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February 21, 2005

Palm Springs

In the tradition of other long weekends, Elizabeth and I drove to Palm Springs, over the President's Day weekend. It was a special opportunity to relax after midterms, and celebrate the ending of Elizabeth's chemo treatment. Although there was some rain, we had an excellent time lounging at the beautiful resort hotel, looking around the town, and exploring the nearby Joshua Tree National Park.

We stayed at the sybaritic Esmeralda Resort (a Marriott property), which was located along one of the Indian Wells golf courses. (See Google Map.) The place was a bit pricey, but the service was great.

We drove up through the pouring rain on Saturday. The 10 freeway was surprisingly good, considering the conditions. On Saturday night, we ate Pieros Acqua Pazza, in Rancho Mirage's "The River" complex. It was a very busy night, and we should have made reservations. But there were several interesting stores in the outdoor complex, and the food was quite good.

On Sunday, we exploited the break in the weather by driving up the 62 to the Joshua Tree National Park. We took the West Entrance, and drove through to the south exit (at the Cottonwood Visitor Center), stopping at several places along the way.

All in all, it was a fun getaway, and I enjoyed the opportunity to spend some quality time with Elizabeth, away from the demands of work and school. It was good to see what the Palm Springs area was like, as I had only seen it from above (looking down from the local mountains).

We had a pleasant surprise when we got back to our room, on Saturday night. The hotel staff had left four chocolate-covered strawberries for us, in honor of our special occasion. They were delicious, and one disappeared while I was pulling out the camera.
The view from our hotel balcony, on a bright and brisk Sunday morning. Our room faced south, and I'm not sure if that range of hills is the Santa Rosa Mountains or the San Jacinto mountains.
Another view from our balcony, maybe east-southeast. Palm Springs (or, in this case, Indian Wells), seems like a green oasis, at the foot of the mountains.
On the road to Joshua Tree, on Sunday morning. There were a number of wind turbines in operation along the 10 Freeway, and the snows of Mt San Gorgionio (elevation 11451 ft, I've been there) were partially hidden by the ominous clouds.
A joshua tree, along the Boy Scout Trail, in north-central Joshua Tree National Park. (See map.) The explorer John Fremont described this tree as "...the most repulsive tree in the vegetable Kingdom."
Although rain threatened our hike, we were untouched. The clouds made for some excellent photo opportunities, with the mix of light and shadow.
This area of Joshua Tree had some really great piles of rock to climb on. The rock itself felt like rough sandpaper, and my running shoes almost stuck to the surface as I clambered up this hill.
I believe that this is a cholla cactus.
How often does it rain in the desert? When it does, though, people who pay attention get to see flowers.
Elizabeth and I, before we left the hotel on Monday morning.

February 02, 2005

Ayn Rand's 100th Birthday

The writings of Ayn Rand were very influential on a young me, and it would seem fitting to write a bit about that on Rand's 100th birthday. I was first introduced to her writing via the book "Anthem" during my senior year of high school, as an assignment in my AP literature class. The book was almost shocking: I could not put it down, and read it twice in this same day. Later, I read the rest of Rand's opus, and wrote a detailed paper and presentation as the final project in my class. The fiction provided a concrete introduction to Rand's philosophy. The philosophy matched a lot of the ideas that I had been gathering at the time: The world is a big amazing place that can be known by observing and thinking carefully. Ideas are important, and a good person tries to understand the long-term implications of his thoughts and actions. A good society (based upon human rights) is one that allows the individual to think, act, and grow.

But there was more to Ayn Rand's philosophy than answers to particular philosophical questions. The philosophy was a system: It was organized from the ground up, with answers to the underlying questions of "what is?" and "how do we know it?" providing support for answers to questions of "what should I do?" and "how should I live with others?". This systems approach to philosophy was as much of an awakening as the particulars of the philosophy. Too often, I fear, students are given a laundry-list of philosophical issues, asked to critique particulars, and miss out on how the ideas hang together.

For all of my admiration for this philosophy (known as Objectivism), I do not really think of myself as an Objectivist, now. Perhaps I have been scared off by some of the more radical adherents to Rand's ideas, and their unending quest for ideological purity (is it brand management?). Perhaps I push away the label in order to provide enough room for my own thoughts and observations (maybe that is management of MY brand). Perhaps some areas of Rand's philosophy are not fleshed out enough to act upon (especially in areas that are very important to many people), such as the role of family or action under uncertainty. Perhaps I am too busy building my life that it seems strange to label myself with something that just seems fundamental. (Nobody would say "I believe in the quantum mechanics" or "I am a member of the group that believes that net force is the equal to the rate of change of momentum".)

The critics of Rand so often mischaracterize her, engage in ad hominem attacks, or simply miss the point. I cringe whenever someone regards Rand's philosophy as an excuse to "do whatever you want", or claims that Rand's ethics encourages people to lie, cheat, and steal. I wonder if commitment to a particular political system (or religion) is so strong that people cannot get around it and think about the underlying ideas. (I've seen an echo of the virulence of Rand-bashing in the current round of Bush-bashing from the recent election. I doubt that Rand would like to be grouped with an openly religious politician, and Bush wouldn't want to be grouped with the atheist firebrand.)

So that is my assessment. I enjoyed Ayn Rand's books, and found many things in her philosophy to be true. It provided a good starting structure for my intellectual growth, and I believe that I am better off for it. As with all powerful things, it should be handled with care. As with all essentially true things, it needs to be considered.

Some other 100th anniversary links:
Cathy Young of Reason does a synopsis of Rand's contribution to our culture

Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution noted the explicitly modern nature of Rand's ethics.

Villainous Company asks if Rand has gone mainstream

Robert Prather of Signifying Nothing mentions the connection between Rand and the rock band Rush

Bryan Caplan of EconLog discusses why he celebrates Rand's work