Wednesday, March 19, 2014

In Search of Wisdom

I did not intend on writing another piece about religion, but those Graham siblings just got me going again.

The more alleged ‘men of the cloth’ talk, the more religion seems like the spiritual version of the hospital in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  The latest into the foray is Franklin Graham, who recently supported Vladimir Putin’s stance against LGBT rights.  'In my opinion, Putin is right on these issues,' Graham wrote. 'Obviously, he may be wrong about many things, but he has taken a stand to protect his nation's children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.’  Yes, because LGBT = sexual predator.  What an ignorant jack ass.  But wait, there’s more.  'Our president,' he continued, 'and his attorney general have turned their backs on God and His standards, and many in the Congress are following the administration's lead. This is shameful.'

But then again, it does run in the family.  Graham’s sister Anne Graham Lotz said “I would not vote for a man who was an atheist because I believe you need to have an acknowledgement or a reverence or a fear for almighty God. And I believe that’s where wisdom comes from.”  Wisdom comes from reverence and fear for deity?  Wisdom comes from free thinking and challenging conventional wisdom, popular opinion, doctrine, and the status quo.  It comes from seeking knowledge, not from being afraid.

Why do organized religions fear science?  Because science and the enlightenment it brings challenges the same doctrines.  When science proved the earth was not the center of the universe 400 years ago, these early opponents of the status quo were mocked, persecuted, and killed. When the foundation of your organization is built on exclusion, fear, and suppression it is the furthest thing from wisdom.  Perhaps that is why the socially conservatively dominating faction of the Republican Party promotes ignorance over enlightenment and programming over free thinking.  After all, Georgia Congressman and Senate contender Paul Broun told an audience that evolution and the Big Bang Theory were “lies straight from the pit of hell”.  Not surprisingly, Broun sits on the House Science Committee.

If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.”  -- Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Critical Thinking and The Atheist Jew


It is often said that common sense is all too uncommon today.  There may be some truth to that as stupidity and ignorance do not seem to be on the wane.  However, what I find equally disturbing is a lack of critical thinking, perhaps because there is no universal definition and the concept, like emotional intelligence is so abstract.  Regardless, a lack of critical thinking is harming our competitiveness, foreign policy, national security, and domestic tranquility.

So what is critical thinking?  According to Michael Scriven & Richard Paul of the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. 

Growing up Jewish, I remember my Hebrew School teacher George Goldstein emphasizing that being Jewish means challenging everything, after all didn’t Abraham challenge God’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac?  The cornerstone of the Passover Seder is the asking of the four question by the youngest children, inviting them to question tradition and the status quo.  In fact while everyone relates to the overbearing Jewish mother as the ubiquitous symbol of Judaism, the fact is Jewishness is best described by Gil Man as:

• Speak up when you see injustice!
• Do not be satisfied with the status quo!
• Honor a minority opinion!
• Stand up for what you believe in!

In contrast, Christianity is about faith and infallibility.  This is not a criticism of Christianity, but a condition of being a Jew, that is, the Atheist Jew to be exact who exists because of critical thinking.  To challenge popular opinion, the status quo, conventional wisdom, and other established thinking is the core of critical thinking.  Do you seek confirmation of an opinion?  Refuse to accept anything at face value?  Ask how or why?  I consider myself a critical thinker driven by data, self-reflection, observation, research, and conceptualization.  Reagan said “Trust but verify”, some are called reluctant optimists, skeptics, or doubting Thomas, but they all refuse to accept anything at face value. 

In business we talk about hi potential employees, our first assessment of a new employee is his or her resume, but what does that say about their ability to think critically.  I don’t believe it can be taught, it is inherent in our DNA, and through self-awareness, we experience an awakening and then suddenly the light goes on for us.  But to feel it, see it, and experience it is rewarding and daunting.  Knowing that you can never shut it off, the machine is indeed perpetual, ideas never stop flowing, and you cannot take anything for granted or at face value.  It can be draining while rewarding.

I love a lively debate and often enjoy the minority opinion as it makes me work harder.  I want future generations to challenge the status quo, I want them to not accept “because I said so”, I want them to ask why and how.  If common core can hone these synapses we have succeeded even if the curriculum is troubling and foreign to educators and parents.  I am out of my element when it comes to describing the clinical science behind critical thinking, but I know it when I see it and we need more of it.

Never stop seeking wisdom, never stop learning, become self-aware, never forget your past while take the reins of your future, and never go along to move along.  If I had children, that would be my gospel and my Talmud, it is my free thinking enlightened opinion.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

One Man's Oscar Predictions and Favorites


Digg’s Oscar Predictions and Commentary

Best Picture

  1. American Hustle – Will Win
  2. Captain Phillips
  3. Dallas Buyers Club
  4. Gravity
  5. Her – did not see
  6. Nebraska
  7. Philomena – did not see
  8. 12 Years A Slave – Should Win
  9. The Wolf of Wall Street

I am shocked that 12 Years hasn’t won more Best Picture awards this season as it will be the movie people best remember years from now like Pulp Fiction losing to Forrest Gump, Goodfellas losing to Dances With Wolves, and especially Saving Private Ryan losing to Shakespeare in Love.  That is not to say that American Hustle is not a great movie.  It is, with terrific performances from Cooper, Bale, Adams, Lawrence, Renner et al, but the visceral primal emotional impact of 12 Years and the performances of Ejiofor, Fassbender, Cumberbatch, Paulson, Pitt, Nyong’o, Dano, and others  under McQueen’s direction deserve the Oscar.  As for all of the films that I did see, they were all outstanding in their own way and I highly recommend you see all of them.

Best Actor

  1. Christian Bale – American Hustle
  2. Bruce Dern - Nebraska
  3. Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street
  4. Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave - Should Win
  5. Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club - Will Win

There has been a great deal momentum for McConaughey this awards season.  Academy voters love actors who do the transformation thing and that plays into the man from Austin.  His performance in DBC was great, though I love his Rust Cohle portrayal in True Detective more, but Ejiofor’s performance was so emotional and captivating.  You feel is confusion when he awakens in captivity, the pain of his torture, the conviction in his survival instinct, and joy when unified with his family. As for the others, they were all terrific: Bale’s physical transformation, Dern’s effortless performance, and DiCaprio’s scene getting into the car was great physical comedy.

Best Actress

  1. Amy Adams – American Hustle
  2. Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine - Will Win/Should Win
  3. Sanda Bullock - Gravity
  4. Judi Dench - Philomena
  5. Meryl Streep – August: Osage County

As critically acclaimed as she is, I think Cate Blanchett is underrated and underappreciated and is often considered the bridesmaid to Meryl Streep.  But this year, she gets the statue based on her performance as a fallen socialite struggling with coming to grips with her new reality.  A classic performance.  As for the other candidates, Amy Adams was terrific, Gravity may be Sandra Bullock’s best performance including the Blind Side, and Meryl Streep’s cancer-stricken mean as an ill-tempered rattlesnake matriarch in Osage County was tough to watch while being entertaining.  As noted above, I have not seen Philomena at this time.

Best Supporting Actor

  1. Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips
  2. Bradley Cooper – American Hustle
  3. Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
  4. Jonah Hill – The Wolf of Wall Street
  5. Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club - Will Win/Should Win

I think Leto was great as the transvestite with AIDS in DBC.  The 100% all-in physical and emotional performance was Oscar worthy and one of the best in recent memory. Fassbender comes in a close 2nd for his performance as one mean nasty slave-owner, what can I say, I am all in when it comes to 12 Years a Slave.   The Abdi story is the Hollywood story,  Form Somalia to Yemen to Minneapolis limo driver, his story is fantastic, but in this company he comes up short.  Cooper was entertaining, though I think he is generally overrated, and Jonah Hill is fortunate to be nominated.

Best Supporting Actress

  1. Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine
  2. Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle
  3. Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave - Will Win/Should Win
  4. Julia Roberts – August: Osage County
  5. June Squibb – Nebraska

Shocked?  Yes I am going with the 12 Years nominee.  From a PA on the Constant Gardner years ago, Lupita Nyong’o was absolutely amazing as the victim of the heinous slaver couple of Fassbender and Paulson.  This is a no brainer.  That is not to say the others are underserving of the nomination.  Sally Hawkins rivaled her co-star Blanchett in their scenes, Jennifer Lawrence was pure fun in a small role in AH, Julia Roberts was solid and owns one of the best lines of all of the movies “Eat the fucking fish bitch”, and I absolutely adored June Squibb as Bruce Dern’s down to earth say what’s on your mind wife.  The scene at the cemetery was the funniest and most memorable of the nominees.

Best Director

  1. David O. Russell – American Hustle – Will Win
  2. Alfonso Guertin - Gravity
  3. Alexander Payne - Nebraska
  4. Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave – Should Win
  5. Martin Scorsese – The Wolf of Wall Street

Am I broken record?  But honestly, if 12 Years a Slave is the movie that will stick with you for years then the director must have done something right.  Right?  I love O. Russell’s work and he got the best out of  a great cast, Guertin’s cinematography made you feel you were with Bullock and Clooney in space, Payne’s stark black and white depiction of small town Nebraska gave you the sense of the opposite of Scorsese’s crazy manic New York.

There you have it, enjoy the show.