Friday, February 29, 2008

Leap Year and Love

Today is a special day, it is TheWife's birthday and it has me thinking about love and couples.

Anecdotally and without evidence let me assert that we seem strangely good at finding mates that complement our lacks. People tend to couple off with folks who are not like them in important ways, ways that compensate for abilities or propensities that we wish we had. Yet, the initial impetus for the coupling is the "wow" moment in which we find ourselves attracted to someone seemingly without sufficient exposure to reasonably judge their capacity to fill in our missing pieces. We don't seem to miss enough to make it a hit or miss (or possibly a "hit on or miss") trial and error type procedure (although, yes many of us have made errors in this department). So why does it seem to work so well? How is it that we have the uncanny knack of finding someone who is very much in crucial ways our other half? Or is it as TheWife would tell it simply fate?

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Homophobia and Anti-Semitism

During the "ask any question, auto mechanics to quantum mechanics" section of class yesterday, a male student asked why other men were made uncomfortable by his conversing with them from a stall in the men's room. The discussion opened up to explain the intricate set of rules required in making the socially acceptable choice in selecting a urinal given the urinals currently in use. The young women in the class were stunned by the entire scheme. When the student who raised the question asked for the underlying explanation for these bizarre gender-specific customs, the answer was obvious...homophobia.

It set me to thinking about it. In the case of bias and bigotry against Jews, we use the term anti-Semitism. Our usage stems from Wilhelm Marr who used it (Antisemitismus) to replace the notion of hatred of Jews (Judenhass) because the latter is a mere personal attitude while the latter makes reference to indelible cultural lineage which was useful to Marr in trying to sociologically ground his beliefs in the inferiority of Jews. The ploy, of course, is veiled so thinly that it is clear that the term anti-Semitism maintains its connotation of hatred.

But in the case of bias against gay men and lesbians, the term we use is homophobia, fear of homosexuals. Fear, not hate, is the etymological basis for the word. In both cases, there are prejudices and injustices, but the differentiation does seem meaningful. There is no doubt that there is much hatred directed towards homosexuals, but it is also true that fear is involved in a way completely different from the way Jews are treated by anti-Jewish bigots.

The question, then, is in the bathroom scenario, where is the fear directed? There is a sense of unease that is clearly connected with some fear, but what are men afraid of? Is it an other directed fear of gay men themselves and of what they may do to you? Is it a fear of being thought to be gay yourself, in other words, not a fear of others who are gay, but, rather, a fear of being included in the oppressed group whether or not you are? In this way, it would be a fear of being oppressed by an unfair social structure, not necessarily a fear of anything having to do with homosexuality itself aside from the fact that gay men are in the undesirable group. Is it an inward-directed fear of one's own sexuality, a sense that there is something uncontrollable in our sexual desires and a concern that one might actually be gay? In the case of arachnophobia, we understand why people are afraid of spiders -- they can bite and hurt you -- but what exactly is the source of the phobia in homophobia? What are homophobes afraid of?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

What Do You Do With the Plate?: Why I Am Glad To Be Married, Edition 316

The other day I was reminded of a story told to me by a dear friend back when we were both single. He had broken up with a woman he had been dating for a while and they had done the picking up all your stuff from the other person's apartment and a few days later, he found a plate that she had left. Now, he was a bachelor with mismatched plates. No one would have noticed. Of course, that plate would always bring to mind certain memories and a feeling that he should not still have it. Keeping it seems wrong. The break-up was not of the plate smashing variety, but stopping by to return it would be painful for both and possibly send a wrong message (For a plate? Nah, he must want to see me again. No one would come by just for a plate.).

So, what do you do with the plate?

In Praise of Ralph Nader and Obama's Hope

Let me begin by saying that I understand that if Nader had not run in 2000, Bush would not have been made President, there would be no war in Iraq, torture would not be a live issue, the economy would be in better shape,... That being said, Ralph Nader has long been a hero of mine for good reason and his place in American politics is a good and necessary one.

Many of us talk about corporate power and special interests, but Ralph Nader has spent a lifetime on the front lines actually fighting the battle for us. People every single day are alive who would tragically otherwise not be, but for his tireless crusades for us against moneyed interests. And through those battles that he waged for people he likely will never meet or get a thank you from, he learned in stark terms how political access is the root of the problem and you can try to pick them off one by one, but more and more threats to life, limb, and democracy will continue to appear as long as the corporate class has unfettered and unique access to law makers.

Add to that the fact that the Clinton administration and the Democratic Leadership Committee had successfully worked to erase differences between mainstream Democrats and mainstream Republicans. In an attempt to woo what they saw as the swing demographic of "Reagan Democrats" and to try to bring in some of the corporate funds that had been flowing to the GOP, the intentional plan was to make the Democratic party into Republican light, ignoring the traditional concerns of the party -- pursuit of equality for the oppressed, better standard of living for all especially the most vulnerable, people before corporate profits. In 2000, there wasn't much of a difference between the parties and that was by design and very, very dangerous to the nation. That is why Nader received such a significant portion of the vote.

Yes, Bush/Cheney/Rove swept in as a result and worked very hard to make sure there was once again a difference between the parties. The Clintocrats had moved the Democrats to the right, so the Bushies would take the Republicans to the far right. This is why Nader received three tenths of one percent in 2004. There is a difference between the parties again.

But in this primary, we are once again looking at the possibility that the folks who eliminated the difference will assume control. A lot has happened in the last seven years. Grassroots are much more influential because of small dollar donations and the easy ability to communicate via the web. But there is always the remaining temptation for the party to go back and the Clintocrats are doing everything they can to take us there. We do still need the gadfly.

At the same time, the Naderite approach is deadly. What is fascinating is the criticism I've been seeing from the Nader folks, the Clintocrats, and the Republicans all making fun of, dismissing, and rolling their eyes at the hopefulness coming out of the Obama supporters. As someone who was picked on mercilessly as a young nerd, it is very, very familiar. Anyone who gets excited about something, who is not cool and cynical, gets the "that's so gay" label, and that is what we are seeing from all parts of the political spectrum.

I find it especially disturbing from the far left because it is the lack of hope from them that has been the movement's undoing. There is so much to be angry about in this world, so many affronts to morality and humanity that go on behind the scenes and indeed in broad daylight. The resulting anger ought to fuel a drive to better the world. But you cannot live a life angry, and this is what the left all too often tries to do. I think back to Valentines' Day a few years back when some very well meaning students on campus handed out pink fliers in front of the student union detailing the evils of blood diamonds and child labor harvesting cocoa beans for chocolate. Yes, these are problems that we need to be aware of, but do you think that most people will be sympathetic when you are telling them that the act that they undertook out of care for their beloved is evil? The knee-jerk tsk-tsk-ing of everyone who is not every bit in line, the holier-than-thou attitude will lead us nowhere. The perfect is indeed the enemy of the good.

It is a long slow process and we need to make real progress and that involves sacrifice. To willingly face that, we need to go in with an affirmative picture of a better life, we need to have a positive sense of how the world could be, we need hope. It is hope and not resentment that really will set the stage for making the world a better place. It is not sufficient, but it is necessary. And to hear this necessity ridiculed is beyond sad.

The strawman that gets trotted out is that there is empty rhetoric fooling people into thinking that the Messiah has arrived. It is a strawman. No one thinks that Obama is a savior. But he is someone who holds the promise of changing things to put them on the right track. Stages need to be set before any progress can be made. We can whine and complain about all that needs to be done, but unless the set-up work is done, no change can happen. It will be a long slow process, and what we need is someone who can motivate those of us who have to pitch in and help with the excited desire to do what has to be done. And motivation is not cool, it is passionate and it's ok to be passionate and to have hope. It does not mean your eyes are closed to the real world problems, to the many compromises that will have to be made along the way, to the evils we are opposing, to the hardship that will be encountered, but it means that one is in a better place to deal with them. Without hope, the endeavor will fail. It saddens me to see those who want the change to disparage someone who is doing something that is needed to make that very change.

Driving a car takes hands and feet. The feet push the pedal and that's what revs the engine. That's Obama's hope. But the hands control the steering wheel, and that is where Nader's work keeps us on the straight and narrow. Without either one, the car is in trouble.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Banal Eloquence, Indeed

TheWife was fuming yesterday. George Will, she ranted, had said the most inane thing she'd heard in a long time...and when you are on a panel with Cokie Roberts and you're contribution is still more inane, that's really saying something.

I'm not one of those knee-jerk Will bashers. We disagree about much, but he often puts the things we disagree about in very thoughtful, clear ways. But with this one, I've got to agree with the beloved partner.

The topic was Barack Obama and Will said,

"He's worked one pedal on the organ quite enough now. This stuff about...I'd call it banal eloquence, where he says 'In the face of despair we can still hope.' I have news for him, Americans aren't in despair. Look around you, who's despairing? We have mild problems."
I suppose when you leave Potomac only to go to Rockville or Georgetown, perhaps this is the view you get. This quotation reminds me of the George H.W. Bush episode in the grocery store where he was amazed by the price scanner (should such an event have happened -- thanks Sabina's Hat). There is such a deep isolation from the lives of real Americans on the part of our elite pundits who nevertheless feel perfectly comfortable making declarations about the lives of real Americans. It is truly a head-shaker.

Let's ignore the fact that poverty continues to exist and look at just today. Has Will no sense of the mortgage crisis? Do the incredible amounts of foreclosures not make it onto the radar screen of the top national pontificators? Does the health care crisis not exist? I personally know several people who are stuck in jobs they would leave in a Cincinnati second were it not for the fact that they would lose their health insurance and likely not get picked up elsewhere because of pre-existing conditions. Three dollar gas, the bottom dropping out of investments, looming recession, and then there's this war thing...

I'm not sure if it is political theater, trying to pretend that the Republican control of the entire government hasn't left us in a terrible position; if it is a pathological lack of empathy, an inability to see real human suffering which allows him to ignore it in his policy views; if it is simply that he lives in a gated world where he really thinks that his little enclave truly is typical of the nation at large. Whatever it is, it is astounding.

But the fact is that in the face of all of this, the man inspires hope. That's incredible. For that he should be criticized?

Of course, then there's the point that other pedals on the organ are being played as well. His appeal includes those who are not despairing. Those who understand that they occupy a privileged place in this society that allows them a degree of comfort and stability while others do live lives of legitimate despair. We should be lauding the fact that he can be the photographic negative of Ronald Reagan and pull out our best selves, those that care for our neighbors in need instead of our worst selves, trying to find peace with greed and callousness.

I knew there was a reason I sleep in on Sundays.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Second Person Problem

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This weekend I was going to comment on the 40th anniversary of the debut of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood and ask for your favorite clean jokes...but then, I came across THIS story (hat tip to good brother D over at LGM).

Seems that Toledo, Ohio has a new arena football team and was looking for a name. The original idea was the Woodpeckers. Yes, I do believe that the arena naming rights were to be secured by Viagra. But it gets better...the Toledo Woodpeckers just didn't seem hip enough, so they also sought copyright protection for the name, the Toledo Peckerheads.

"If we could push rewind, we would not have registered 'Peckers' and 'Peckerheads.' I don't think 'Woodpeckers' would've raised an eyebrow. Given that we did [register 'Peckers' and 'Peckerheads'], people focused on those two names."
Ya think?

You just gotta wonder what the helmets would have looked like. "Hey, that one's Jewish!" At the start of every game, they come out of the locker room, up the tunnel and burst through a giant diaphragm with the team insignia onto the field as Woody Woodpecker's laugh rings out through the arena.

Now, we've all had bad ideas, things that really did seem reasonable, even desirable, at the time, but most of us eventually come to our senses or have someone, a second person to check or work, to give that subtle little head shake no, the gentle words "maybe there's a different way to do that," or a simple dopesmack to the back of your head and "what are you smoking?" It is reminiscent of H.L. Mencken's quotation, "A man can be fool and not know it, but not if he's married." What gets me about decisions like this is that there is always that second person there. There is a person whose job it is to say, "Not so good of an idea, Ralph," and in this case THAT person thought Peckerheads was a swell name for the town's team, too.

Maybe the second person stood to make money off of the merchandising. The Toledo Peckerheads would replace the University of South Carolina's Gamecocks and the University of Southern California's Trojans as the most juvenile giggle-launching name in sports.

So, your worst idea or the worst idea you've ever seen carried through despite the obvious train wreck in the offing?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Can You Deny Gratitude? What Does a Book Dedication Mean?

A friend has written a book and wanted to dedicate it to a well-known figure who had inspired his work. He sent a note and the figure's people responded that while this well-known appreciates the sentiment, the book was NOT to be dedicated to him.

This struck me as odd. A book dedication always struck me as a thank you and it seems odd to refuse a thank you.

It does make sense to refuse a present. If, for example, someone sent you a Valentine's Day gift, to accept the gift would be to send a message that you were accepting their care and that would embed you in a relationship that you might not want to be embedded in.

It would make sense to not want to be thanked in the initial footnote of an academic paper because that implies to those who read it that you've looked at an earlier draft, made comments, and think that the paper is worth publishing. To be cited in an introductory footnote is to be associated with the paper and there certainly are papers one doesn't want to be associated with.

But a book dedication seems to be different from both of these cases. It seems to be an expression of gratitude, not a gift or an association.

Maybe it's a matter of relative place. If one dedicates a book to his or her children or spouse, then no one would interpret it as influence but rather a personal act of love. If one dedicates the book to someone famous, major in a field, or dead, then it would be best interpreted as gratitude for inspiration. If, on the other hand, it is a peer who gets the book dedicated to them then perhaps one could see it as similar to the first footnote of an academic paper. Or could you?

What does the dedication of a book mean? Do you appropriate someone by dedicating a book to him?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Pity Party: Who Do You Feel Sorry For Today?

Once again time for a pity party.

I feel sorry for Vicki Iseman. I mean if you have to deny sleeping with someone famous and powerful, don't make it John McCain who looks like your creepy grandfather.

I feel sorry for the American Leadership Project, the new pro-Hillary swiftboat group targeting Obama in Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. When you have a matephorical mountain to climb, it's probably not a good idea to choose an acronym that evokes real mountains. It would be like starting a group to curb binge drinking on campuses and calling it Drinking Really Undermines New Knowledge.

I feel sorry for Raul Castro. After all those years, he finaly gets control of the government and military and still his big brother keeps the uniform and the beard. All the headaches without any of the cool stuff...that stinks.

So, who do you feel sorry for this week?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Ontological Status of Jake Blues

In the airport, I noticed the cover of the latest issue of Cigar Aficionado magazine (not a regular read of mine) which features the Blues Brothers with Jim Belushi as Jake. Something felt odd about it and I've been trying to think through the case ever since.

On one hand, there is nothing strange about the identity of a fictional character remaining the same when played by a different actor. James Bond or Batman, for example, is the same character, regardless of who is playing them in any given film. Indeed, the Doctor in Dr. Who has the change of actor built in to the very character himself. Fictional characters exist in the fictional world of their story, they are intrinsically defined by the setting and plot in which they are created. When that world is brought to life in film or on stage, it is the character and not the actor who we see as "real" even if they do not have real existence in our world. As such, there seems no real problem here.

On the other hand, there is also not a problem with a band changing members and remaining the same band. The Grateful Dead were still Grateful Dead after PigPen's death, Tom Constanten leaving, Keith's death, and Brent's death. Replacing the keyboard player did not make the band something new, just ushered in a new phase of the band. As such, having a new singer should not make a difference.

But what happened here is a combination of these two cases and that is what is weird. The Blues Brothers exist in one sense as fictional characters in a fictional setting. On the other hand, they are a real band that plays real gigs. As such, we are left with the possibility of inferences like this:

Joliet Jake Blues sings for the Blues Brothers.
The Blues Brothers opened for the Grateful Dead at the closing of Winterland.
The Blues Brothers will be playing a show next week in Chicago with Buddy Guy.
Therefore, Joliet Jake will have performed with both the Grateful Dead and Buddy Guy.

That doesn't seem to work. It does not appear too different from the case of Charles Dodgson announcing that "his friend" Lewis Carroll is dead because he was tired of fielding questions about Alice in Wonderland.

How ought we make sense of the meaning of names that are not purely fiction and not purely real?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Castro Retires

Today, Fidel Castro announced his retirement. After fifty years leading Cuba, he says that he no longer has the mobility and drive needed to continue the revolution and while this is not his farewell, he has decided to retire.

So, the obvious question is what do you do if you are a retired communist autocrat? Stepping down doesn't mean slowing down. I think we ought to give the man a few suggestions to help him enjoy and enrich his golden years, or, whatever more proletarian metal would be more appropriate to use there:

Bourgeois bingo using little markers with Karl Marx's face to try to be the first to cover a big dollar sign.

Take up cooking. Bay of Pigs pork chops with a Lenin-lime glaze.

How about hosting a tv game show, "Name that Assassination Attempt"?

Fronting a public health initiative design to help men avoid prostate cancer using the tagline, "Help stop the Cuban Pissile Crisis."

Other suggestions?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Independence and Multiethnicity

Kosovo's declaration of independence today raises a question. On the one hand, the idea of a group receiving the right to self-govern seems to be intrinsically good. Autonomy and self-determination are an important part of a full recognition of humanity. To be ruled over, especially if one is part of an oppressed minority or, in some cases, an oppressed majority, is to have personhood not fully appreciated. On such terms, independence of any gorup of people thereby appears to be something celebratory.

On the other hand, the meaning of independence is contextual. If we are talking about decolonization like we saw during much of the 20th century, that is one thing, but now, the independence movements we see in Europe with the Kosovar Albanian, Basque, and Kurd movements, the Tamils in Sri Lanka and the freee Aceh movement in Indonesia, the trouble Kenya and Sudan, just to name a few are often the result of multiethnic societies pulling apart at the seams. Instead of a people getting freedom from a foreign dictator, independence now is the result of our inability to maintain fair and just working governments that rule over different groups of people. The contemporary independence declarations are a sign of failure, the sad result of our inability to meaningfully embrace morality and equality, a lack of caring and imagination for the humanity of all. Unlike the decolonization process that followed the world wars, the independence of peoples is not a move towards a unifying the world, but a step in politically isolating ourselves from ourselves.

Kosovar independence leaves me unsure of my own feelings. On the one hand, it is wonderful to see a people free, on the other hand, we should worry about what it is that they have to free themselves from.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Feast of Saint Matt

Brothers,sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week sees the 54th birthday of cartoonist Matt Groening. Many of us first saw his work in the syndicated "Life in Hell," a comic with a smart, ironic feel, usually carried in alternative papers. It's funny how there are comics that never leave you, and this one was always one of my favorites...possibly because it came out my first year in grad school.

It was big news at the time that he was going to do animated shorts during The Tracy Ulman Show, a comedian of extraordinary talent. Seemed a great pairing. Little did anyone suspect that the slots would lead to The Simpsons, one of the few times I can remember that an incredibly smart, sharp, and insightful bit of cultural commentary would become a fad. And so it was for the first few years, but the quality of the writing has made the show the only legitimate reason to turn on Fox for many years.

The word "D'oh," no doubt will make the OED one year soon. So, this weeks questions, best Simpsons line and best Simpsons episode.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, February 15, 2008

What is the difference between hip and cool?

An interesting conversation today that tried to distinguish between being hip and being cool. One could be utterly unhip, but a very cool person. To be hip, it was argued, requires being hip to something, it means being on the cutting edge, being more current than current. Being cool on the other hand, is something else. But what else? Is it an attitude? a disposition? an image?

The claim was made that cool was relative, what is cool to one is not necessarily cool to another. This struck me as wrong. James Dean, for example, is objectively cool. Anyone who says otherwise is simply wrong. We may disagree about what is cool, but it is something we could discuss and give reasons for, this is not the case with subjective qualities like taste. If chocolate tastes better than vanilla to you, then there is no rational argument that will make you say, "Oh, I thought it tasted better, but now I realize I was wrong." But we can say, "I thought this was uncool, but now I get it, it is cool." And in this case, you were wrong in your original judgment of coolness.

What, then, is the difference between hip and cool and is cool relative? What do you think?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Are there really no two snowflakes that are alike?

It is a common cliché that no two snowflakes are alike. Of course, for every cliché in one direction there is another in the opposite direction. Consider the infinite number of monkeys typing on an infinite number of typewriters, eventually they will produce Hamlet. Even if you are a one in a million kind of guy, there are a thousand people just like you in China.

So, is this snowflake truism true? With the number of molecules in a snowflake and the unique and variable environmental factors that lead to the formation of a snowflake, is it conceivable that there have never been two snowflakes that have been identical? All the snowflakes in all the snowstorms in all the world in all of history, surely it is not necessarily true that no two have been identical, but is it likely that there have never been? Or is it likely that there have been?

Does the idea of identity here get rendered meaningless by quantum mechanics in which objects get blurred out? Does the entire concept rest upon classical ideas that happen to be empirically false making this a pseudo-question?

Is this really what philosophers think about when their flights are delayed and they are stuck in an airport while it is snowing? (Credit where credit is due: TheWife was ranting about this on the way through the snow to the airport…)

Is it good to have a check on the voters?

Alexander Hamilton said “The masses are asses.” Thinkers as far back as Plato agreed. Pure democracy puts power into the hands of the great unwashed. Political parties are not mobs bound together by rough ideological similarities. To be successful, we have seen in recent decades, they must have coherent policy ideas, systematic approaches to branding and concept marketing, and an intentional and well-designed approach to governing that targets key voting blocs.

It is with this in mind that our Founding Fathers created a representative democracy designed to allow the people to put representatives in power, but to give those representatives more power than the normal voter.

It is the same reasoning that the Democratic Party used in designing its selection procedure for determining a presidential candidate. Voters elect most representatives to a committee convention, but a number of party insiders, termed superdelegates, make up about 20% of those who actually pick the nominee. The idea is to provide a check on the power of the voters whose passions at a given time in history may not align with the wisdom and intentions of those creating and marketing party policy and what they perceive as the party’s (and therefore the nation’s) best interest.

In a race as tight as the current primary, this 20% may be significant, indeed, may be the tie-breaking and thus deciding factor. Does this structure undermine the democratic integrity of the process or does it simply make it more stable? Does it lead to rationality or stasis?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Second Law Silliness

Been working on the evolutionary biology track in my forthcoming philosophy of science textbook, Methods and Models, and in fairly quick order came across two instances of the argument against evolution based on entropy. It's probably worth making clear why this argument fails in a way that folks can quickly debunk it.

The argument is this: Evolution's central claim is that species adapt to environmental factors. The evolutionary description of the origin of life, therefore, takes us from species of simple one-celled organisms to more and more complex, better adapted species. Advocates of evolution hold that this process occurs in accord with the laws of nature, but the second law of thermodynamics holds that at all times disorder increases. But evolution, to the contrary, holds that over time biological order increases. Therefore, evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics and therefore cannot occur given our best understanding of the laws of nature.

First, the second law of thermodynamics holds that in a closed system, entropy tends to increase. What does this mean? Entropy is a measure of the number of possible states a system may be in. Suppose you had two wooden eggs in an egg carton and you put one in the hole on the bottom right and one in the hole on the top left. You know where those eggs are. Now you shake the carton and with each shake each egg can move one hole in any direction, but you don't know which direction. With one shake, they could still be in their original holes or each could be in one of the three surrounding holes. With two shakes, the number of holes they could be in is larger. That's an increase in entropy. Now, there's always the chance on a given shake that the eggs will be back in their original holes and the order will be restored, so entropy can spontaneously decrease, but in general it tends to increase.

We can always restore order by opening the carton and replacing the eggs where they go. That takes energy, but energy can always be used to decrease entropy. That's what happens when we clean our desks or run an air conditioner.

That is why the first clause is there in the second law -- "in a closed system." What that means is a system in which no additional energy is added because in an open system, the energy could be used to decrease entropy and increase order. So the second law only holds in systems in which no additional energy is added.

Life exists on a planet we call "The Earth" and the earth is not a closed system, there is energy added to it by a large, hot, yellow ball in the sky which goes by the technical name "The Sun." The sun brings energy to the earth and this energy is fixed by plants by photosynthesis. The plants are then eaten which brings energy to the animals that eat them and the animals that eat these animals then acquire some of that energy for themselves. Hence, energy is always being added into the system which then is used to decrease entropy in the organisms which participate in ecosystems exhibiting pressures that result in natural and sexual selection and thereby we get evolution in perfect harmony with the second law of thermodynamics.

But what if we don't look at the earth which is not a closed system, but the solar system as a whole? Since the sun is a part of the system, it is closed and since the earth is a part of it, doesn't the second law hold that there should be no life in the solar system writ large and therefore on the earth which is a part of it? No. Energy transfers within subsystems will cause there to be pockets of higher and lower entropies within the system while the overall entropy of the whole still tends to increase.

So, appeals to the second law of thermodynamics is in no way worrisome to the possibility of species adapting to changing environments by random genetic mutation and natural selection.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Liberal Fascism: An Interesting Moral Question

The word “fascism” has become ambiguous. On the one hand, there is the Benito Mussolini’s notion in which war is the natural state of man and thereby necessitates a strong central government that maintains a constant martial stance and places the interest of the state above the interests of the individual, thereby clamping down on personal liberties like political expression. Then, there is the other meaning. The one employed in loose contemporary American political parlance everywhere from the blogosphere to the floor of the Senate. In this sense, fascism is the use of social or political power instead of argumentation to decisively win a debate about a social or political issue and take the opponents’ view out of consideration. Everything from slanted news coverage to effective vocal advocacy gets decried as fascism when those on the other side perceive their perspective to be absent, belittled, or suppressed.

Jonah Goldberg’s book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, tries to draw lines between the fascist policies and beliefs of pre-World War II dictators and the promotion of those causes most important to the left. Because there are two fascisms, there are two books in Goldberg’s book. The primary text, the one reviewers from across the political spectrum have panned, rightfully deserves it. The anachronistic analysis, the misguided accusations of guilt by association, the strawman arguments, the errors in understanding the history of the last century that have been discussed at length are there. This book is indeed the product of Goldberg being tired of hearing the word “fascist” used to refer to conservative tactics and positions. So he responded with that classic rhetorical gambit, “I know you are, but what am I?” There is, of course, good reason why this move was unsuccessful by middle school.

But there is a second book in Liberal Fascism that contains an argument that progressives should take quite seriously. Admittedly, it is buried beneath the bombast, hyperbole, and ad hominem attacks, but it is there and it raises questions that we ignore at our peril. It is the central moral question at the heart of modern American conservatism – “how much do I really have to care?”
Our political discourse is not based merely on policy disagreements, but a foundational split in the ethical questions we ask when approaching the world and governance. The moral heart of contemporary liberal thought lies in the question, “Given that we live in a world in which power and resources are distributed unequally and rewards or punishes people for accidents of birth and for their labor, how do we make changes to help all living things, especially the most vulnerable, live the best possible lives?” It is the proposed solutions to this question that informs everything from support for public education, to the push for alternative energy, to universal healthcare. Opposition to these policy objectives by conservatives is often interpreted by those of us on the left as heartlessness, avarice, and a pathological lack of empathy.

Conservative thought, however, is grounded in a related, but distinctly different moral question. Their concern is, “Given that we live in a world in which power and resources are distributed unequally, and rewards and punishes people for accidents of birth and their labor, how much am I required to do to help all living things, especially the most vulnerable, live a better life before I can just enjoy my own rewards?” Liberals assume that you have to care and ask how this care needs to be instantiated, but Goldberg is the latest in a long line of conservatives who are asking whether I do, in fact, have to care, if so, how much, and when can I stop.
We often confuse the question with the answers proposed by the right. Granted, they very often draw the line of concern far too early. But before we can dispute the answers, we need to take the question seriously. Indeed, this concern has been one of the primary forces shaping American domestic and foreign policy for the last quarter century.

Ronald Reagan’s virtuosity in plying white guilt exhaustion set he frame for our contemporary political discourse. His political descendants, spurred on by its success, became more and more enthusiastic in their allergy to compassion. Mystical powers were attributed to the marketplace that dislocated the need to care. Those who needed assistance were tautologically unworthy of it because anyone worth helping would have already helped himself. The new velvet covered social Darwinism turned aid into interference, upsetting the market forces that would ultimately save the needy. Tough love was the only way to truly love my brother as myself. And just as Nixon was swept by the spirit of Kennedy into creating the Environmental Protection Agency, so Clinton was swept by the lingering specter of Reagan to declare the demise of the era of big government and sign the telecom bill and Defense of Marriage Act.
But the floodwaters of the Gulf Coast have washed away the sheen from this image. The war in Iraq and the fiscal sword of Damocles hanging over our economy have shifted the spirit of the times. Indicators are showing a marked change in what we as a nation expect of and demand from government. The liberal question is once again being widely asked and the liberal answer may be making a comeback.

Goldberg’s book is easily written off as just the latest in conservative bluster, yet one more cheap shot designed to capitalize on the “trashing the public discourse” market created by Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, and their ilk. One might even foresee it as a bookend to the genre as a whole should the looming post-partisan realignment come to pass.

But as progressive anticipate this wave, there is no better time than this to take Goldberg’s question seriously because it is not asked only by conservatives. Susan Wolf, for example, is a prominent contemporary ethicist best known for her essay, “Moral Saints,” in which she asks how good do we have to be to be good? Traditional ethical systems define good in terms of maximization. Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, for example, requires each person to find that which brings the greatest balance of pleasure over pain. But Wolf asks, isn’t there a point where it is good enough without being the most? Surely a well-lived life means being able to say that an act was morally good enough for government work. “I believe that moral perfection,” she writes, “does not constitute a model of personal well-being toward which it would be particularly rational or good or desirable for a human being to strive.” But, then we are left with exactly the question that Goldberg and the American right have been asking, how good is good enough? Do I really have to be every change I want to see in the world all the time?

This is the deep and interesting question that Goldberg unfortunately buries beneath exaggeration and equivocation. His asking of it is ham-fisted at best and accompanied by a chip on his shoulder that distracts so much from it to the point where it has rendered the crucial concern all but invisible. But it is there and the question is a fundamental moral challenge that conservatives present.

How much is enough? How much is placed on our shoulders to help end climate change? How much do I have to change the way I eat, what I drive, contribute to the needy? We need to do something about Sudan, Kenya, Afghanistan, and how many others and to what degree? More than we do now, sure, but how much more? Where is the line between moral necessity and above and beyond the call of duty?

Liberals assume the need to care and in the world we live in tragedies and injustices are like a never-ending box of Kleenex, pull one out and another pops right up. What Goldberg clumsily labels fascism is the liberals’ eternal imperative to care. The conservative challenge to liberals, one that we need to take much more seriously and which is at the core of Liberal Fascism, is the question of the limits of care in a well-lived life and a morally responsible society. If progressives do retake the positions of power, we must learn from our past if we want to avoid the next Reagan revolution and the quarter century of virtual irrelevance that comes after by thinking hard about this question. It is a hard one, but a concern to which we need a coherent, well-reasoned response.

As Americans, especially those of us who have good educations and stable jobs with health insurance, we are privileged. Some of it comes from our own hand, but much of it is a result of moral luck. Goldberg can be read as asking us whether we dishonor that luck and that privilege by not appreciating it. Is there not a limit to care, a place where we can engage the joys and benefits we have? At what point are we rude and ungrateful for not appreciating what we have? Many conservatives clearly err on the side of too little care, but the challenge they pose is a legitimate one, a concern that liberals ignore at our own risk.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The New Year Starts Rat Now

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week was Chinese New Year and the beginning of the year of the rat. We want to extend special Comedist greetings to our readers who are rat finks, dirty rats, rat bastards, mall rats, and those who are just stuck in the rat race.

While despised by many others, rats are quite special to Comedists as we see ourselves as fellow children of the Cosmic Comic. From the BBC:

Scientists say giggling, ticklish rats have provided them with the first credible evidence that animals unrelated to humans can laugh.

For years biologists have known that chimpanzees and even some monkeys produce a panting noise akin to human laughter.

But there is scant evidence that other animals are capable of laughter.

Now two American scientists are claiming to have discovered that rats "laugh" when tickled.
Rats can laugh. Not sure I want to be the grad student whose responsibility it was to find the ticklish spots, but it is an important discovery nonetheless. Another piece of empirical evidence for those who say that our theory of Humorous Design is unscientific because it is untestable.

But what does a rat find funny? How about this?
A tourist wanders into a back-alley antique shop in San Francisco's Chinatown. Picking through the objects on display he discovers a detailed, life-sized bronze sculpture of a rat. The sculpture is so interesting and unique that he picks it up and asks the shop owner what it costs. "Twelve dollars for the rat, sir," says the shop owner, "and a thousand dollars more for the story behind it." "You can keep the story, old man," he replies, "but I'll take the rat."

The transaction complete, the tourist leaves the store with the bronze rat under his arm. As he crosses the street in front of the store, two live rats emerge from a sewer drain and fall into step behind him. Nervously looking over his shoulder, he begins to walk faster, but every time he passes another sewer drain, more rats come out and follow him.

By the time he's walked two blocks, at least a hundred rats are at his heels, and people begin to point and shout. He walks even faster, and soon breaks into a trot as multitudes of rats swarm from sewers, basements, vacant lots, and abandoned cars. Rats by the thousands are at his heels, and as he sees the waterfront at the bottom of the hill, he panics and starts to run for the bridge.

Making a mighty leap, he jumps up onto a light post, grasping it with one arm while he hurls the bronze rat into San Francisco Bay with the other, as far as he can heave it. Pulling his legs up and clinging to the light post, he watches in amazement as the seething tide of rats surges over the breakwater into the sea, where they drown.

Shaken and mumbling, he makes his way back to the antique shop. "Ah, so you've come back for the rest of the story," says the owner.

"No," says the tourist, "but I was wondering if you have any bronze lawyers."

Or this one:
A drunk walks up to a barkeeper one day and says, "If I show you a trick will you give me a free drink?" The bartender replies, "Depends how good it is."

The drunk reaches into his pocket and pulls out a frog and places him behind the piano. The frog starts to play the sweetest jazz riff the barkeeper has ever heard. He pours the drunk his drink.

After killing his drink, the drunk says, "If I show you another trick can I have another free one?" The barkeep says "If it is anything like that last one, you can drink free all night." The drunk reaches into his other pocket, pulls out a rat, sets it on top of the piano, and the rat starts scatting along with the frog.

Impressed, the barkeeper starts to pour drinks as fast as the drunk can drink them. After several hours, a big time Hollywood agent walks in, sees the act and asks the barkeeper who it belongs to. The barkeeper points to the drunk who is passed out on the floor.

The agent wakes him up and says, "I will give you a million dollars for that act." The drunks says, "Not for sale". The agent says, "Ok, how about 100 grand for just the singing rat." The drunk says, "Deal." The agent writes the check and leaves with the rat.

The barkeeper looks at the drunk and says, "Are you nuts? You had a million bucks in your hand and you broke up the act for a 100 G's?"

The drunk says, "Relax, the frog's a ventriloquist."

Happy Year of the Rat everyone.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Promises and Care

Promises are like contracts. If you promise something to someone, they have the power to dissolve the promise, morally freeing you from the promised responsibility, if they choose. If you promise to wash someone's car and then they decide they don't want it washed or don't want you to wash it, they can simply say never mind and you are off the hook.

But suppose the promise is to someone you care about and it involves something they care about, but dissolve the promise anyway. Are you still freed from the responsibility? Say it's a grandparent whom you visit regularly and you've promised to come by twice a week. Your grandparent starts to worry that the visits are interfering with other things you are doing and tells you not to bother coming by so often. Or you promise you partner that you'll stop drinking caffeine because she reads of negative health effects, but she knows how much you enjoy your coffee, so she frees you from the promise, but you still know she'll worry about the physiological consequences. Are you still freed from the promise if the situation that led you to make the promise is about care and remains unchanged even though the promise has been dissolved?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Darwinians SHOULD Teach the Controversy

I think it is wrong for our science students not to be taught the controversy surrounding Darwinian evolution in public high schools. Of course, I'm not speaking about intelligent design creationism here, but other controversies.

I'll never forget a talk I attended in graduate school by Stephen Stanley, an early adherent of the punctuated equilibrium approach which challenged the traditional gradualist picture of the development of species. Fireworks understates the red-faced passion of the discussants. It was full-contact science and, man, was it exciting.

Like stories of riots after symphonies in the last century, the idea of scientists really worked up makes no sense to many folks today and part of that is because the scientific literacy approach to teaching science focuses less on the narrative histories of why smart people disagreed about things and how the case was eventually decided. Science is like a protracted court room drama that can keep you on the edge of your seat, yet it is largely taught as something to be grasped and applied -- skills a large minority of students will ever need and which they can be trained later at the higher levels.

If we taught science as an on-going passionate argument, as a developing conversation that is continuing to develop, it might become more engaging and less opaque. That might lead to a wider understanding of why we are discussing the questions we are now discussing and why views that were prevalent at an earlier point in the conversation were held by smart people at tat point in the discussion, but are not held by any well-informed person at this point.

Perhaps teaching real controversy as a matter of course, not presenting some phony "scientific method" whereby absolute truth pops out of a flow-charted turn the crank logical machine, but showing that at every step of the way there is passionate argumentation by real scientists challenging each other on everything would enhance understanding and interest in science. Maybe teaching real controversy could lead to not having to worry so much about being forced to teach fake controversies.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Nothing Borrowed, Nothing Lent

As we move into the Christian season of lent, it raises an interesting question. During lent, Christians live a more modest lifestyle giving up particular pleasures. Other religions also set aside times where certain physical needs are left unmet to create an experience of want. Muslims have Ramadan where for a month they do not eat at all during the day and Jews have Passover where for a week they give up any food that does not give you constipation. The idea behind it seems to be that you can't appreciate the air condition unless you spend time in the heat. Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder.

My question is, is that true? Do we really need to lose something, or at least do without it, to appreciate it? If we were thoughtful enough, could we appreciate what we have while still having it? Does life give you a lens such that the normal becomes invisible and you have to put yourself in unusual circumstances to focus on it?

Marc Steiner, NPR and Ratings

Guest-post from Jeff Maynes:

At the beginning of the month, Baltimore's public radio station, WYPR, lost its hallmark program, the Marc Steiner Show. Steiner play a critical role in saving public radio in Baltimore through his fund raising campaign to purchase WJHU a few years back. His show focused on issues important to both the nation and the city of Baltimore. In particular, his program shed critical light on the plight of the disadvantaged in inner city Baltimore. His show routinely displayed earnest engagement with the issues, sophisticated thinking and sensitivity. Baltimore is poorer today than it was just a week ago. Despite my respect for Steiner and his show, however, this post is not merely a eulogy for his program.

To say that WYPR lost the Marc Steiner Show is not accurate. WYPR chose to terminate his program, citing declining ratings for the show. Steiner himself disputed this account, citing boardroom politics. Let us suppose that WYPR is telling the truth, and that ratings were the primary reason driving this decision. To what extent should public radio listen to ratings?

The danger of ratings is obvious. By focusing on the mere popularity of content, and its ability to “sell,” public media loses sight of its priorities. The point of public financing for public radio is that the only standards which apply are those of journalistic integrity and a respect for the truth. One does not need to sell the truth, nor sacrifice depth merely to secure advertising dollars. If corporate sponsorship of public media becomes tied to ratings (as a consequence of the station making programming decisions based on ratings), the difference between sponsoring public media and advertising becomes blurry indeed.

In his response to WYPR's decision Steiner referred to one of the key issues for funding for public media – whether to focus on individual memberships or corporate funding. He painted a boardroom dispute over which direction to take the station on this question, with Steiner championing memberships in opposition to WYPR's board. The advantage of memberships is that the editorial influence of the financial contributors is kept minimal. The argument in favor of sponsorship is presumably a practical one, it is a more predictable and reliable way to fund a major radio operation (particularly one, as in WYPR's case, that is expanding).

In order to make a focus on memberships feasible, does a station have to pay greater attention to ratings? If a station goes after memberships as the cornerstone of their financial backing, are they forced to look for programs which will increase their membership base? Does the decision to minimize the role of ratings force public media to rely more heavily on corporate sponsors? Is this trade-off worth the advantages of minimizing corporate sponsorship? What role ought ratings play in public radio?

Monday, February 04, 2008

Bullshit or Not: Super Monday Hillary Clinton Edition

Yesterday was Superbowl Sunday and tomorrow is Super Tuesday, but today is just plain old Monday. Let's turn it up with another edition of "Bullshit or Not," shall we?

This week's quotation comes from the last Democratic Presidential debate in Los Angeles. One answer that really interested me was Senator Clinton's response to the question about her vote to authorize the President's power to go to war in Iraq:

Well, Wolf, I think that if you look at what was going on at the time -- and certainly, I did an enormous amount of investigation and due diligence to try to determine what if any threat could flow from the history of Saddam Hussein being both an owner of and a seeker of weapons of mass destruction.

The idea of putting inspectors back in -- that was a credible idea. I believe in coercive diplomacy. I think that you try to figure out how to move bad actors in a direction that you prefer in order to avoid more dire consequences.

And if you took it on the face of it and if you took it on the basis of what we hoped would happen with the inspectors going in, that in and of itself was a policy that we've used before. We have used the threat of force to try to make somebody change their behavior.

I think what no one could have fully appreciated is how obsessed this president was with this particular mission. And unfortunately, I and others who warned at the time, who said, let the inspectors finish their work, you know, do not wage a preemptive war, use diplomacy, were just talking to a brick wall.
So, the claim is that she was not really vote for war, but rather voted to reintroduce the inspectors with the threat of war purely for its coercive power, inspections with an edge.

Her argument turns on the historical nature of evidence. We didn't know then what we know now and what was reasonable to believe at that time is not what turned out to be the case. Given what we knew at the time, the decision was correct; it just turns out to have unfortunately been wrong just as in the 17th century, it was rational to believe Newton was right, but it now turns out with information we could not have had at the time that he is wrong. The vote to authorize the President to go to war could not have been reasonably believed to actually be authorizing the President to go to war as he did because at the time, with the best information we had, there was good reason to suppose the WMD were there, that the inspectors would find them if they were, that if they were not there a war would no ensue, and George W. Bush would not pull the inspectors prematurely in order to launch a war. As such, the reasonable position was to vote for authorization.

So, bullshit or not? As usual, feel free to leave a one word answer or a dissertation.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

A Comedist Request

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This weekend, I, the Irreverend Steve, come to you for advice. I am in need of pastoral counseling from my flock.

We stand a mere eight weeks from April 1, Saint Shecky's Day, the holiest day of the Comedist year. A mere eight days later, is my 40th birthday. Faithful readers may recall a post in which I asked for suggestions for a creative mid-life crisis.

Upon careful Comedist reflection, I came to realize that there was one and only one thing that I had to a true believer, I would have to stand up for my Comedist faith and that standing up requires stand-up. So, in the next eight weeks, I will be honing, editing, and practicing my routine for an open mike night, most likely at Magooby's Joke House in Baltimore. I will post details as they become known, so that anyone who cares to attend can be prepared with their best heckle lines.

I know a number of playground regulars have experience doing stand up (Lyle Bateman, for example), and that the rest of you have stand-up comics you love, so any advice? Telling jokes in a classroom full of people you can fail for not laughing is probably easier than working a real room. So, what makes for good stand-up comedy? What do you really dislike, pitfalls to avoid?

I'll leave you with a couple jokes that I decided against putting in the routine:

People are cynical about politics these days. I can't really blame them. It seems like scandal after scandal after scandal. And half of them have nothing to do with governing. Dick Cheney has a hunting accident, Bill Clinton gets a blow job...I guess it goes to show that either way, they'll shoot a friend in the face. The only only difference is whether it's making love or making war.

Of course, when you put it in that way, it doesn't seem like a hard choice. After war, some people come home with post-traumatic stress disorder where they can't believe what they just did, feel remorse and depression. After sex, on the other hand, some people come home with post-alcohol stress disorder where they can't believe who they just did, feel remorse and depression.
Still working on the A material...

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, February 01, 2008

Are There Still Eccentrics in Academia?

We lost a beloved member of our community at Gettysburg yesterday. Charlie Zabrowski, a professor of classics, specifically Greek, passed away from lung cancer. Charlie was unique. He taught in his academic robe. He said whatever he was thinking whenever he thought it. Even if it was not something one usually said in the particular context and even if it was not at a time when one usually said it.

I found out of his death from a colleague in the presence of a retired colleague who had been at the college for many years. Reflecting on the loss, he commented, "There went our last eccentric."

That comment stayed with me. Can you be an eccentric in higher ed anymore? Has the whole academy become so managed, so rigorous, so professionalized that the one place where one could actually be extremely strange and be comfortable that way been lost? The image of education has become based on the customer service model. The tenure and promotion process now focuses so much on research and publication that it forces hires that are safe. Can there be eccentric professors anymore?