Monday, July 31, 2006

I Could Not Disagree More

Aspazia, last week, had another post about children and work in her on-going ambivalence about having children (note to the universe: Aspazia, despite all the fretting, would be an incredibly wonderful mom and her kids, should she have any would be very lucky).

In her discussion, Aspazia refers to this article by Helen Kirwan-Taylor entitled "My Children Bore Me to Death" in which she writes,

Research tells us that mothers drink the most when they have young children. Is that because talking to anyone under the age of ten requires some sort of lobotomy?

Arabella Cant, an art director with two young children, admits that she considered jumping off a bridge in the early stages of her career in motherhood. 'Bringing up children is among the most boring and exhausting things you can do,' she says. Her solution was to avoid subjugating her own life to that of her children's. 'I'm certainly not traipsing around museums or sitting on the floor doing Lego if that's what you mean by being at home,' she explains. 'I'm loving it, but my children fit into my life and not the other way around.'

Aspazia says that all of the mothers she speaks with either echo such sentiments or seem unhappy about having to forfeit their former life of Thai food and good movies.
"I have rarely had someone tell me how profoundly it would shape my life,"
she contends.

Let me take up that side of the argument because, as a parent, I read the entire discussion with utter and complete dismay that it is a "silly idea that the child is the center of her world." When you are pregnant, every single person you talk to tells you the same thing over and over again -- "It is going to change your life." After months of hearing the same hackneyed phrase, you get jaded. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know, our life will be different." And you figure, "Sure, it will have another project. Every project makes your life different." But this difference is different.

Jean-Paul Sartre argues that one of the worst things one can do is to treat a human being as an object, to treat a being-for-itself as a being-in-itself. There is a difference of kind when you are dealing with humans. When you have kids, it is completely different than any other project you could possibly have because this project is the creation of a subject, not an object. You are bringing into the world a new agent, someone who will become someone and you have the job to help him or her discover and create him or herself. It is simultaneously the most frightening, awesome, frustrating, inspiring, and belly-laugh funny thing you could ever do. When I look at the book I've written, I say I'm proud of the book and that I really love the way it turned out. But the use of "proud" and "love" there are metaphorical. When I look at my shorties, the use of terms like pride and love in the context of some words on a page seems absurd compared with the depth of pride and love I feel for them. They are not things, they are their own people with their own personalities, fears, loves, insecurities, habits. But they are people who are not fully formed and nearly everything I do has some effect on them.

In ethics, we use life and death examples all the time, silly stuff like a train is barreling down a track and you have to steer one way or the other. In one direction are twenty infants and in the other is Geraldo Rivera... We use them for pedagogical reasons, but professional philosophers roll their eyes at taking these sort of puzzles seriously. Yet, when you bring your newborn home, especially your first, you are suddenly dumbstruck by the fact that you are now in such a situation. Here is a tiny defenseless human being whose living or dying depends entirely on you. The gravity touches every single insecurity you have. As they become less fragile, they also become capable of making choices, some of which may be undesirable from a survival perspective (come down from the top of the bookshelf, do not dive head first, your shirt will not work like a parachute...no, roadrunner cartoons are not documentaries). It is your job to keep these little people alive and relatively healthy.

But apart from physical survival, you also shape the way they see the world and how much of the world they see. Kids are not stupid, they are very, very smart, but they are ignorant and need you to explain things that you don't think twice about (some of which deserve a good second thinking). Watching them develop and figure out how to negotiate their way in the world is the most magical thing imaginable. When they use a new phrase or do something that they were afraid to do the day before or draw a new picture that is more detailed in a way that was nowhere in yesterday's pictures, you see the pride inside of them just burst out of every pore and you simply melt. My wife and I deeply and passionately love each other, but nothing prepared us for what we would feel towards our children. We watch them and listen to them shoot glances back and forth when they say things that are sweet or funnier than anything you would hear from a stand up comedian.

Aspazia writes,
Last night Za and I were walking around Mt. Pleasant (D.C.) and ran into this woman and her little daughter on the street. She asked us where we were headed, and we told her about this fantastic restaurant we wanted to try out. She had a sort of weepy look and said "well, we don't get a chance to eat out much," and nodded toward her daughter. Again, I found myself crestfallen by this exchange.
Yes, children will affect your professional life, your social life, your sex life, your culinary life, and every other aspect of your normal existence. But before she allowed her crest to droop, our dear Spaz should have asked this woman one question..."Knowing what you know now, if you had to do it again, would you choose the movies and the restaurants instead of the child?" I can't answer for the woman, but while I, too, miss good film and restaurants that don't hand out crayons, there is no way in hell I would have it any other way. I look back on my former, more urbane life in the same way I look at the young athletes on the beach with their six pack abs and their bronzed, defined shoulders and arms. I sigh and think about when this hairy, flabby body used to look like that, but then if I had the choice of having to go back to high school and the figuring out the whole social hierarchy and the dating thing, the college choice and life path thing,... no, thank you. Sure, there are parts of my former childless life I look back on longingly when see someone drive by with a canoe strapped to the top of their car with no child restraint seats in the back, but then I think of who goes in those seats and it's not even a question.

I have a very esteemed colleague who advised me when we had our first to not put the career ahead of the kids. He did, and while incredibly successful professionally, he has a less than satisfactory relationship with his now grown kids. He lives regretfully in his success. I no longer go to conferences that do not allow me to be home in the evening. I do a lot less work than I otherwise would. Unlike the above quoted art director, I happen to do a lot of traipsing around museums and sitting on the floor playing legos, and polly pockets, and go-fish, and building towers, and though I "should" be reading or writing philosophy, I have something more important. It is not silly to put them at the center of my life. They deserve it. It doesn't mean the rest of my life is gone, just that it exists in a different orbit. I have my kids on my office computer background, but I would never put my book cover on tee-shirts for my kids.

If Helen Kirwan-Taylor really thinks that "bringing up children is among the most boring and exhausting things you can do," then I pity her deeply. If this is more than a rhetorical excess, Ms. Kirwan-Taylor is like someone who reads the Onion and thinks she is reading a real newspaper. She doesn't get it. Yes, there are the meltdowns, the spit-ups, the dirty diapers. You have to say things more than once. You have to say things more than once. Stop. Now, what did Daddy just say? When I told you that you have to say things more than once, what do you think that means? It means that you have to say things. more. than. once. But for all the price, it is the world's most incredible bargain. A philosopher colleague of mine once said that nothing in the world affirms life like creating it. It is profound and joyful in a way that cannot be compared to any other endeavor. In giving rise to a subject, not an object, having kids is unlike anything else you can do. You may love your partner, your parents, your siblings, but nothing can prepare you for the amount of love you can feel towards your child. It will change your life in ways that you simply cannot imagine without having experienced it.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Feast of Saint Gracie

This week was the 102nd anniversay of the birth of Gracie Allen, a comic genius. George Burns always said that the reason he was so famous was that he had a terrific talent...and he was married to her for 38 years. Her timing, her delivery, her voice, pure comedy gold. She was in an act with her sisters from age 3. She partnered with George in 1922. Originally, George tried to deliver the punchlines in their Vaudeville act, but then sanity set in and the rest is history. They were married in 1926 (he was Jewish and she Catholic -- a big deal at the time), moved to radio in 1931, and tv in 1948. She ran for President in 1940 -- in one of her speeches, she said,

"As I look at all these trusting and loving faces, tears come into my eyes and if you must know why, it's because my girdle is killing me."
She joined Saint Shecky on the big stage in Comedist heaven in 1964.

Some Gracie classics:

"They laughed at Joan of Arc, but she went right ahead and built it."

"Gracie, why should I give your mother a bushel of nuts? What'd she ever give me?"
"Why, George, she gave you me. And I'm as good as nuts."

"There's so much good in the worst of us, and so many of the worst of us get the best of us, that the rest of us aren't even worth talking about."

"My husband will never chase another woman. He's too fine, too decent, too old. [said when George Burns was only 64. He lived to be 100]"

Say good night, Gracie. Thank you.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Good Ice Cream=Good Politics -- A Wildly Hasty Generalization

A generalization from two data points:

(1) Ben and Jerry -- morally good guys, great ice cream (new flavor -- bananas on the rum is bananas foster in a cone and outstanding. Well worth the calories.)

(2) Margaret Thatcher -- it's a little known fact that before going into politics, the Iron Lady was a chemist who worked to find ways to force more air into commercial ice cream novelties so that there would be less ice cream in your ice cream.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Ready, SETI, Go

So MT asks how much money ought we be spending on SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. This is a very interesting one.

On the one hand, should it be successful and finds real evidence of other intelligent beings in the universe it would be an incredible change in the way we view reality. It may not affect what or how we do science, but it would force a major adjustment in how we see the universe. When Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter, he universe became a different place to live in. The earth-centered/sun-centered debate was the tastes great/less filling argument of its time and was thought to be the exclusive property of parlor discussions. Suddenly, we have undeniable proof that not everything can be held to go around the earth. Seeing a human being on the face of the moon changed our worldview because no longer was out there, out there. We could go there and that changed how we looked at the universe. In the same way, success from SETI would radically change what out there mans to us, it would change what it means to be in the universe, and it would change what it means to be human. Never mind the theological issues, just knowing that someone up there is trying to reach out and touch someone would reorient our collective consciousness in incredible ways.

At the same time, the search takes money that could be used to make differences in real lives on earth. Resources are scarce. How many other uses that have a much better chance of making a real difference are we willing to set aside for a "boy, wouldn't it be really fucking cool if..." sort of endeavor?

These resources could go to scientific or non-scientific uses. Non-scientifically, there are a lot of problems that need dealing with. I'm coming off of a sabbatical that I hoped would be longer, but I was unable to secure a grant. Much of the grant money is geared towards finding solutions to hunger, poverty, disease, social injustice and I found myself, not exactly happy but not upset either that money wasn't going towards my philosophical project, no matter how important it seems to me or my intellectual community when real human suffering could be addressed.

But even if that money is earmarked to scientific work, there are more pressing and important scientific needs. In grad school, I took a general relativity course with Dick Henry at Hopkins. He's an astronomer, not a physicist, but he's also the grant guy there. We were talking about Francis Everett's gravity probe B, a test of a prediction of general relativity that could now be directly tested. A successful test would be a major victory for Einstein's theory, a theory that no one today doubts. The conversation was whether this money should go to something that would finally nail the case or whether it should go for something that could open the next chapter. There are a lot of scientists who struggle from grant to grant -- why should we be spending money on something that would in no way break new ground?

The move that often gets made, especially when the similar conversation about manned space flight takes place, is the utilitarian line that our efforts are rewarded with technological advances that impact life in other ways. We need to spend a boatload of cash trying to get to Mars because of unnamed technological advances that are sure to result. This line has never impressed me. If that money was used to fund basic research or education or or or how do we know that the results from these uses wouldn't produce a better world. But from SETI, we don't even have the promise of technological advance.

At the same time, there is something to PR. SETI captures the imagination of people who otherwise don't get excited about science. That sort of enchantment is necessary for securing the funds needed for the technical, inaccessible work that wouldn't generate the popular excitement, but which could contribute to real scientific progress.

So the question seems to be a straightforward sort of decision theory exercise. To determine the rational amount to spend, determine the expected utility. If we could quantify things, you would multiply the probability of success by the payoff should you be successful. To spend more than that would be irrational.

Of course, we can't actually quantify things and we can't actually make the calculation. But we can give a general sense. It is certainly worth funding, but not major funding. Now does this make it less likely that SETI efforts will be successful? Yes, but then the payoff is less than the alternatives that are not only more likely to succeed, but whose success would have greater impact on the lives of real people.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Common Sense and an Old Friend

Today, let me respond to BPinMD and Gwydion. Let me begin by pleading innocence by ignorance on BP's charge that I was just trying to flush out lurkers and lure them into commenting with my "any questions" post. That was not my intention at all, but as Aristotle argues, sometimes you are guilty anyway because you should have known better. I do this "any questions" bit in my classes for a couple of reasons. One is that I love the energy. When you don't know what's coming and the studetns know the thing is live, it adds a certain electricity to the class. But on top of that it does a couple of things.

First, some smart ass is inevitably going to see it as a challenge and try to ask the silliest question possible. I'm thrilled that Gwydion (one of my dearest friends for better than 30 years now and a blogger to boot) took on the role. Six times nine is generaly fifty-four, or so I learned in Mrs. Adelberg's class (in which Gwydion was the fastest in the class with his multiplication tables).

The job of the smart ass here is to ask a question so innane that anyone else thinking of commenting will think, "no matter how dumb my question might seem, it isn't that silly." And whether it is in class or on a blog, asking that first question is always the hardest. Everyone else seems so much smarter and you don't want to make a fool of yourself. But once someone else has made a fool of themselves, it seems less risky and more people contribute. It always happens in class, so BP, I should have figured it would happen here as well.

So, the question, which is a good one, is whether there is such a thing as common sense. The first thing I always think of is the openning line from section I of Descartes' Discourse on Method:

Good sense is of all things in the world the most equally distributed, for everybody thinks himself so abundantly provided with it, that even those most difficult to please in all other matters do not commonly desire more of it than they already possess.
The phrase "common sense" I would claim has absolutely no meaning. The idea of course is that there are certain innate bits of knowledge that (almost) all people possess (an idea Descartes also subscribes to, incidentally). The only people who do not have this "common sense" seem to be smart people whom someone is trying to make seem much less smart. "Sure he's got book smarts, but he has no common sense" is a way of leveling the playing field without actually having to do any real leveling.

This is not to say that people don't do dumb things that if they had stopped and thought about it, they otherwise would not have done. We all do stupid things. In addition, some of us are easily distractable, forgetful, and prone to getting lost in our thoughts. When someone is like this it is easy to say s/he doesn't have common sense because it seems to mean something -- and whatever it means drops the person below our level.

In this way, "common sense" is a lot like the phrase "politically correct." PC has no real meaning, but if you call something PC, you've instantly discredited it without having to show why it deserves no credit. Instant refutation, just add water. "Common sense" works the same way in the opposite direction. Call something common sense and what you just said is that it must be true and anyone who doubts it is a moron. You've just justified that which is common sense without actually having to go through the trouble of actually justifying it.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Neo-Conservatism and the Bumperstickers of Reality

The classic bumper sticker is "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." I've been thinking about it lately with the world on the edge of exploding and it strikes me that we're looking at a new foreign policy twist, "If you thought diplomacy wasn't working, try belligerence."

Diplomacy is frustratingly slow and accommodating of people who do horribly awful, evil things to the innocent people they rule over. Sometimes, it means slapping the wrist or even rewarding people who, all other things being equal, ought to be called to account for what they are doing. Sometimes, it seems to deny justice in the name of retaining an immoral status quo instead of charging into righteous battle. The neo-conservatives deemed it unnecessary, indeed harmful to the interests of the US and the world. And that is a big part of the reason why we are today where we are.

To understand the current state of affairs, it would might help to try to make sense of the foundational beliefs of this theory. Neo-conservatism was a combination of four strange threads:

One part came from Francis Fukuyama who argued that there is a natural state to governments in this age. If you left a government alone, the view held, a liberal democracy would appear. It is the end state, the goal, towards which all people are striving. Those under oppressive regimes look to the west, especially the United States, because we embody the form of governmental structure based on individual freedom that they desire.

The second thread came from the classic contemporary conservative thought -- absolute faith in the private sector and absolute hatred for the public sector. Corporate capitalism is good and corporations ought to be running the show because they are the only source of effective, efficient action.

The third thread is that we have technically advanced to such a point that military action -- powerful pin-pointed air attacks and small special force-based covert operations -- could be used to quickly change political leadership without spending much money or political capital.

The fourth is the oft discussed Straussian line that marries the Platonic distaste for democracy with a linguistic strategy for allowing the people to be more than happy to surrender their power. The people are not smart enough to be in control, so the key is to speak in code so that they willingly hand over their power thinking they are in power. This is essential so that the leaders can do what really needs to be done and not worry so much about its popularity. The unending war on terror and all of its various names are transparent attempts to wrest all power from the people, approved by the people, for the well-being of the people.

Put the four of these together and what you get is the view that the leaders of the US can at any time get rid of a horrible regime with little cost, allowing instant democracy to pop up in its place, and enrich our own corporations generating profits to trickle down to Americans and outsourced jobs in other nations thereby creating greater stability and morality worldwide. If this is possible, using diplomacy, which only serves to keep evil dictators in power, as your primary foreign policy tool is deeply immoral for American leaders.

So that's neo-conservatism. Damn shame it didn't work. Bill Bennett said that there was nothing wrong with his gambling because he didn't bet the house. Damn shame he and his neo-con pals can't say the same thing with regard to foreign policy. We did bet the house on this theory, and damn shame we threw snake eyes. We are now seeing the effects of abandoning all diplomatic efforts for the belief that a quick and painless success with a small force in Iraq would usher in a century of unbridled American dominance over the globe allowing us to reshape geopolitics as it pleased us (and those CEOs who were pioneers in settling this brave new world). General Shinseki, in arguing that we would need many more troops on the ground to succeed in Iraq, didn't just have a minor quarrel with the architects of the war in Iraq, his proposal undermined the entire theoretical framework. A ceasefire in Lebanon is not desirable because of this theory.

But we are now talking to North Korea and Iran, something that must be killing the neo-cons because it is something that used to be viewed, in their annoyingly pedantic way, as "rewarding bad behavior." They view diplomacy as weakness, but even the neo-conservatives now realize -- mostly, anyway -- that their grand experiment has failed and left us in a state of extreme weakness. They bet the house and lost. We don't have the chips to play high stakes anymore. Bogged down in Iraq where we could beat an entirely predictable insurgency, our military card is beaten on the table. Our diplomatic efforts are now widely viewed as jokes because we have spent every bit of goodwill and prestige that we had. When confronted with serious international problems, our leader wants to joke about pigs instead of addressing grave problems with the gravitas they require.

So what now? Step one: bury neo-conservatism and bury it deep. Call it what it is. Explain it and how it failed. Make the term "neo-con" toxic in contemporary discourse the way conservatives attacked the term "liberal." Clearly document the failures of this administration and inextricably tie them to this theory and its presuppositions. Describe the situation as one of different views of the world. Show how we offer an approach explicitly different and show how it has been successful.

The problem is that Democrats in DC, the powerful ones, the Clintons and Bidens and Liebermans, saw it coming and hedged their bets. "What if the neo-conservative theory actually works?" they worried. "What if this unrestrained, technologically advanced belligerence really does spread democracy and freedom and bring huge windfall profits to the Republicans biggest contributors? If we aren't side by side with them, it could break us." And so they backed it just in case, figuring that if it worked their neo-moderate, new Democrat playing around the edges would keep them around. If it failed, they figured just being in the other party would inoculate them from the taint. And this is why there is so much concern around the Lieberman/Lamont race -- because no one hedged more than Lieberman. If he succeeds, it will mean that Democrats will be completely unable to bury neo-conservatism; it will mean that those in power in the party were those most complicit in allowing this empirically disgraced political theory to linger.

We stand right now at a curious place. The world could settle down, continue to flame up locally, or, heaven forbid, the whole thing could catch fire. I wish to hell I could be optimistic about it, but I just keep seeing the bumpersticker: "If you thought arrogant, ignorant belligerence was expensive, try lame-duck, stuck in a quagmire belligerence."

Of Health Care, Horses, and Hell

Let me start discussing the questions from the weekend with Ken's pair of doozies. First of all, Ken, man, thrilled to have you around -- and when you come out, boy, you do it with a bang. I always wonder who is reading and it always surprises me when interesting thoughtful people take time to read my silliness.

First question:

"On the concept of moral hazard the economic principle that says if certain services are free, people will consume too much of them. In relation to health services isn't this totally bogus and is keeping people from the services they need. Or in other words I don't see a bunch of healthy people signing up for quadruple bypass surgery because it's "free". Your view?"

We all know perfectly well the intuition behind this principle. My grandfather used to run a belt factory and provided free soft drinks to all the workers. He was finding a lot of half drunk sodas all around the factory floor. He didn't mind giving the workers all the sodas they wanted, but he hated to be wasting the money on something that was just being thrown away. Then he started charging a nickel for sodas, well below normal market value (every trucker who came through bought sodas by the five or ten for the road). At once the sodas were all being finished. When something is free, we treat it as it it has no value and use too much of it. But when it costs us, even less than the amount we would be willing to pay and consider it fair, we treat it more respectfully.

Now, the case you select seems to me to be degenerate in the sense that you've selected an example where the free service or product is a strange one in not having a demand among the general population. No one wakes up and thinks, you know, it'd be fun to have my appendix taken out this afternoon, but it's just so damn expensive. It seems like the principle only works if the good is something that we would want or at least wouldn't want to avoid.

If you look at other parts of the health delivery system, you might see something more like it. I think this is one of the reasons for co-pays. If people pay even just a five or ten, they are less likely to go see the doctor and this saves the insurance company lots of money. This may have good or bad effects on the system. It may keep down frivolous visits, allowing doctors to spend more time with patients who really need it. Or, it may keep people from getting earlier diagnoses than they otherwise would allowing complications that might have been avoided. It's an empirical questions and the sort of thing public health researchers spend their time on. If anyone knows of any studies on this, I'd be very interested to hear. But it may be a situation where it does work because doctor visits, unlike surgery, may be desirable even if they are not needed (say, if you are looking for back issues of Field and Stream, Women's World or Highlights for Kids).

Second Question:
"I live in a horse racing town in the south and on any given weekend I will go from fishing on Saturday morning to betting the horses in the afternoon to church the next morning. I have recently taken moral flak from the wingnut's down the street for this. They don't approve of my gay neighbor either but that's a different story. So the other day I was mowing my yard and Mrs. Wingnut started her standard I'm going to hell speech when I just up and asked her the question that has been asked by every horse player I know of in the last 30 years. What is the difference between people who pray in church and people who pray at the track? The answer is the people at the track really mean it. Now the wingnut's are not talking to me. Should I apologize?"

It depends upon what you mean by "should." Did you do anything morally wrong? No on either part. A) You are doing nothing wrong by playing the ponies. It's your money and if this is your hobby, so be it. You aren't hurting anyone. there is nothing inherently immoral with gambling as long as you aren't using the rent money -- ask Bill Bennett. B) You did nothing wrong with using a joke to make your point that you were doing nothing wrong. You are not responsible for someone else having too thin of a skin. She started this argument, took it to you stridently, and to expect someone not to respond with equal zeal is absurd. Morally, you are on solid ground.

BUT...Pragmatically, the question is how much does the friction with this person make your life more difficult. This is a person who while being quite arrogant, obnoxious, and annoying, was, on some level, only trying to help. At least part of how one might understand the preaching is a legitimate concern for your soul. If it would make life easier having peace with your neighbor, approaching her would not be the worst of things. You could explain that you did not mean to be ridiculing her faith and you are sorry if you offended her, but that with your theological differences, she too has been quite offensive.

Oh, and "What is the difference between people who pray in church and people who pray at the track? The answer is the people at the track really mean it." Outstanding line.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics

Some former students have been asking for this, so here goes...

I have a schtick that I do whenever I teach. I start each class by inviting questions, any question, auto mechanics to quantum mechanics, ask me anything. I get an incredibly wide range of questions: everything from requests for advice on personal issues to current event questions, lots on science and history, where did x come from type stuff, and many attempts to out smart ass the master. Often, I know the answer. Sometimes I don't, but usually I am able to find the answer and bring it to the next class. These are the ones I love because behind every seemingly simple questions are connections in places you never would have expected.

Ron Zucker brought up Bruce Goldberg, an old prof of ours and it is actually from one day in Bruce's intro to philosophy class that I got the idea for this. It was late in the semester and it was a lecture hall full of about 200 students -- virtually none of whom had said a word since day one. Goldberg looked up and did something he never had never in the class before, he asked for questions. When none came after a long silence, he remarked, "Someone, say something. Go ahead, belch, make guttural sounds, I'll make something out of it." A frat boy in the back row, sensing a challenge asked who won the 1926 World Series. Without missing a beat, Goldberg says, "The St. Louis Cardinals over the Yankees in seven games. In fact, in the seventh game..." and he outlines the ninth inning and how the Yankees almost came back to win, but didn't. Amazing as that was, without a breath, he finishes the story and says, "which illustrates clearly what we were saying about determinism..." and ties it seamlessly back into the philosophical discussion he was having with himself minutes before. It was masterful. So, when I started in the classroom, I figured I'd give it a try and from there, it's history...or science, or whatever else get asked.

So, any questions?

UPDATE: Gosh, what amazing questions. Rather than try in the comment thread to deal with such great issues, I'll post about them over the next week or so and address as many as I can. That, however, should not keep you from responding to them yourselves. Thanks everyone.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

No Bionic Gramps...For Now At Least

So a panel recommended that the FDA not approve a bionic eye for use in folks with macular degeneration. Shame, now we'll not hear, "Hang on, I turned my hearing aid down because all that nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, really bothers me."

Unsung Heroes: Who Influenced You and Might Not Know It?

Had lunch with an old friend last week. Jerry and I go back a lot of years and we were talking about what surprised us about work. Both of us have worked on the collegiate level, I as a teacher and Jerry as a volleyball coach, and we were both amazed at kids who come back years later and tell you how much of an influence you were. You go to work and you have a good time, you do your job, some days you are on your game, while other days you just phone it in. Yet, through it all, you don't realize how much what you do, day to day, effects others. It's humbling, exciting, strange, and sometimes frightening to think that your goofing off in the classroom is having real effects.

It is never clearer than with science students. Whenever I have students come to me and tell me they want to major in the sciences, I ask, "Who was the really cool teacher who got you hooked on physics/chem/bio/math?" and invariably there is one.

For me, I believe that my lot as a philosopher of science was set by five people: my father who watched endless episodes of NOVA with me; my mother who would always say, "Because Y is a crooked letter" making me crazy enough that I was going to find out why, damn it; my high school English teacher Bill Endres who encouraged me to read and think in new ways; and my undergrad advisors Barbara Horan and Roye Templeton who showed me the beauty and power of philosophy.

Who changed your path but might not know it?

Are Scientists Who Feel Their Moral Obligations Still Authorities?

Dr. Freeride has a fantastic post about the relationship between journalists and sceintists. She disucsses the "balance" in today's reporting where journalists see scientists as just another group of spinners instead of the people in the room who actually know what they are talking about. I've been thinking about similar questions for a while -- Aren't there times when a scientist must become a political advocate because of the results of his/her work? and Does a scientist's advocacy make them less of an independent authority?

In my critical thinking class, I teach every semester that there is nothing wrong with an argument from authority IF the cited authority is a legitiimate authority. A good authority has three properties: (1) s/he exists -- "I read/heard somewhere that..." does not an authgority make, (2) the person is someone who we can expect to actually know the answer -- when you are sick, listen to your doctor not your Uncle Murray the dry cleaner, and (3) the person is impartial -- the person does not have a personal stake in getting you to believe one way or the other.

Now, when a scientist is studying some system and sees a correctable problem, say, a certain kind of pollution harming an endangered species, doesn't this knowledge convey a special ethical duty to do what one can to correct the problem? Nick, a student of mine, is interested in exactly this question -- do scientists inherit an additional moral burden for being the experts they are? Hilary Putnam in terms of language and meaning argues that there is a division of intellectual labor and that scientists have special roles in helping all of us determine the proper way to use certain words, called natural kind terms. But isn't there an ethical version as well. Don't scientists have a special moral obligation to help us determine how we ought to act since they are in a privileged place to tell us what may or likely will happen as a result of our actions?

But then we come back to Dr. Freeride's question. By accepting this moral mantle, does that give them a horse in the race? Does this make scientists interested parties and therefore not legitimate authorities? Does it convey moral equivalence on global warming naysayers bought and paid for by Exxon/Mobil and legitimate scientists whose work has revealed an "oh shit" circumstance? This would be the reporters' position, it see

I would argue that the third requirement of independence is met by scientists, even if they advocate for some cause related to their work, because in publishing their work, they must be
transparent in their methodology and results. Because what they put forward as the basis for their advocacy is replicable and open to scrutiny by other experts, they do not forfeit their position as authorities. Of course, this authority is limited to their area of expertise and the facts of the matter -- larger questions of what we shouod do in light of those facts is still a matter that requires all of us.

Freedom of Speech and Hate Speech

A very interesting post over at phronesisaical where Helmut is discussing legitimate boundaries to free speech. I think his argument is well-thought out and well worth a read, but since we brought up Austin yesterday, might as well keep on the roll.

What the absolutist speech libertarians Helmut is arguing with seem never to do is to explain why free speech is good. Is it good in itself or is it good for something? As Austin pointed out, we don't just say words, we do things with words. The question about freedom of speech is really just a smaller corner of the general ethical question, "How should we act?" and the legal question when is an action so heinous that we must constrain someone's right to engage in it. Notice, first, that there are two separate questions here, the ethical and the legal.

We can assume that the question they have in mind is the legal one. Now, laws are put in place to structure society in order to achieve some set of goals: maximizing the well-being of the citizens or some small group, maximizing security, encouraging innovation, securing power... The question then is whether allowing all speech is conducive to the goals we have for our society.

The standard use of language is to express facts and ideas. The founders of the nation were children of the enlightenment who bought into the notion of a marketplace of ideas. That if we allow all comers into the ring, the strongest will survive. As such, we ought to allow the widest possible expression since even the wakes get it right sometimes.

This is why false and libelous statements are eliminated -- because false statements will never lead to truth and will prop up ideas that should have been eliminated in fair competition. On these grounds, there is nothing that should initially eliminate speech that places certain groups lower on the social or biological ladder as hypotheses. They are ideas that may be brought to the the table and put to rigorous scrutiny. It turns out that under such scrutiny, they just happen to have already lost a fair fight and so no longer belong at the table, but there should not have been rules to prevent them from being brought up in the first place. The Bell Curve was fine to consider as a hypothesis, but when its finding have been debunked it should not be taken seriously.

But, we use language for more than just expressing. We use it for a large number of other purposes as well. Most hate speech is not used to convince. It is not a good faith effort to make and support claims with evidence in the open rational marketplace. Hate speech is often used for other reasons -- to inflame people's emotions in order to incite them into react irrationally, to bully and belittle in order to reinforce illegitimate distributions of social power, To terrorize and create fear in order to keep people from feeling free to be open about who they are. In these cases, hate speech is used for the sole purpose of restricting the freedoms of others. When you have a cross burned on your lawn or have racial epithets shouted at you, you feel less free to engage in the body politic. The libertarians that Helmut is dealing with should be forced to realize that they have a dilemma on their hands: they do not want to restrict hate speech because that would be a limit on freedom, but the whole point of hate speech is to limit other people's freedom. If their real interest is in maximizing freedom, they need to see that they are in a damned if you do/damned if you don't situation.

The question is which limitation is the least limiting on overall freedom. I would argue that it depends. Some instances of hate speech are obnoxious and immoral, but have no effect overall. On the other hand, some cases are examples of terrorism in the literal sense that they cause terror in order to keep certain groups of people from fully participating, or participating at all, in society. In these cases, the misuse of power that is hate speech ought to be opposed.

Don't Ask A Question You Don't Want To Know The Answer To

Aspazia had a fun little discussion about white lies in which the classic question, "What do you say when your wife/girlfriend asks, 'Does this make me look fat?'" came up. In the discussion, the following exchange occurred between Aspazia and Hanno:

A: The fact is that what women think is "fat" is often not at all fat to their lover's eye.

H: Absolutely true.

A: But, if our lover is getting a bit plumper, it might behoove us to tell the truth.

H: NO, no, no, no, no! Not unless you like pain and suffering, both for your partner and for yourself.

So who is right? The answer is "it depends" (welcome to philosophy). The key here is an insight from J. L. Austin that the same sentence could be used in a number of different ways for a number of different things. We don't just utter language, we use it to do things and the question is what is the partner using the seeming question to do.

Aspazia is assuming that the question is being asked in good faith. A question is a request for information and the partner is, she assumes, asking for information regarding her appearance. If she is putting on weight, then that is a fact she ought to know in order to address it in appropriate ways.

Hanno, on the other hand, is arguing that in our contemporary culture wherein women are constantly bombarded with weight-related messages, the question is virtually never asked in good faith. No woman would ask whether she looks fat unless she already thought she looked fat. The question is a request, but for something else. It might be reassurance that she is attractive. It might be the last push to begin a new diet and exercise regimen. It may be a trap just to see how you are going to respond. A question is not always a question and very often that's a question that is not one.

Frankly, I think the right answer is to go out and get a more comfortable couch.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Comedism in Congress

If you are new to the playground, weekends are time for the week's Comedist sermon. If you are unfamiliar with the new religion Comedism, here is an introduction to Comedism, ; passages from The Comedist Manifesto, our holy book; Comedist support for evolution and gay marriage; how Comedism was founded; and a note on the fundamentalist War on Comedy.


This week's funny Samaritan (a real stand up kind of guy) is Illinios Representative Rahm Emanuel who responded on the floor of the House to the President's appointment of a new position on the White House staff whose title is "Director of Lessons Learned" with this:

Mr. Speaker, yesterday the President said we continue to be wise about how we spend the people's money. Then why are we paying over $100,000 for a 'White House Director of Lessons Learned'? Maybe I can save the taxpayers $100,000 by running through a few of the lessons this White House should have learned by now.

Lesson 1: When the Army Chief of Staff and the Secretary of State say you are going to war without enough troops, you're going to war without enough troops.

Lesson 2: When 8.8 billion dollars of reconstruction funding disappears from Iraq, and 2 billion dollars disappears from Katrina relief, it's time to demand a little accountability.

Lesson 3: When you've 'turned the corner' in Iraq more times than Danica Patrick at the Indy 500, it means you are going in circles.

Lesson 4: When the national weather service tells you a category 5 hurricane is heading for New Orleans, a category 5 hurricane is heading to New Orleans.

I would also ask the President why we're paying for two 'Ethics Advisors' and a 'Director of Fact Checking.'"They must be the only people in Washington who get more vacation time than the President. Maybe the White House could consolidate these positions into a Director of Irony.

"Director of Irony," there's a job a could apply for. Now if we only had an Undersecretary for Sarcasm. Yeah, right.

UPDATE: For those who don't believe that irony is a guiding force of the universe, check this out. Apparently Pete Coors, beer mogul and former Republican Senate candidate has had his license revoked for DUI. Saint Shecky be praised.

Friday, July 14, 2006

What Could Have Been...

The last week or so must have looked good to the "end of days" Revelation crowd. You've got a major bombing in India, North Korea on the verge of going nuclear, Israel bombing Lebanon and potentially starting a major regional war, Iran not only on the edge of going nuclear but being whispered about in terms of the Israel/Lebanon situation, low grade civil war threatening to turn into the real deal in Iraq, and then Bush's press conference in Germany once again illustrating to the world that where there once was a superpower capable of keeping something of a lid on chaos, now there's a cartoon.

I know that you can't tell what would have happened if one thing would have been different because life has so many complex, interdependent variables, but I can't help but think that the world would be so much better if things had been different in the Democratic Presidential primary and we had gotten the best candidate. I'm not talking about the mugging of Howard Dean, although that one still hurts too. No, I know how to hold a real grudge; I'm talking the 1992 primary where Paul Tsongas should have been the man.

He was the model of nerdy competence. Yes, he was a centrist and more conservative than I am. But he was a fiscal centrist, social liberal like Howard Dean and the man who beat him, Bill Clinton, especially in his second term under the influence of Dick Morris, not only became the Uber-centrist, but the touchstone for the unfalsifiable claims of the DLC. Conservative Democrats often sound like creationists where every failure in the party while they have had control of it (like, say, losing control of ALL THREE BRANCHES) is really the fault of those liberals who don't want to be Republican enough. If the Dems win it justifies their position and if the Dems lose it is because of the liberals which justifies their position. It set the stage for the rise of the Seinfeld Democrats, the party poweful about nothing.

I doubt Tsongas would have signed the defense of marriage act, he just really wanted a balanced budget. Clinton sold out our party for a second term. He allowed the Liebermans to think they were entitled to power and could sell out our core principles. What the conservative Democrats need to realize is that Clinton was successful, not because of his conservative shift, but because he was a master politician. And it was his political skills that changed the world, both for good and, ultimately, I would argue, bad.

With Tsongas, there never would have been a Monica Lewinsky. No way. The Monica nonsense was the confluence of several factors -- only one of which was a blowjob. It was also about having a rock star for a president (Tsongas was more like Air Supply). Further, it was about having the right-wing media machine in place and that requires having someone to demonize. Of course, they would have hammered on any Democratic president, but if it weren't for Clinton's personality, his politician's slime layer, Rush Limbaugh never would have caught fire. It was the right's visceral reaction to the flash and arrogance of Clinton that caused them to have apoplectic fits. Tsongas would have only given them mild heartburn and that possibly would not have set the ground for the rise of FOX news.

I am convinced that the only reason we now have George W. Bush as president is that the right so hated Clinton that they were convinced that by putting someone -- even a moron -- named "George Bush" in the White House, it would repudiate Clinton's victory over the first Bush. They could claim that it was the people trying to erase from the cultural mind the entire Clinton era. If Tsongas had won, we'd have seen politics remain on the level of moderate ideas and we would have most likely had a subsequent Republican in the Bob Dole mode. (How many wouldn't, right now, trade W for Dole?) The rise of the neocons required the vacating of the usual moderate Republicans from power, an opportunity afforded by the vacuum that is George W. Bush.

Clinton is a very, very smart man. I have nothing but respect for his intellect. But he did turn politics into showbiz in a way that has done deep damage to the Democratic party. His flash allowed him to step away in his second term from everything that it means to be a Democrat and as a result, we have a party that stands for nothing. If Tsongas had been president, we would have still have the image of the wonks who knew what they stood for and what they were doing. We would not have to deal with Carville, Begala, or little Stephacutie on Sunday mornings as the annoyingly arrogant face of Democratic politics.

Maybe I have a soft spot for nerds because, well, ok, I guess everyone thinks that folks like them are uniquely well equipped to take power. And maybe he would, maybe he wouldn't have been effective. Maybe we'd have seen another Carter presidency. But a man can dream...

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Pity Party: Whom Do You Feel Sorry For Today?

A lot of people to feel sorry for in this installment:

I feel sorry for the writers of The Onion. With the announcement of a "White House Director of Lessons Learned," how do you possibly write satire that outpaces this administration?

I feel sorry for the herring in the barrel presented to President Bush in Germany yesterday. When it comes to dead fish, it now has to compete with the administration's plans to privatize Social Security for notoriety.

I feel sorry for Bill O'Reilly. When Zinedine Zidane was awarded the "Shortfused Idiot of the Week" award, it broke Falafel Bill's 58 week streak -- a mere 3 weeks short of the record. The similarities, however, are remarkable: Zidane wins it for a headbutt, where O'Reilly generally wins it for having his head up his butt.

I feel sorry for Siegfried and Roy's personal tailor. Poor guy is now stuck with yards and yards of metallic fabric that he will never be able to use.

I feel sorry for God. It must be tough to figure out how to break the news to Rick Santorum that he is being traded. After representing the Divine will in the Senate for these dozen years, next season Little Ricky will be suiting up for the "K-Street Warriors" representing as a lobbyist every cause beloved by Satan himself.

Finally, I feel sorry for the man who invented the chain letter. Poor guy had his own luxury suite in hell until he got a roommate with the passing of Ken Lay this week...and since the devil loves irony, deregulation of the energy market will bring about rolling electrical blackouts throughout the underworld causing the air conditioning to be out for decades at a time.

Who is it that you feel sorry for today?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

God and Ethics: What Is the Relationship Between Religion and Morality?

Dostoevsky said that "Without religion, everything is allowed," the idea being that some supernatural authority is a necessary precondition for morality. This is wrong, of course, one can be a perfectly ethical person without belief in God and ethical statements would be meaningful in a universe without a Divine entity. But it is worth a look at where religion and ethics coincide and where they diverge.

First of all, acting ethically has two parts: (1) figuring out what is the right thing to do in your particular situation and (2) doing it. The first requires ethical theory and the second is a question of one's moral character. The place where religion often comes is in (2). Doing the right thing is often difficult and, next to empathy, religious belief is surely the other reason many folks have the moral courage to do what they need to do. When we listen to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Dorothy Day, or so many others talk about the ethical power of faith, this is what they mean. When you look at the response by members of faith communities to disasters like the South Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, much less the daily work with the hungry and homeless, it is hard to doubt that for some religion is a source of moral strength.

Of course, it is also true that some of the most heinous acts in history have been committed by extremely religious people in the name of their religion. And here we come to (1), determination of what is the right thing to do.

Now, it is certainly true that religions have codes of behaviors and that these codes often overlap with morality. "Thou shalt not kill" is both a good religious and moral rule of thumb. But simply because something is required or forbidden by a religion does not make that action moral or immoral. If one eats a hamburger, one may be a bad Hindu; if on Good Friday, a bad Catholic; if with cheese, a bad Jew. But none of this means that one who eats a hamburger is necessarily a bad person. It may be immoral to eat meat, but that requires an ethical argument beyond a religious proclamation. That additional argumentation may refer to rights, duties, care, virtue, or utility, but it will be an argument on moral grounds, not religious. There are devout people on every side of any given moral issue. The hard ethical questions require deep thought and careful consideration, to cite religious belief as an excuse to not have to do this work is a cop out.

The idea that faith may replace careful rational thought about ethics runs into several problems:

The Problem of Interpretation

Putting aside all of the metaphysical issues about the existence of God, the problem of evil and the suffering of innocent children, and the ability of God to create a rock so big that He/She canĂ‚’t lift it, the first problem is that defining moral rightness solely in terms of the Divine Will means that making any moral judgment at all requires the ability to read the mind of God. Helpful hint from your Uncle Steve: any time you are in the presence of someone who claims to have a direct psychic connection to God, put your hand on your wallet and run like hell. If the Almighty were really speaking to us through Pat Robertson, Pat Robertson would be saying much smarter things.

The historical claim, of course, is that this Divine will is exposed to people not through reason, but through revelation. Certain people at certain times have had God appear to them in one of a variety of forms, and He has revealed His desires to them. Some of these experiences have been recorded as Scripture. Moral rightness therefore requires strict adherence to rules written in ancient languages and translated into English with a lot of thy's and thou's. The Scriptures of any religion are written words, and written words may be understood in many different ways. This is especially true with the Bible and its many allegories. There are not unambiguous meanings to many passages. What you are accepting is not the Word itself, but a human interpretation of the words. The question, then, is that if moral rightness derives from the Word, but we only have access to it through a human understanding of the words -- and there are several -- how could we ever know which is right? How could we ever actually make moral judgments?

The Problem of Completeness

The second problem is that religious codes, like any code, will not be sufficient to cover all cases. What happens when new technological advances raise new questions? Old rules may give us a place to start thinking, but they will not account for the complexity of a changing world. The word "internet" appears nowhere in the King James version. "Thou shalt not steal" is a fine command, but what do we mean by steal? The notion of intellectual property is an attempt to apply an Enlightenment concept to a changing commercial situation; to claim that ancient concepts bring simple answers to questions aNapsterpster is to grossly oversimplify.

The Problem of Soundness

The third problem is that when one considers all of the behavioral demands made by various religions, there are some that are morally problematic. Here'incontroversialrcial claim: "Slavery is immoral." Yet, one does not find "owning another human" ruled out in the Old or New Testament. Indeed, there are passages (Exodus 21: 7-11, Exodus 22:1-3, Deuteronomy 15:12-15, Leviticus 25: 44-46, Ephesians 6:9, and Colossians 4:1) that seem to tacitly endorse or provide rules governing slavery. The arguments against abolition in this country were often based on these Biblical passages.

Plato's Chicken and Egg Problem

In one of Plato's dialogues, Socrates comes across a young man named Euthyphro and has a discussion about the nature of morality. When Euthyphro defends the religious picture of ethics, Socrates asks whether an act morally right because God prefers it or does God prefer it because it is morally right? It's the moral equivalent of the chicken and the egg, but it has some very serious ramifications for the view no matter which side of the bet you take.

If one says that God prefers acts because they are morally right, then you have to accept that the act was morally right before God took a look at it. This requires that moral rightness exist independently of God's desires and that God then only prefers it because it was already morally right. This takes God out of the moral picture. We need only understand the nature of moral rightness, and do not need any understanding of God at all.

But if the reason an act is good is simply that God prefers it, then that means that if God enjoyed seeing people set infants on fire and roasting marshmallows over them, such horrendous acts would be morally good.

The immediate impulse is to say, "But God would never prefer such a thing." Why not? "Because it is morally wrong to set an infant on fire in order to make smores." But that move just takes us back to the first horn of the dilemma, where acts are morally good independent of God. You can't refer to the morality of an act when that morality is completely determined by what God likes and doesn't like. You can't say that God wouldn't like it because it is immoral, because to be moral just means that God likes it. If there is a reason why God would or wouldn't like it, then it is the reason and not God that is important.

So, there are serious problems with trying to use religion as a substitute for ethical deliberation. This is not to say that religious people are not capable of living good, moral lives. The person who pulls over to help you when your car breaks down in the rain is just as likely to be religious as an atheist. But when we face a tough challenge and it is unclear what is the morally preferable choice, to ask "What would Jesus (Rashi, Buddha, Shiva,...) do?" does not end the conversation.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

An Immodest Proposal: Supply-side Feminomics

So I've been thinking...

If you haven't seen Dean Friedman's "I Miss Monica," it's worth a look. A funny piece, but what really caught me was the line,

"I miss the days before the stolen election, when the president didn't have to start a war to get an erection."
I was pondering this relation between male aggression and sexuality when I read Aspazia's discussion of breast ironing in Cameroon. Aspazia, as usual, is incredibly insightful when she points out that the practice, while cruel and painful, comes from a place of care. The mothers are trying to protect their daughters. And so it is with much of the oppression women face, it is put in place to protect women, especially from the sexual advances and the possible accompanying violence, from men. Why were women in Afghanistan wearing burkahs? Because if men saw their faces, who knows what might happen. Horny males are weapons of mass destruction.

In this country, the sexual revolution did not fix the problem. To read leading lights like Dworkin, sex is still used by men as a tool of oppression. Indeed, even when it is not intended, the line goes, because of the patriarchal structure, all heterosexual interactions are tainted with the power imbalance and perpetuate injustice.

So I was thinking, if there is an imbalance of social power favoring men who tend towards violence when they are simultaneously repressed and aroused, and sex is already tainted anyway until the patriarchy is dismantled, why not use it as a weapon against patriarchy? This could be done by managing supply.

This, of course, is nothing new. Consider Aristophanes' play Lysistrata in which the women of Athens and Hellas cut off all of the men of the cities until they stopped the war. Of course, the war ends, and quickly.

But as we see with Iran and North Korea, embargoes and sanctions rarely work. Maybe the trick is to go the other way. What started me thinking this way was a quotation from Noam Chomsky,
"So long as the economic system meets the demands of the middle class for more jobs, higher income, more consumer goods, and more recreation, and so long as the demands take these forms, the perennial questions about power and control need never be asked. Or, better, those whose demands are being met can be congratulated on having 'power,' for what is power but the ability to have one's demands met."
The idea is that the middle class will support policies that are against their interests as long as their immediate wants are met. Why restrict this to the economic side of social reform? Half of those people Chomsky is talking about are men, so we know that it would work -- if they have reason to think that they will continue to have their wants satisfied, they will be more than happy to support policies that take power away from themselves. If you want to take power away from the testosterone enhanced buffoons who turn into the the Incredible Schmuck when they are repressed and aroused, don't let them get repressed. I call the theory, supply-side feminomics (I would expand upon its relation to the trickle down theory, but that's slightly gross).

To see that this supply-side feminomics might work, consider our closest cousins in the larger biological world, the pygmy, or bonobo, chimpanzees. From Frans de Waal's 1995 article in Scientific American,
"The species is best characterized as female-centered and egalitarian and as one that substitutes sex for aggression. Whereas in most other species sexual behavior is a fairly distinct category, in the bonobo it is part and parcel of social relations -- and not just between males and females. Bonobos engage in sex in virtually every partner combination (although such contact among close family members may be suppressed). And sexual interactions occur more often among bonobos than among other primates. Despite the frequency of sex, the bonobo's rate of reproduction in the wild is about the same as that of the chimpanzee. A female gives birth to a single infant at intervals of between five and six years. So bonobos share at least one very important characteristic with our own species, namely, a partial separation between sex and reproduction."
What we see in bonobo society is exactly the sexual version of what Chomsky was talking about.

Now, I know from reading General J.C. Christian, certainly an expert on such matters, that no woman enjoys sex.
"It's not in their nature,"
according to the General. So, where does this leave the theory? It means that contemporary feminists have two choices: one is to take one for the team. Not pleasant, but an investment in the future. The better idea comes from one of the real world benefits that we are seeing from the last generation of feminists. Now that women have expanded life options, they are going to college in bigger numbers and kicking their male counterparts' asses at it. So women need to use this educational edge to push technological advancement.

Think back to Woody Allen's classic film, Sleeper, in which all the men are impotent and all the women are frigid, BUT social order is kept because the wants of the the people -- including their sexual wants -- are being met. People, we need the "orgasmatron," stat. In fact, I would argue that we need a Manhattan Project style approach to it. If the atomic bomb was necessary to end World War II, this is needed to stop all future wars. Ladies, get to work...no less than the future of the planet is in your hands.

UPDATE: Check out MT's latest for a biological explanation of why it just might work.

Monday, July 10, 2006

A Gender Puzzle

So I was in a funky bistro in Santa Cruz with an old friend having a meal and the need arose to make use of the facilities. As I approached the two doors, I noticed that in place of the usual international symbols or linguistic indicators to let you know which was the men's and which was the ladies' room, they decided to use photographs. One image was of men in drag and the other was of women with fake moustaches in men's clothing (including one with a nice bowler hat). I found it an interesting place to make a statement on the standard, naive notion of gender. "Sure," I agreed, "the usual simplistic dichotomy does not fully capture the complexity of gender and sexuality in the real world." At the same time, however, I also thought, "But I really need to take a piss." Now, I felt proud to be hip enough to understand the subtext of the signs, but unfortunately I was not hip enough to be able to figure out the direct references. (My lack of hipness, hipocity, and absolute hipesqenicity must be clear by the fact that I still use words like "hip".) A urinal waited behind only one of those doors. Which was it? I got it wrong. If you had to make the call, which would you say was the intended reference of the photos? Men who were giving the social clues correlated with femininity: men's room or ladies' room? Biological women providing the culturally dictated signals of masculinity: men's or ladies'? Which should be which and why?

Friday, July 07, 2006

H. L. Mencken: Saint and Sinner

Since we've been talking about Mencken, we ought to give a Comedist angle on the conversation. On the one hand, Mencken was a master of the quip:

A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.

Conscience is a mother-in-law whose visit never ends.

It is now quite lawful for a Catholic woman to avoid pregnancy by a resort to mathematics, though she is still forbidden to resort to physics or chemistry.

Philosophy consists very largely of one philosopher arguing that all others are jackasses. He usually proves it, and I should add that he also usually proves that he is one himself.

A church is a place in which gentlemen who have never been to heaven brag about it to persons who will never get there.

A judge is a law student who marks his own examination papers.

A man may be a fool and not know it, but not if he is married.

A prohibitionist is the sort of man one couldn't care to drink with, even if he drank.

Adultery is the application of democracy to love.

Alimony - the ransom that the happy pay to the devil.

Love is the delusion that one woman differs from another.

Say what you will about the ten commandments, you must always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them.


But then there was the dark side of Mencken. Especially once the diaries were made public, the racism and anti-semitism, not to mention the deep anti-democratic sentiment is undeniable. His lack of compassion for those in need, his lack of care and concern are morally deplorable. The world as he would have had it was not a very funny place. He was not a mere curmudgeon, but a hateful person and an arrogant one at that. That arrogance makes him a fit target.

My favorite Mencken story:

Franklin Roosevelt, whom Mencken hated with a deep passion, was giving a speech at the Gridiron club which at the time was full of journalists. And Mencken sat in the front row scowling. FDR was walking into Mencken's fraternity and he was the leader. Roosevelt's speech lit into newspaper writers of the day. He called them idiots. He said they were illiterate. He called them every horrible name in the book. At first, the reception was frosty, it was certainly uncouth to come to their gathering only to insult them to their faces. But as the scorn continued, the mood lightened and all eyes turned towards Mencken. It became apparent that instead of delivering his own remarks, FDR was reading from Mencken's own essay, "Journalism in America." Mencken's face got redder and redder. He had been outwitted, and not only by a Democrat, but by the Roosevelt himself.

Of Gadflies and Gore

In his interview with Al Gore last week, Jon Stewart asked why people get angry when one brings up global warming. One would expect anger -- anger at the destruction of the earth, anger at the impending loss of life and property, anger at the greed and uncaring attitude. But that wasn't the anger he meant; Stewart was talking about the "shoot the messenger" type of anger from those who resent having their heads pulled out of the sand. A rational person would expect that once folks matured, they would stop beating up the kid at recess who reminded the teacher that she forgot to collect the homework (I'm sorry, already. O.k.? What more do you want from me?!). But sadly, no.

In a very interesting op-ed in the L.A. Times, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert laments "If only gay sex caused global warming". It is a wonderful editorial that sets out an evolutionary psychological explanation for our misguided degree of fear of unlikely, but immediate threats and our misguided lack of concern for very likely threats whose day of reckoning are in the offing. A similar discussion occurs in a striking passage of Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, where he discusses the plowing under of government mandated wind breaks after the regulation expired. These were dust bowl farmers who had been on the verge of losing their homes, their family land, their livelihoods because wind storms took their top soil. Every single one of these people knew folks whose lives had been destroyed by the wind, whose property now belonged to the bank. To protect them, the government decreed that trees be planted around fields to break wind (go ahead, have your Beavis and Butthead moment) in order to save the soil. As long as the law was there, the windbreaks stayed, but as soon as the law expired the farmers got rid of the trees to use that border area to farm again. All after seeing how their lives could be irreversibly altered by not having the trees. Leopold marveled at the shortsightedness of human beings.

But Gilbert and Leopold only account for the lack of concern. One would expect that when a reminder is provided, you would get a light-bulb over the head/"I could have had a V-8" reaction followed by sheepish gratitude for the reminder. But what you get is the opposite: sneering, sarcastic resentment. What's up with that?

A colleague of mine who is the single kindest, wisest, most wonderful human being to have ever walked the face of this planet talks about the time she had a class turn on her. She was showing clips of Disney films and pointing out the morally problematic assumptions underneath them. They got nasty -- not because her analysis was wrong, to the contrary, because it was right. It was attacking the normal. Ethics is what we use to criticize someone else. It can't be used against us, we're just doing what everyone else is doing. We have two masters: morality and normality...and sometimes they disagree.

The word "right" has many meanings. An act may be morally right, legally right, socially right, theologically right,... All of these are distinct. But we often conflate them, assuming them all to be the same. But they aren't. The most powerful of these is the social. Alfred Adler said, "To be human is to be insecure." Most people work very hard to make sure they are normal. Partly because of insecurities, partly because social norms are strongly enforced. Anyone (else) who was a nerd or a weirdo knows this well. Children taunt the strange kid mercilessly. You can look at a group of kids for a matter of seconds and know perfectly well who the bully bait is. We are socialized from a very young age to be afraid of being different and to look down on those who are. (For an interesting discussion of this point in the media/political arena, check out BKriplur's new blog Scriptorium). A study a few years back from Michigan State showed that student drinking patterns were connected with beliefs about how much most students drink. These beliefs were false -- the common belief was that the average student drank more and more often than s/he, in fact, did. After a value neutral campaign that did not try to encourage or discourage alcohol use, but merely informed the student population about the true statistics, drinking rates fell. People changed their behavior when they changed their picture of normal.

With the power behind the enforcement of social mores, if someone then goes on to point out where normal is not moral it gives rise to an inner conflict in most people, a conflict that the person was previously able to keep from thinking about. But when confronted, he has to choose. But the choice is a "damned if you do/damned if you don't" deal because of the psychological factors discussed by Gilbert and the social factors here and the person making the moral point seems to be the dealer in this crooked game. We want to do the right thing, but not if it makes us like the people who get picked on (especially if we were complicit in it). Al Gore faces anger, not because he is making people think of something unpleasant, but because after thinking about it, they will have to act in a way that deviates from the norm.

Of course, this is nothing new. This is why they killed Socrates, after all. The gadfly gets shooed away if he's wrong; he gets swatted if he's right. But this is something that all progressives need to think deeply about. It is not merely a question of being right, of seeing change where change really needs to happen, of having well-crafted policy proposals to deal with the issues. One always needs to confront the fact that we are challenging the norm and for this, we need to be ever aware of how to do it smartly. Funny helps. But we need to work hard, not only at questions of framing and delivery, but in how we weave a strategy for facing this resentment in everything we do.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

What Do You Do When Your Friend Is An Asshole?

Buridan has a recent post quoting H.L. Mencken:

Someday the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
I must admit, I have a soft spot for Mencken. Maybe it's because I'm from Baltimore. Maybe it's because he's so cynical and funny. I don't know. His politics were horrendous and I fully accept that you can't separate his politics from the sort of quotations that I love so much. He was a hateful anti-semite and anyone who tries to explain it away is being dishonest. He was deeply anti-democratic and someone I most likely would not have wanted to have a beer with...most likely...well, maybe...

Maybe, you see, because I have experience with friends like Mencken, people who have been wonderful to me, but who have been morally horrendous in their treatment of other people. What do you do with such people?

[Note: no one I currently have as a friend would fall into this category, so if you are reading this I'm not talking about you.]

Aristotle and contemporary care-based ethical theorists are right when they argue that certain sort of care-based relationships like friendship come with extra moral baggage. You have to give special consideration to people with whom you are in a special relationship. Suppose you are late for an important meeting and you see someone broken down on the side of the road. It is cold, raining, miserable. Your eyes meet his as you pass, and you can tell that the person does not have a cell phone. The road is not a main thoroughfare, so it might be quite a while until someone else happens by. If you drive past the person thinking, “I wish I had time to stop for you, but I have a meeting I have to get to,” the person most likely would watch your taillights and simply say, “Shit.” You’d probably feel a small pang of guilt, and rightly so. It wasn’t the nicest thing you could have done.

But now suppose that it was your best friend whose car broke down, and when your eyes meet, you know he recognized you. Now, when your dear friend – the one who lifted the toilet seat just before you revisited those tequila shots and burritos; the one who would vouch for any alibi, no matter how inane; the one who listened to you drone on and on for days about the love of your life leaving you for the person everyone else knew she was sleeping with for all those months – that dear friend sees your car driving away leaving him stranded in the middle of fucking nowhere. Needless to say, he will add a few more expletives to his rant when watching the fading taillights, and some of them will include your mother. This better not be the same small pang of guilt you felt with the stranger. You just screwed over your best friend. What kind of self-absorbed uncaring son of a bitch are you? Friends, family, and lovers come with an additional level of moral responsibility, an additional level that is not abstract, but which lives in the same world as your loved one.

Now, these folks were never best friends, but they were people I knew I could call in a pinch and they would drop everything to be there for me. They considered me a friend and had never done anything but be very nice to me. Yet, to others they were complete jerks -- although never around me. Whenever we hung out, they would behave themselves and it was only later, from others, that I would hear of their nastiness. These reports were from people I trust and corroborated often enough to be believed.

So my question is whether a friend's behavior towards someone else changes your moral connection to that friend. How much of a jerk towards other people does a person have to be before you simply can no longer be friends because of something that has no effect on your friendship?

Playing Poker With Bush and Kim Jong Il

Interesting developments over the weekend in the world of diplomacy (for any members of the Bush administration who might be reading, it is pronounced dip-loh-mah-see -- look it up). North Korea test fired a missile that they had been urged not to -- and it failed. Negotiating the world of foreign affairs is a lot like playing seven card stud. It turns out that Bush is a very, very bad poker player. One saving grace may be that North Korea's Kim Jung Il is worse.

The way seven card stud works is that each player puts a single chip in the pot (the ante) and is dealt one card down (called your hole cards) and one card up. At this point, the player with the highest card begins the betting and each player thereafter has to decide whether he thinks he has a good enough hand for it to be worth that wager. If so, he may match the bet, or call, and stay in the game or he may raise the bet and force everyone else who wants to stay in to pay a higher price. But ihe thinks he does not have a winning hand, he may fold and wait for the next hand to play. After the betting, another up card is dealt to everyone and there is another round of betting. the process continues until everyone has two cards down and four cards up. At that point, there is one more card down and one last round of betting after which everyone who has continued to bet must show their cards, make the best five card hand out of their seven cards and the highest hand wins all of the chips bet throughout the hand.

The big decision that each player needs to make is about betting. You see some of your opponents' cards, but not all of them. You are betting on partial information gathered from the up cards that you have seen and an educated guess about what their hole cards are. This guess is based on several factors. First, how are they betting? If they are betting a lot of money, they have (or want you to think they have) a very good hand and are trying to extract the most chips from you. To act like you have a strong hand when you don't in order to fool others into dropping out when they actually had you beat is called a bluff. Determining whether someone is bluffing brings us to our second factor, reading the player. You observe people's behaviors to see if they will give away what they aren't showing. If someone looks back at their hole cards a couple of times, it's generally a sign that they have a rather good hand and just want to make sure that it is what they think it is before betting a lot of money, so they don't make a stupid mistake. If someone who is generally quiet suddenly starts blustering about how good his hand is, it is a rookie tell that he is bluffing. The third thing you look at is how many chips they have. someone with a lot of chips has the luxury to stay in and try to get lucky, steal a hand, or push a bluff where someone with fewer chips is likely to play conservative unless they really have something. Based on these factors, you decide whether the stakes are too high to continue betting your money on the cards you have and if not, how much to bet.

What I like about seven card stud, compared to other games like the ubiquitous Texas Hold'em, is that many cards are shown. Every card is another piece of information to be included in the decision about how to act. Cards that are not even in a given person's hand will affect what he is likely to have and you need to keep track of cards everywhere.

In our game of diplomatic poker, Bush stepped into a seat that after the Cold War had far and away the most chips on table. this put him in a position of power at the table and his neoconservative handlers came up with a new betting strategy. The idea was that no matter what cards came up, he should bet huge amounts of money every time. This would make the pot so expensive that everyone would eventually fold because they could not afford to play and we would take all the chips. By starting with such large stacks and using this strategy once against Iraq, everyone else at the table would know that if they dared stay in the game, we were going to drive the stakes so high that they could not afford to play and we would simply take everyone's chips.

This strategy was announced to all of the other players with Bush's infamous "axis of evil" line. By setting out the first three targets and then invading the first one on inflated and/or constructed grounds, the neocon strategy was to show that with this incredible raise, there's no possible way we could be bluffing. North Korea and Iran were forced to stay in the hand if they wanted to remain at the table. But they now not only had to continue to play, but Bush had made it clear that they had to beat us in this hand. It was or never all or nothing. We are currently at the point where all of the up cards are showing and we have one last down card left to be dealt.

We were showing a pair of kings and Bush's bluster was designed to convince the world that we had the other two underneath. But as the cards were dealt, weird things happened. To drive Saddam out of the game, we had to put up many more chips than they thought we would have to. This meant that we no longer had the impressive stack of chips that was supposed to intimidate everyone. Bush reached into his pocket for more money to cash in and found the lives of soldiers and the national credit card. So with blood and IOUs he continued to play.

Then they completely bungled the war, getting us bogged down in Iraq to the point where everyone else at the table knew that we didn't have the military card we said we had; in other words, one of the other kings showed up in someone else's up cards. Now everyone knew we didn't have four kings, at best we might have a full house. Still maybe enough to win to hand, but far less than what we had claimed.

Then North Korea this weekend bungled the hand worse than we did. Having very few chips to play with, they are claiming to have two aces in the hole -- a nuclear weapon and a missile powerful enough to get it to the US. Maybe they have these aces, maybe they don't. But until they show them, we could not be sure and had to treat North Korea as if they did have them. But by test firing their long range missile and having it fail, they showed us one of their hole cards and it wasn't an ace. As long as they didn't fire the missile, we had to treat it as if it would work. They had nothing to gain and everything to lose by showing their hand. But they did. And since the nuclear payload is much more difficult than the the missile to construct, if one of the cards isn't what they said it was, there seems to be good reason to think that maybe they've got nothing. But then, maybe they do.

The only one who has been playing a good hand is Iran. Iran's leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is the sort of person you hate to play poker with. He is a nasty big mouth who will do something stupid in a hand he has no business playing, but then he'll turn around and play artfully so you are never sure quite what to make of him at any given moment. Because of their oil, they have quite a stack in front of them and they have four spades showing. Do they have the flush? Maybe. They won't let the IAEA in to peek at their hole cards, so we don't know and they've called our bluff.

We have two pair, looking at a likely flush with one card left to draw and we've bet far more than we should have on this hand. We now have a decision to make. Every poker player is familiar with the loser's dilemma -- you have sunk so much money into a hand that you can't just fold and walk away. That would mean that you just gave away almost all of your chips. But if you stay, you are probably going to lose even more. Do you stay in case of the unlikely event that you pull out the full house or do you save what is left of your stack for what is hopefully a better hand next deal? Conservatives call folding "cut and run" and want to just keep throwing more and more chips into the pot thinking that if enough chips are eventually thrown we HAVE to win. In addition, if you bet huge and then pull back, you look like an idiot. Conservatives have too much invested in seeming like tough guy high rollers. Liberals, on the other hand, are saying that it was a stupid strategy that got us into this mess in the first place and that continuing to do more of the same will just cost us more blood and money. But folding at this point will possibly leave at least one of these countries with nuclear weapons -- a massive take that will make all future hands tougher to play. What to do?

I don't know. But I'll tell you this. If I ever got invited to play cards with George W. Bush or Kim Jung Il, seeing how they've played this hand, you can bet I'd be in that game.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Happy Birthday America...and Mom Mom

The 4th of July has always been a big celebration for us because it is my grandmother's birthday...sort of. Actually, it was her whole family's birthday, at least, legally. when they came over from Eastern Europe and were waiting to speak with the immigration people, they were coached on the right answers to the questions they would be asked. They were told that they needed to be amply patriotic to be allowed in. So when they were asked for their date of birth, they all replied July 4. After all, what could make you more American?

As a member of that magic third generation who has no ties whatsoever to any other nation or culture it has always allowed me to remember that while we welcome immigrants in the United States, we're not always as welcoming as we could be to other people's grandparents-to-be. The lesson seems particularly apt this year.

So to my grandmother and my country, I wish you both a happy birthday. I love you both very much and may next year find you both healthy. (My grandmother, actually, is a little trickier to shop for. The country, I just send a gift certificate every April 15 and let it get whatever it wants. I just wish it would stop spending it all in one place overseas...)

Monday, July 03, 2006

Al Gore: The Modern Day Otto Neurath

Watching Al Gore's powerpoint presentation in An Inconvenient Truth reminded me of Otto Neurath's isotype in the first half of the 20th century. Neurath is one of those "smartest people you've never heard of" folks. He claimed to have read two books a day, everyday. Neurath was big: not only was he tall, but he had a big booming voice, bright red hair, and a long beard. When he walked into a room, everyone knew it. Neurath would sign correspondences with a cartoon elephant with a rose in the trunk instead of a signature -- a more apt representation of the man. He had a big heart, a big brain, a big mouth, and very big ideas.

He was a sociologist and a political economist. One of the first to rigorously study the effects of war on economies. Studying questions about class mobility in Europe, he came to believe that education was a major factor keeping workers from being able to better their lot, especially knowledge about science. He and a number of others in the young Logical Positivist movement would give seminars to union groups, evening classes designed to enrich the mind...hopefully allowing them to enrich their financial position.

But there was a problem. Neurath realized that the language of much of science is mathematical and mathematics, while a magnificent language, is quite difficult becausse of its very intense grammatical structure. Never mind physics, how could one even teach the economics that that factory workers would need if they were to understand why they are where they are? If the people were going to be empowered, they would need knowledge that only seemed expressible in a quantitative fashion. How could one convey mathematical relations in a way that doesn't require mathematical knowledge?

Then he hit upon it. Just like his signature -- the cartoon elephant -- better conveyed who he was than the scribbled letters, so, too, drawn images could representationally portray the mathematical facts in a directly comprehensible way. It would be called isotype, a new pictorial language in which to visually represent mathematical relations. We see it all the time now. Think of school textbooks where they want to show, say, how much more grain is produced in one state than in another. What do they show? Three and a half cartoon grain bundles in red next to one state name and eight cartoon grain bundles in green next to the other. That was Neurath's idea. It was a visual language designed to convey complex mathematical relations that underlie crucial scientific content.

And that is also exactly what Al Gore set out to do with his powerpoint presentation. Gore needed to take complex scientific results and convey them to non-scientists in a fashion that maintained their shocking nature. And he did it with pictures and images. He did it with graphs and charts, but in a way that you didn't need to understand the details about how to read graphs and charts. With representations of time passing by listing years in different colors, by presenting overlapping charts and visual images, Gore's presentation follows directly in Neurath's footsteps.

Neurath would no doubt be happy to see such a use. After the Anschluss, he had to flee Austria being a personal enemy of Hitler (there are references in Hitler's speeches that refer directly to Neurath himself), he landed in England where he died working for the public housing authority. As one who hoped that sceince was a force in the public interest, Neurath would have loved An Inconvenient Truth.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

A Horror Flick With Plenty of Gore

Saw An Inconvenient Truth last night. Amazing film. One thing baffled me, though. Al Gore kept talking about climate change as a moral issue -- I thought morality just meant protecting marriage from gay people.