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Alex Talks Debut


Six “Alex” talks, modeled on the “Ted” series of short but powerful talks, featured faculty speaking on their area of expertise on Oct. 7 as part of Fall Weekend. 

I Coulda Been a Contender

Music professor Lydia Hamessley spoke on the music of the film On the Waterfront. She focused on a few iconic scenes to show how the musical score of the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein emphasized the emotion of the film as a whole.

On the Waterfront tells the gritty story of the mob, crime and corruption on the waterfronts of Hoboken, N.J., in the middle of the 20th century. While there are many factors that earned the film its widespread commercial and critical acclaim, Hamessley demonstrated how the “tightly constructed” musical score fosters a richer understanding of the film.

Hamessley identified the movie’s three main musical themes: love, dignity and violence. The musical theme of violence is most important in relation to the famous cab scene, in which the protagonist, Terry, delivers this classic line to his brother: “You don’t understand, I coulda’ had class. I coulda’ been a contender. I coulda’ been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am.”

While he says this, the four-note motif is what Bernstein himself called, “a tugging, almost spastic motive of pain.” Hamessley explained that with notable contour as well as a rolling timpani, “This chromatic melody, stopping-and-starting rhythm and percussion create a sense of anxiety and impending danger.”

For Bernstein, “strong thematic integration” is key to film music. This is exemplified in the cab scene as well as later in the film when Terry gently lifts his brother’s dead body. “Bernstein weaves the violence theme throughout this beautiful melody, like the violence that tainted the brothers’ relationship—it is beauty saturated with violence,” Hamessley remarked.

by Sophie Gaulkin ’17

Can Inflation Be Too Low? 

While to most consumers it may seem evident that inflation -- the general devaluation of the U.S. dollar -- would present itself as a nuisance at best, and as a crippling complication at worst, economics professor Ann Owen made the case that inflation can not only be too high in an economy, but too low as well.

The benefits of inflation, while perhaps counter-intuitive from a consumer’s standpoint, can be profoundly important for the smooth operation of an economy. One benefit is the positive impact that a degree of inflation can have upon the efficient functioning of the labor market. When firms find it necessary to cut wages, or to otherwise mitigate costs to adjust around an economic shock by laying off workers, many times wages prove to be difficult to adjust downwards, with the wage-expectations of laborers generally being fairly resistant to reduction.

Inflation provides a degree of real-wage depreciation that allows firms to keep nominal wages constant while simultaneously cutting their functional costs over time, keeping more workers in the labor force and smoothing out the effects of economic shocks. Some degree of inflation can also guard against the effects of deflation, a phenomenon that has far reaching warping effects upon an economy.

However, argued Owen, inflation in the United States not only can be too low, it likely has been too low in recent years, with the Federal Reserve consistently missing its 2% inflation target since around 2013. While the solution to this problem may seem to be simply raising the Fed’s inflation target, this course provides some distinct challenges. Changes to such a target could have negative impacts upon the credibility of the Federal Reserve, and present difficulty surrounding changing the market’s expectations surrounding inflation.

by Thomas Georges ’17

Why Democracy Needs Dissent

"Why democracy needs dissent and the status quo is always illegitimate,” began Professor of Government Robert Martin somewhat rhetorically. “You might be thinking, ‘Thanks but, not thanks,’ at this time in our politics,” he continued. Although neither dissent nor elections are perfect and both may be manipulated, they are both essential to any democracy, he posited.

“The populace must take command of the ideas of the era.” He observed that dissent forces conversation to rethink better ways of doing things and causes the public to reflect. In his brief but deeply intellectual examination of the history and philosophy of dissent, Martin continued by asking, “What are the boundaries of dissent?” noting that this country was founded in “riotous defiance.” 

by Vige Barrie

Reason and Passion: How Thought Shapes Emotion

Ravi Thiruchselvam’s talk explored the idea that emotions are a product of our conditions and our thoughts instead of external entities that exist in the world.

Drawing on one of his own psychological studies, Thiruchselvam explained that the ways in which we think about people influences how we relate and empathize with them. Using Hamilton students as subjects, the data from this study say that in general people feel more emotionally connected with in-group members.

“All empathy is not created equal,” he said. It seems that we are more capable of empathizing with those who appear more similar to us—a tough pill to swallow, as it reveals our biases. “There’s a fundamental mismatch between the problems our brains were meant to solve and the environments in which we find ourselves today,” Thiruchselvam said.

He discussed another study, also with Hamilton students, that suggests that changing an individual’s belief about a person’s social status (what their friends think about the person’s attractiveness) influences that individual’s emotion toward the person’s attractiveness.

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