Monday, March 31, 2008

Saint Shecky's Day Eve

As we once again arrive on the eve of the holiest day of the Comedist calendar, it may be worth reminding ourselves of the nature of the new religion.

While teaching a course in the philosophy of religion at the Naval Academy years ago, I came upon two stunning revelations.

First, one of the standard Judeo-Christian arguments for the existence of God has a critical flaw. The argument tries to conclude that God must exist because He/She/Them/It is all-perfect, that is, God has every possible perfection to the greatest possible extent. While there is textual support for the claims of God being all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving, one virtue was completely absent from Divine Scripture. Their God was not all-funny. There are no good punchlines anywhere in the standard Scriptures, no zingers, one liners, classic come-backs, not even a knock-knock joke. Theirs could not be the all-perfect divinity they advertised.

Second, I realized that the key to advancement in the religion industry was "get in early." These days if you want to get anywhere in the spirituality field, you need to be Mother Theresa or Pat Robertson and who has the energy to serve the poor in India or build a tv network where you can call for the assassination of world leaders these days? But look at the ones who got in early. Abraham? Took a knife to his schmeckle at age 40 because he heard voices. "Where was God with the ram that day?" ask a whole lot of 8 day old Jewish boys. Yup, if you want to be upwardly mobile in today's faith-based market, you need to get in early.

So from these twin epiphanies I realized that I needed to start my own theological community. It was at that point that I reflected back upon a recent experience. I was teaching ethics at night for a local community college and was trying to draw the distinction between ethical precepts and social mores. A student raised his hand and asked, "Steve, what are mores?" I, of course, replied, "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's a more."

Reflecting back, I came to realize that it could not have been a random humorous occurrence, set ups that perfect don't just happen. Think of all the possible combinations of words. To have those exact words, phrased as a question, with a captive audience,, that had to be the result of comic design. I was in the presence of the Divine Comedian.

Not long after, while working on my dissertation, I was out for a walk to clear my head. As I ambled along, a couple walked past me and looked at me with a strange, puzzled sort of expression. The guy said to me, "Didn't we just see you with a dog?" Taken aback, I said, "No. You must have me confused with someone else." As they walked away, I realized the correct answer was, "Excuse me. That was my wife." I had lost a Divine set up.

The realization of that loss put the spirit in me. I knew my job on Earth was to make the world a funnier place, to put the love of the Cosmic Comic in people's hearts.

And so, here on Saint Shecky's Day Eve, I ask you, brothers and sisters, to testify to the power of the Big Funny. What are the best set ups you've ever gotten and were you holy enough to come through with the punchline?

Friday, March 28, 2008

Gwydion on Magooby's

A guest post from Gwydion, my oldest friend, whom I love dearly:

If you aren't one of the Playground regulars -- I counted at least six or seven of us -- who caught Steve's act at last night's Open Mic at Magooby's Joke House, you missed what I can only describe as a powerfully human experience. Stand-up is theater; a stand-up routine is a comedic monologue, and a comic is usually both the actor who performs that monologue and the writer who creates it. The playwright Arthur Miller said that "The best of our theater is standing on tiptoe, striving to see over the shoulders of father and mother. The worst is exploiting and wallowing in the self-pity of adolescence and obsessive keyhole sexuality." (Bullshit or not?) Last night, at Magooby's, we saw a great deal of the both the best and the worst.

The highlight (or lowlight) of the worst was a comic who spent ten minutes stumbling through a rant about how the other kids didn't think he was cool at school, five painful and decidedly un-funny minutes describing how he cleaned himself after using the restroom, then one horribly awkward final minute strapping a dildo to his chin just because he could, all while the MC furiously flashed the get-off-the-stage-you're-time-is-up light. Throughout the evening there were entirely predictable jokes about penis size and oral sex and bestiality and just plain trying to get laid, and it all seemed like the sort of thing one hopefully grows out of, in time. If, as Steve Martin said, "Comedy is the art of making people laugh without making them puke," then last night's lower-brow comics were indeed successful... but only barely.

Last night's higher-brow fare -- the best -- was, on the whole, far more successful. There was one comedian whose one-liners -- punctuated, oddly, by a repeated (and ungraceful) harmonica riff -- were quite clever, almost (but not quite) Stephen Wright-like. A few others cracked wise about politics or shared odd stories, and the one or two steps they took out of the gutter were a welcome diversion. Believe me, I'm not a prude -- if you've heard any of my work, you know my characters can sometimes swear like sailors; what disappointed me was how prosaic the observations were, not how obscene. The key to their success was largely due to the fact that, amid the sea of depravity, their work stood out.

When I judge a performance in the theater, I'm always interested in teasing out whether it's the material or the performance that's making me happy (or not). Last night there was a dearth of good material, but there were several performers -- even as many as five or six of the 20 overall -- who knew how to command a stage, hitting the right beats, connecting with the audience, and just being fully present. (As opposed to the guy who stared straight ahead and laughed at his own jokes, making the entire audience laugh AT him, not with him.) There was only one performer, however, who brought the real funny: solid material AND a strong stage presence. I am very, very pleased to be able to say it was our dear Steve.

I won't spoil his routine, which I hope he tries out again at another venue and continues to build, by sharing any of his jokes here. If he wants to do that, he can do it himself. I will say, however, that his monologue was thoughtful, imaginative, and thoroughly funny. A combination of political humor, human observations, word play, and one-liners, it killed. Steve was relaxed at the microphone. He was patient with his jokes, letting them develop organically and then closing the sale each time with his punchlines. Best of all, he made people think while he made them laugh... which is exactly what I expected him to do.

The hardest part about Steve's performance was the fact that he followed a comedian who absolutely and completely died on stage. In an evening of comedy, this was pure tragedy. The poor man got up to the microphone, began stammering through his first joke, stopped, forgot what he wanted to say, apologized, tried a second joke, and forgot that one, too. You could see the shame welling up in his face, and the entire crowd immediately began aching for the guy. He was just on the verge of leaving with his tail between his legs when some deeply compassionate stranger in the audience reminded the man of his first opening line, hoping it would help... and it did, a little. The beleaguered comic finished that one joke -- more an observation than a bit of funny business, actually -- then admitted defeat and walked off stage. (Wherever you are, fella, I hope you consider yourself a success, not a failure, for even daring to get up on stage at all.) In any event, this was effectively Steve's opening act, and though I know him well enough to know he was probably as moved as I was by the man's struggles, he didn't seem to let it get to him at all. He mounted the stage (here were are back in the gutter again), took the microphone, and started making us laugh.

In the tradition of the very best Playground posts, then, let me close with a few Comedist questions. If you were there last night, what was the holiest moment? What was the greatest moment of sacrilege? If you weren't there, which do you find funnier, low-brow or high-brow humor? Is one to be preferred over the other? Is one, in other words, inherently "better" for us as humans? Is comedy that challenges our suppositions and makes us think morally, ethically, or creatively superior to comedy that simply reflects stereotypes and rehearses commonalities? Share your thoughts... and a moment of praise for our dear and humble Steve, who would never have taken the time to praise himself.

Responsibility for Unintended Consequences

Are we responsible for that pain which our actions have caused, but which we did not intend to create?

So last night I go to do my stand-up bit and the audience was filled with friends and relatives. People from every part of my life, TheWife and LilBro as well as everyone from cousins to uncles to my grandparents, high school friends like Gwydion and YKW, college friends, co-workers like Confused, Maybe Not, former students like Jeff Maynes, Aurora Goes to Washington, JenB, and friends I have met through the blog like WayOverYonderInTheMinorKey. It was wonderful seeing so many people who were willing to come out on a work night, pay a cover charge and two drink minimum to help me celebrate my 40th birthday with the promise of an evening of comedy. they were there because I invited them.

And then...

It was an open mic competition where anyone could participate. There ended up being twenty three amateur "comedians." I was fourth from the end. Of the twenty three, maybe five actually had material. Of those five, maybe three were mildly funny. These poor people sat through almost three hours of the most painful non-comedy out of nothing but commitment to me. They knew they couldn't leave because they came to support a friend, but staying was simply painful.

I was the root cause of that pain. But, I thought these were going to be much funnier people. I didn't think there were going to be quite so many. I feel incredibly thankful on the one hand that these wonderful people in my life were there for me on this occasion, but I also feel bad that I put them through something no upstanding Comedist would wish on anyone.

So, are we responsible for the pain we unintentionally cause?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Comics and Culture

Kerry was talking about a book he's been reading, The Ten-Cent Plague, which discusses the suppression of the comic book. The culture warriors of the McCarthy period saw comics as a threat to American society giving rise to an industry-wide clamp down on subject matter and expression.

Conversation turned to the underground comics of the 60s. R. Crumb and folks who took the medium in another direction commensurate with those times. Later in a completely different setting, comic strips of the 80s became a source of discussion. It truly was a time of great riches. Doonesbury in its prime, Bloom County ("pear pimples for hairy fishnuts" makes me giggle to this day), Calvin and Hobbes, and the incomparable Far Side. There was a snide, smart in comics.

I've fallen away, I'm ashamed to say. Are there high quality comics, either in strip or book form today?

Political cartoons, of course, are alive and well -- Judi's Truth, Justice, and Peace is my daily stop for good political cartoonage. Mark Fiore's on-line work is magnificent. The New Yorker stuff is always magnificent. What else is alive in the cartoon world these days?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Bullshit or Not? Robert Frost 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 irregular series of posts.

On his birthday, let's go to Robert Frost's most famous work:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
So, overly romanticized, atomistic, Enlightenment picture that fails to account for humans as interrelated social beings or good advice for breaking out of the controlling social world we inhabit?

Bullshit or not? As usual, feel free to leave a single word or a dissertation.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Sara Jane Olson and Radical Activism

Let's start off our third year with a guest post from C. Ewing. (Open invitation to Playground playfriends -- if anyone has something they'd like to see posted, please send it along. Always interested in guest posts and new voices.)

So, noticing today's headline, I began to wonder: just how far can activism go? As we've discussed on your blog before, boycotting without harm is pointless. Indeed, activism that does not merely educate; activism that is meant to impact a system rather than inspire or merely disseminate information, must have some sort of power over the system it it supposedly affecting.

I'm reminded of PETA (don't groan...yet), in that they had shirts with a number on the front. I can't remember if it was 25 or 27 or what-have-you, but it was supposed to be the number of animal lives saved every year by a vegetarian. Were the bottom line of the meat industry not as marginal as it is, the impact would be limited to personal virtue, ethical considerations, etc. Being vegetarian or vegan would be strictly a matter of personal purity, and would have no interest, or rather, would have no leverage with which to promote an interest in the economic arena. The ability to alter business practices is indicative of a direct and notable relationship between the dietary practices of the consumers--even a minority of consumers--in regards to the industry and its ability to generate capital.

But when do you go too far? When does the (perhaps permissible) harm that is required to be effective as an activist start to edge toward rebel territory? When does being a rebel shift to being a revolutionary or a terrorist? Is it lives lost? Property damaged? Or is there something lurking under the surface? There does seem to be a respect for persons that is present with the activist. The activist does not call the butcher evil (not always anyway), nor the land-developer a villain. The activist realizes that we are all shackled to the economy, and the need to make a living. The idea is not to immediately overthrow the industry, to eliminate their livelihood, etc., but to alter it over time to make it more humane, greener, etc.

There seems--to wax Humean--to be a respect for our enemy. We are all ultimately people, and our compassion for those persons bumps heads with our striving to do the "right thing", and as such, our activism is tempered. Even the incredibly passionate activists stop short when it comes to the well-being of others, realizing that it is not only a concern--but largely it seems--at the very basis of why the activism exists in the first place. The intent is to make a better world, and just not just for the self, but for the sake of the people in it.

But this does not seem to be enough. I'm not sure forgetting the person behind the product is sufficient to make that leap. Is there something else? Is there a sort of mania or psychosis present? But I think that is dismissive. Surely, we can't think all these people are so handicapped. And what about the revolutionists we celebrate? What of the idols who wanted freedom to be bought with blood? Who felt that it was not just justified, but our obligation to fight, and kill, and die?

How do we distinguish the hero from the villain, when their rhetoric is so alike?

When do ends justify means in bringing about social change? When is civil disobedience across the line?

It's Our Blogoversary!

Philosophers' Playground opened two years ago with the simple little post:

Red rover, Red rover, send some smart, funny people right over.
And, man oh man, it happened. You friends really are the reason this has remained fun. The witty snark, the insightful comments, the spirited disagreements without ad hominem attacks, I really do love seeing what comes out of the folks who hang around here. I try to keep this from being just about me and you friends make it worthwhile.

I want to thank those who are regular commenters (some of whom I know from various stages of my life, a few I've known for most of my life, while others I've never met in their non-on-line incarnations), but i also want to thank very much those who lurk. I've got a bunch of blogs myself where I love to read, but don't comment upon, so I know right where you are coming from. So, for everyone who stops by, thanks.

Now that we're in our terrible twos, don't be surprised to see posts consisting of "Mine! Mine! Mine!" or whining "It's not fair..." or simply me throwing a tantrum for seemingly no good reason.

Thanks again everyone for two fun years.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Comedist Easter Headline

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

So our good friend I is worried about certain parts not being sufficiently regal? Check out this headline from the New York Times:

On Day of Resurrection, a Church Unveils Its New Organ
God bless their organ, he shall rise again...

We wish all of our Christian friends a happy easter and thank you for all the half priced chocolate in the stores tomorrow.

Live, love and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, March 21, 2008

Happy Keister

Still feeling lousy, so here's a repost of last year's Keister discussion.

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This weekend we celebrate our holiday in honor of the moon, Keister. Of all the parts of the human anatomy, none is more inherently funny than the backside, the gluteus maximus, the heinie. We see it in the references: you can be the butt of a joke, one who makes jokes is a smart ass.

What is it about the tushy that is so funny? Why does mooning get laughs that exposing any other part of the body does not? Is it the shape? Puffy, fleshy, and round with a vertical crack. It does look kind of silly. If the body is a temple, the butt is like hanging a black velvet dogs playing poker over the alter.

Is it that it is associated with the passing of gas. Farts are funny on a number of sensory levels, the sound, the smell -- consider the classic beans scene from Blazing Saddles. The butt is the spatial representation of the floating air biscuit.

Could it be that it is always covered, a forbidden part that is shocking when made public. Backsides are only funny because they are something we don't usually see.

Or is it a combination of the two: because the tuchus is on the flip side of the more regal genitalia, it is treated with the same nobility, while all the time being the source of flatulence and fecal matter, amongst the least majestic of bodily functions. Is the humorous nature of the rear end to be found in this incongruous juxtaposition?

I leave you with a couple of jokes on the backside:

Did you hear about the woman who backed into an airplane propeller? Disaster.

What do you get if you sit on a waffle iron? Hot crossed buns.

Your momma's butt is so big that she is actually taller when she sits down.

Any others, my friends?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve


Meant to answer the rest of the questions today, but came down with a stomach bug and am a bit preoccupied. Here are the unanswered ones -- take a swing if you care.

What is mereological nihilism, exactly?

How are things similar, so that they are knowable?From Aristotle's most telling Aporia in the Metaphysics, it was an eye opener for me when i was studying the Teacher of those who know...

What's the best way to quit smoking? By best, I mean the way that remains the most effective over the long term, not the easiest way; the best may in fact be the hardest.

Are there any synthetic a priori truths? Are there any analytic empirical truths?

1.)How do you think the Second Amendment should be interpreted, given that the idea of a militia opposing the government is almost inconceivable now? Should a new firearm-related amendment be proposed?

2.) Do you think a drinking age of 21 is appropriate? Do you buy into the studies done saying that 18 is more practical? Do you think it's just colleges doing the studies and getting skewed results?

3.) Is fearing death rational, irrational, or just sort of understandable?

4.)Is chivalry dead?

5.) Does my right to swing my fist really end at another man's nose? How do we determine just punishments? Hamurabi may make the how world blind, but mightn't that teach us a lesson for once?
Chris V

Go to town, I'm going to the toilet...

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Obama, Ben and Jerry's, and Logical Fundamentalism

Ay asks,

"Is Obama the first candidate to have his own symbol?"
No, branding with symbols certainly precedes this election. Last time around, the W with the flag was Bush's symbol. Before that, it was usually an emblematic writing of the names of those on the ticket. Perhaps, the first time a symbol was used was Lincoln who used a sketch of the Lincoln Memorial accompanied by the slogan, "We have to elect him, we already have the monument."

Soul Searcher asks,
I like Obama. I think he is the best candidate still in this thing. It is about time someone talks about hope and opportunity. That being said, does he really think he can put an end to (or really even make a dent in) partisanship in Washington? Partisanship is almost as old as this country. For example, the election at 1796 was incredibly dividing and partisan. Adams and Jefferson really did not agree on much, and they were quite nasty about it at times. Does Obama really think he'll reverse this? I haven't really been convinced that it is possible.
It depends upon what you mean by partisanship.

There has always been, will always be, and should always be partisanship. Conflicting approaches and ideals, vigorously debated is an essential feature of a healthy democracy.

That said, since the run-up to the Gingerich revolution in the early 90s, we've seen a completely different state of affairs we can call hyper-partisanship. The idea here is to not only oppose the policies of the other side, but to viciously attack, smear, and vilify the other side in an amoral scorched Earth attempt to get them to STFU. It has been effective. Not only in securing GOP victories at the ballotbox, but in completely neutering the Democratic party, creating what Michael Chabon in The Washington Post has called a "phobocracy" where Democratic positions are predicated on the thought "Oh my God, those mean Republicans might say something mean about me and take my milk money, I better just do what they say and vote to give Bush the authority to go to war and support corporate subsidies." The playground bullying got to the point where Republicans were actually holding committee meetings in the Senate without informing the Democratic members of the committee, barring them from participating.

Obama is a partisan, he is center-left traditional Democrat and his positions are in line with that. BUT what he does is to return to the old style of respectful open-minded partisanship. He is a master at finding common ground, places where liberal and conservative platforms overlap and advancing the entire nation's interests along those lines (his biggest legislative successes at the federal level, for example, were on nuclear non-proliferation with Republican hawk Dick Lugar and on governmental transparency with ultra-right-winger Tom Coburn). He is thoughtful in not taking a knee-jerk position as this article from Cass Sunstein, now a professor at Harvard Law, chronicles.

He is a thoughtful, intelligent person who will not eliminate partisanship, but I do think he, if anyone, has a chance to put a dent in the culture of closed-mindedness we suffer from. His speech on race this week, for example, was a mature, informed, extended argument intended for adults. It is different and it gives me hope, to use that overused word. Maybe I'll be disappointed yet again, but I do think he's our next best hope.

Scottie asks,
"If the definition of a fundamentalism means adhering to one's beliefs no matter any line of reasoning persuasion presented because those beliefs are inherent, (fundamental) is a society that believes reasoning and logic as necessary for their own way of living being fundamental in the fact that they must adhere to their code of logic? and...what is the best discontinued Ben & Jerry's flavor?"
Taking them in reverse order, I have spent time in the discontinued flavor graveyard at the Ben and Jerry's factory in Waterbury...or as some of us call it, Mecca. I'd have to reach back and say Wavy Gravy.

As for fundamentalism as you define it (and I think one could take issue with certain aspects of definition, but you set up a fair game), I think, sure, you could call a society that places logic and reasoning at a central place as "fundamentalist," but it would be a radically different sort of fundamentalism.

To make this difference clear, let's draw a distinction between what we could call first-order commitments and second-order commitments. First order commitments are to purported truths of the way the world is or should be. I have my picture and that's it. Nothing you can say would change it. I am committed to fundamental propositions about reality and ethics that are carved in stone.

Second-order commitments, on the other hand, are commitments to process, to ways of considering purported truths about the way the world is or how it should be. On this view, when provisional beliefs for which I had good reason turn out to be untrue, I would rethink my other commitments, my worldview would be perpetually open to debate and rational discourse. I am committed to the way we consider things and so am happy to reconsider what I think in light of interesting, thoughtful arguments I hadn't considered before. This second-order absolute commitment would thus generate a very open-minded version of fundamentalism, one that, really wouldn't worry me quite so much.

Of course, absolute unthinking adherence to these second-order commitments is worrisome, too. We should be open to third order questions which question whether our notions of logic and reason are what we think they are and whether they do what we think they do. But, then, welcome to philosophy.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Miracles and Bear Stearns

C. Ewing asks

"Why is it required that saints perform miracles?"
They draft Archie Manning, Ricky Jackson, and Reggie Bush and still don't have a Super Bowl win, and you have to ask?

It wasn't always so. At first, sainthood was just a matter of being popular enough after death (usually as a result of being martyred), but eventually the naming of saints became institutionalized and rules put in place. A miracle guarantees a special relationship with the Divine. Being able to bring about the miraculous means that you are a special agent of God (a G-man). If you don't have God's cell phone number, you don't get the status; and you have to be able to prove that you can page the Big Guy because matters of religious importance are not the sort of thing you take on faith.

Jeff Maynes asks,
"How and why did Bear Stearns collapse?"
Bear Sterns is an investment firm that survived the Great Depression, but just got taken out. On the verge of collapse, they were sold for pennies on the dollar to J.P. Morgan with the backing of the Federal Reserve. What happened?

The short version:

The long version: Back in the 90s, when internet companies first starting popping up, technology speculation created a lot of wealth on paper. Stocks were going through the roof because of increased demand from (a) baby boomers starting to save in earnest for retirement, and (b) speculators seeing the markets going up, up, up. But the high prices were just the result of irrational demand and when there was found to be no there there, that bubble burst.

Soon followed 9/11, and the economy as a whole was a bit shaky. So interest rates were lowered to try to spur growth. These low interest rates meant that people who could afford $X a month in mortgage could buy a larger house than they otherwise thought they could and many did. The one spot in the economy that was doing well was housing. Prices were going up, up, up, and so people were putting lots of money into real estate. Flipping houses (buying it, waiting a short period of time and then selling it for more money) seemed to guarantee significant profits. House prices would keep going up, so lenders made riskier and riskier loans to people who were not good candidates because if they defaulted, then the bank would get the house, the value of which would have gone up and they'd get more money flipping it themselves. It was a no lose proposition. They made money either way.

But then interest rates were raised because oil prices were going through the roof (Katrina, the war in Iraq) and this meant that the price of everything goes up because everything has to be shipped from somewhere to somewhere. This means inflation and to slow the growth of inflation, you increase the price for money to slow things down and let them cool off. But the loans that people had taken out on their homes were largely adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) and when the interest rate goes up, their monthly payment goes up -- above what they could afford. As a result many, many people began to default on their mortgages, unable to make the payments because wages have been stagnant, but costs of everything are going up, compounded by a huge leap in their monthly mortgage payment that they had not seen coming.

As a result of these houses flooding the market and higher interest rates making larger houses less attractive, there were many fewer people looking for homes. Less demand means the artificially high prices that had bubbled up couldn't be supported. Now, the prices of houses are dropping. No one wants to sell at a lower price, and no one wants to buy until the price bottoms out. So the whole market collapses leaving those who made the risky loans having to lose money on the investment or take a house they can't sell either.

So, where is Bear Stearns in this mess? They were an investment house known for their aggressive tactics. They had two large hedge funds -- hyper-aggressive investors who made gigantic sums for their clients quickly -- that, during the high times, would purchase these mortgages from the lenders, big bundles of them. The lender therefore made their profit up front, while the fund now had a guaranteed money maker. They would buy a bundle of mortgages that would bring in say $X over thirty years years for much less than $X, they then could put this profit which they hadn't yet collected on their books and use it as funds to buy more bundles of mortgages which gave them more funds (that they just didn't have yet) to buy more bundles... When the bottom fell out of the market, their house of cards came tumbling down and then the Bear Stearns investors who had been the ones to buy into the scam and provide them with the money, started to rapidly pull out what was left, but since the money was tied up in the bad investments, they didn't have it to pay out. So, you got the equivalent of a run on a bank.

The government was afraid this run would spread since pretty much all of the big financial institutions were doing similar things on some scale and are all losing cash as a result. So they got J.P. Morgan to buy Bear Stearns at a deep discount and assume the bad debt by guaranteeing it with tax dollars. The idea was to put a band-aid on it and hope that other investors didn't flee from other investment houses since the whole thing is kept up by confidence and if a general panic started, we're looking at Great Depression mark II. It seems to have worked in the short term, but what awaits in the next few years?...

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Language, DVDs, and the End of the World

A couple more good ones today.

Maura asks,

"Is it possible to ever become absolutely fluent in another language or, otherwise stated, can we ever really leave the world we were born into and fully rejoin another?"
As Maura correctly points out, there are two aspects here. One is mechanical. Fluency can be considered merely as a technical skill, and this is a function of neurophysiology. We know that the language portions of the brain are pliable for a while, but "ossify" over time and thus, if we pick up a new language later in life, we can speak better and better with practice, but never in the way we would have had we been a native speaker.

But Maura asks the question in a much more interesting way. Aside from the mechanics of speaking, languages come pregnant with worldviews. Anthropologist Benjamin Lee Whorf, for example, argues in great detail that the Hopi language cannot be translated faithfully into English because with respect to basic notions like time and object, Hopi concepts are radically different from ours in the West. To use Plato's analogy, we carve nature at different joints. As such, we live in different worlds and our terms to describe what we see as populating those different worlds will not correspond in a way that would allow a simple translation dictionary to exist. Words label what we see as real, but if we divide the world up into "real" objects differently, our words cannot be translated and therefore we could never learn to speak the language beyond the most rudimentary level.

The problem gets a step more complicated when we look at the famous second chapter of Willard van Orman Quine's book Word and Object, in which he creates a scenario in which an anthropologist discovers a new culture and sets out to understand its language. Allowing that we could quickly determine assent and disagreement, our anthropologist notices that the word "gavagai" gets used in sentences often soon after a rabbit has been observed. He conjectures that gavagai means rabbit. When he finds a rabbit, he tests the hypothesis by pointing at it and saying to a speaker of the language, "Gavagai?" He gets affirmation. He tries it several more times all to a positive effect.

Here's the punchline. So, does "gavagai" mean rabbit or undetached rabbit parts? The two have different meanings (consider the difference in our own language between cow and undetached beef parts -- aside, why do we have different terms for beef and pork, but not chicken, turkey, lamb, or fish?), but there is not a case where we could produce an empirical stimulus for our anthropologist to differentiate between them. As such, it seems like we could never even get ourselves in a position to be able to completely figure out another culture's categories and therefore never have even the possibility of fluently speak the language.

But I'm not sure I buy this. We do have Rosetta Stones, bi-lingual people who bridge the cultures and some of them can be very thoughtful in translating the worldview in ways that can be communicated. Once done, cultures can incorporate notions from other ways of seeing. We do it all the time. Cultures are constantly stretched and enriched by contact with each other. Further, we can study and come to understand other ways of carving up the world, that's what many scholars do. Yes, it is hard, but once you are aware of where some of your own presuppositions lay, it is not impossible to dig deeper, figure out where another worldview shares commonalities and exhibits differences and appreciate the other culture's approach. Immersion is often required for this, but even without, the fact that we can converse cross-culturally gives some sense that we can speak others' languages and the possibility of fluency seems to remain.

Kerry asks,
"Why do the captions on a foreign-language DVD disappear from the screen when you fast-forward, but reappear when you hit "play"? (One of the great mysteries of my life.)"
For the same reason that the sound turns off when you hit the fast forward button on a VCR or the reason you only hear one song at a time when playing an 8-track cassette (look it up on Wikipedia, kids, I'm not going to explain it). It might help to use an image you are more acquainted with, Kerry -- a DVD is like Leibniz's pre-established harmony version of metaphysical dualism where you have correlated, but independent tracks on the DVD (man, that's the first time I've ever used that analogy in the other direction). Or think of the DVD like a translated book with the ancient Greek on the left hand page and the corresponding translated English on the right. When you hit play, the DVD player puts both the Greek and the English for every page up on the screen; but when you hit fast forward, it puts up only the Greek from every third page.

Helmut asks,
"Why does the sun go on shining? Why does the sea rush to the shore?"
(sigh) 'cause you don't love me anymore? (sigh)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Meta-philosophical questions

Wow, great questions as always. Let me start with a couple of questions about philosophy. If philosophy is asking questions about questions, these, then, would be questions about questions about questions...

Enigman asks,

What is the subject-matter of philosophy?
A friend of mine once said that if you ask "why?" once, you are a scientist. If you ask "why?" twice, you are a philosopher. If you ask "why?" more than twice, you are just a three year old annoying your mother.

The intro to philosophy answer to the question is that the subject matter of philosophy is divided into three parts: metaphysics, which examines the nature of reality; epistemology which studies the nature of knowledge; and axiology, which studies the nature of value judgments (ethics and aesthetics).

Of course, this is a gross oversimplification that any philosopher worth his salt will pick apart in two seconds flat -- but that's the hint. Philosophy doesn't have a subject matter per se. We play in everyone's sandbox because our job is to unearth presuppositions and everybody has them. You have to. Only they are generally hidden and seem obvious until you think hard about them, so most people ignore them if they are not forced to consider them. So, philosophers, outside of times of intellectual crisis, are thought to be irrelevant, not germane, or at least not German, unless you are Hegel or Carnap or Kant or...

Philo asks,
"From all philosophers' writings, what is your favorite quote?"
So many to pick from. I suppose it would be either John Stuart Mill's "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question." or Bertrand Russell's "The law of causality, I believe, is a relic of bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm."

Philo also asks,
"With science, is there need for philosophy?"
Yes. My first philosophy prof was a Wittgensteinian who justified the existence of philosophers by asking whether we as a society would prefer to have these people out wandering the streets instead of providing a nice, clean institution to house them. But I think there certainly is a place for philosophers sicnce not all questions are empirical and most people really suck at thinking about them in ways that are critical and rigorous. That's not to say philosophers are that much better, but certainly at least someone should be devoted to it full time.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics

It's that time again.

For those new to the Playground, I have a schtick I do at the beginning of each class where I let the students ask absolutely any question they have, any question at all, from auto mechanics to quantum mechanics. Some former students asked me to revive it on-line when this blog first started, so every once in a while I open it up. So, if you've ever had a question you always wanted to ask or something that's just been stumping you, here's your chance. Ask away and I'll get to as many as possible in this week's posts.

Happy Einstein's Birthday

The image we are left with these days is the old uncle Albert, the friendly, wise sage. But in his younger days, he was quite the rabble rouser. A vocal opponent of WWI in Germany, he was despised by the German nationalist right with a white hot rage. It was not only the physics of the old order that needed to be overturned, but the politics, economics, and religious foundations that lay at the core of the stratified, militaristic, dehumanizing sociological structure that was in place.

He advocated what he called his "cosmic religion" as an alternative standpoint from which to approach life. A view in which science did have access to deeper truths, but in which science served a general awe about that universe.

I've always loved the following piece he wrote in 1930 for the New York Times Magazine, explaining it:

Everything that the human race has done and thought is concerned with the satisfaction of deeply felt needs and the assuagement of pain. One has to keep this constantly in mind if one wishes to understand spiritual movements and their development. Feeling and longing are the motive force behind all human endeavor and human creation, in however exalted a guise the latter may present themselves to us. Now what are the feelings and needs that have led men to religious thought and belief in the widest sense of the words? A little consideration will suffice to show us that the most varying emotions preside over the birth of religious thought and experience. With primitive man it is above all fear that evokes religious notions - fear of hunger, wild beasts, sickness, death. Since at this stage of existence understanding of causal connections is usually poorly developed, the human mind creates illusory beings more or less analogous to itself on whose wills and actions these fearful happenings depend. Thus one tries to secure the favor of these beings by carrying out actions and offering sacrifices which, according to the tradition handed down from generation to generation, propitiate them or make them well disposed toward a mortal. In this sense I am speaking of a religion of fear. This, though not created, is in an important degree stabilized by the formation of a special priestly caste which sets itself up as a mediator between the people and the beings they fear, and erects a hegemony on this basis. In many cases a leader or ruler or a privileged class whose position rests on other factors combines priestly functions with its secular authority in order to make the latter more secure; or the political rulers and the priestly caste make common cause in their own interests.

The social impulses are another source of the crystallization of religion. Fathers and mothers and the leaders of larger human communities are mortal and fallible. The desire for guidance, love, and support prompts men to form the social or moral conception of God. This is the God of Providence, who protects, disposes, rewards, and punishes; the God who, according to the limits of the believer's outlook, loves and cherishes the life of the tribe or of the human race, or even or life itself; the comforter in sorrow and unsatisfied longing; he who preserves the souls of the dead. This is the social or moral conception of God.

The Jewish scriptures admirably illustrate the development from the religion of fear to moral religion, a development continued in the New Testament. The religions of all civilized peoples, especially the peoples of the Orient, are primarily moral religions. The development from a religion of fear to moral religion is a great step in peoples' lives. And yet, that primitive religions are based entirely on fear and the religions of civilized peoples purely on morality is a prejudice against which we must be on our guard. The truth is that all religions are a varying blend of both types, with this differentiation: that on the higher levels of social life the religion of morality predominates.

Common to all these types is the anthropomorphic character of their conception of God. In general, only individuals of exceptional endowments, and exceptionally high-minded communities, rise to any considerable extent above this level. But there is a third stage of religious experience which belongs to all of them, even though it is rarely found in a pure form: I shall call it cosmic religious feeling. It is very difficult to elucidate this feeling to anyone who is entirely without it, especially as there is no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it.

The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. The beginnings of cosmic religious feeling already appear at an early stage of development, e.g., in many of the Psalms of David and in some of the Prophets. Buddhism, as we have learned especially from the wonderful writings of Schopenhauer, contains a much stronger element of this.

The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man's image; so that there can be no church whose central teachings are based on it. Hence it is precisely among the heretics of every age that we find men who were filled with this highest kind of religious feeling and were in many cases regarded by their contemporaries as atheists, sometimes also as saints. Looked at in this light, men like Democritus, Francis of Assisi, and Spinoza are closely akin to one another.

How can cosmic religious feeling be communicated from one person to another, if it can give rise to no definite notion of a God and no theology? In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.

We thus arrive at a conception of the relation of science to religion very different from the usual one. When one views the matter historically, one is inclined to look upon science and religion as irreconcilable antagonists, and for a very obvious reason. The man who is thoroughly convinced of the universal operation of the law of causation cannot for a moment entertain the idea of a being who interferes in the course of events - provided, of course, that he takes the hypothesis of causality really seriously. He has no use for the religion of fear and equally little for social or moral religion. A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable to him for the simple reason that a man's actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God's eyes he cannot be responsible, any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motions it undergoes. Science has therefore been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death.

It is therefore easy to see why the churches have always fought science and persecuted its devotees.On the other hand, I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research. Only those who realize the immense efforts and, above all, the devotion without which pioneer work in theoretical science cannot be achieved are able to grasp the strength of the emotion out of which alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life, can issue. What a deep conviction of the rationality of the universe and what a yearning to understand, were it but a feeble reflection of the mind revealed in this world, Kepler and Newton must have had to enable them to spend years of solitary labor in disentangling the principles of celestial mechanics! Those whose acquaintance with scientific research is derived chiefly from its practical results easily develop a completely false notion of the mentality of the men who, surrounded by a skeptical world, have shown the way to kindred spirits scattered wide through the world and through the centuries. Only one who has devoted his life to similar ends can have a vivid realization of what has inspired these men and given them the strength to remain true to their purpose in spite of countless failures. It is cosmic religious feeling that gives a man such strength. A contemporary has said, not unjustly, that in this materialistic age of ours the serious scientific workers are the only profoundly religious people.
Happy Einstein's birthday everyone.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

How Clinton wins If Democrats Lose

One of the easiest traps to fall into in writing philosophy papers is the strawman fallacy where you take someone's position you disagree with and attack a weaker version of it instead of the strongest possible version as required by what logicians call the principle of charity. I often warn students, if it seems like a really smart person is saying something really stupid, there's probably something there you are missing.And so it is, I think, with the Clinton campaign's scorched earth, kitchen sink approach.

In his op/ed in the Huffington Post, Senator and former Presidential front runner Gary Hart puts it this way,

It will come as a surprise to many people that there are rules in politics. Most of those rules are unwritten and are based on common understandings, acceptable practices, and the best interest of the political party a candidate seeks to lead. One of those rules is this: Do not provide ammunition to the opposition party that can be used to destroy your party's nominee. This is a hyper-truth where the presidential contest is concerned.

By saying that only she and John McCain are qualified to lead the country, particularly in times of crisis, Hillary Clinton has broken that rule, severely damaged the Democratic candidate who may well be the party's nominee, and, perhaps most ominously, revealed the unlimited lengths to which she will go to achieve power. She has essentially said that the Democratic party deserves to lose unless it nominates her.

As a veteran of red telephone ads and "where's the beef" cleverness, I am keenly aware that sharp elbows get thrown by those trailing in the fourth quarter (and sometimes even earlier). "Politics ain't beanbag," is the old slogan. But that does not mean that it must also be rule-or-ruin, me-first-and-only-me, my way or the highway. That is not politics. That is raw, unrestrained ambition for power that cannot accept the will of the voters.
Others say that it is "raw, unrestrained ambition" coupled with a lack of foresight, no campaign planning beyond Super Tuesday. "She will stop at nothing to be President," the line goes.

But this makes no sense. Senator Clinton is an incredibly smart person. She knows that by capturing a third of the states and nearly half of the delegates, as she would have by running a vigorous campaign that did not poison the well she could have played hardball behind the scenes and guaranteed herself the second slot. The "dream ticket" scenario was so much in the air and there was so much love all the way round that it would have been simple to grow it. If the ticket lost, all blame goes to the top and then she is the all but guaranteed nominee in four years, or the ticket wins and she is a shoo-in in eight. If the real goal was merely ambition to be President Hillary, it could have been easily done.

Yet, she chose not to do this, instead she chose to run a kamikaze campaign intentionally designed to harm the party as a whole. She is too smart not to know what she is doing. She knows full well she is handing ammo to McCain, that instead of causing there to be questions about the opposition's greatest strength, that she is bolstering it. Why then would she do it? What does Clinton stand to gain if the Democrats lose? Why would a smart person in her place prefer it? Chalking it up to flubs and fumbles from lack of planning is a strawman.

Step one is to realize that the President is not a person, it is a team. We are voting merely for team captain. All those people in her campaign are going to be part of the Presidential collective and as a result not only achieve great power for a time, but become THE ESTABLISHMENT thereafter.

There has been no Democratic President since Bill Clinton, what does this mean? In a two party system, it means that the Clintocrats -- whether the Democrats are in the majority or not -- are the go to folks for the Democratic side of things. When CNN, MSNBC, or even FoxNews need to put up a Democrat, who do they get? James Carville or Paul Begala -- Clinton's people. The three top political tv jobs are the Sunday news programs. The first of the boomers to get one of those positions? George Stephanopolous, Clinton's press person. Lawrence Summers? President of Harvard. And these are just the high profile ones. Behind the scene power brokers and consultants? High paid K Street lobbyists? These are people who learned how to come into incredible wealth and make unbelievable careers with the Democrats out of power. They don't care if the Democrats lose because as long as they remain the establishment, they win. They know how to parlay Democratic losses into their hyperbolic gains, they've been doing it for twelve years.

What does threaten them? A new Democratic administration. As soon as there is a Democratic President not named Clinton, they become old news. A new Establishment is established. A new team becomes the cool crowd and they look to news, political, and lobbying interests like has-beens thinking they are cool for still wearing Joe Jackson style narrow ties and Flock of Seagulls haircuts.

the President is not a person, the President is a team and an Obama win is the worst possible outcome for that team. A Clinton Presidency -- which they expected to the point of developing a sense of entitlement -- would perpetuate their power for at least another twelve years. A Clinton nomination and loss to McCain would guarantee their power for at least eight if McCain was re-elected, twelve if Hillary could get renominated and win a re-match. But it would end next January if some young upstart upset the apple cart.

This is not about legacy. It is not about personal ambition. This is an entire group of people who have been the Heathers in DC for a generation suddenly facing the possibility of getting left behind and losing everything they have had -- regardless of whether Democrats have any power. The Clintocrats know what the threat is and they know that the only scenario in which they lose is should the Democrats win without them. So, drag the party down? Not really a problem to them.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Is Being Really Good at Math a Power or a Skill?

There's a scene in the film "Stranger Than Fiction" in which the main character is having dinner with a friend and asks what the friend would do if he he knew he would die soon. In negotiating the terms of this hypothetical, the friend asks if he would have any super powers and the main character says, "You're really good at math," to which the friend responds, "That's not a power, that's a skill."

Is it?

What is the difference between a power and a skill? A power seems to be power over something. In this case, would it be having power over a problem to solve it? A skill on the other hand, is an ability to do something and that seems a better way to characterize being able to solve a class of problems. Score one for skill over power.

On the other hand, a skill seems to be something one could acquire by working at it whereas a power seems to be something one simply has. Hanno and I have had this discussion many times with respect to logic students. There are those who acquire the skills by working very hard at it and then there are those who are really good at logic who don't work hard. For those who are really good at logic, it seems more grammatically appropriate to use solve in a reflexive sense, it's not that they solve the problems, it's that the problems are solved to them. I'm one of these people. When I look at the problem, I don't labor over it, I look at it from different angles until it just resolves itself before my eyes. Those who are really good at something do seem to have a power rather than a skill. Or is it just that some acquire the skill more easily?

So, is being really good at math a power or a skill?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Sympathy for Mrs. Spitzer

In the frenzy over the revelations yesterday about New York governor Eliot Spitzer's connection to a prostitution ring, I don't think there is anyone who doesn't feel for his wife. The press conference, shown again and again, and again, had her literally standing by her man. It is bad enough that this person is having her family thrust into turmoil because of something she had nothing to do with. It is worse that this family matter gets a complete public airing.

But the cruelest thing of all seems to have all the emotions that any human being would naturally have -- anger, a feeling of betrayal, self-doubt, pity for the person you love, mourning the loss for the image of the life you thought you were living, panic about how to protect your children, dread at having to deal with person after person who will act in a completely awkward fashion around you for months -- and having to swallow them to seem sedate in font of the cameras.

And you have to. This sort of thing blew over for David Vitter, the Senator from Louisiana who was caught visiting prostitutes, and there are no allegations yet of Spitzer liking to wear diapers. Bill Clinton is on television campaigning day after day and treated respectfully and there are no cigar stories here. Life could go back to something resembling what it did...but only if you allow yourself to be used in a way that strips all of the authentic humanity from you in public. Your life is teetering on the edge and the only way you can have any chance at rescuing it is if you can be perceived as not reacting the way anyone else would at having your life teetering on the edge because your husband is a cad.

TheWife, last night, said in disgust, "Don't tell me this is a victimless crime." And she is right. Mrs. Spitzer is a victim, one we keep victimizing by forcing her to become dehumanized in front of us. I know it doesn't mean much, with things the way they are for you, but Mrs. Spitzer, there isn't anyone out here today who doesn't feel terrible for you.

Monday, March 10, 2008


Driving home from dropping my in-laws at the airport this morning at 4:00, I was thinking about supererogation, that is, acts that are good, but not necessary, actions that are morally above and beyond the call of duty. TheWife and I recently had a discussion about the limits of such actions, when should you say no. Most such acts will cause some degree of inconvenience, but the question is what criterion should you use to determine when the request is over the line. When someone asks something of you that is not required of you, how do you determine whether to say yes or no? Think of helping a friend move. What are the operative factors? Is it a function of your relationship to the person? How long you've known him or her? Whether you may need to ask something of that person later? Is it a matter of how big the favor is or are there some people who could ask the world? Is it a matter of how much you dislike the fumes while painting a friend's house? If some of these are the real reason you say no, are you honest about it? Do you still feel guilty even though it was not a moral requirement? Should you still feel guilty?

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Comedist Announcement

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

It is less than three weeks until April 1st, Saint Shecky's Day, the holiest day of the Comedist calendar and during holy moley week I will be celebrating my imminent 40th birthday by performing at an open mic stand-up competition at Magooby's Joke House on Thursday night, March 27. The show starts at 7:30, but they ask you to be there by 7:20. It's a $5 cover and two-item minimum. It would thrill me to no end to see some Playground friends there, so please consider this an invitaiton if you happen to be in the Baltimore area.

I see this as a sort of Comedist version of a bar mitzvah, where I am called forward onto the stage to take the mic and do the funny works of the Cosmic Comic. After this, I will have had the true experience of the comedian. Been tightening the routine -- it's a ten minute slot -- ready and raring to go.

The one thing that I need help and will appeal to you fine friends for is a few good heckler response lines. I'm used to working classrooms where a flash of the red pen generally silences critics...but in a room full of drunk people, I need ammo. Here's the one I have in case of a female heckler:

My wife, ladies and gentlemen, usually she only heckles after sex, not that I'm awake to hear it.
Other snappy comebacks you can think up?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Bugs, Daffy, and That Looney Campaign Tune

Jeff Greenfield, over at Slate, wrote this piece, arguing that Obama will defeat Clinton in the end because Obama is Bugs Bunny and Clinton is Daffy Duck:

Bugs is at ease, laid back, secure, confident. His lidded eyes and sly smile suggest a sense that he knows the way things work. He's onto the cons of his adversaries. Sometimes he is glimpsed with his elbow on the fireplace mantel of his remarkably well-appointed lair, clad in a smoking jacket. (Jones once said Cary Grant was his inspiration for Bugs. Today it would be George Clooney.) Bugs never raises his voice, never flails at his opponents or at the world. He is rarely an aggressor. When he is pushed too far and must respond, he borrows a quip from Groucho Marx: "Of course, you realize this means war." And then, whether his foe is hapless hunter Elmer Fudd, varmint-shooting Yosemite Sam, or a raging bull, Bugs always prevails.

Daffy Duck, by contrast, is ever at war with a hostile world. He fumes, he clenches his fists, his eyes bulge, and his entire body tenses with fury. His response to bad news is a sibilant sneer ("Thanks for the sour persimmons, cousin!"). Daffy is constantly frustrated, sometimes by outside forces, sometimes by his own overwrought response to them. In one classic duel with Bugs, the two try to persuade Elmer Fudd to shoot the other—until Daffy, tricked by Bugs' wordplay, screams, "Shoot me now!"

Now here's the Obama-Clinton parallel: In every modern presidential election in which the candidates have personified a clear choice between Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, Bugs has prevailed.
Never mind whether the political analysis is astute or absurd, let's go with it for a minute.

If Obama is Bugs and Clinton is Daffy, who else is who? Bill Clinton, it seems to me, has made himself into Yosemite Sam. Confused, Maybe Not, I believe was correct when he said that John McCain is Elmer Fudd. Joe Biden would be my nominee for Foghorn Leghorn and Dennis Kucinich would be the little smart chicken with glasses who accompanies him. Marvin the Martian, too easy, Ron Paul. Rudy Giulliani as Wile E. Coyote? Not sold on that one. Chris Matthews = Tazmanian Devil. George W. Bush must be Pepe Le Pew.

Who else gets a character?

Another Tipping Question

A question from C. Ewing:

Let us assume that you frequent a local establishment at least once, sometimes twice a work week. You tend to get the same waitress fairly frequently since your break coincides with her shift. She's always a quite capable waitress. You tend to tip fairly well (let us say %20 for sake of argument), because she is always pretty good at her job.

Today, however, she is off her game. Now, from casual observation you can't tell precisely why. Do you leave your usual tip as a sign of good faith? Assuming, naturally, that there was good reason for her to be off her game, and so she wasn't simply flaking on you. Do you leave a reduced sum, so as to indicate your displeasure with her performance? Are you obligated to give her the set amount you have been leaving, since this has been your established tradition?

What role does tipping play once a relationship (if that's the right word) has been established? Is it no longer a rewards program? Does the expectation and meeting of that expectation imply an obligation? Do you go on faith this once, but give penalties later if she continues to falter? It seems odd to penalize when it is not clear that she is at fault. But I'm more curious about whether or not there is now some implied agreement/obligation that you have slipped into.
Great question.

It strikes me that the word "relationship" is entirely appropriate here. By coming to know the waitress, there is some sort of friendly relationship that has developed and friendship does come with moral responsibilities to care that purely contractual relationships, as you would have, say, with a waitress you've never met. A care-based relationship is one where you have to take the needs of the other person seriously and it seems that in this case, her needs may be greater than those days when she is much better at her job. So, paradoxically, perhaps you should tip better for worse service.

But then again, this is not the friendship side of the relationship here, it is the business side. You could offer comfort, "You seem down tonight. Everything ok?" or a kind word, but when it comes to tipping, hey, business is business. This is why it is often a bad idea to enter into financial arrangements with friends, it is never clear where the friendship ends and the business starts. What you would assume from a friend may be inappropriate from a business partner.

Personally, I would follow the advice of a very wise colleague who says "Err on the side of generosity." Your sense of things being off are likely a good indication that someone who is generally good to you and as a caring person and someone with long-run interests, it is better to grease the palm than bite the hand that feeds you...or at least brings the food that feeds you.

Thoughts? How many out there adjust the tip they give based on service anyway? I've heard it said that people tend to be constant tippers regardless of service, some folks straight 15 percenters, others higher and that barring significant deviation, they rarely change. True in your case?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Bullshit or Not: John Maynard Keynes Edition

Grooving on the history of economics, so let's put another wonderful quotation out there and see what you folks think.

This one is from John Maynard Keynes, the wittiest of the great economists. I have several favorite Keynsianisms, but my all time favorite was his response he made to a question about how his revolution in macroeconomics was going, "We are making progress one funeral at a time."

But the quotation I want to put up today can be found quoted in Heilbroner's masterful The Worldly Philosophers

:"How can I accept the [Communistic] doctrine which sets up as its bible, above and beyond criticism, an obsolete textbook which I know not only to be scientifically erroneous but without interest or application to the modern world? How can I adopt a creed which, preferring the mud to the fish, exalts the boorish proletariat above the bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia, who with all their faults, are the quality of life and surely carry the seeds of all human achievement?"
Elitist twaddle or legitimate criticism?

Bullshit or not? As usual, feel free to leave a one word response or a dissertation.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Bullshit or Not: Adam Smith 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 irregular series of posts.

Today's quotation comes from Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. Smith argues that there are three main reasons why the division of labor significantly increases productivity. First is that specialization leads to an increase in proficiency of that job and that means better output in shorter time. Second, the time loss in moving between jobs is avoided. But it is the third that I want to prod here. The division of labor into individual tasks will facilitate technological advances, once we clearly delineate tasks, we will be more likely to create machinery to do that task more efficiently.

Nothing too interesting there, until he posits that the division of labor in society leads to a class of inventors who are not the ones using the machines.

All the improvements in machinery, however, have by no means been the inventions of those who had occasion to use the machines. Many improvements have been made by the ingenuity of the makers of the machines, when to make them became the business of a particular trade; and some by that of those who are called philosophers or men of speculation, whose trade it is not to do any thing, but to observe every thing; and who, upon that account are often capable of combining together the powers of the most distant and dissimilar objects.
Set aside the wonderful phrase "those who are called philosophers or men of speculation, whose trade it is not to do any thing" which is incredibly tempting to take out of context. The idea is that having people outside the endeavor brings fresh insight and this leads to progress.

Is this "thinking outside the box" overrated? Are those who observe, but do not do really have the understanding, the ones we ought to look towards to contribute insight? What Smith, in essence, is creating here is the position of "management consultant." My grandfather used to run a belt factory and would talk for long periods of time about the number of businesses he saw go under once they brought in "efficiency experts," people who studied business, but not that business. On the other hand, once you are indoctrinated, doesn't that put blinders on you? You get trapped in the rut of "that's how it is done."

So, fresh blood or no business talking about what you don't understand? Can the division of labor be so divided that the tasks get alienated from the central process? Adam Smith, bullshit or not?

As usual, feel free to leave anything from a single word response to a dissertation.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Buckley and Obama

William F. Buckley is dead, long live William F. Buckley. Buckley's smart, stylized prose galvanized a beaten conservative movement that had been mired in Henry Ford-styled diatribes. Bringing panache and wit to defenses of the seemingly indefensible, Buckley stands as the architect of partisan discourse that would find its ultimate instantiation in the divisiveness of the last decade.

The Coulteresque approach has roots in Buckley's writings, but Buckley always sought to engage what he saw as the liberal Establishment, trying to win the argument legitimately rather than disengaging and replacing the entire conversation with one that eliminated the other side altogether. Part of Buckley's legacy was to clarify the central question asked by conservatives and liberals. FDR asked "How may we best care for those who need it?" while Buckley's question was "At what point can I stop caring about those who need it?" Buckley's power was in confronting the liberals' ever-present imperative to care beyond self-interest.

The rhetorical grandchildren of Buckley have maintained the spirit of his views while surrendering the spirit of his approach. Buckley's question ceased to be used as a retort, but as replacement of any other discussion. The result has been hyper-partisanship in which our conversations occur within the confines of intellectual foxholes (or FoxNewsHoles), surrounded by fellow warriors for our cause, seeking to legitimize claims of being under siege. Volume replaced finesse.

With growing repugnance for the current means of deliberation, its antithesis has been portrayed as the "bipartisanship" of Michael Bloomberg, Joe Lieberman, and John McCain. But this view is better termed "neo-partisanship" as it remains every bit as eliminationist, disdainfully waving off all who disagree with their Solomonic line as fringe of the left or right. But it is indeed nothing new. Buckley himself fought many a battle with Eisenhower's faction of his own party for decades and what we see hailed as a new trend is, in fact, a retread.

But in Obama's campaign, a true alternative does threaten to appear. His vaunted hope is ridiculed as ill-defined rhetorical chicanery. The lines drawn in the sand since Buckley have become trenches in which it is thought that the only hope is conquest of the other side. Yet here, is something in Obama's appeal to independents and Republicans that does not fit into those usual lines. He is not non-partisan. Obama's policy positions are clearly mainstream Democratic fare and his defense of them is full-throated.

But it is indeed post-partisan because what is novel is its ability to advocate the liberal worldview's notion that government is there to help create the preconditions for widespread human flourishing, while maintaining the conservative's question about the limit of the government in executing that role. We see this in Obama's work in the Senate. Take for instance, the Coburn/Obama Transparency Bill which brought him together with the extremely conservative and extremely partisan Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to mandate the creation of a searchable database of all government spending allowing sunshine on the millions of dollars of secret earmarks. Here was a project that advanced nakedly partisan goals on both sides, but avoided the quicksand of hyper-partisanship.

It is this possibility of re-engaging the partisans that is exciting hope. The hope does not come from the possibility of eliminating those who had been seen as unmovable obstacles, but rather engaging them fairly in rational civil discourse, sometimes compromising, sometimes marrying our different interests, and sometimes winning or losing fairly. This means erasing the lines drawn so cleanly by Buckley's writing, but it also means civil re-engagement of the sort that Buckley so well embodied. Obama's words may offend every aspect of the spirit of Buckley, but his use of words restores it.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Clean Jokes

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

It is a beautiful day in the neighborhood, would you be mine, could you be mine, won't you be my neighbor? Last week was the 40th anniversary of the introduction of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood.

It was a happy place with the world's first flat screen tv and vcr that showed movies about how things were made, the land of make believe, and nice people everywhere.

In honor of this anniversary, this week let us all share our favorite clean jokes. Here's mine:

A man walks into an optometrist's office and says to the eye doctor, "I think I"m a moth."

The optometrist says, "Excuse me?"

The man repeats, "I think I'm a moth."

The optometrist says, "It sounds to me like you need a psychiatrist for that problem."

The man agrees.

"But I'm an optometrist."

"I know."

"So why did you come in?"

"Your light was on."
So, friends feel free to leave your favorite clean joke and don't worry whether it is funny enough because I like you just the way you are.

It's such a good feeling to know you're alive, a happy feeling, you're growing inside...

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve