater no matter what numbers you choose, provided that you make y > x.

The correct answer is A.

I was so close to the above conclusion, dammit. I had successfully deduced that Quantity B was the negative of Quantity A, but not that A was always positive and B was always negative. In my own explanation, I had even mentioned that it would be tempting to pick (A). I should have followed my instincts, I guess. But where did I go wrong in my math, such that (A) produced a negative result in my own calculations?


Friday, June 8, 2012

oxen and kitties

In Zen, there's a famous series of pictures known as The Ten Ox-herding Pictures by Kakuan, a Chinese Ch'an (Zen) master. Here's a good, brief article on what the pictures mean.

And here, Dear Reader, is a paradoxically reverent parody: The Ten Cat-herding Pictures.


le subjonctif

A good page on the French subjunctive mood is here.


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

the ghost and the tinker: a study in contrasts

It's difficult to imagine a more disparate pair of movies than "Mission: Impossible-- Ghost Protocol" (MIGP) and "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" (TTSS). While both films are members of the spy genre, their approaches to that genre differ in almost every respect. And yet, despite their diametrically opposed sensibilities, they're both thoroughly entertaining. Holding them up together for comparison will give us a chance to explore the depth of their differences, and also to ponder what it means to be entertained by a film.

Two quick, one-paragraph summaries, then, to orient the newbie.

MIGP (2011) is the fourth of the Mission: Impossible films. Tom Cruise and Simon Pegg are back as super-agent Ethan Hunt and super-techie Benji Dunn, respectively. Benji's passed his field exam, so he can now run around with Ethan while wearing disguises, speaking Russian, and even holding a gun. Benji's paired up with Jane Carter (Paula Patton), and the team soon acquires a fourth: William Brandt (Jeremy Renner, who's on a cinematic roll). The movie begins with several converging plot lines: (1) Ethan's in a Russian prison, gathering intelligence; (2) Benji and Carter, unaware of Ethan's real mission, have come to Russia to break him out; (3) Carter is fresh off a failed mission in Budapest, in which Russian nuclear launch codes have been stolen by a French assassin (who also killed Carter's boyfriend); (4) a terrorist rogue codenamed Cobalt (Kurt Hendricks, played by Michael Nyqvist) is planning to use those codes to provoke a nuclear war between Russia and the US as part of his belief that humanity is strengthened by the occasional apocalypse. That's the basic setup. What follows is essentially a chase movie: Hendricks blows up part of the Kremlin, pinning the blame on Ethan's team ("Ghost Protocol" refers to the US president's disavowal of Ethan et al.); in Dubai, Hendricks also gets the launch codes from Sabine Moreau (a disconcertingly baggy-eyed Léa Seydoux), the French assassin. The chase leads to India, where Hendricks and his sidekick Wistrom (Samuli Edelmann) break into an Indian TV station and manage to relay a missile launch command to a Russian submarine. The action-packed remainder of the film is all about stopping the missile. Does the team succeed? Well, what do you think?

TTSS (2011) is based on the John Le Carré novel of the same name (Le Carré, pulling a Stan Lee, appears at least twice in quick cameos). The story, which takes place in the 1970s, begins with a passing of the torch at the highest levels of British intelligence-- MI6, nicknamed the Circus: hoary old Control (John Hurt, looking miserable as usual) is stepping down along with his trusted lieutenant, George Smiley (Gary Oldman). Taking Control's place is puny, pugnacious Scotsman Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), whose brainchild is a network codenamed Witchcraft. Control's departure comes on the heels of a failed mission in Budapest (cf. MIGP, above), in which Control's man Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is shot and apparently killed. Soviet agents spread the word that Prideaux had attempted the kidnapping of a Hungarian general, but in reality the mission was predicated on Control's suspicion that the Russians have had a mole inside the Circus for years. Control dies soon after his "retirement," and government intelligence liaison Oliver Lacon (the always-smarmy Simon McBurney) asks Smiley to pursue Control's theory. Smiley enlists the aid of young Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch-- he of the infamous cheekbones) to suss out the Circus members, all of whom had been given codenames by Control: Percy Alleline (Tinker), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth as Tailor), Roy Bland (Ciáran Hinds as Soldier), and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik as Poorman). One of these men is the mole, and each one could fit the profile. The movie proceeds as a sort of whodunit, with the selling of British secrets replacing the traditional murder victim. As Smiley meticulously and inexorably deduces his way to the truth, he comes to realize that, in the larger scheme of the Cold War, the Brits are the dupes: Russia's intention, all along, has been to use Alleline's Witchcraft network to spy on the Americans, with whom Alleline has been keen to make friends. Behind these machinations is the specter of Karla, a Russian operative who has risen in the Soviet ranks and is now the puppet master making the Brits dance. Does Smiley figure out who the mole is? You get only one guess.

On almost every level, with almost every aspect of filmmaking you can think of, these two movies are diametrically opposed. It matters little which aspect I begin with, so I'll plunge in with a discussion of how each film handles its main villain, then go from there.

Visibility of the main villain. The big bad guy in MIGP is Kurt Hendricks, an insane genius who, thanks to his espionage training and his time with the Swedish Special Forces, does his own infiltration work despite his advanced age.* The movie is at pains to build Hendricks up as physically imposing, and he enjoys quite a bit of screen time. Hendricks is, you might say, a very hands-on baddie, as physical as he is intellectual, always one step ahead of the IMF** team. By contrast, in TTSS, the main villain-- Karla-- is never seen directly: we receive only glimpses. His presence is nonetheless felt thanks to a marvelous script that makes him into a pervasive, Sauron-like phantom. When the normally taciturn Smiley has a drink and opens up to young Peter Guillam about his long-ago encounter with Karla, we learn that Karla never said a word during the encounter. The irony, here, is that this is normally Smiley's tactic: our protagonist quietly gathers data and makes his careful deductions before acting. I was very impressed with how the script made Karla a real presence, a real threat, throughout the movie. The search for the mole inside the Circus, which occupies most of the film, is actually a sideshow: the main event is the battle of wills and wits between Smiley and Karla.

Pace and visuals. Here as well, MIGP and TTSS stand in contrast with each other. MIGP is a young person's movie: its scenes are, for the most part, brightly and unsubtly lit, and the script propels us forward at breakneck speed. The Russian prison has its stark fluorescent lights; the dramatic Kremlin explosion (I wonder what Russian audiences thought of that) occurs in the daytime; the Burj Khalifa scenes-- even the sandstorm!-- were all the opposite of murky; even the interior and exterior scenes in India made use of strong color contrasts. TTSS, meanwhile, is drab and subdued: London is stereotypically gray (so gray that it was grey); the scenes in Budapest are either interior shots or cloudy exteriors; most of the London interiors are wan and shadowy. TTSS's pace is different, too; this isn't an action movie so much as a thinker's movie, and there were moments when I felt that the film had been directed by Clint Eastwood. The camera work is stately and unpretentious; there are no violent smash cuts to get our blood pumping, no complicated chase scenes. TTSS's antiquated costume design does a marvelous job of evoking the Cold War era,*** and most of its intrigue comes from ambient hints, subtle facial expressions, and layered dialogue. Which leads me to...

Expository dialogue. MIGP's script is written like a condensed version of the TV series "24." Most of its dialogue is expository-- not so much about revealing character as about keeping the viewer abreast of the rapidly changing circumstances. TTSS, on the other hand, uses dialogue both to develop character and to provide the watchful viewer with hints as to what is to come. While some of TTSS's dialogue is occasionally expository, the story requires the viewer to do his own thinking. When a character like field agent Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) delivers a long spiel, it's not so much the content of Tarr's discourse that matters as what Smiley makes of it.

Music. MIGP's soundtrack comes courtesy of the talented Michael Giacchino (juh-KEE-noh), who also scored "The Incredibles" and 2009's "Star Trek." I thoroughly enjoyed Giacchino's versatility in his scoring of "The Incredibles," a movie that mixed the superhero and spy genres. The music for that film had a cool retro feel at times, but easily transitioned into the more grandiose strains that we expect when titans are dueling-- all without losing that lighthearted tone that is a Giacchino trademark. I think this style worked less well with "Star Trek": I have a hard time forgiving Giacchino for creating such a catchy theme, then beating that theme to death in almost every scene. And the lightheartedness that worked so well for a Pixar animation didn't work nearly as well for a science-fiction blockbuster. I didn't hate the soundtrack for "Star Trek," but I did feel that it revealed Giacchino's limits. His score for MIGP confirmed those limits: I've begun to realize that Giacchino is a director's go-to guy if the movie in question isn't particularly deep. That said, the best musical moment, for me, was the soundtrack's soaring tribute to the majestic Burj Khalifa. The worst moments were the intros to Russia and India: both were painfully stereotypical. I cringed.

By contrast, the soundtrack for TTSS was marked by its thoughtful, slow-jazz leitmotifs. Original music was provided by Alberto Iglesias, who is not, as far as I can tell, related to singer Julio Iglesias, whose version of Charles Trenet's "La Mer" is what we hear during the movie's conclusion. TTSS's music is subtle, the opposite of bombast; it never dominates a scene. I don't know much about Iglesias's career in the movie business, but I can see him being in demand among noir directors.

Our protagonists, and how the good guys win. Because MIGP and TTSS occupy such different cinematic universes, it's nearly impossible to imagine a crossover film in which the respective protagonists have a chance to match wits. Ethan Hunt's kinetic modus operandi involves a lot of running, jumping, climbing, and hand-to-hand combat (I'm trying to remember whether he fired a single shot in the entire film); George Smiley, meanwhile, is like the spider that sits at the center of its web, immovable, patiently testing the vibrations and allowing all enemies and information to flow toward him. Smiley's style isn't merely the result of his age; it's a function of his personality. While Hunt and Smiley both recognize the need for teamwork, their management styles differ. Hunt's unspoken motto seems to be the Marines' "Improvise, adapt, overcome"; his team spends much of its time coping with faulty technology, and with an enemy who seems able to anticipate their every move. At the end of the film, Hunt even notes that "the only thing that functioned properly on that mission was this team." The socially awkward Smiley, meanwhile, isn't nearly so chummy with his underlings. At one point he tells his right-hand man, Peter Guillam, that he's sending the younger man "into the lion's den" and that Guillam will, if caught, have to disavow any knowledge of Smiley's activities, just as Smiley will do of Guillam's. It's a far cry from the ethic of "no man left behind," but Smiley's stance makes sense given the circumstances.

The IMF team's struggles involve playing catch-up against a clever enemy; Smiley and his men, meanwhile, gather their data and pounce only when they're absolutely sure. The closest Smiley gets to seeing any real action is when he removes his shoes while in the London-based Russian safe house and pads softly across the floor, gun in hand. In the end, when Smiley gets his man, there's no need even to fire it.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I found both of these movies, MIGP and TTSS, quite entertaining. MIGP isn't particularly cerebral; it's all about the chase-- the action, the adrenaline, the humor, the suspense. Kurt Hendricks, MIGP's villain, has a simple agenda: he wants to instigate a nuclear war as a way to pare down and purify the human race, for strength is born through struggle. TTSS, though, is all about the cerebral. It's not obvious what Karla wants, and Karla's presence is more inferred than revealed. Far from leading us viewers by the nose and keeping us abreast of the plot twists through clear-cut camera work and detailed expository dialogue, TTSS obliges us to deduce, interpret, surmise, and conjecture-- right along with the characters themselves. We're given hints, phrases, and shadowy implications. Much of the important information is non-verbal. The movie doesn't treat the audience as stupid, and it definitely rewards multiple viewings. The plot of TTSS is beautifully put together, and it's certainly the more profound of the two movies.

But both films are ably directed (Brad Bird for MIGP; Tomas Alfredson for TTSS), and both understand economy of expression: not a single moment is wasted in either film. How is it possible to be almost equally entertained by two such different stories? I imagine it's because the eyes and the brain need different sorts of food. Sometimes the eyes-- and the adrenal glands-- demand good, heart-pounding action; sometimes the brain harrumphs and demands a good puzzle. Entertainment comes in all shapes and sizes; surely there's room in this world for two very different approaches to the spy genre!

*This required a rather significant suspension of disbelief, but the story asks us to take on faith that the old, plump Hendricks is the physical match of Tom Cruise.

**IMF stands for Impossible Mission Force. Hard to say with a straight face.

***One of TTSS's main costume designers, Jacqueline Durran, said that she had deliberately chosen 1960s-style clothing as an exaggerated way to evoke the 1970s. I'd say her trick worked.