Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Feast of Saint Groucho

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists everywhere,

This weekend brings us one of the holiest days on the Comedist calendar, the feast day of the one and only Saint Groucho. Born Julius Marx into a family connected with vaudeville and a neighbors that included Erich Weiss (better known as Harry Houdini -- Chico wasn't the only Jew back then to pretend he was Italian), the brothers began a singing act. When they began to get silly on stage, they got better reactions and soon changed the act to comedy.

The nickname does not refer to a prickly personality, but was given during a fateful poker game when all the brothers received what would become their stage names, Groucho had his money in a grouch bag to keep it safe and so Julius became Groucho, a name that became synonymous with comedy, especially verbal ad-lib comedy.

While his most famous ad-lib is most likely apocryphal:

GROUCHO: "Why do you have so many children? That's a big responsibility and a big burden."

MRS. STORY: "Well, because I love my children and I think that's our purpose here on Earth, and I love my husband."

GROUCHO: "I love my cigar, too, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while."
there are so many others. My favorite involves the hefty hostess of a party Groucho attended, when some one made a joke about her weight, she replied indignantly that she thought she had a fine constitution. Groucho replied, "It isn't your constitution that we're worried about lady, it's all the amendments."

When he was denied membership to a swimming club because he was Jewish and the club was restricted, Groucho asked, "My son is only half-Jewish, can he go into the pool up to his waist?"

Of course, there is his famous "resignation" from the Friar's club, "I do not care to belong to any club that would have me as a member."

When asked what the country should do about Vietnam, he said, "We should pull out...which is what Nixon's father should have done."

Some other classics:
Only one man in a thousand is a leader of men, the other 999 follow women.

Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.

A man's only as old as the woman he feels.

From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down, I convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend on reading it.

Whoever named it necking was a poor judge of anatomy.

Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.

Here's to our wives and girlfriends... may they never meet!

I made a killing on Wall Street a few years ago...I shot my broker.

I was married by a judge. I should have asked for a jury.
There is one thing the multiply divorced Groucho never said, though...On his deathbed, Groucho's final words were,
"Die, my dear? Why that's the last thing I'd do."
All praises be to his greatness, Saint Groucho.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Repsonsibilities of Goalies

The American women's world cup team got handed their heads yesterday by Brazil, a team they were expected to beat (somewhere there is a happy, dancing Effie Jones). 4-0 in soccer is a whuppin'. The player I am the most disappointed in, though, is one who didn't play, goalie Hope Solo.

Solo had been having a fine tournament. After a little rocky of a start, she had really pulled it together. Then she was pulled for the Brazil game in favor of world cup veteran Briana Scurry because Scurry's strengths, coach Greg Ryan thought, matched up better with Brazil's style of play. Turns out that may have been a bad decision, the change may have been an operative factor in the team playing badly and losing their shot to take the cup.

Solo responded publicly after the loss by saying to the press,

"It was the wrong decision, and anyone who knows anything about the game knows that. There's no doubt in my mind that I would have made those saves...The fact of the matter is that it is not 2004 anymore. It's 2007 and you have to live in the present and you can't live in the past. It does not matter what someone did in an Olympic gold medal game three years ago. Now is what matters and that's what I think."
This is inexcusable coming from a goalie.

About half my life was spent trying block shots and for those who never played a goal-based sport like soccer, lacrosse, or hockey, you may not understand the meaning of a goalie. The coach is the admiral, he or she sets the general plan and gives you the tools, but as the goalie, you are the captain of the ship when play starts, you are the one who actually uses the tools. Play, from the goalie's vantage point, is a beautiful thing, a dynamic chess match in which all of the pieces are constantly in fluid motion, hyperkinetic, but not chaotic. There are embedded levels of rationality to everything that is happening, levels you need to be aware of as they constantly change. This flux is all the more intricate because while you need laser focus on the ball, it is the motion away from the ball that you are actually defending against: the backside cut, the one on one that is being set up two passes from now,... Your job is to control your entire team in order to take the evolving strategy of the other side and counter it effectively.

I was a very good goalie in my day, not because of a natural athleticism -- I had to bust my butt for everything I had physically -- but I was gifted with a sharp and quick brain that could see through the tricks and traps the other team were laying down and devise a way to use what the coach had given me to neutralize their effectiveness. As a goalie, nothing happened on the field that I didn't call for. If a defenseman got beaten, it was because of where I had him playing and how aggressively I let him play there. If the slide didn't make it in time to cover for someone who got beaten on a dodge, it was because I hadn't prepped it and called for it on time. Anything that went wrong, I caught the heat for. The coach never went to the player who looked bad, he came to me because I was the one who made him look bad. On the field the goalie is in control and bears responsibility for what happens. It is a place of power that is not like other players.

As a result, playing that role comes with certain responsibilities. You need to be able to communicate with your coach, explain clearly what is working and why and what is not and why. The goalie is responsible for what happens in the game, but the coach is responsible for the game. Any loss and it is the coach who takes the blame, even if you were the one who blew it between the lines. If he didn't give you the tools or he handed them to someone else, it is apparent to everyone. Your job is to work with the tools in the smartest way. If the team doesn't believe in those tools, if confidence in the coach is undermined, then your tools will be ineffective. Cohesion is imperative in a team sport and things are divided up so that different members of the team have different responsibilities. By undermining the authority of the coach, the goalie is derelict in his or her job, undoing exactly what he or she should be achieving. You are hurting the team.

This is what makes Solo's comments unbelievable for someone at her level. There is not a goalie alive who played at a significant level who didn't think that he or she was smarter than the coach. There isn't a goalie alive who played at a significant level who hasn't been benched for someone he or she truly believes he or she was better than. I have been in Solo's position many times myself, times when I too believe not only would I have made that save, but that they never would have been taking the shot in the first place if I had been in the cage. But you do not say so publicly. You do not undermine the coach and you never, ever, ever take potshots at the other goalie on your team like that. The goalie never gets the glory. We never score. If we make a dramatic save, it is generally only because we screwed up and gave them a shot they shouldn't have had. But we have a special place and with that place comes responsibilities.

Solo's comments were immature and unacceptable. I understand she was disappointed. I understand she had her ego bruised. But goalies more than anyone else should know how to deal with bruises. What she did was to put herself before the team and as a goalie team always comes first. Gloryboys or girls in the midfield who shoot and score can play the solitary heroes, can encourage their own fanbase, can brag about their stature, but goalies, to be great goalies, must be above the pettiness that Solo displayed. She may have played well in the tournament, but her behavior after this game is inexcusable and undermines her ability to be a credible keeper. Hope Solo should be ashamed of herself and should be kept on the sideline for the rest of the tournament. You are a goalie, damn it Hope, act like it.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Bullshit Or Not: Epictetus Edition

There's an old sketch film called Amazon Women on the Moon and one of the bits is a parody of the old Leonard Nimoy show, "In Search Of..." called, "Bullshit or Not?" with the tagline "Bullshit or not? You decide." It's a line I like so much that I've stolen it for an occasional series of posts.

Today's comes from the famed Stoic philosopher Epictetus. Born a slave and becoming crippled later in life, Epictetus' life was not a happy one. From this vantage point and through the system of stoicism, he gave us all advice on how to live life. Here's one bit:

Remember you must behave as you do at a banquet. Something is passed around and comes to you: reach out your hand politely and take some. It goes by: do not hold it back. It has not arrived yet: do not stretch your desire out towards it, but wait until it comes to you. In the same way toward your children, in the same way toward your wife, in the same way toward public office, in the same way toward wealth, and you will be fit to share a banquet with the gods. But if when things are set in front of you, you do not take them, but despise them, then you will not only share a banquet with the gods but also be a ruler along with them.
Epictetus gives us the opposite of "You snooze, you lose," but "You snooze, you rule with the gods."

So, is there something inherently problematic with desire and with ambition? As usual, responses can range from a single word to extensive dissertations. So, from our Roman philosopher of the day, bvllshit or not?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

When Do You Join the Linguistic Community?

So one of the shorties was relaying with some agitation being told by a classmate that she was being rude when she was in fact being creative with no ill intent at all. She and a friend had developed a secret handshake of their own. They had seen others use the pinkie shake and decided that between them, the symbol of their friendship would be to extend their middle fingers towards each other and interlock them. This gesture, for them, expressed the proposition, "We are dear friends."

When a classmate witnessed the gesture, he told them that it meant something else, the propositional form of which he was not yet acquainted with, but of which he had sufficient knowledge to say that it was not the sort of sentiment one wanted to generally express in public. Shorty indignantly reported that said boy, as boys are wont to do, was just being difficult and interfering yet again with the girls just having fun on the playground.

So, we had a decision to make quickly over dinner. This is an aspect of the linguistic community to which Shorty has not yet been admitted. The gesture does not have the standard meaning for her that it has elsewhere. What do you tell her? TheWife's impulse was to say, "You can use any handshake you want." I went along, albeit a bit uneasily. After all, they will occasionally -- often when searching for rhymes with words like truck -- come across syllables we don't explain the meaning of, but inform them that it is "not a nice word." So, do you let it slide or bring her into the linguistic community here?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Kuhn, Popper, and Intelligent Design

Mike the Mad Biologist has a post regarding the references to Thomas Kuhn's notion of paradigm change in the intelligent design discussions. (I do hesitate linking to Mike from this humble little page now that he's getting links from the A-blogs, but perhaps he'll think it quaint.) Mike is exactly right about a couple of things:

Paradigm shifts are very rare. Anytime you hear about a 'novel' theory, remember this. Einstein had one. Darwin had one. Kimura had one. Not too many other have. This is a very good thing, since if fields fundamentally shifted every month, it would be very hard to get any work done (and this would be good evidence that the work itself was very shoddy).
Yes, the overwhelming number of working scientists do what Kuhn called "normal science," which is firmly embedded in the paradigm guiding science and revolutions are so rare that when they happen, it is truly momentous.

There's a difference between a perspective or worldview and a theory. Theories (and hypotheses) can be replaced by new data or analyses. Many so-called theories aren't rigorous theories that can be falsified (and I'm not getting into an argument about Popper). How do you falsify an intelligent designer?
For Kuhn, a paradigm brings with it an entire worldview. It contains foundational propositional beliefs; it defines what counts as the sort of questions that can be asked and which are worth pursuing; it defines what what approaches are deemed legitimate for answering questions; and it defines what counts as a meaningful answer. In this way, Kuhn appropriates an idea that goes back to Pierre Duhem, that a paradigm is not falsifiable because you can always make adjustments within the web to account for any anomalies that pop up. Some anomalies are easily swept under the rug and others require major, artificial ad hoc modifications, but you can save any part of the paradigm if you are willing to adjust somewhere else.

In this way, not only is Intelligent Design not falsifiable in Popper's sense, but neither is evolutionary theory, quantum theory, or anything else for that matter. The move to Popper, which is so frequently made, is a flawed one because hypotheses are not tested individually. They are parts of larger webs of belief and may be saved by twisting other parts of the web in order to account for seemingly problematic observations.

Does this then indicate some sort of epistemological equivalence between evolutionary theory and intelligent design? No. It just means that Popper is not the right figure to pull from. There are some smart folks working very hard to show that there may be testable consequences from intelligent design theory and it would be a mistake to maintain a priori that they must be wrong. Maybe it is testable in some indirect way, maybe not. The point is, that that does not really matter because falsificationism is not the place to look for the criterion of theory choice here.

Imre Lakatos was a student of Popper's who also found certain things about Kuhn's view deeply attractive. He realized the problems with the use of falsifiability of individual hypotheses as a criterion of demarcation for science that arose from Kuhn's insights. but he also saw one of the glaring problems with Kuhn's system. If a paradigm is a worldview and defines the questions, means of answering them, and what counts as acceptable answers, then all of rationality resides within the paradigm. As such, there can never be good reason to move from one paradigm to another as reasons only make sense within a paradigm.. There is no way to comparison shop for paradigms and so paradigm shift is akin to religious conversion.

Lakatos used Popper to solve this problem in Kuhn. Popper pointed out that falsified propositions could be saved by the use of ad hoc hypotheses and ruled them out as not allowable. For Kuhn, they are allowable. Lakatos' insight was to reformulate Kuhn so that while they are permitted, they are a liability to theory acceptance. And research programme (as he renamed paradigms) could be saved by tweaking some other part of the theory, but when your tweak limits the relative testability (making less falsifiable in a sense), it becomes "degenerate." When the research programme is able to explain more and more without ad hoc modifications, it is seen to be progressive. Kuhn is right (and Popper wrong) that you are never forced to rule out any theory, it can always be saved from problematic data and still be scientific. But Popper was right (and Kuhn wrong) that the ad hoc manner of saving it doesn't come with a rational price.

As such, when we look at Intelligent Design and Darwinian Evolution, we have two research programmes that can be maintained regardless of the data. But it happens that ID is quite degenerate requiring all kinds of patches that do not increase its independent testability to account for observable phenomena. Evolutionary theory, on the other hand, is an unbelievably progressive research programme that accounts for a staggering amount of data ranging from macro-ecological facts, to micro-level genetic facts to geological facts. Darwinian evolution is testable in so many, many ways and in the overwhelming number of them easily accounts for observations. Are there anomalies? Of course. Every theory has anomalies. Will some of them be resolved with the addition of facts now unknown. Sure. Will others force us to rethink parts of the theory as it is now accepted. No doubt. Are there some that will cause the entire research programme to become degenerate and make it less than rational to cling to? Possible, but I'm a better bet to win the Tour de France next year.

Pity Party: Who Do You Feel Sorry For?

Been a while since we've done this one, so here goes:

I feel sorry for Marcel Marceau. While I appreciate Gwydion's call for a moment of silence, I suppose the real irony is that he is now indeed a man trapped in a box.

I feel sorry for the private defense contractors in Iraq working for Blackwater Security. I'm just glad that our mainstream media has a sense of perspective on this story, I mean, all they did was to murder some innocent people, it's not like they were trying to steal sports memorabilia or something.

I feel sorry for General David Petraeus. Not only did that liberal group Move pick up on his own troops calling him "General Betray-us," but his boss Admiral William Fallon, the head of Central Command, called him "an ass-kissing little chickenshit." Come on here, people, that's not nice. I agree with Congress that American soldiers should not be working in a hostile environment.

So, who do you feel sorry for this week?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Come and Play, Everything's A-OK: The Feast of Saint Jim

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists everywhere,

This week in my first year seminar, I've been teaching Isaac Newton from his masterwork the Principia where he goes on and on about "phenomena." As a result, I have not been able to get this tune out of my head.As chance would have it (work of the Cosmic Comic?) this just happens to be the week of the Feast of Saint Jim honoring the birthday of Jim Henson, creator of the muppets, star of Sesame Street, the Muppet Show, and films both silly and heavy.

Born in Mississippi, he moved when young to Hyattsville, Maryland where he began making puppets for a local kids' tv program. Studying art and textiles at the University of Maryland, he considered giving up puppetry until he visited Europe and was blown away by the art form it was there, not mere child's play. He worked primarily in commercials, although appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show helped his career blossom.

And then in 1963, he came together with puppeteer Frank Oz and writer Jerry Juhl and the rest was history. They did good work for six years until approached by the Childrens' Television Workshop for a cutting edge kid's show and Sesame Street was born. The muppets became part of the consciousness of every child and the world has never been the same.

In 1976, the Muppet Show debuted (after being turned down by every American network on the grounds that adults would never want to watch puppets). Kermit made the move and Henson soon discovered, it's not easy counting green. Of the new characters to emerge -- Fozzy Bear, Gonzo, Miss Piggy, Animal, the Swedish Chef, Beaker -- perhaps the funniest of all were Statler and Waldorf, the heckling seniors in the balcony.Henson died of a severe strep infection in 1990, too too young. We miss you, Jim and thanks for all the joy.

So, what was your favorite Sesame Street or Muppet Show bit?

You Jews Sure Take Care of the Help

Leave it to Jews to make the most important day of the year about guilt. The biggest holiday of the year is Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. They call it a high holiday, but the point of it is to feel low. With the Jewish year just starting, it is a time to take stock of all the things you didn't quite do in the way you should and focus on doing better next year. If you feel guilty enough, maybe you won't screw up quite so much next time with all the things you were supposed to do.

It is a little known fact that blowing the shofar was the pre-biblical way of calling your mother. Today, they are mere rituals left over from olden days, but back then the sounds of the shofar were quite meaningful. The three short blasts meant, "Yes, I will get married someday, ma, you will have grandchildren before you die." The one long blast signified, "No, ma, it's called acid reflux, you are not having a heart attack. Go see the doctor, then. Yes, I know that if I had studied medicine I'd be a doctor right now like my cousin Morty."

One of the reasons I'm an atheist is that rituals never seemed terribly meaningful to me as a whole, they turn into rote sorts of activities which require nothing but going through the motions. At the same time, some can retain their significance. In this light, it is probably a good thing to take stock of failures in order to try to do better.

So, we can appeal to the hive mind to consider questions of collective responsibility. What is it that we really screwed up on this last year as a planet, a society, an academic community? I'm not looking for individual confessions, but rather things that have a larger scope. What do we need to put before us to do better in the coming year?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

How Do You Change a Culture?

A wonderful piece over at Mad Melancholic Feminista the other day wherein Aspazia argues for the value of female only colleges. Her significant other is a biology prof at an all-female institution and Spaz was marvelling at an assignment his students had turned in,

His students are engaged, work very hard, and excel. Yesterday I decided to read the blog entries, that he is having his Neurobiology students write in response to a Carl Zimmer's The Soul Made Flesh (which is, by the way, a fantastic book). I was absolutely stunned by the work ethic, the seriousness with which his students took the assignment, the willingness to make connections between courses, and the intensity with which the students engage each other. I hate to say this, because I know my students read this blog, but I have never experience this kind of quality of work--across the board--from my students at a college with a reputation for being much "better" than Za's college. I am not trying to start fights or nothing, but it is a fact.
Yes, by reputation, US News and World Reports standings, and all the other so-called objective metrics our institution is "better" than his, yet the work produced is different because the student engagement is different. The student engagement is different because the campus culture is different. And therein lies my interest.

This post struck me hard because I had yet another student in my office a few days ago, a very bright, incredibly interesting, funky student, who uttered those horrible words, "I'm thinking of transferring." Every year, it seems, I have this conversation. The student feels to go through the whole "It's not you, it's me; can we still be friends" routine as if we were breaking up and the words they use are eerily similar, "I love your classes and those of professors x, y, and z...but it's the time outside of class, it's not..." and their voice trails off. I usually finish the sentence for them, "It's not what you pictured college being like with engaging discussions about deep topics in philosophy, science, and politics in the wee hours of the morning with a group of friends sitting around on the floor and music playing." They inevitably drop their eyes and shake their heads yes. They don't want to say they are geeks who want a more serious set of study partners so they can spend more time on homework, rather they want intellectually lively peers to jam with, to bounce ideas off of, to argue with, to create with. They have had this idealized picture of college in their heads of a time when they would leave the cliques and fashion-bullshit of high school behind and get their chance to play the young intellectual so hip that they use the new word for hip that old guys who write blogs don't yet know and sound stupid using anyway. Then, sadly, they are confronted with a culture run by the same people who were the Heathers in high school. We lose some of our best, funkiest, most interesting students because we don't have a critical mass of good, funky, interesting students. And that's the challenge. How does one change the culture so that these kids claim ownership of the institution?

It's not that our students aren't bright, they are. I get good kids who write well, think in interesting insightful ways, and can do amazing work. Indeed, the last couple of years, I've been getting the best students I've seen here who are excited, curious, and playful. Exactly the sort we want. But people are shaped by their cultures and my worry is, as I've seen with some of my more promising students in years past, that they will get co-opted, corrupted, ruined by certain elements who control campus culture.

Gettysburg is like so many other schools that create gender parity by having higher standards for the admission of women. If we went to gender blind admissions, a stunning percentage of the male students here would never have been admitted. From the "irony can be so ironic" file, whenever I teach Contemporary Moral Issues, those student who most stridently display a sense of offense at the notion of affirmative action are always the rich, white, males who are only at this school to make sure that the women who are actually prepared to do the work here don't transfer because there's no one here to date.

As Aspazia points out, these male students who are the academically least talented and who not only contribute the least to the intellectual culture of the institution (indeed, who seek actively to undermine it in ways) are also the ones on campus with the most social capital. This problem is ossified by the fact that institutions of our student life, especially the Greek system, entrench that power in ways that the incoming class has no need to reconstruct it, they just fall right into the mold. They learn who has the power, they select the next set of guardians to protect that standing and it becomes more and more reinforced.

So, the question is, given that these institutions aren't going away any time soon, given that the admission profile of the incoming female and male students are not going to change significantly, what can be done to change the culture to make it more hospitable to those students who would most enrich it? How do you change a culture so it better resembles that at Aspazia's partner's institution?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Nature, Nurture, or Free Will?

Before we get to today's question, a couple quick shameless plugs. First, if you haven't bought your copy of the Grateful Dead and Philosophy yet, the best place to go is to Open Court, the publisher of the volume for the cheapest price. A significant number of the authors are also Playground regulars (I, Hanno, Confused, Maybe Not, and of course, yours truly), so you it'll be like a conversation with old friends. And speaking of conversations, if you are in Indiana, you can catch a conversation with me about the book with Tommie Lee and the Bartender 95.3 WAOR's morning show tomorrow around 8:00 eastern time. They seem like great guys and the station website has an on-line simulcast, so tune in if you'd like.

Speaking of the Grateful Dead and Philosophy, another of my favorite pieces in the bunch is Chuck Ward's "Mama Tried: Biological Determinism and the Nature/Nurture Distinction." Chuck's an old friend and a good philosopher who writes on the history and philosophy of biology with an interest in questions raised by evolutionary psychology. He picks up on the fact that so many Dead tunes are about unsavory characters. For a peace and love hippie band, all of their songs deal with murderers, gamblers, thieves, adulterers, folks you generally don't want to mess with. But interestingly, the songs are often introspective about how the thug came to be who he is and the sort of line that meditation takes changes.

In Mississippi Half-Step Toodle-loo, we have a completely deterministic explanation,

On the day that I was born,
Daddy sat down and cried,
I had the mark just as plain as day,
Could not be denied.
The mark, something present in many a blues song, for example, Hoochie-Cootchie Man, is a clear indication that the person will live a troubled life. these days, we've rejected the metaphysical version of fate and replaced it with biological determinism, the view that our personalities and a predisposition to act in certain ways is if not genetically predetermined, actively encoded within us biologically.

The usual sparring partner to this human nature based approach is influence by the environment. We are raised in a society by parents and they shape who we are and how we behave. Consider this passage from Brown-Eyed Women,
Had eight boys,
Only I turned bad,
Didn't get the lickin's that the other ones had
The blame for the tragic act of murder here is based on parenting, on the way the personality was shaped by the character's personal biography.

Of course, both of these views assert that our behavior is shaped by an external factor. The objection to this presupposition is that we are free agents who possess undetermined wills that allow us to choose how we act. This is the line the Dead gets from Merle Haggard's Mama Tried,
In spite of all my Sunday learning,
To the bad I kept on turning,
No one could steer me right but Mama tried.
She tried to raise me better,
but her pleading I denied,
That leaves no one but me to blame 'cause Mama tried.
Mama and the Sunday school did all they could, but the wrong-doer in this case chose not to heed the lessons and made his own bed. There is no one else to blame, no other operative force in the equation.

Now, of course, there are biological aspects to our personalities that make certain people more likely to act in certain ways than others. Of course, parenting has a deep effect on the development of behavior later in life. And, of course, we have some measure of free will by which we choose how to behave. All three play a part, but which one is the dominant factor? Nature, nurture, and will are all part of the equation, but that doesn't mean that one isn't a stronger influence than the others. So, which one is most important in understanding why people do what they do?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Is It Fair to be a Fair Weather Fan?

I'm a lifelong Orioles' fan despite the fact that I know full well they ain't going anywhere anytime soon. I went to half the home games the last year the Colts were in Baltimore, had my childhood bedroom painted blue and white, and it now causes me physical pain to even see a score in which Indianapolis wins. So, on the one hand, I fully understand the why other die-hards, for whatever team they root for, hold some resentment towards fair weather fans. Folks who jump on the bandwagon only when the going is good.

At the same time, I fully appreciate Jerry Garcia's take on the matter as Phil Lesh reports in his memoir, Searching for the Sound. During the hey-day of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice when the 49ers were the undisputed champs of professional football, the Dead would stop rehearsal to watch the games...but only when they were winning. When asked why he wasn't interested in the team during the lean years, Jerry responded that he's got enough to worry about in life, who needs more hassles? Sports are for entertainment, a diversion from life's troubles, so why stick with a loser through thick and thin?

Is a fair weather fan like a fair weather friend -- someone there when there's something in it for him, but not there when you really need him? Friendship is a care-based relationship where each is genuinely concerned for the welfare and well-being of the other. It is reciprocal in knowing that your friend will be there for you and you have every intention of being there for him or her.

But the relationship with a sports team is quite different. the team and the players are there on the basis of negotiated contracts. They aren't doing for you if you need it. They charge an arm and a leg just to get into the stadium, a stadium they won't even let you name even though your tax dollars paid for it. Surely, there is not the same sort of reciprocity.

Does this excuse the fair weather fan? When they spend the cash for the big name players, work hard and win, they are finally giving back and so deserve the fans; elsewise, not. It is only winning teams that are living up to their end of the bargain, so why criticize those who opt out of a bad deal?

But can the fair weather fan truly appreciate the victory? Is there not something inauthentic about wearing the cap or the jacket and not having paid the dues? The air conditioning ought to be reserved for those who were out in the heat.

So, is it rational to be a fair weather fan? Is it morally problematic? Is the disdain of the die-hards legitimate and, if so, on what grounds?

The Ethics of Encores

I got drafted to write a piece in the forthcoming Bruce Springsteen and Philosophy, so I've decided to start thinking about encores. The E Street Band is famous for two and three encore performances, with the encore being the length of other bands' entire set. It has led to me to the question of the meaning of encores.

Originally, the practice began as a way to disperse the audience. After a superior showing by a performer, the audience would be so moved that they would demand more. In order to keep the crowd from becoming a mob, the performer would give them another piece or a reprise of something from the show.

Things are different now. Encores are demanded and played as a matter of course. It is as much a part of the form of a contemporary concert as syllable count is to haiku. If a performer leaves without an encore, as Joni Mitchell, for example, will occasionally do, one is left feeling a bit bitter.

So, the question is why? When you pay the exorbitant amount plus service fees for a concert ticket these days, is the contract you've entered into for a full length show and encore? Is a performer bound by an implicit social contract to come out for one last tune?

Or is the encore something that the performer gives out of gratitude for the enthusiasm of the audience? Is an encore something that the crowd has to earn? Is it sort of like a tip that you leave for a hard working waitress? You've spent all that money for the ticket, is that the extent of your part of the contract or do you as an audience member have a further obligation to help create the proper environment for a successful show (frenzied if it's a rocking band, deep and pensive if its a more cerebral act)? If the audience has not been what the performer would want in order to help give him or her the energy he or she needs, does he or she have to come back out and interact with you further?

Given that Bruce and his band are famous for long encores, does that give him an obligation that other performers who are not so generous don't have? Is it a case of, as my dissertation director was fond of saying, "No good deed goes unpunished" or is it still a gift each time?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Smile, You're On Philosophers' Playground

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists everywhere,

This weekend would be the 93rd birthday of Allen Funt, the genius behind Candid Camera. The forefather of reality television, Candid Camera was different from today's version. Contemporary reality tv sets up situations designed to bring out the worst in people, Allen Funt brought out the human side in his victims. What was so funny about it was the timing. Something just unusual enough to be shocking happens -- not so bizarre that you suspect a set-up, but strange enough that you are knocked off stride -- then you are given enough time to worry that someone saw what just happened and begin to try to figure out "what now?", but not so much time that you could really work something out. It was brilliant in exposing us to ourselves without the mask we have become so adept at presenting.

We all run into those situations where the usual response is two of them is "oh" and the other one isn't. Your heart stops, your stomach sinks, your mind races, the blood in the back of your neck makes you uncomfortably hot. Alfred Adler said, "to be human is to be insecure," Allen Funt was a master at showing us our humanity.

And, man, was it funny.Have you had any Candid Camera moments? Times when you were caught in an unusual situation in a compromised position?

After my first Dead show, I had a car full of friends (including YKW) and as we waited in the long line of cars slowly working out of the parking lot I notice that my headlights are dimmer than normal. Worried that something might be wrong with my battery or my alternator, I get out and check. But everything seems in order. Afraid that we'll be stuck on the side of the road with a car that won't start late at night before the days of the cell phone, I fret. Then it hits me. It's not the car's lights that are dim, it's mine. You see, I'm still wearing my prescription sunglasses. Embarrassed, I slowly slip them off hoping to put them in the console between the front seats and put on my regular specs when You Know Who busts me.

Anyone else ever been caught? If so, smile, you're on the Philosophers' Playground.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Free Jazz in the Classroom

The American Association of University Professors’ Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure has released a white paper on academic freedom in response to contemporary criticism. The contemporary criticism, for those outside of the world of higher education, refers to the efforts led by David Horowitz and other prominent conservatives to use the notions of intellectual freedom and intellectual diversity to neuter professors who are speaking about things they don't like. In the period between the invasion of Iraq and Katrina when conservatives had the ability to brand those they disagreed with as treasonous and evil and could count on widespread support from the media and culture to allow them to crackdown, they created an enemies list and in addition to the judiciary, college profs were towards the top.

Good commentaries on the report can be found at Inside Higher Ed by former blog-star Michael Berube and at Adventures in Ethics and Science.

One of the issues addressed is "Persistent Irrelevance":

The group calling itself Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), for example, has advised students that "your professor should not be making statements . . . about George Bush, if the class is not on contemporary American presidents, presidential administrations or some similar subject." This advice presupposes that the distinction between "relevant" and "irrelevant" material is to be determined strictly by reference to the wording of a course description. Under this view, current events or personages are beyond the pale unless a course is specifically about them. But this interpretation of "relevance" is inconsistent with the nature of higher education, in which "all knowledge can be connected to all other knowledge." Whether material is relevant to a better understanding of a subject cannot be determined merely by looking at a course description.
Berube picks up the thread and lays out the breadth of topics and analogies he uses in the classroom. Joseph at Sharp Sand refers to it as "teaching as jazz," a metaphor I like. The idea here is that a form of teaching that ought to be valued, especially in this era when we realize the interconnectedness of disciplinary information is the ability to weave together insights and understanding from a variety of places.

Not only do we need to encourage cross-disciplinary exploration allowing faculty the freedom to move seamlessly between seemingly irrelevant ideas in order to find those places of intersection, but if we expect our students to become synthetic thinkers, dynamic problem solvers, they need to have this sort of bent of mind modeled in the classroom.

But, the opponents will argue that this is a strawman, that they are talking about topics that are not woven into the larger tapestry of the syllabus. Here, too, I could not disagree more. As regular playground denizens know, one of the most used pedagogical clubs in my bag is precisely persistent irrelevance. I begin every single class by carving out time for any question, especially those that are irrelevant to the course matter. Students are to be educated, not merely technically trained. They need to understand that almost any question at all will have interesting implications and can be thought about in ways they hadn't expected. They need to see that people think about things that are not in their field of scholarship and can speak reasonably and in an informed manner about them.

And this includes politics. I do not shy away from clearly voicing my opinions on political matters in the classroom. I explain the situation, the historical context, the reasoning behind the competing views, and why I think one is better than the other. I am unapologetic about clearly and explicitly advocating my viewpoint. But it is not about indoctrination. I do not say, "and you should believe it because I say so," but I do give reasons for my view. The objection that it is still a form of coercion because I am in a place of authority when I say it is certainly something that ought to be considered, but the fact that prominent members of the campus Young Republican organization explicitly come to me to write recommendations for graduate school seems to indicate that they are not afraid of being penalized by me for the difference in political views. One can advocate within the classroom setting if one is being explicitly clear about reasoning and evidence and if one explains clearly and respectfully the views of the other side before producing the reason why you don't buy it.

But, of course, that is exactly what the contemporary critics don't want. They hide behind the ideas of "academic freedom" and "intellectual diversity," trying to game us the same way the intelligent design folks say they want open minds. They don't want open minds, they want it all, but given that they've lost it all they're willing to settle for a tie as a first step in further undermining the teaching of evolution. In the same way, the conservatives are not really interested in intellectual diversity, they want it all and when they think they've lost it all, they settle for a tie to start the slow creep of killing the views they don't want.

The key example of this is the debacle at UCal Irvine. As the first dean of their new law school, they snagged Constitutional law star Erwin Chemerinsky, only to rescind the offer when opposition arose from a conservative donor. Conservatives have no problem trying to railroad folks they deem as the enemy. At a conference here at Gettysburg, a conservative group was brought in to give a step by step how-to tutorial in getting liberal profs canned. It's a shell game, it's three card monty. It is not only a crime against intellectual diversity and academic freedom, but it is a double crime in trying to hide behind intellectual diversity and academic freedom in parading around in their clothing while trying to undermine them.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Four-Way Ethics

So, you pull up to an intersection intending to go straight. There's a four-way stop and you are the last car to the intersection. The car that has been there the longest and therefore has the right of way is the car opposite from you and it is also going straight. The cars on either side have to wait for the car across from you to get all the way through the intersection. Is it ok to go across out of turn when that car goes? It doesn't make the others wait a single second longer, but at the same time, it wasn't your turn. Do the drivers in the cars beside you have the right to give you the hairy eyeball if you do go? Is it a matter of principle or a matter of consequence?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Hillary Clinton: The Forrest Gump of Progressive Politics?

I've been watching the field develop in the Democratic primary and it strikes me that Hillary Clinton is the Forrest Gump of progressive politics. She seems to have just happened to be in all of the most important places at the most important times. Yet, while she could have been using these opportunities to make the world a much better place because of her access, she's done disappointingly little to advance the causes that would help out Americans.


Senator Clinton, during the governorship of her husband, was on the board of directors at WalMart. Yup, WalMart. Yes, she has recently come out and complained about the way WalMart treats its employees and even returned $5000 she received from the company as a campaign contribution. But if these longstanding practices bothered her so much, why didn't she do something when she had the opportunity as a member of the board of directors from 1986-1992?

"There's no evidence she did anything to improve the status of women or make it a very different place in ways Mrs. Clinton's Democratic base would care about," said Liza Featherstone, author of ''Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Worker's Rights at Wal-Mart."
Of course, that wasn't the only time she happened to be at a juncture where she could have done a lot to improve the lot of those less influential.

Foreign Policy

The Oval Office may be the only one place more central to the direction of the planet than the chambers of the US Senate where Clinton sat during the vote to authorize presidential power in going to war. Sure, now we're hearing noises from the Senator in which she claims,
"I will continue to do everything in my power to convince the President to change course and to work with my colleagues in the Senate to bring an end to this war as soon as possible."
Yet, she not only refuses to back away from claims of the the reasonableness of her vote, but does so using precisely the linguistic frame of Republican hawks adopting Bush's notion that the war in Iraq has made us safer when the best available work by experts in the field point in then opposite direction.

Campaign Finance Reform and Money in Politics

The influence of money, big money and the corporate interests behind it, is one of the biggest threats to Democracy in America. Legislation is so complex in language and structure that most normal folks can have no clue how much we're being fleeced when regulatory reform comes down the pike. But there are people who do get it and they hire well-paid insiders to act as their lobbyists who know just how to get bills moving with desirable language in them.

Where better to take a stand against these corrupting influences in politics than running for the highest office in the land? Other candidates have stood up in this way, but Senator Clinton's response was to embrace the lobbyists, saying,
"A lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not, represent real Americans...such as nurses, teachers and others who need a voice in the halls of government."
It is certainly true that groups like nurses, teachers, and unions have lobbyists, but to say (a) that the pull of those lobbyists is equal but opposite to those of moneyed interests and this gives us a level playing field for good legislation, and (b) that most, much less the most vulnerable, Americans are represented in some way by lobbyists is simply absurd.

I don't know whether it is fair to fold Bill Clinton's record into Hillary's, but with examples like the telecommunications bill that the Clinton administration shepherded through, big moneyed corporate interests and not those of the average American clearly reigned supreme. Indeed, the triangulation and "business-friendly Democrats" DLC line that we saw from Clinton may have enriched his campaign, but it served to undermine everything the Democratic Party was supposed to stand for. When left with money and no principles, what happened? The party lost control of every branch of government. Harry Truman was right that given the choice between a fake Republican and a real Republican, they'll pick the real one every time. Not because they agree with the Republican, but because they are repulsed by the phony. If Hillary takes over the Clinton machine and the same corporate footsie games are played, you will see the Democrats (continue to) squander this opportunity handed to them by the complete and utter failure of Republican governance and the result will be (here's my prediction) that the Dems will lose control of both one house by the
midterm and the other in the next Presidential year.

Health Care

But, perhaps the biggest Forrest Gump moment was health care. This is truly a major issue dogging this country in so many ways. And of course, as head of the commission looking at revamping the American health care system, Senator Clinton could have been a visionary, could have changed (and saved) lives. But what came out of it? nothing except a love letter to managed care and insurance companies.

When the book is written, my guess is that the health care debacle will have been Hillary Clinton's George Wallace moment. George Wallace, the arch-defender of racism who famously said,
"In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."
was not always pro-segregation. Indeed, in his first run for Governor of Alabama, Wallace had spoken out against the Ku Klux Klan and was the moderate in the field. He lost to the candidate that was endorsed by the Klan. The lesson he took away was metamorphic. To his Friend and aide Seymore Trammell, he said,
"Seymore, you know why I lost that governor's race?... I was outniggered by John Patterson. And I'll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again."
The scars Hillary took away from the health care battle likely did the same thing and she will never be out-corporated again.

It seems that if Hillary Clinton really wanted to make this world a better place, she has had opportunities that are otherwise unthinkable to do exactly that. The record is sadly disappointing. I hope I am wrong should she get the nomination, but it seems that in these times in which we so badly need a Forrest Gump, someone with a big heart willing to change the direction of history at its most important moments, we may get stuck with Zelig.

Creationism Whack-A-Mole

So I get this huge, very heavy package at work the other day. I open it up to find a book that is a coffee-table sized, but 800 pages long. A monster of a book filled with glossy pictures and holographic moving images on the cover. On top of that, it had been delivered from Turkey using a courier service that isn't cheap. And Aspazia got one, too. Someone put a lot bucks in getting us something neither of us ordered.

As I leafed through the richly colored book, I realized what the Atlas of Creation was. It was designed to be an encyclopedia of "evidence" showing pictures of fossils next to pictures of current day animals, displaying phenotypic similarities, thereby proving that the species have in no way evolved. Hundreds of pages of these pictures followed by a couple of essays by a Turkish creationist and an argument for Islam as the real truth.

Utterly bizarre, I thought. Who was sinking this kind of cash into reviving this silliness?

An article in The New York Times didn't help,

Who finances these efforts is “a big question that no one knows the answer to,” said another recipient, Taner Edis, a physicist at Truman State University in Missouri who studies issues of science and religion, particularly Islam. Dr. Edis grew up in a secular household in Turkey and has lived in the United States since enrolling in graduate school at Johns Hopkins, where he earned his doctorate in 1994. He said Mr. Yahya’s activities were usually described in the Turkish press as financed by donations. “But what that can mean is anybody’s guess,” he said.
Cash? Creationism? One name came to mind. The Discovery Institute. But Turkey?

Then I heard this report on BBC's program, The World, entitled "Creationism in Turkish Schools." It turns out that American creationist organizations have followed the lead of the tobacco industry. If people are smoking less in the US, export the poison to less developed nations and get them hooked on it. If we have a global marketplace for unhealthy goods, why not a global marketplace of bad ideas?

The result comes directly out of the "Irony Can Be So Ironic" file, we have conservative literalist Christians bankrolling conservative literalist Islamists' efforts to keep science and reason out of the classroom. Those same people who gave us the phrase "Islamofascists" are perfectly happy to pump cash to the very same people to which they apply the brand, as long as they help undermine that awful, nasty, liberal slant that we find in reality. In one breath, they worry about a moderate secular country like turkey suddenly ruled by an explicitly religious Muslim political party, but then in the next they give them the means to radicalize education and undermine the moderates.

It is amazing. The Turkish creationists work closely with American groups and as a result, we find precisely the same tactics, the same moves, the same language in the Turkish version that are hallmarks of the American version. A major voice in the public debate is Mustafah Akyol who pushes the liberal fair treatment of all ideas line,
"If you want a fair and objective approach to science and the origins of science, right now there is a controversy in the scientific community. While many people believe in Darwinian evolution, yet there are many serious scientists who criticize Darwinian evolution and say, 'Well, life appears to have been designed by some intelligence." Why not teach about this if you are trying to make your young generations more open-minded and make them know about different opinions in different fields. Here is one, just make them learn about both opinions and let them make their own conclusions from them."
Ignoring the simply false claim that there is any controversy about this issue in the scientific community, the rhetorical move employed here involves two tricks worth pointing out:

(1) "Isn't excluding the creationist viewpoint a violation of the liberal virtue of open-mindedness?" No. The trick here is an equivocation, a subtle change of meaning, in the notion of "open-mindedness." What it really means is that every view gets a chance to bat, but what the creationists are doing is arguing that open-mindedness means everyone is automatically put on base. What the liberal notion entails is that while everyone gets to swing, those who strike out are out of the game. Creationism had its turn to bat for a couple of centuries and was given more than a few extra pitches and still struck out. It thereby is put on the bench and is no longer in the game. Evolution is on base. Might it get thrown out trying to advance? Sure. But it hasn't yet. Just because everybody gets to swing, doesn't mean everybody gets to be on base. but that is precisely what the creationists in Turkey and the US are doing when they invoke the notion of "open-mindedness."

(2) "Aren't evolutionists being unscientific in not giving creationism equal time?" Nope. Here's the second part of the trick. To play the game, you need to buy into the rules of the game. The creationist folks feign playing the rational game wherein everyone gets a turn at bat, but really they only want their own turn at bat and try like the dickens to make sure the other team does not get theirs. They use terms like "open-minded" in order to sucker the liberal-minded folks into treating them as equals all the time knowing that they themselves have no desire to treat the liberals as equals.
"The minister of education for the ruling AK party says he has an open mind about the debate about evolution, but eighteen months months ago five teachers claim they were suspended by the ministry for advocating evolution too strongly. Now teachers are forbidden to speak to the media without permission from the education ministry."
They demand that one side play according to rules which they themselves do not accept. Think this happens in Turkey and not here? Think again.

We've been fortunate that the intelligent design/creationist wave here has crested, but we're playing whack-a-mole and the place it has popped up now may be all the more dangerous. If we are worried about fundamentalists declaring a culture war on the West, to have our fundamentalists fueling the flames we should be trying to extinguish is not in the least helpful.

Psychology, the Petreaus Report, and How Fox News Works

On the eve of the widely trumpeted Petreaus report, it is worth noting some of the findings reported in The Washington Post by Shankar Vedantum last week. It turns out that Joseph Goebbels' famous quotation "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it," is only the tip of the iceberg. It not only turns out that it is absolutely true that if you hear a falsehood often enough you will tend to believe it, but it is sometimes enough that the falsehood be accessible. As Norbert Schwarz writes,

"This fluency-familiarity link has important consequences for judgement and decision-making. As Festinger observed, under conditions of uncertainty, we often resort to 'secondary reality tests,' using apparent social consensus as a criterion of truth. In fact, repeated exposure to a statement, reliably increases its acceptance as true, as first observed by Allport and Lepkin in a classic study on rumor control. However, repeated exposures are not required to make a statement 'feel' familiar. Instead, any variable that increases the ease with which the statement can be processed is sufficient to do the trick. For example, we observed that a given statement was more likely to be accepted as true when the color in which it was printed made it easier to read."
So make something false easy to read, add a swoosh or a silly USA Today graphic around it and, bam, you've got belief.

Even if the person knows that the source of the information is not a credible one, the repetition is effective.
Furthermore, a new experiment by Kimberlee Weaver at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and others shows that hearing the same thing over and over again from one source can have the same effect as hearing that thing from many different people -- the brain gets tricked into thinking it has heard a piece of information from multiple, independent sources, even when it has not. Weaver's study was published this year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The experiments by Weaver, Schwarz and others illustrate another basic property of the mind -- it is not good at remembering when and where a person first learned something. People are not good at keeping track of which information came from credible sources and which came from less trustworthy ones, or even remembering that some information came from the same untrustworthy source over and over again. Even if a person recognizes which sources are credible and which are not, repeated assertions and denials can have the effect of making the information more accessible in memory and thereby making it feel true, said Schwarz.
Think having FoxNews on in the background in various public venues is harmless?

But it gets worse. The Enlightenment naivete in us tells us to debunk the myth and all will be well. Show why it is false. Proclaim loudly that it is false and, the reasonable animals that we are, we will reject the falsehood and embrace the truth. Sadly, no.

It turns out that debunking the myth actually reinforces it. By saying, "It is false that x," you repeat x. This repetition makes x more familiar and after some time, the "not" becomes inoperative leaving the falsehood. From Vendantum
The research also highlights the disturbing reality that once an idea has been implanted in people's minds, it can be difficult to dislodge. Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it.

Indeed, repetition seems to be a key culprit. Things that are repeated often become more accessible in memory, and one of the brain's subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true.
By presenting reasoned arguments undermining the veracity of a claim, you are not destroying the basis for belief, but actually reinforcing it. The rational vaccine is not protection from, but actually is a vector in spreading the irrational disease.

So we've had several reports come out in the last couple of weeks showing that there has been no progress in quelling the overall level of violence in Iraq, yet Petreus has been claiming the opposite. He claims of a 75% decrease in killings,
General Petraeus told The Australian during a face-to-face interview at his Baghdad headquarters there had been a 75 per cent reduction in religious and ethnic killings in the capital between December last year and this month, a doubling in the seizure of insurgents' weapons caches between January and August, a rise in the number of al-Qa'ida "kills and captures" and a fall in the number of coalition deaths from roadside bombings.
Turns out that the 75% figure is not last year compared to this year, but December 2006 (a spike in killings) compared to April of this year. Not only apples and oranges in terms of the calendar year's trends, but killings went back up in May and then down in June-July. Further, the numbers were cooked by creatively defining "sectarian killings," if a victim was shot in the back of the head, the killing was sectarian; if shot in the front of the head, the killing was deemed criminal violence and not counted.

So we've got a source who has clearly been less than acceptable in terms of veracity. Yet, his words will not only be broadcast, but rebroadcast over and over again. The analysis may debunk large chunks of it, exposing it as propaganda, but as we now see, that won't do much but further entrench it. And to put the cherry on top, where is General Petraeus going immediately after his testimony before Congress? He's giving an exclusive one hour interview with Fox News. I wonder why...

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Feast of Saint Jo Anne

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week we celebrate the feast of Saint Jo Anne. Thursday was Jo Anne Worley's 70th birthday. A regular on The Merv Griffin Show, she became one the cast of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In for which she is most well rememered. A stage actor and animated feature voice-over artist, she has many credits to her name.

In her honor, we open the floor this weekend to all chicken jokes:

Why does a chicken coop have two doors?
If it had four, it would be sedan.

Two chickens in are in a barn when one of them says to the other, "I'm really worried about this bird flu." The other one says, "Oh my god, a talking chicken!"

What glows in the dark and says, "Cluck"?
Chicken Kiev.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
The rooster.

Is chicken soup good for your health?
Not if you're a chicken.

Seeing her young chick run trying to cross a busy road, the mother hen said, "If your father saw you do that he's turn over in his gravy."
And then, of course, there's the old classic,
A travelling salesman is driving down a dirt road at 50 miles per hour when a chicken wiht three legs speeds by him. Amazed, he looks out and again the three-legged chicken speeds past the car. Whe he reaches the house of a farmer, he asks him about it and the farmer explains that for years they were having fights because he, his wife, and his daughter all preferred drumsticks. So he started breeding them with three legs. "Wow," said the salesman, "That's amazing. How do they taste?" "Dunno," said the farmer, "haven't caught one of them, yet."

Happy birthday Jo Anne Worley.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Is There An Ethical Statute of Limitations?

A couple of ethics questions today relating to time. In Confessions, Augustine puts his head in his hands lamenting the horrible crime he committed as a child -- sneaking into a neighbor's yard and stealing some pears. He wasn't hungry and had better pears in his tree. So why did he do it? Why? Is his character now forever scarred by it? The question is, when you screw up, is the result a mark on your moral permanent record or does the stain slowly fade out? Is there an amount of time after which you can no longer be held culpable for your earlier acts?

Consider two different versions of this question:

(1) Suppose you were busted. You did it and you got caught. Is there a period after which it becomes simply a fact of the world without the related condemnation of your character? Is it a function of whether there are still lingering ill effects of the act? If it was something for which responsibility was accepted and the situation was completely rectified, does that make a difference?

It may be an easier question when the act was a youthful indiscretion or done at a time when there were other causal factors, say, an addiction. In those case, you can always argue that "I'm now a different person," but what of the times you screw up as an adult?

(2) Even if there is a statute of limitations in the first case, does the clock start after you took responsibility or after the act? Suppose you did it and got away with it. All these years, no one noticed or no one figured out that it was you. Is there an amount of time after which if you cop to your actions that you no longer deserve condemnation? Or is it worse because you hid it? Is it a difference in degree or difference in kind if it is a serious or less serious screw up?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Do Grades Hurt As Well As Help the Educational Process?

It's early in the semester and grades and grading does not yet have the bite it will have later, so this distance may allow for some more open minded consideration. For the project on Maria Montessori that I've been working, I came across this passage:

We know only too well the sorry spectacle of the teacher who, in the ordinary schoolroom, must pour certain cut and dried facts into the heads of scholars. In order to succeed in this barren task, she finds it necessary to discipline her pupils into immobility and to force their attention. Prizes and punishments are ever-ready and efficient aids to the master who must force into a given attitude of mind and body those who are condemned to be his listener.
Are grades an artifact of a failed pedagogy? Do we need grades to force students to do a minimum amount of work because we suck at teaching? At the college-level, we are all technicians driven in our fields because we are enamored to point of obsession with what we study. Are we really that bad at motivating the questions that enthrall us?

Montessori takes it one step further and says that grades may create a floor, a lower bound on what people learn, but it also creates a ceiling, an upper-bound beyond which most intellects will not pass. We shape our students not to be intellectuals with creative and rigorous minds, anxious to ponder the deep and pressing questions of our time or of the ages, but rather docile bureaucrats who only work for promotion, uncaring about what their work really means:
Something very like this condition of the school exists in society, in the relation between the government and the great numbers of the men employed in its administrative departments. these clerks work day after day for the general national good, yet they do not feel or see the advantage of their work in any immediate reward. That is, they do not realise that the state carries on its great business through their daily tasks, and that the whole nation is benefited by their work. For them, immediate good is promotion, as passing to a higher class is for the child in school.
I find my students to be incredibly risk averse. If you give them an assignment, most will take no chances that might stretch them if it means possibly receiving a lower grade. They use a game-theoretic calculation to make sure they get the sure B instead of trying something that might help them grow, something that might engage their creativity, something that might allow them to transcend their intellectual place. We learn so much through trial and error, but the grade-based approach to education punishes error making that type of learning which is the most vital turn out to be irrational. The grades seem to act as an anchor that keeps them from achieving all they could. As Hanno is fond of saying about natural selection, it isn't survival of the fittest, it's survival of the just good enough. Isn't this also what our test-obsessed, grade-based picture of education gives rise to?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Defense of Whoopee Act: Protecting Your Right to Make Love to Your Sweetie

If the Democrats were smart and interested in winning elections (neither of which am I convinced of), they would be jumping all over an opening conservatives have been handing them recently. One of the most successful wedge herrings of the last couple of decades for the Republicans has been abortion. But as anyone who has been paying attention (and this excludes the media) realizes, abortion is not about abortion.

Abortion is part of a cage and frame strategy designed to do two things, (1) focus all of the time, resources, and energy that would have going to advance and defend women's rights and tie it all up on this one issue, and (2) act as the tip of the sword in a movement that wants to place a radical evangelical Christian theology deep within our governmental structure.

What is interesting is that in trying to woo primary votes from the Republican conservative base, some of the contenders for the GOP's nomination have gotten sloppy and let another issue out of the cage, an issue that (1) clearly shows the game they've been playing and (2) is an issue they can easily get creamed on if only Dems had the nerve to take it to them.

The issue is contraception. Abortion is not about preserving life. As their advocacy of war and the death penalty and their hatred of the SCHIP program providing health insurance for children shows, they don't have a deep regard for life; what they do have is an odd paranoia about sex. Occasionally they'll be honest and argue that their really opposition is based on the bizarre concern that if abortion is legal, more people will have sex and it is this that must be stopped. Fornication is seen as a horrible pox on society and it is the making of whoopee that we must end in order to preserve decency and our way of life.

Of course, not only is this nonsense, but finding a reframing of this issue in an advantageous way is almost as easy as playing "spot the white guy" at the Republican National Convention. They see all sex not intended to impregnate as problematic. Of course, human sexuality is an incredibly complex thing and our sexuality finds expression for all sorts of reasons, some good and some not. But their opposition to the availability of contraception turns out to be a war on making love to your sweetie. Whether your sweetie is your spouse and you don't want more kids because you couldn't afford college for any more, whether you are in a long term-monogamous relationship and are thinking seriously about whether or even when marriage would be the right move, or if your partner happens to be of the same sex and these defenders of "values" are doing their best to discriminate against you by denying you civil rights, they want to make sure that your most tender and intimate moments do not happen.

If Democrats had it together, they would grab this issue and include it in every public appearance, every campaign speech, and on every talking head program. Bring forward a proposal to enshrine it in law, the Defense of Whoopee Act. When asked whether we really need a law, the talking point response, of course, is "In order to repel attacks by right-wing fundamentalists, we need a wall around making love, a whoopee cushion, if you will, to protect intimacy." All the Presidential candidates should sign onto a public promise to defend people's right to make love to their sweeties and challenge the Republicans to do the same.

It's a wedge to drive between libertarians and social conservatives, it's a winner with singles, young people, and pretty much anyone who loves someone or would like to. The ability to express our warmest, most caring feelings in the privacy of our own home with the person we love most in the world should be protected from government intrusion led by fundamentalists. These people are undermining what is good about America. Why don't they go to Iran where they belong? Make love, not war.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Bullshit or Not?: Karl and Chico Marx Labor Day Edition

There's an old sketch film called Amazon Women on the Moon and one of the bits is a parody of the old Leonard Nimoy show, "In Search Of..." called, "Bullshit or Not?" with the tagline "Bullshit or not? You decide." It's a line I like so much that I've stolen it for an occasional series of posts.

In honor of labor day, today's bullshit or not quotation is from Karl Marx on alienated labor from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844:

The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and extent. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he produces. The devaluation of the human world grows in direct proportion to the increase in value of the world of things. Labour not only produces commodities; it also produces itself and the workers as a commodity and it does so in the same proportion in which it produces commodities in general.

This fact simply means that the object that labour produces, its product, stands opposed to it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labour is labour embodied and made material in an object, it is the objectification of labour. The realization of labour is its objectification. In the sphere of political economy, this realization of labour appears as a loss of reality for the worker, objectification as loss of and bondage to the object, and appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.
By working harder are you alienating yourself from your life? Do all occupations in a capitalist economy result in this sort of bondage, or only those that involve personal ads?

Of course, the reciprocal proposition, that you become more valuable the less you work, was posited by the other Marxes in the opening scene of Animal Crackers:
Mrs. Rittenhouse: You are one of the musicians? But you were not due until tomorrow.

Ravelli: Couldn't come tomorrow, that's too quick.

Spaulding: Say, you're lucky they didn't come yesterday!

Ravelli: We were busy yesterday, but we charge just the same.

Spaulding: This is better than exploring! What do you fellows get an hour?

Ravelli: Oh, for playing we get ten dollars an hour.

Spaulding: I see. What do you get for not playing?

Ravelli: Twelve dollars an hour.

Spaulding: Well, clip me off a piece of that.

Ravelli: Now, for rehearsing we make special rate. That's fifteen dollars an hour.

Spaulding: That's for rehearsing?

Ravelli: That's for rehearsing.

Spaulding: And what do you get for not rehearsing?

Ravelli: You couldn't afford see, if we don't rehearse, we don't play, and, if we don't play, that runs into money.
So, the more you work, the less valuable you are and the less you work, the more valuable. On this holiday when few are working, we ask you to take from your valuable time and tell us -- bullshit or not?

As usual, feel free to leave comments ranging from a single word to a dissertation. Happy labor day, everyone.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Irony Can Be So Ironic

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

While the Christian Intelligent Design folks point to complexity in the natural world as proof of the existence of their frankly less than funny Diety (although I will certainly concede that "smote" is a funny verb -- in sound, if not in deed), for us it is inescapable irony that provides us with our evidence for the wonders of the Cosmic Comic. This weekend, therefore, we will look at some of the little ironies that seem to stretch credulity when seen as pure accidents:

The case of Larry Craig is a wealth of irony. On the most obvious level, you have the Senator from Idaho who was more than happy to pursue policies that stripped gays and lesbians of their human rights getting busted for soliciting an encounter with an undercover cop in a men's room. Ironic? Sure. He was forced into resignation, although David Vitters, the Senator from Louisiana who has confessed to having sex with prostitutes, one of which came forward and said he liked to wear diapers and be beaten during their encounters was happily forgiven by his Republican colleague. Odd and upsetting, if not ironic. But we will add one more twist to this story that we've seen nowhere reported. The Larry Craig story was broken on the birthday of Paul Reubens, better known outside of adult movie theaters as Pee-Wee Herman. Now there's irony.

From News of the Weird:

After a 25-year-old woman was accused of murdering her father and sister (and wounding her mother) in July in Sydney, Australia, authorities revealed that she had been diagnosed with a psychotic illness in 2006. However, she had been discouraged from seeking psychiatric treatment by her parents because they are Scientologists, who by doctrine reject psychiatry and psychotropic-drug treatment. [Agence France-Presse, 7-9-07]
In a recent speech, George W. Bush, trying to argue that maintaining the current rate of American and Iraqi casualties is the only rational policy, compares Iraq to Vietnam.
"Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left," Bush added. "Whatever your position in that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps,' and 'killing fields.' "
Supplying the ironic punchline:
The New York Times also talked to [Robert] Dallek, who pointed out that the slaughters of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia “was a consequence of our having gone into Cambodia and destabilized that country.”
Oh, the levels of irony here.

So what have you found to be ironic lately?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve