Monday, July 10, 2017

Ethics: Our evolving understanding of animal rights

Photo by Rick Eh? — Used under Creative Commons License

Presented to the Club on Monday evening, December 15, 2003 by William A. Selke

In May [2003], a letter appeared in The Berkshire Eagle as part of a continuing debate as to whether the Housatonic should be stocked with trout or with smallmouth bass. While other writers had argued about the sporting merits of the different breeds, and which fish would survive long enough to be caught, this letter spoke of the "standard of ethical treatment of the stocked trout." Then, a few weeks later, a letter appeared decrying the exploitation of animals in circuses, the writer identifying herself as a member of People for the ETHICAL Treatment of Animals. Was the re-appearance of that word, ethical, coincidence, or was it a manifestation of a vast animal rights conspiracy? This is a report of my findings. That key word, ethical, is defined as: "pertaining to or dealing with morals or the principles of morality: pertaining to right and wrong in conduct." The writers using it were presumably among a growing number who feel, deeply, what is moral and what is right-and-wrong in our relationships with other creatures. Their position has evolved over a considerable period, not steadily, but, it seems, in fits and starts.

Humane folk have probably always been kind to their own animals, and sometimes encouraged others to do the same. Concern about the mistreatment of livery horses led to the founding of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in England in 1824. Right-thinking Americans traveling in England noted the success of that organization, and copied it with the founding of the ASPCA shortly after.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Van Gogh's Irises: How much is a painting worth?



Presented to the Club by David T. Noyes in December 1988

I would like to ask you to think about the items on the following list. Can you identify what they have in common?

  1. Two F-16 fighter jets
  2. The Town of West Stockbridge, Mass.
  3. 3,448 Williams College students
  4. the largest private estate in the United States — the 250 room Biltmore House on 12,000 acres in Ashville, N.C.
  5. The City of Pittsfield
  6. The entire world’s mining production of mercury for one year

We’ll come back to this list in a moment.

A little over a year ago, on November 11, 1987, the art auction house of Sotheby’s in New York City auctioned a painting depicting a garden of blue irises painted in 1889 by Vincent Van Gogh. It was lot number twenty-five in a ninety-four piece evening. A crowd of 2,300 people had gathered in the cramped bidding room with intense anticipation; and at 7:55 p.m., Irises was brought on stage. The bidding started at fifteen million dollars. At thirty million, only two bidders remained. The price then passed forty million, the previous highest price paid for any painting. The bidding finally concluded at forty-nine million dollars. The total elapsed time: three minutes, thirty seconds!  Including the ten percent buyer’s commission, the total price came to fifty-three million dollars, or in real money — eight billion yen!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

John Haines "Jack" Spencer Jr., 1936-2017

By Derek Gentile, The Berkshire Eagle

STOCKBRIDGE — John H. Spencer Jr. was a longtime public servant in his adopted town of Stockbridge, but his greatest impact came as an educator and mentor to hundreds of students over the years, friends and colleagues said on Tuesday.

"He literally hired the first history department at Monument Mountain Regional High school," said his fellow teacher and longtime friend John A. Beacco Jr. "He led in developing a unique ninth-grade course. As a department head, he mentored me, Roselle Chartock, Terry Flynn and Bill Fields, as well as many others."

Spencer died early Sunday at age 80.

He was the longtime chairman of the Stockbridge Planning Board, as well as the Zoning Board of Appeals. He was also the longtime president and member of the board of trustees for the Stockbridge Library Association.

The Most Interesting American: What turned a Theodore Roosevelt skeptic into a fan


Presented to the Club by Roger Linscott in 1959.

“The most interesting American” is a phrase which Julian Street employed shortly after the turn of this [20th] century to describe President Theodore Roosevelt. It was a description that echoed the sentiments of the vast majority of Americans of the day — but perhaps it is not the most apt title I could have selected for tonight’s paper. Perhaps I should have entitled it “The Conversion of a Skeptic.” The skeptic in this case is — or rather was — myself.

The year 1958 was, as most of you know, the centennial of Theodore Roosevelt’s birth. Early in the year I was commissioned to do the bulk of the research for a new and as yet unpublished life and times of Roosevelt* — an assignment I undertook, quite frankly, for the money rather than out of any great enthusiasm for the subject. I had, when I started, what might be termed the intellectually fashionable viewpoint toward TR — in sum, a highly critical viewpoint, conditioned by a cynical age in which many of the values that he represented have lost their luster. My picture of him was an unflattering caricature — the caricature of a self-righteous and opinionated political adolescent — a somewhat bogus reformer who made loud noises but produced few tangible results — a bumptious swaggerer who conducted diplomacy with a big stick and disobeyed his own injunctions to walk softly while doing so — a jingo who had an almost psychopathic preoccupation with physical courage and with the glories of the battlefield. It was the comic opera caricature of the rather stout and bespectacled Teddy, sword in hand and medals in mind, rushing recklessly up San Juan Hill at the head of his unmounted Rough Riders.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Artificial Intelligence: Should we worry?

Kismet the AI Robot at the MIT Museum, photo by Chris Devers, used under Creative Commons License
Presented to the Club by Martin Langeveld on Monday evening, February 6, 2017

Artificial Intelligence (or AI) is defined as intelligence exhibited by a machine, specifically a computer-driven device.

In popular culture, artificial intelligence is often depicted negatively. Recall the computer HAL in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. While HAL appears benevolent at first, taking care of the spaceship’s functions and playing chess with its human travellers, eventually the computer turns evil and seeks to kill the astronauts after discovering they are having doubts about HAL’s reliability and are planning to disable him.

Many other intelligent machines and robots, some nasty, some nice, figure in movies such as The Terminator, The Matrix, Aliens, and back in the 50s The Day the Earth Stood Still. And science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick and many others have explored the implications of intelligent machines as well.

Still, such machines, with true cognitive ability and rational decision making ability, and what might be understood as consciousness or self-awareness, have not yet been invented. In fact, a debate has raged for decades as to how to actually determine whether a computer is intelligent. Most of the methods proposed are variations on the well-known Turing Test, proposed in 1950 by the Enigma code-breaking mathematician, Alan Turing. Turing proposed a test in which an evaluator interviews two entities, a human and a computer in such a way that he can not see them, and receives answers only as text. In Turing’s original formulation, if, after a five minute conversation with each entity, the evaluator can not tell the human from the computer 70 percent of the time, the computer is judged to be intelligent.