Saturday, August 30, 2008

I Never Wanted to Be Vice President...I Wanted To Be a Lumberjack

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

With John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate, I won't even pretend to fight the temptation. A VP who wants Creationism taught in the classroom, a candidate for an office who doesn't know what the position does, someone who crosses the Commander-in-Chief threshold because according to Cokie Roberts non-contiguous states are exotic. Could there be a funnier Palin joke?

Of course, there is:

My other favorite Michael Palin bit:

So, in light of this VP pick, what is your favorite Michael Palin sketch?

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, August 29, 2008

Bernstein and Silence

Discussed one Berstein quotation earlier in the week, but this one really gets me.

"Stillness is our most intense mode of action. It is in our moments of deep quiet that is born every idea, emotion, and drive which we eventually honor with the name of action. Our most emotionally active life is lived in our dreams, and our cells renew themselves most industriously in sleep. We reach highest in meditation, and farthest in prayer. In stillness every human being is great; he is free from the experience of hostility; he is a poet, and most like an angel."
We often refer to philosophical questions as "the sort of thing that keeps you up at night" or "Questions you think about at three in the morning."

The idea is that in the middle of the night there is nothing but silence. You are there with just your thoughts and the deeper issues that can be pushed aside for the more mundane matters in day-to-day life that give rise to a clamor which drown out these more existential concerns.

But that is not true anymore. In the middle of the night, we catch up on bad movies, I Love Lucy re-runs, or Ron Popeil infomercials. Or read blogs. Advertisers have made sure that there is no time when we are left with our thoughts. We get commercials played in doctors' office waiting rooms and in elevators. Ipods and cell phones make sure that we are distracted no matter where or when.

This is a distinctly contemporary capitalist state of affairs. For virtually every human who has ever walked the planet, life has alternated between back-breaking labor and mind-numbing boredom. The search to fill these gaps has been the source of human culture for all of our history. It is only now that we complain that we are bored, before now it would seem odd to complain. Of course, you are, we all are, find something to do. Learn to play an instrument. Crochet a blanket for the winter. Read. Write. Walk. Boredom was a natural state.

But now we have so filled culture with passive leisure time activities that there is little place available to be still, to be in silence. In such silence, we are bored and someone will figure out, to our relief, how to distract us before we are left alone with our thoughts.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Complimentary Close

A standard part of every letter and most e-mails is the complimentary close. That's the one or two word adverbial phrase that you put right above your signature or typed name. They are a rather strange form of utterance.

J.L. Austin followed Wittgenstein in arguing that we do more than express true or false propositions with words, that sometimes saying things is a form of doing things. The question here is what we do with the complimentary close.

There are three standard complimentary closes -- sincerely, respectfully, and love. "Sincerely" is so standard as to be a mere formality meaning nothing. Of course, it is kind of a weird thing to say, "I am sincere in all that I wrote above." No, I thought you were lying to me, but since you tell me you are sincere, there no way you could be lying. It is saying something that was assumed in the act of correspondence, so it makes sense that it has become the complimentary close that means nothing.

I always close a letter with "respectfully" if I want it to sound deferential. We don't have the formal in English, and "respectfully" strikes me as the closest we have. It is a verbal butt kissing. "I am not worthy to write to someone as important as you and am eternally grateful that you have gazed upon my inferior verbiage contained herein."

When I taught at the Naval Academy, I used to get a lot of messages signed "very respectfully." A bit over top. Although after a while, it leads you think to think that those who merely used "respectfully" simply weren't trying to kiss my ring hard enough. "Respectfully? Hmmm How respectfully? Is this written with sufficient respect? Should I note the degree of respect within the text of the message to determine whether it requires augmenting in the complimentary close?"

The one that strikes me as the most interesting is "love." It is not really saying "I love you," it's much weaker than that. It's not quite like using the familiar, but not far off. How close to someone do you have to be to use the complimentary close "love"?

While I don't use it, I've always liked "cheers." Sounds less like ending a letter than raising a toast. Frankly, I picture some of my friends who use this (some who comment here regularly) with mug in hand typing with the other when I finish reading their e-mails. It's a jaunty little closing, friendly, light, with a smooth finish. "Ciao" has the same playful flair, but is wine to the beer of "cheers."

"Peace" is a favorite with a number of folks, but it strikes me as trying to hard to be hippie. If your letter was good enough to bring about peace of mind, peace on Earth, or peace of any sort, surely you would just let it happen. Yeah, we both want peace, but we both probably want chocolate pudding too, wouldst that signing it could get it.

A friend of TheWife uses "warmly" and I've taken to it. It denotes affection and informality, without the mush or complications of "love." It says I like you and want you to know it. I'm not presuming anything in terms of our relationship should it be at any given stage or not, I'm merely saying this with warmth in my heart at the thought of you.

What do you use and why? What do you avoid using and why? What wierds you out when you get it and from whom?

Very respectfully,


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Buddy Guy and Saving the Past

Went last week with LilBro and The Old Man to see Buddy Guy, one of my musical heroes (do yourself a favor, click on that link and let the bluesy goodness soak in while you read).

As always, he put on an unbelievable show -- the man looks good and has a new CD out, Skin Deep. LilBro got incredible tickets (you da man) and what struck me was what he has turned his live show into -- a living museum of the blues. Here's a guy who was the pivot between the old and the modern, and he's seen the greats on both sides of that divide leave us. He literally plays the styles and tunes from the early delta, through Muddy and Wolf, up through the Kings, onto Jimi and Stevie Ray. All along there's his own old stuff, his new stuff, and the repeated hope that someday this music will be on the radio again.

There's the joy and the passion, his remarkable showmanship, but this somber sense that he has something of value that needs to be saved. He makes sure to not only entertain you, but to school you. He is trying to make sure the past lives on.

It was the same thing I've found doing oral history interviews with relatives and students of the early logical empiricists, the sense that there is something they know to be important that could be lost if someone doesn't take the time and effort to intentionally bring it out.

What else is in this class? What should we be mindful about not losing? What else is there of historical and/or cultural value that "progress" and fashion could remove from our collective conscience?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Bullshit or Not?: Leonard Bernstein 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.

Yesterday was Leonard Bernstein's birthday, so let's go with a quotation from a man who was not only a great artist, but a great thinker.

"A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers."
Certainly it is true that some works of art can raise questions, give occasion for reflection that could lead you to deeper issues, but is this true of everything we would want to term "art"?

In the other directions, is it not possible that art can answer some of these questions? Can't art be used to express deep truths and not just raise deep questions?

So, bullshit or not? You decide. As usual, please feel free to leave comments anywhere from a single word to a dissertation.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Thoughts on Biden

It is understandable in the midsts of a tightening race that the selection of Joe Biden would be seen first through the horse race lens. But this is the wrong way to look at the selection. Selecting Joe Biden as VP could have been the most important move Obama makes in terms of creating real change.

One commentator, after the speech, put it this way — if you are going to change Washington, you need the blueprints and Joe Biden’s got the blueprints to DC. Fact is, as Jimmy Carter showed us, if you don’t know how to work the Congress, you can’t do anything as President. I don’t know how much Biden helps Obama get elected, but if the world is fortunate enough to see a President Obama, having a Vice President Biden will be invaluable in terms of actually getting things done at the other end of the avenue.

The man is not the machine boss that LBJ was, but he is similar in that he is one of the most connected, respected insiders under the dome who can get the grease under the fingernail, day-to-day stuff done. He knows who to go to, what to say to whom, and what to avoid. The VP candidate’s job is attack dog — he’ll be good — but the VP’s job once elected (at least before Cheney) was to be the manager on the ground, to be the one who starts the levers.

The concerns about Biden -- and they are ones I shared when he was running for the top of the ticket -- are moot. This is a sounding board position, sure, a trusted adviser who has the President's ear more than most, granted. But the job of the Veep is NOT to make policy. Rather, it is to be the field general leading the Congressional battles, advancing the cause.

DC is a town that lives on process and inertia. Too many people are too invested in figuring out how to work the system to want to see it changed at all. The only way to bring change is to have in place someone who knows where the joints are, how much they can bend, and how much finesse and how much pressure is needed to bend them. In this regard, it’s a fine choice.

It was a far-sighted choice. It was a selection that will allow Obama, if we are lucky enough to have him preside, to actually get done what he plans to get done. At the end of his speech, Biden contrasted the good soldier with the wise leader. Clearly, it was meant as a contrast of the two candidates, but it also works as a metaphor for the (pre-Cheney) POTUS/VP relationship. In Biden, Obama got a good soldier.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Damn It Jim, I'm a Doctor Not a Comedian

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

Yesterday would have been Gene Roddenberry's 87th birthday. Trekkies have born the brunt of many a joke, so this weekend let's turn the table and open it up to your favorite Star Trek jokes.

One to get us started:

How many Klingons does it take to change a light bulb?
None, they fight in the dark.

To joke where no man has joked before, just no tribbles in the comments please.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, August 22, 2008


So, how many houses will the Democratic VP pick have?

Does Obama announce his pick today or let the eight house story run as far as it can?


Note to blogosphere: mentioning that John McCain spends over a quarter of a million dollars a year on household staff is class warfare and not allowed. Calling Obama an "arugula-eating, pointy headed professor-type," however, is to be encouraged.


Word is going around that Bruce Springsteen will be performing on Saturday before Obama accepts the nomination. That means Bill Clinton speaks on Wednesday, Bruce Springsteen plays on Thursday. Any bets on which will be longer: Clinton's speech or Springsteen's set?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Rachel Maddow

So Rachel Maddow is getting her own show on MSNBC. Not only is it wonderful that we're getting another female voice among the high power pundits, but someone who is openly lesbian and liberal. Most astonishing is that we'll have someone in a high profile position who is an actual intellectual. It's becoming acceptable to show smart people in public and let them talk. Issues might actually be addressed, possibly even substantively. This could be the beginning of an actual political discourse in America. Oh please, oh please, oh please, oh please.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Rules of War

No, not that war. I was playing the card game with one of the short people (we actually were using the "Non-Violent, Politically Correct War" cards whose suits are love, peace, unity, and diversity). Short person was down to his last card and I had all the rest. He flips it over and it is a 6. I flip mine over and it is a 6. What happens? He has no cards for a showdown. The game cannot proceed.

Is it a stalemate? On the one hand, that would make it a tie which seems unfair to me since I have all the other cards. On the other hand, to declare me the winner based on the fact that I have the rest of the cards seems wrong because he has not lost unless he loses this round and until this round is over, he still has a card. The round cannot seemingly end.

The OldMan suggested that I could flip another card to see if that new one can beat the 6, but if this really is, in some sense modeled on warfare, then that is the metaphorical equivalent (I love the phrase "metaphorical equivalent" -- it seems oxymoronic, yet meaningful) of bringing in reinforcements and the cards should get added, but then that means we're back to declaring me the winner of a tie because I had the most cards. That seems like the ball perching itself on the middle of a net in a tennis game and awarding the point to whoever had the lead in the match, a fact that seems irrelevant to the individual point.

Would the case be any different if on the first flip of the game, the top cards and then every fourth card thereafter were the same? That seems like a legitimate stalemate and tie, but what really is the difference in the two cases?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Age Limits and the Olympics

If the Chinese gymnasts were underage (and there seems little to suggest they were not), then that would be problematic because China would have knowingly broken the rules to give themselves an advantage. But should that advantage be given to all? If athletes under the age limit are, in fact, the best in the world, shouldn't they be allowed to compete? Is it fair to subject children to the pressures of Olympic competition? Is it morally problematic to subject them to the regimen necessary to compete at the ultimate level? Does it do a disservice to the games to eliminate some of the world's best competitors, especially now that professional athletes compete in other sports?

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Usefulness of Truth

Guest-post today from C.Ewing:

From "Come Down" the song by Toad the Wet Sprocket:

"And despite my every hope there is no truth
Behind my best intentioned oath"
The real issue here is the one of truth, and what that entails. If an oath is intended in the "best" way, then it seems one has every intention of keeping it. But is an honest oath a true one? Well, obviously we need to get at what we mean by "true" here. There seem to be two distinctly different sorts of truth here. One is the mere honesty of the statement. An oath given with all intention of its being fulfilled is "truly" an oath, whereas whether or not it is held up in the end can be entirely beyond the control of the speaker, and even if the speaker goes back on the oath at a later date, this is no way entails that it was initially a lie, false or "untrue" in some way. People do, after all, change their minds.

This, naturally, got me thinking about justified beliefs, and justified "true" beliefs. The distinction seems to be one lying beyond our keen. I can know if my belief is later falsified, and thus obviously not true. If something goes up and does not come down for instance, this would counter my previous assumption that "everything that goes up must come down". Obviously, must is simply not the case. I can never, however, know if a belief is in fact "true". I can only know that it has held up thus far, and perhaps we can grant (for sake or argument in this case at least) that I am now justified. But how can I jump to "true" at that point?

In the case of the oath, even falsifying the holding of the oath later (it was not held) seems to grant no insight as to the original giving of the oath and whether or not the statement was a true one. I can't know if the speaker was lying or if he changed his mind nor if circumstances came up, which simply prevented him from keeping the oath. We'd obviously need more data on the specifics there. But the same seems true in other cases as well. I can't know if what was held, was actually true at the time (and so it only changed later) nor if things which seem constantly upheld are true, or if it's just that I haven't come across an exceptional case. The point being: is truth really so important then? If the best I can really, honestly, claim to hold are justified beliefs, but not justified "true" beliefs, then precisely what good is truth? Well, it can still make bad commercials, but that seems beside the point.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Presidential Comedy

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

Good brother YKW reminded me that this week marked the 24th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's famous announcement,

"My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you I just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever. The bombing begins in five minutes."
into a microphone that he did not realize was on. It's been something that many folks have been touchy about ever since, but it is pretty funny.

So this week, we're all about Presidential comedy. What are your favorite jokes by or about a President?

A few to get us started:

Lincoln: "Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally."

Grant: "I know only two tunes: one of them is "Yankee Doodle," and the other isn't."

Taft: Replying to the Yale Law School's offer of the Kent Chair in Constitutional Law, "A chair would not be adequate, but perhaps a sofa of law might suffice."

Kennedy: "When we got into office, the thing that surprised me the most was that things were as bad as we'd been saying they were."

Ford: "If Lincoln were alive today, he’d roll over in his grave."

Bush: "Heck of a job, Brownie."

Your favorite presidential jokes?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, August 15, 2008

From the "I Want to See the Grant Application for This One" File

Psychologists in Bristol have documented the existence of beer goggles. No word on whether the lead investigator's tenure file would look more attractive after a few nips.

The team had also hoped to report their other startling findings related to the supposed correlation between the use of marijuana and the ingestion of Doritos until some of the researchers were strangely overcome by feelings of paranoia.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


My dear friend Andy over at Culturebot had some questions the other day that I've been mulling (who can resist a post entitled " a few random, possibly offensive, thoughts and observations"?) I'll want to play with a couple of them, but today I'm focusing on his consideration of authenticity.

My other possibly offensive thought is about culture and authenticity. I was thinking a lot about Hasidism, as I have family members who are pretty much a part of that whole scene. For those of you who don’t know, Hasidism is a version of Judaism espoused by a mystic and scholar known as the Ba’al Shem Tov, beginning around 1734. If you hang in Williamsburg and other parts of the Five Boroughs you’ll see them walking around with the black hats and payot, long coats, etc. The reason they dress that way is that they are dressing, as much as possible, as did the Jews of Eastern Europe during the time of the Ba’al Shem Tov. At least that’s what I’m told. And they basically assert that their form of Judaism is the only authentic form. Which is their right. BUT I was thinking - what if there was some radical sect of African-Americans who dressed in ragged clothes and chains, as did their ancestors in the 18th and 19th centuries, and insisted that they were the only authentic expression of Af-Am identity? You’d think they were friggin’ nuts, right?

So what’s up with that? Does doing things the way they’ve always been done necessarily confer authenticity? How and when did the notion of cultural authenticity even come into existence? I would really, really appreciate it if someone smarter and more knowledgeable than me could explain when culture became so inauthentic and manufactured that we had to draw a distinction?
Sociologists, of course, will say that authenticity as a category is always constructed. This is what cultures do, decide what is genuine and acceptable and what is not. But the question is more interesting than that.

We have senior theses written often asking this exact question and it often comes from students who are deeply enmeshed in popular music and coming out of a suburban middle class background. Are those coming late to the party, only once it has become fashionable, less authentic than those of us who have been involved in the trend before it became well-known and respectable, back when we were marginalized for it? Can I be authentic in producing music that I love, but which began with a marginalized group I do not belong to? Is culture owned?

The entire question of authenticity seems to rely on a touchstone, what philosophers call an ostensive definition, that is when you define a concept by pointing at something and saying what I mean by X is that thing right there and all others appropriately like it. Yes, what counts as appropriate for the similarity relation is a problem, but the part that strikes me interesting in this case is the thing pointed to.

Often, it is not a real thing, but an idealization. We select an artificial construction, often a romanticized image and freeze it, making it into an icon. That icon that never actually existed then becomes the touchstone for genuineness. For Hasidim it is an icon of an 18th century Eastern European Jew. For the Amish, a Christian of roughly the same period. For blues aficionados, it is an African-American musician of the Mississippi Delta from the Depression.

This is not always problematic. Often times, cultural movements do come out of particular places at particular times. Reggae did come out of Jamaica in the 60s from a community of artists intentionally bringing it out of the artistic, religious, and political context. It was designed as an outlet to express the anger, joy, and aspirations of those experiencing that sort of life. There does seem to be some sense in which we can look at the work of the Perry, Marley, and Cliff and say that it is authentic as a touchstone. One could say of those who mimicked the style without the cultural context, that there is something inauthentic, that it is missing a piece. An upper class white kid could love the music, but could never come from the experiences that produced it, no matter how skilled he was at reproducing the sound.

Yet, this denies that every human endeavor, even authentic ones, evolve. Our notion of authenticity is such that it is so deeply committed to its ostensively defined model that it disallows growth, change, and improvement. The model is held up as an archetype, a perfect unalterable Platonic Form, and so authenticity forces us to be stuck in time, a time other than our own, making true authenticity impossible to achieve. Our attempts to be authentic are self-refuting, doomed to fail.

Authentic forms can become influences on others in different contexts and rightfully create new experiences that are themselves authentic. The rich white kid who loves reggae can use that love and the insight in the original to create his own authentic expression of alienation, of being trapped in his own quite different social hierarchy. Non-Hasidim can take from the preserved vision of the Shtetle occupant something that can by contrast or similarity speak truth about life now and about the potential we have to live in a way that better engenders our care for the other.

By binding authenticity to a dead image, often one that never existed, we seem to disallow for authenticity which is the genuine consideration of the actual context of our lived lives. Anyone who has ever kept a journal knows how much of our own lives we forget, how much wealth of experience is lost in day to day living. It is exponentially so with the cultural wisdom we lose when we lose generations. The Hasidic and Amish approaches do remind us that there are questions to be asked about whether this change is a good one, not all change is progress. But, at the same time, some change is good.

In this way, perhaps the notion of authenticity should be replaced with Aristotle's notion of virtue, that which helps us as individuals and as a group make real our potential. We forget some of the ways of those who came before, ways that are helpful in a deeper sense. We too often and wrongly jettison them for something novel. But, of course, those ways can be improved upon and we need the freedom to experiment with the new, knowing that experiments often fail, but not living in such fear of the failures that we fail to try.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Bullshit or Not: Mukasey 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.

This week's comes from Attorney General Michael Mukasey's appearance before the annual meeting of the American Bar Association. In explaining why those who "who took part in or failed to stop illegal hiring practices during the tenure of his predecessor, Alberto Gonzales" would not face any legal ramifications, he said,

"not every wrong, or even every violation of the law, is a crime. In this instance, the two joint reports found only violations of the civil service laws."
O.k., so is there a difference between committing a crime and breaking a law? Surely, there's a difference between a law, a rule, and a policy, but is something like that operative in this case that makes these transgressions non-criminal?

So, bullshit or not? As usual, feel free to leave responses from a single word to a dissertation.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Drill Here, Drill Now: Return of Cage and Frame

As if we didn't know it would return. The rhetorical trick called "cage and frame" is used when a politician has an entire subject he wants to keep from discussing, hiding it safely out of view in a rhetorical cage.

Candidates usually take their cue from magicians by employing a tactic of misdirection – hey, look over there, it’s someone burning a flag while taking the Ten Commandments from a courthouse. This move, what logicians call a “red herring,” is generally effective. But if the topic is urgent, a more sophisticated bit of sophistry is required.

The cage and frame stratagem is to open the cage just enough to let out one token part of the issue in order to make it appear that the topic as a whole is being fairly discussed. The key is to select the tiny corner of the complex concern most easily framed to your advantage, and then discuss it, and it alone, as vociferously as possible. Your opponent now faces a dilemma. If he chooses not to give a full-throated rebuttal, the lack of passion validates the charge in the mind of the public, think John Kerry and the Swift Boat attacks.

Alternatively, you could take the bait, engaging the issue forcefully. The respondent now sounds defensive while arguing from the opponent’s preferred conceptual framework and phrasing. But more importantly, the engagement directs all attention away from the crucial parts of the topic that remain locked away in the cage. The spirited debate concerning this side issue leads the broader public to wrongly infer that they are hearing an open debate about the matter as a whole. If this one issue was not the most important aspect of the question, they reason, why would both sides spend such time and energy arguing so vehemently? In the zero sum game of political coverage, the important elements of the topic will be ignored, exactly as desired.

In the face of spiking gas prices, energy policy affects voters personally, as well as the larger economy and national security. The conversation surrounding this multifaceted subject now includes only the expansion of drilling rights. Further exploration would not bring a single drop of oil to market for several years, making it irrelevant to the current concerns, but never mind because the larger debate about energy independence is off the table. Wind? Nuclear? Conservation? Global Warming? Cap and trade? Gone – successfully trapped in the rhetorical cage once everyone is laser focused on off-shore drilling. "Drill here! drill now!" Cage the energy debate here! Frame it now!

Similarly, with the hand wringing over whether Dems, particularly Obama, will admit that the surge has worked. By making this the sole issue of discussion in foreign policy, everything else – judgments concerning the threat from a pre-war Iraq, the prosecution of the wars, the abandonment of Afghanistan and what to do now in Iraq, Iran, the West Bank and Gaza, North Korea – has vanished without a trace into the rhetorical cage because of a non-issue in a partisan frame.

We are played like rubes in a game of rhetorical three-card monty. The dealer knows where the real debate is, but no matter how we try to follow the cards, we are always shown something else. In this very important election year, we need to unlock the cage for a truly open political debate. We need all of the cards on the table.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Olympic Pun-Off

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

In honor of the opening of the summer Olympiad, we get in the spirit with our own competition. It is the Olympic pun-off. Worst sporting pun get Oy-limpic gold.

My entries:

Have you heard of the new Spanish sport that involves eating twenty-six bowls of custard. It's called the maraflan.

There's a new winter sport that combines hockey and the luge. It's called hock a lugie.

Top that, my friends.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, August 08, 2008

What Do the Olympics Mean?

In ancient Greece, wars would stop for the Olympic games. It was not merely a time out for recreation, but rather an opportunity for humans to honor the gods by achieving acts of human excellence. It was an arena for human transcendence, to offer up to the gods of Olympus people who in body best modeled them.

The modern Olympics began with a more secular hope, to provide a forum for the world to come together peacefully in the mutual enjoyment of universal sport. It a chance for us to set aside all that we claim makes us different and come together as a human family for something less serious, something humane.

Of course, that didn't last long. Between Hitler's display in the Berlin games of 1936 to the assassination of Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972 to the US boycott of the 1980 summer games in Moscow to the tit for tat Soviet boycott of the 1984 summer games in Los Angeles, the Olympics have gone from a time to join the world to one that reinforces political pettiness and divisiveness. Nations train their athletes to compete as if winning actually meant something for the worth of the nation.

Following a loss to the Soviets in 1988 in which clock management made tenths of seconds fail to exist on the court, the Americans decided that the Olympics would no longer be the purview of amateur athletics and the Dream Team (c) concept was born to the great delight of the corporate sponsors (read: owners) of the games. I will admit that the first team, the chance to bring Bird, Johnson, Jordan, Barkley, Robinson, Drexler, and crew together to make a real team not just a goof-off all-star team was an exciting prospect, but in the end it has made the games into something less than they were or at least appeared to be.

And now, I greet the games with a shrug and a so what. Doped up track stars, spoiled pro hoopsters, fourteen year old gymnasts who have never had a chance to live a real life as a kid, and a network that spends 49% of the time showing commercials, 49% of the time with contrived, sappy stories to make these games into compelling human dramas, and 2% actually showing athletes during which time we have to listen to obnoxious homer announcers...Who cares? The mindless nationalism, especially when the people representing your nation are not the ones you want your kids to see as role models, you know, what's the point?

What do the Olympics mean anymore other than an opportunity to sell me Coke?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

What Aren't We Talking About?

What are the most important issues that are not making it into the Presidential election discourse at this point? What are the candidates and the media not discussing yet that most needs to be? What aren't we talking about that should be talked about?

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Creativity and the Aging Mind

It is a truism in the world of mathematics that the great mathematicians have done all their best work before the age of thirty. In other fields may be a bit later, but generally when you find revolutionary thinkers, their great work is done early in their career.

As someone who just turned 40, it's got me thinking. If this is true, why?

Seems like there are several possible explanations:

(1) Biology 1 (body focused) -- Great advances take incredible energy and stamina and this is something one has when younger, but loses as one gets older.

(2) Biology 2 (brain focused) -- There are biological changes within the aging brain that makes it less flexible and therefore less likely to display the creativity needed to make new advances.

(3) Advantageous Immaturity -- Great advances take minds uncluttered by a deep understanding of the accepted paradigm, understanding that comes with age and depth of study. Over time, we come to realize that things are not as clean cut as we first think. Progress comes from naively rejecting paths that have been fruitful in the past in favor of new paths that may or may not be. Sometimes these youthful sprints into the unknown lead to new and beautiful meadows, but as one ages, one matures and learns to appreciate what the different paths have to offer. Smelling the roses on the paths already traveled doesn't blaze new ones.

(4) Psychology -- We naturally resist change. When young, everything is new so progress along pathways not previously thought of is easy, but when older we do not want what is familiar and comfortable taken from us and this hampers intellectual advancement.

(5) Sociology -- When young, we have nothing but our work to tie us down, but as we get older, we accumulate commitments to family, to institutions, and to community. We are spread thinner and therefore cannot, indeed do not want to, give the work the undivided attention of our younger selves, undivided attention that is needed for advancement.

(6) Economics 1 -- When younger, we have little stake in the current best theory and every incentive to overthrow it. When older, our earlier successes are the key to recognition and come to define us professionally. Instead of trying to overthrow our earlier work, we try to extend it -- and thereby our status -- making it unlikely that we will willingly surrender what makes us important, the old work.

(7) Economics 2 -- As one gets older, one figures out how to play the game successfully and thereby becomes part of the ossified institution and entrenched in its reward structure. The motivation is thereby to protect the status quo since it is the source of one's status.

(8) Altruism -- Older thinkers see the new pathways perfectly well, but like parents hiding easter eggs, they pretend it was the Easter Bunny just to see the faces of the youngster when they discover them.

So, which of these if any are the operative factors? The main ones? Others?

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Anthrax Conspiracy

Been thinking a lot about the anthrax issues. I was always shocked at how quickly the issue was ushered out of the public eye. Here were attempts to murder Democratic Senators in a closely divided Senate, something not far off from a coup d'etat, and yet it just seemed to vanish from the news.

I live just a few miles from Fort Detrick and so the idea that it might have been an inside job by one of my neighbors was both frightening and on some level not terribly surprising. While Maryland is a liberal state in large, parts of Frederick county (Fredneck county, as it is widely called) can be scary. From the John Birch Society billboard on route 15 to the klan in Thurmont to the reactionary op/eds in the Frederick "News"-Post, the area is home to some of the most radical of the radical right.

But since the suicide of the latest prime suspect, Bruce Ivins, a rabid right-wing specialist in bioweapons at Detrick, questions and conspiracy theories have been flying. Was it initiated by the Bush administration as an attemot to lure us into invading Iraq? Remember that initially the news reports definitively linked the substance to Sadam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction capabilities because of the presence of bentonite, a fingerprint that proved it was from Iraq...except that there actually was no bentonite found in the sample. Glenn Greenwald points out that ABC News had this "fact" from four independent government sources. Why would these government sources mislead the public in thinking that American made bioweapons deployed against Democrats really came from a country that they had clear intentions on invading? Why hasn't ABC outed these "sources" who lied to them? Why was the FBI so slow to make progress on this case? Did the fact that the terrorist was an American conservative play a role in slowing down the investigation or even keeping the investigation from actually proceeding? Why weren't more resources dedicated? Why are they being so quick to dismantle the investigation?

Were they right about Ivins being a lone gunman ("envelopeman" just doesn't sound omninous enough here, does it?)? The conspircacy theories on this point are not just coming from the left. In the Wall Street Journal, an op/ed contends that Ivins could not have been the source of the poisoned letters.

The principle of parsimony argues that one should look for the simplest explanation. We should always hesitate to consider something the result of a brilliant ploy whenever it is possible to attribute it to banal incompetance. The X Files is fiction. At the same time, we do have an administration that reintroduced and has actively supported the use of black propoganda and covert actions. Of course, this is also a government that has been incompetant at carrying out virtually all functions from protecting American cities to rebuilding Iraq to prosecuting terrorism suspects.

Was the whole thing a government sponsored plot to lure us into an invasion of Iraq and possibly get rid of a couple political opponents? Was the investigation a sham and a cover-up to protect the operation? Is the media complicit? Did Bruce Ivins commit suicide? Was he involed and if so did he work alone? What does a skeptic believe here? Hell, if I know.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Is All Love Sweet?

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Barack Obama and Louis Armstrong (interesting coincidence), but also Percy Shelley.

Shelley wrote

All love is sweet,
Given or returned.
Common as light is love,
And its familiar voice wearies not ever.
They who inspire is most are fortunate,
As I am now: but those who feel it most
Are happier still.
The quotation immediately brings to mind the line from Shadows and Fog,
"There's only one kind of love that lasts - unrequited love. It stays with you for ever."
So, Shelley the romantic or Allen the cynic, who is right? Is all love sweet?

Friday, August 01, 2008

That Joke Is So Old...How Old Is It?

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week good brother Helmut and good brother 71 alerted me to this story.

The world's oldest recorded joke has been traced back to 1900 BC and suggests that toilet humor was as popular with the ancients as it is today.

It is a saying of the Sumerians, who lived in what is now southern Iraq and goes: "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap."
Yes, friends, a joke so old that John McCain hadn't reached puberty when it was first told.

It's a fart joke and a dirty joke all in one. The Sumerians were truly an advanced civilization, perhaps this is further evidence for Erich von Daniken's claims that the ancient world was visited by aliens because the odds of such primitive cultures having such advanced humorous technology strains credulity.

If that wasn't enough, good brother Bill sent me this review of Jim Holt's new book Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes.
In “Stop Me if You’ve Heard This,” his wispy inquiry into the history and philosophy of jokes, Jim Holt offers up a choice one from ancient times. Talkative barber to customer: “How shall I cut your hair?” Customer: “In silence.”
It is wonderful to see the history of humor receiving such play. For too long jokes have been degraded as not being fit for serious discussion because they are not serious. Clearly, an equivocation. Nothing is more human than jokes. Jokes are an anthropological gold mine. Almost nothing tells us more about our ancestors than what made them laugh -- it shows what they took seriously, how they used language, what were the social strata and how easily were they crossed.

Perhaps we are starting into a golden era in Comic Studies. What would be the titles of some scholarly tomes you'd like to see investigated?

"The Sound and the Fury: An Illustrated History of the Whoopie Cushion"
"Laughs in the Time of Cholera: Fake Vomit and its Historical Implications"


Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve


I don't get Hooters. What are they selling? You look at the name, the way they write the o's, the marketing, and you figure it's about breasts. But in reality, it's just a regular restaurant. A bunch of guys watching NASCAR, eating wings. WINGS! Even when Hooters serves chicken, they don't let you see a breast. So, my sense is that it is a topless bar for people who don't want to go to a bar and don't want to see anyone topless. It's what would happen if Disney decided to open up a strip club -- "You see, it's just like it only with no strippers, making it a wholesome destination for the whole family."

The whole thing seems to be a bit like Confederate Civil War re-enactors. I haven't joined the real Army to go to an actual war in Iraq, but I just want to say I'm a rebel who has sympathy with the non-politically correct side of things...just not that much of a rebel.

Someone please explain Hooters to me.