Daniel Kahneman (Photo: Office of Communications)
In the Q&A session of his recent talk on campus, Nobel laureate and emeritus professor Daniel Kahneman lightheartedly quipped that if we expect Princeton students to graduate as rational beings, “We are doomed.” He qualified the statement by adding that everyone has incorrect intuitions and that they prevent people from being fully rational.
Kahneman discussed his work and peculiarities of the mind Feb. 10 at McCosh 50, delivering this year’s Stafford Little Lecture. The talk drew on Kahneman’s best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow.
Kahneman asked the audience how many crimes occur in a year in Michigan and how many crimes occur in a year in Detroit. It was not uncommon for people who were asked the questions separately to answer a larger number for Detroit than for Michigan, he said. Revealing lapses in logic with similar examples, he said that people are irrational and “make systematic mistakes.”
The James Madison Program hosted New York Times writer and award-winning author Sam Tanenhaus in conversation with Princeton professor Robert George at the Lewis Library on Nov. 5. The discussion focused on the central figures in Tanenhaus’ last book and his forthcoming one, Whittaker Chambers and William F. Buckley Jr., respectively.
Chambers, a writer and editor, was a communist early in his career but later turned against the party, serving as a key witness in the perjury trial of alleged spy Alger Hiss. Tanenhaus said that Chambers thought he was “leaving the winning side for the losing side” when he defected from communism; he later joined the conservative movement and wrote for Buckley’s fledgling National Review. Tanenhaus highlighted key themes in Chambers’ life, including his conversion to Christianity, his suspicions that communists were trying to kill him, and his ultimate departure from the communist party.
The second half of the conversation featured reflections and anecdotes drawn from Buckley’s life. Tanenhaus described Buckley’s affluent background — “oil money from Texas” — and his childhood, including his close relationships with Mexican nannies who taught him to speak Spanish before English. The plan, Tanenhaus explained, was for him to live as an expatriate in Mexico (George offered a comparison to Mitt Romney).
Silent-film accompanist Michael Britt returned to Princeton for an Oct. 11 performance. Britt first played at the University Chapel in 2005, when he accompanied the silent version of Phantom of the Opera. Since then, his organ accompaniment has become an annual event.
A publicity still from the 1923 film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. (Photo: MGM Studios/Wikipedia)
Many of the Chapel’s pews were occupied as an audience of about 50 came to hear the organist perform for this year’s film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in a pitch-black setting. The lack of light perfectly complemented the absence of sound, creating an environment suited for introversion and reflection. Britt took full advantage of the Chapel’s rich acoustics, creating a powerful emotional journey throughout the film.
The organ and the silent film’s intertitles brought the audience back to another era, one in which the narrative was dictated by music, not spoken dialogue. Together, they guided the narrative and triggered suspense, tragedy, and comic relief. The event offered a return to the fundamentals of storytelling and an escape from flashy Hollywood gimmicks.
Britt, whose interest in silent film came from his grandmother, played for an hour and 47 minutes. At the end of the performance, he received a well-deserved standing ovation from students, parents, faculty, and others.
“It’s a labor of love,” Britt said of playing the extensive scores. “You have to lose yourself in the film, and not think about what you’re doing, because then that’s when you get tired.”
There has never been anything like Edward Snowden’s leak of hypersensitive NSA information, reporter Barton Gellman ’82 said in a Sept. 17 talk at the Woodrow Wilson School. Not even the Wikileaks documents were as highly classified.
Gellman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Woodrow Wilson School author-in-residence, joined former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer, who served as moderator, to discuss the Snowden affair in front of a full house at Dodds Auditorium. Gellman, who has played a leading role in The Washington Post’s coverage of the NSA surveillance programs, began the talk by explaining how he came into contact with Snowden, initially through a colleague who received information in encrypted messages from the former NSA employee.
On the subject of NSA operations and secrecy, Gellman said, “The NSA has, with court authority for seven years and without court authority for some years before that, collected the records of every single phone call that all of you made.” Most members of Congress did not understand what the executive branch had authorized, he said, adding that the NSA can keep its operations secret because the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court “relies entirely on the NSA to self-report.”
So were Snowden’s actions justified?
Snowden’s argument for doing what he did was to give the public a broad understanding of what the government was doing, according to Gellman. The revelations have raised the question of how to balance liberty and security — a question that, in Gellman’s view, remains unanswered. Gellman also said that he had yet to see a poll in which more Americans saw Snowden as a traitor than as someone who promoted an important debate.