Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Happy New Year and Happy Birthday Rumi

Today is Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, a time to think about what the next year could bring and also the 801st anniversary of the birth of Rumi, the great Sufi poet and inspiration to the Whirling Dervishes who follow Rumi's belief that poetry, music, and dance can bring you enlightened wisdom. The convergence seems auspicious at this time in history when wars and economic fears keep our minds dark and worried about the mundane.

Rumi's life was transformed when his dear friend Shams was murdered. From sorrow and anger, he unleashed a flurry of beauty and depth. Here is his poem "I Throw It All Away":

You play with the great globe of union,
you that see everyone so clearly
and cannot be seen. Even universal

intelligence gets blurry when it thinks
you may leave. You came here alone,
but you create hundreds of new worlds.

Spring is a peacock flirting with
revelation. The rose gardens flame.
Ocean enters the boat. I throw
it all away, except this love for Shams.

As our own rose garden is in flames and the ocean enters our economic boat, this year may love bring union back to our globe, may we create hundreds of new worlds, and we be unafraid to throw away the material for the love of others.

What are your hopes for the next twelve months?

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Mother of All Gimmicks

Guest-post today from YKW:

Not being a reporter, I have no personal knowledge of any of the following, but my own cynical view of the McCain Bailout stunt is a bit more conspiratorial than I've seen reported so far.

Here are the facts:

1. McCain's down in the polls because of the economy tanking.
2. McCain's down in the polls because his running mate is Sarah Palin. (Which is starting to sound like its own cockney slang -- "I was going to swap my pair of orchestra tickets for tonight's play for
4 seats in the balcony next week, but I got Sarah Palin at the box office window and the manager wasn't around to bail her out."
3. McCain loves the bold unpopular move.
4. McCain wanted to show his independence from Bush.
5. McCain wanted to show-up Obama with his "country first" attack on Barack's patriotism - which means we shouldn't have a silly debate on Friday.
6. McCain knows that he can't win with Sarah Palin, and that he can't win without the die-hard new conservatives of his party.
7. He needs the Mother of All Gimmicks to get back on top, and McCain's just the guy to reach back and blow one out.

Enter one ERIC CANTOR, young, conservative, smart, relatively unknown, 4-term Republican Congressman from battleground state Virginia, representing wealthy suburbs of Richmond. Oh, and he's also Jewish, the only Jewish Republican in the House. More on this in a few paragraphs.

The House Republicans don't like the bailout bill proposed by Paulson. Cantor works the House Republicans into a frenzy to support his own bailout initiative, which is at odds with the President, Paulson, Bernanke, and the negotiated bill emerging from House Democrats, Senate Democrats, and Senate Republicans. By Thursday morning, he's got several dozen House Republicans willing to scuttle the entire bailout, but keeps it secret until... John McCain comes into town. They have lunch (this was reported in the newspaper) and now McCain begins to consider the MOTHER OF ALL GIMMICKS:

1. At the big White House meeting, stay quiet for a while and let it appear that Obama and Bush are agreeing to pay off Wall Street bigwigs.
2. Then, when finally pressed, say "NO DEAL! I'm with the House Republicans!" which is essentially what he did do. Then see what happens if he soft-pedals the Cantor plan.

Here I go off on a little poetic license:

3. Overnight, should the Cantor plan succeed, McCain would then be all over the TV as the White Knight who saved taxpayers from the Wall Street-Obama plan, while appearing to be a Maverick for bucking the president too!
4. McCain takes credit for rescuing the economy on the back of Eric Cantor, wonderboy.
5. All of a sudden, Sarah Palin catches a cold, Kremlin-style and drops out of sight. A few days pass, and Palin drops out of the race for an unspecified medical reason that the family wants to remain private, take care of her kids, whatever, everyone breathes a small sigh of relief, until...
6. McCain announces his new running mate, ERIC CANTOR! And why not, he can deliver just as many conservatives as Sarah, there might even be a Sarah sympathy vote out there, he seems much more reliable and is certainly smarter than Sarah, and he can help in several battleground states: Virginia, his home state; Florida - they'd have a Jewish congressman to court Jewish voters, surely he'd be on stage with John's other pal, Lieberman; and the same goes for Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, and Michigan.

The market tanking Friday morning and the pressure to attend the
debate probably caused McCain to shy away from this Uber-Gimmick.
Thankfully. McCain-Cantor would be a much more formidable challenge than the current choice. With 40 days until the election, Republicans and even some Democrats would have enough time to get over the "I can't believe he really dumped her, what lousy judgment he has" talk, and would be well into the "we really have to take this new VP candidate seriously" talk, sucking all of the air out of the election completely, which has been the only thing McCain has demonstrated he can do with regularity.

Might still happen - hopefully someone will give me credit.

Cantor was indeed vetted by McCain as a possible running mate...

Friday, September 26, 2008

Feast of Saint Bill

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week saw the feast day of Saint Bill. Bill Murray turned 58. A native Chicagoan, he was born into a large Catholic family. Murray worked his way through Catholic school as a caddy and then went on to college, though not with a scholarship from Ted Knight. Ultimately, he dropped out after being busted at O'Hare for possession of marijuana on his way back to school, only to be extended an invitation to join the legendary Second City troupe in Chicago.

In 1974, he moved to New York where he joined the cast of the short lived National Lampoon Radio Hour at the invitation of John Belushi who also managed to attract Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, Christopher Guest, Gilda Radner, and Richard Belzer. Following the demise of the show, he moved to Los Angeles, but two years later returned to join many of his old mates as a member of the "Not Ready for Prime Time Players" on NBC's Saturday Night. Murray's work on SNL is nothing short of genius and it launched his film career which includes some of the all-time funniest films ever made -- Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day.

How can one even begin to pick a favorite Bill Murray moment? Nick Winters, the Lounge Singer would have to be mine. Others?

Happy birthday, Bill Murray.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Universality of Games

Had a student in my logic class mude with some friends about the universality of games. It turns out that kids in the US, Burma, and Nepal all play both hide and seek and freeze tag. Their question was whether that was an indication that these games were universal.

It seems like there are three options here:

(1) The commonality is the result of intercultural interaction. Colonization likely communicated a number of cultural artifacts in both directions and the game could have had one invention and been carried to other places.

(2) The games are simple enough that they arose independently in the same form. They are basic games requiring no equipment and with rules that are not complex, so it could be coincidence that disparate cultures would invent the same sort of games.

(3) The most interesting was their idea which was a sort of playtime Chomskian move, that the human mind is hardwired with a "game grammar" such that at certain times, human children everywhere will not only be led to play, but to play in certain well prescribed ways.

The additional bit of evidence they supplied was that terminology was not translation or transliteration. For example, in Burma, freeze tag is called statue tag and the person doing the tagging is not called it, but the tiger. If the game had been carried over, the rules likely would have brought with them the terminology, but here are terms that make more sense culturally.

So, while we would all, I think, want to say that play itself is a natural part of human life, especially childhood, are the particular games also universal and if so, in what way?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Alright, We'll Call It a Draw

Gimmick. John McCain, after saying the fundamentals of our economy are strong, after saying we have time for a commission, after saying it was just about greedy CEOs, suddenly calls for a suspension of the Presidential campaign because of the economic crisis cannot afford even another moment.

With poll numbers plummeting, with more and more coming to light about McCain's campaign manager's firm being paid millions of dollars for access to McCain specifically for the deregulation of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, with the press not falling for the fake Palin UN photo op, with Palin's not so hot interview with Katie Couric (Couric rating only slightly more difficult an interview than Larry King and Barney the Purple Dinosaur), McCain now calls for the campaigns to be suspended. It brought to mind one line: Alright, we'll call it a draw.

Obama's repsonse: "Presidents are going to have to deal with more than one thing at a time. It’s not necessary for us to think that we can do only one thing, and suspend everything else." In other words, "What are you going to do, bleed on me?"

The Palin pick was supposed to be a game changer. Down by seven points just after half time, it was a risky long pass. But while it got them inside the 20, the polls show that they had to settle for a field goal and still find themselves down by four, really not any better off than they were before. In fact, (to labor this metaphor) the kickoff after the field goal was run back deep into his territory and a touchdown for Obama in the debates on Friday or the VP debates (Biden, the veteran receiver trying to be covered by, Palin, the rookie defensive back) would pretty much put the game out of reach. Indeed, Obama could run the clock out. McCain is now pulling every trick play out he can find in his playbook. Gimmick, pure and simple.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Does Size Matter When It Comes To Virtue Ethics?

With the New York Yankees on the verge of getting eliminated from the post-season and Jeff Maynes teaching an ethics class, we had a chance to think about Schadenfreude...sweet, sweet Schadenfreude.

Surely, from a virtue ethics perspective there is something vicious about Schadenfreude. Being the sort of person who delights in the pain of other humans (for the sake of this question, we'll assume Yankee fans are to be included in this category) certainly shows a flaw that one absolutely would not want to be an entrenched part of one's character.

But this is just a game, indeed, a game that the fans are not even playing. It is a pastime, a diversion, a distraction from the important aspects of life. Does this lack of moral import obviate, even to a degree, the moral problem with Schadenfreude?

Utilitarianism sees the overall effect as morally relevant, but what about questions of virtue? Does being a jerk about something unimportant excuse you at all for being a jerk? Does it make you less of a jerk if people know that morally they can count on you to be serious and upstanding when the chips are really down?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


I am not a conspiracy theorist. It is difficult to do easy things in the complexity of the real world, so complex covert actions and successful cover-ups are highly unlikely, especially when most things have much simpler explanations, often involving the most powerful force in the world -- human incompetence.

But then there are clear attempts to subvert Democracy and the evidence is out there...and it is frightening and underreported. In a democratic system, one wins by getting more votes. Legitimate campaigns focus on playing offense, that is, convincing voters to vote for them and get out the vote efforts to actually get the convinced to the polls. Then there are scum, those who play defense, that is, who act to disenfranchise voters trying to keep those who would vote for the other side from being able to cast their ballot or having their ballot count.

There are a number of methods employed for this. Some are simple. Make sure that there are an insufficient number of voting machines in the districts of your opponent. Since election day is not a holiday and people have families, they will not be able to wait for hours to cast their vote and the long lines will keep a significant number from voting. Or take a population that distrusts authorities and will be largely unaware of the complexities of election law and put "election monitors", thugs, partisan bullies at the polls to challenge and intimidate the voters. You are sure to peel off a bunch.

Then there is caging.

Vote caging is an illegal trick to suppress minority voters (who tend to vote Democrat) by getting them knocked off the voter rolls if they fail to answer registered mail sent to homes they aren't living at (because they are, say, at college or at war). The Republican National Committee reportedly stopped the practice following a consent decree in a 1986 case. Google the term and you'll quickly arrive at the Wizard of Oz of caging, Greg Palast, investigative reporter and author of the wickedly funny Armed Madhouse: From Baghdad to New Orleans—Sordid Secrets and Strange Tales of a White House Gone Wild. Palast started reporting allegations of Republican vote caging for the BBC's Newsnight in 2004. He's been almost alone on the story since then. Palast contends, both in Armed Madhouse and widely through the liberal blogosphere, that vote caging, an illegal voter-suppression scheme, happened in Florida in 2004 this way:

The Bush-Cheney operatives sent hundreds of thousands of letters marked "Do not forward" to voters' homes. Letters returned ("caged") were used as evidence to block these voters' right to cast a ballot on grounds they were registered at phony addresses. Who were the evil fakers? Homeless men, students on vacation and—you got to love this—American soldiers. Oh yeah: most of them are Black voters.

Why weren't these African-American voters home when the Republican letters arrived? The homeless men were on park benches, the students were on vacation—and the soldiers were overseas.
We know that the McCain campaign is currently engaging in such activities in Florida.

Then there's the cousin of caging, deceptive voter self-removal. This one is stunning. The McCain campaign is sending out to minority voters fraudulent absentee voter request forms to voters who never requested them in swing states including Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Minnesota. They do this in two ways:

(1) Send a form created with an extra unneeded box on it, a box that requires a check to say that you are a registered voter. Not checking the unnecessary box means that your request is invalid and you have thereby removed yourself from being able to vote. This was done in Ohio, voiding the votes of about a third of the people who returned the flawed form.

(2) Make sure the printed return address goes to the county register of the wrong county making the request invalid. This was done in Wisconsin.

Then, of course, there is simple vote stealing. Electronic voting machines make this simple. On the Diebold machines without a paper trial, but are protected by locks that use the same keys as hotel minibars, here's how simple it

But what about the Sequoia machines with the paper trail? Here's how that one is taken care of:

But surely they wouldn't actually do that? This is all hypothetical, right? I mean no one was ever contracted to write the vote stealing program, were they?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Bullshit or Not: Descartes 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 time, let's work with a favorite quotation of mine from Rene Descartes' Discourse on Method

Good sense is the most evenly distributed commidity in the world, for each of us considers himself to be so well endowed therewith that even those who are the most difficult to please in all other matters are not wont to desire more than they have. It is not likely that anyone is mistakedn about this fact. Rather, it provides evidence that the power of judging rightly and distinguishing the true from the false (which, properly speaking, is what people call good sense or reason) is naturally equal in all men.
So, bullshit or not, you decide. As usual, feel free to leave anything from a single word to a dissertation.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Are the End Times Here?

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

Some have accused Comedism of being a mesironic cult because there is a faction that believe in the end times and these folks are beginning to make noise. They look at the irony of this week and see in it the prophesied four cold sores of the Apocalips. Could we take a look at the political race and bust a gut? Is it indeed the coming of the rupture?

This week we had Carly Fiorina telling us that the candidates were unfit to run Hewlett-Packard. While one wants a CEO who keeps the ship stable, her purchase of Compaq worked like an anchor as the competition sailed by. Having Carly Fiorina say you are unqualified to run H-P is like getting firearms safety tips from Dick Cheney, like having Michael Moore tell you you need to drop a couple pounds, like having Keith Richards tell you that you might have a drug problem, like having John McCain check your source code for syntax errors, like having Bill O'Reilly tell you to shut up, like...you get the idea.

Of course we also had John McCain telling us that the fundamentals of the economy were strong just as the economy teetered on the edge of full blown meltdown (must avoid cliched Titanic reference...rrrrrrr). Of course, one of the main reasons for it was deregulation snuck through by Phil Gramm, the man who wrote McCain's economic plan and whose wife was a board member of Enron. McCain's responses: call for the head of the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission -- yeah, your partner did away with the law, so blame the sheriff for not enforcing the law which he made sure would no longer be the law.

Finally, to simply explode the ironometer, a former Clinton supporter endorsed Senator McCain because Obama is, for her taste, too much of an elitist. The Clinton turned McCain supporter? Lady Lynn de Rothschild. Yes, a woman who was worth $100 million and THEN MARRIED INTO THE ROTHSCHILD FAMILY is calling someone an elitist from her estate in Buckinghamshire...or was it from her home in New York? Since when do Rothschilds endorse candidates? I thought according to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, they simply had them installed.

That's three...will there be a fourth irony as prophesied in the Book of Revulsions? If so, what could be more ironic than these?

Are these really the end times? If not and you happen to be in Baltimore, I'll be doing a short set at Damon's in Hunt Valley Sunday night at 9. Stop by and say hi. I'll be trying out some new material.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, September 19, 2008

Happy Birthday Lance Armstrong

Yesterday was Lance Armstrong's 37th birthday. Truly one of the great stories of recent years is his beating cancer and returning to become possibly the greatest racer ever. Accusations of doping remain as they will for everyone of the last decade who rode a bike without baseball cards in the spokes, but then there's that other rumor that his girlfriend refuses to let him wear a yellow condom because it only encourages him to finish first.

Happy birthday, Lance.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Does a Painter Paint?

Guest-post from C.Ewing today:

Assuming that we use the simple "a painter is one who paints" definition, which seems passably insufficient, we have to also understand (in order to both comprehend and utilize the term properly) what it means to be "one who paints". One obvious explanation is that you are a painter when you are painting. But this is not consistent with usage at all. When a painter stops painting for the day the painter does not lose the tag painter, and suddenly regain it at a later time when painting is resumed. So that doesn't work for us.

Perhaps, we can say one who paints habitually. It's thus a profession or at least a hobby. But that gets us quickly onto a sliding scale. Just how habitually must the habitual be done in order for it to be habitually done? Once a day? Once a week? Once a month?

What if a person gives up the profession? We could say, "X is a retired painter". But this may indicate that X no longer paints, much in the way a retired factory worker no longer works in a factory. We could also say, "Y used to be a painter but doesn't do it so much anymore". This indicates that the person is no longer a painter due to infrequency, although the action is still performed. But if this seems insufficient I think it's because it is teetering towards another usage, and perhaps therein lies the problem. Painter doesn't just indicate the activity, but rather an identity-quality that we associate with a given person.

If a given person stops selling paintings, and thus retires from the market, we might still call the person a painter if the work is still done. Not a professional, obviously, because the profession has been discarded, but still a painter. But if the person stops altogether, does the painter-identifier linger? It seems like in some cases it might. People are often identified by not only what they do, but what they have done, especially if it endured over many years and/or the person was particularly acknowledged for it.

I'm not sure how to properly divide the terminology from the identity question here. It seems like how we identify the person largely determines how we use the term, and indeed, what the term actually means in a given case.

So, I guess my question remains: does a painter paint?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

How Difficult a Job Is President of the United States?

A few days ago I told TheWife that I wanted to make a bumper sticker that read, "This time could we please elect the smart one?" Then yesterday, Carly Fiorina, a McCain surrogate and major economic policy adviser said that Sarah Palin was not qualified to run a major company. But that's alright, she said because that isn't what she is running for. When the feces hit the fan, she was redispatched to do damage control and say, well, I don't think any of them are... (Yes, taking Carly Fiorina's advice on corporate leadership is like taking a nautical safety course from Joseph Hazelwood, captain of the Exxon Valdez.)

But I think there is something very important in the original claim. For Republicans, it really is not that important to have someone who knows the world, who has a deep educational background, who is a careful critical thinker. Between the bumper sticker idea and the Fiorina brouhaha, I responded to a post over at Sweating Through Fog, one of the Republican blogs on my blogroll, who was drawing what I contended was a false equivalence between Obama and Palin. The primary disanalogy being that Obama has not only the intellectual firepower, but has developed critical habits of mind as evidenced by many things including his editorship of the Harvard Law Review. The naive response would have been the one we saw pushed for Bush and against Kerry four years ago. Being President is about intestinal fortitude and that thoughtfulness is wimpiness, indecisiveness. It is a mark of being part of the "elite" to prefer the brain to gut. One delegate at the Republican National Convention said that she liked Palin because it gave her the sense that anyone could be President.

The thoughtful response actually given was:

There are really two separate aspect to a successful presidency. The first - Head of State - requires social grace, deftness, and ability to express the feelings of a nation. Academic skills are of little use there. The second, the executive aspect, requires skill at picking the right people, listening to competing advisers, and the ability to maintain leadership of political coalition as circumstances change. I'm not sure that academic skills have great usefulness there easier.

So your assertion that the presidency requires someone with extraordinary academic credentials - like Obama - is just plain wrong. If I were to rank Presidents of the 20th century by academic skills, I think Clinton, Carter, Hoover and probably Wilson would be at the top, and I don't see a president of historical greatness there. Reagan, FDR and Truman would be near the bottom of the list, and there are at least 2 great presidents there. So if there is some correlation between SAT scores and a successful presidency, I'm not seeing it.
Certainly, it is true that educational success is not sufficient for Presidential success, but isn't it necessary in these times of economic, geo-political, and environmental upheaval?

When you look at the folks the Republicans nominate, Bush Jr. and Reagan are the most obvious examples, there is a deep sense of anti-intellectualism. Smart is bad. I think the key is that when you don't want the ship to sail much, you don't look for a skilled captain.

Democrats, on the other hand, expect more of government and that means needing extremely competent people at the stern. I referred to POTUS as the hardest job in the world and did so without intending hyperbole. The economy is incredibly complex, the political situations around the globe require deep understanding of the inter-related facets of history, religion, politics, resource distribution, our environmental problems require an ability to grasp scientific results. The breadth and depth of mind needed to be the ultimate authority strikes me as stunning.

The response was,
I'm not certain that the presidency is the hardest job in the world. Things that come to mind that are harder would be brain surgeon, major league shortstop, space shuttle commander and concert pianist. We tend to exalt the office, supposing that only someone with superhuman, almost Godlike, capabilities could master it.
So, the question for you folks is, How difficult a job is President of the United States?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Where Are the Economists?

So, the Dow plummets more than 500 points because Lehman Brothers, AIG, and Merrill Lynch teeter on the edge. Bad debt from an unregulated market has come back to bite us in the fiscal you know where, families are suffering stunning foreclosure rates, storied financial institutions are crumbling, 401k's are disintegrating, yet all we get is he said/she said posturing from campaign surrogates. Where are the economists?

This is not to pick on economists. When there are ethics issues, why do we not see philosophers? When global warming is addressed, why aren't the go-to folks climate scientists? Where were the biologists explaining the foundations of evolutionary theory and the supporting evidence during Dover? We whine and complain that political coverage never comes near an issue, but instead focuses solely on the horse race. Yet, with every other issue, we get a reduction of a different sort, we get nothing but partisan political spin instead of actual explanations from experts so we understand the basics.

I understand that MacNeil/Lehrer may not be the most gripping tv, but surely there should be a stable of media friendly experts who could clearly discuss the facts and basic concepts with multicolored USA Today type graphics that would capture viewers. Why don't we have Mr. Wizards for each and every field. We used to have medical doctors who would play that role for health stories, but even that has faded.

McCain's press person misrepresented Obama's tax plan and said that it violated economics 101. This, of course, is nonsense. If there was an economist there who could say, "You know, I teach economics 101...and 216, and 437 and supervise doctoral theses, and actually here is the real controversy...not the fake one you are trying to gin up," we would actually begin to have a thoughtful conversation. Once they knew they couldn't get away with the crap, the crap would stop. I understand that there are live debates within the economic world, but they are not the fault lines that the political sides actually play to.

But apropos of yesterday's post, because our press is made up of clubby politico insiders who don't do their homework and are afraid of flack for actually challenging nonsense, this sort of stuff slips by all the time. Certainly, the press in its push for ratings prefers chocolate to broccoli, but some of the blame is also to be placed on the Academy. We should be demanding our seat at the table. We should be outraged that our field is mischaracterized and that one of our colleagues is not there to correct the misrepresentations. Yet, this sort of thing is seen as unserious. If you are not producing work for your incestuous little academic clique, you are not doing what you are supposed to be doing. The notion that we have a responsibility to be public intellectuals has been lost.

But we do not need to emulate the American Bar Association and require pro bono media work of everyone. We should make it the intellectual community's responsibility. We should be developing great teachers who have a knack for clearly articulating issues and concepts with colorful metaphors and images who would learn how to be comfortable and easy to watch on the small screen and not just in the classroom. We should be making it easy for the media to know that they can go to us and have someone who will be informative and entertaining. Not all academics would be appropriate; indeed, the biggest names are not necessarily the ones we would want. The Surgeon General is not necessarily the most skilled physician. But we need an Economist General, and a Biologist General, and a Philosopher General, and, a Russian Political Scientist General, and, and, and...

If we are going to address the longstanding anti-intellectualism in this country, we need to normalize the intellectual. By humanizing smart people and painlessly making tv watchers smarter, the fear of "the elite" can begin to be addressed and the absurd positions that become widely accepted because of fallacious partisan spin could be undermined. The difficulty, of course, would be overcoming the false equivalence of star pundit vs. Princeton prof, but with a cooperative stance between legitimate experts and the media, a better media and a better informed electorate could result. Maybe. Well, like chicken soup, at least it couldn't hurt.

Monday, September 15, 2008

How Do They Get Away With It?

As someone who teaches critical thinking for a living, I am more than aware that fallacious reasoning is often psychologically very powerful. Despite what certain Enlightenment thinkers might say, we are not wired for reason. We often find bad arguments more persuasive than good ones.

But then there are some arguments that are so obviously flawed that they generally only exist on logic exams...or in contemporary political discourse.

When asked about his negative ads, John McCain and his surrogates have a stock answer. It's Obama's fault we have to be nasty and not talk about issues.

"If we had done what I asked Sen. Obama to do, I don't think you'd see the same tenor of this campaign," he said. "Why don't you ask Obama the next time he's on this show why won't he be in town meetings with me?"

If my weakest student cannot spot this as a red herring, I will turn in my union card right now. They asked McCain about the content of what he said and he argued about the forum in which he said it. How are the two related? Your opponent refused to play to your strength and so it is then entailed that you have to resort to smears so vile that even Karl Rove says they cross the line (file that one under irony can be so ironic -- this isn't the pot calling the kettle black, it is the ninth level of Hades calling the the kettle black).

I can understand to some degree letting slide the silly argument about Palin's foreign policy experience coming from the fact that Russia is next to Alaska. It's a mind-blowingly stupid argument, but perhaps one could confuse proximity with engagement.

But the "Obama made me do it because he wouldn't agree to town hall meetings" garbage? All it would require is a "huh?" It is a line so bad that it is virtually self-refuting. How do they, the supposed party of "personal responsibility", get away with this?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Passing the Plate: Particle Physics Edition

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgender Comedists Everywhere,

So the folks at CERN fired up the Large Hadron Collider and the world has failed to end. In celebration of our continued physical existence, this weekend let's pass the plate for physics jokes.

For those new to the Playground. Other religions ask for donations of money, but Comedists request that you tithe jokes.

My absolute favorite I heard from SteveD years ago:

Did you hear about the new quantum mechanical nightclub? It's called the h bar.

And then there's the old classic:

A young atom runs home shouting "Mom, Mom, I've lost an electron." The mother atom says, "Are you sure?" "Yes," replies the young atom, "I'm positive."

Dig deep, people. Your favorite physics jokes. Just be aware that anyone who says "nukular" will be excommunicated.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, September 12, 2008

Do Senior Faculty Have an Obligation to Retire?

Stealing this post from the Leiter Blog (it wasn't Leiter's question, so I feel less bad picking it up here).

With the economic downturn, retirement accounts have taken a serious shot. As a result, there are going to be people who would have retired, but won't. Let's eliminate those who can no longer afford to retire and only talk about those who could live comfortably, but choose to continue to occupy their chairs just to build back up bigger nest eggs. This decision has an effect on the discipline by creating fewer jobs for newly minted grads, keeping some people out of academia, making it less likely they will publish and contribute in the same way to the discourse whereas the emeritus would still have access to libraries and colleagues and would suffer professionally nowhere near the same insult. Their decision therefore causes some degree of harm to philosophy. Is this harm something one has to morally consider or is it ethical collateral damage? Does one have an obligation to the next generation? An obligation to one's profession? Are these operative in any non-trivial way?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Price of Entertainment

So, Paula Poundstone is coming to campus. I love her stand-up. I'd love to see her. The cheap seats are $33. I'm not going to see Paula Poundstone.

$33! (A sentence with no letters in it.) I paid $30 to see the Rolling Stones...and they had fireworks...and they were the Rolling Stones. TheWife's response was "You're old." But it seems more than that. The rate of increase of the cost of entertainment strikes me as absurd. I've been priced out of concerts. What accounts for this? Surely, it's not that production values are that much higher. Is it transportation costs? Does ticketmaster's monopoly account for it? What is the deal and is it legitiimate. Is entertainment reasonably priced or is there something to complain about?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Can the Dictionary Be Wrong?

I had a student look up a word in the dictionary the other day and complain that the dictionary was wrong. Is this possible? Aside from a typographical error or an omission, can a dictionary entry be incorrect? Is the dictionary scientific documentation of how words are used by the linguistic community or is it a prescriptive rulebook that dictates how we ought to use words? If I look up a word and the dictionary says it means one thing and I think it means another, who wins? If I lose that battle, how many people do I have to gather on my side before we can start a revolution and overthrow our lexicographic overlords?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Who Are the Best Looking Philosophers?

So, a student yesterday asked who were the best looking analytic philosophers, not convinced that there actually were any. My initial response -- aside from yours truly, of course -- was Moritz Schlick whom I'd always thought had that handsome strict German professor thing working for him. The student wasn't impressed.

To be shallow, one of the fun things about attending meetings of the American Philosophical Association is looking at name tags and getting to see what your philosophical heroes actually look like in real life. I remember first seeing Michael Friedman, one of the finest scholars and smartest humans alive, and thinking, "Oh my God. He's a short, bald, Jewish guy. He writes so much taller with more hair. Maybe there is hope for me in this field, yet."

So, pulling from the entire history of the field and allowing liberal use of the term "philosopher", who are the best looking philosophers? We'll accept nominations in any standardly recognized category.

Monday, September 08, 2008

How Good Is Too Good For Little League?

Confused, Maybe Not sent me the link to this article about a nine year old boy who can throw around 40 miles per hour. He is not allowed to pitch because he throws that fast.

The opposing coaches claim that it is a safety issue, that they are afraid of a child getting hit. That may be part of the concern, but there is another aspect as well.

"He is a very skilled player, a very hard thrower," Noble said. "There are a lot of beginners. This is not a high-powered league. This is a developmental league whose main purpose is to promote the sport."
While anyone who has ever been around little league will tell you that there is an unhealthy approach to competition, it is also true that little league is not just winning, but about learning to play the game. If this child is that overpowering on the mound, then the young hitters who face him will not learn since they simply cannot handle the speed. From a pedagogical standpoint, something central to the experience, there does seem to be a problem here.

But how good is too good? At what point should a child's natural talents disallow him from playing? Every league has teams and players that are outstanding, what would be the criteria which puts someone across the line and isn't just a challenge to opponents to step up their game, something else that sports has to teach young people? We don't want absolute parity, athletics was for me an education in learning that I could compete against people who were much better natural athletes than me if I worked harder and played smarter (and get put at the proper position -- goalies don't have to run very much in lacrosse). But how much disparity should we be willing to allow?

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Feast of Saint Peter

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week we celebrate the feast of Saint Peter. Peter Sellers would be 83 this year. A master of sketch comedy if there ever was one, Peter Sellers was born the son of an extremely overprotective mother and an organist father who played both church and secular gigs. "A bloody street sweeper, that's what you'll be," he told young Peter who attended dance and theatrical classes before entering the world of Vaudeville, initially as a jazz drummer and then ultimately as a comedian.

From the low stage, he entered the world of radio. He scammed his way in by calling a BBC executive, posing as a big radio star recommending Sellers and when the exec caught on, he was so impressed that he gave him a shot on "The Goon Show," a precursor to Monty Python's Flying Circus. An incredibly talented impressionist with impeccable timing, Sellars became perhaps the world's quickest voice change artist able to move so quickly between characters that he could carry entire schticks by himself without any sense that you were listening to one person.

He moved to the screen with several British films and then landed in Hollywood with The Mouse That Roared, a comedy in which the Dutchy of Fenwick declares war on the US with the intention of losing and getting a Marshall Plan type rebuilding after a California-based winery bankrupts the five mile by three mile large nation. Of course, they end up winning the war by accident and Sellars plays three separate roles.

He is, of course, best remembered for his work as Inspector Clouseau. I'm not sure what one could or needs to say about these films. They are as memorable as any comedy of the late 20th century. the slapstick so perfectly executed, the character so perfectly played. They remain funny no matter how many times you watch.

While a great comic talent, he was a needy individual married and divorced four times. He died far too young of a heart attack in 1980. At his funeral, the song "In the Mood" was played at his request. It is a song he absolutely despised, but which he thought singularly inappropriate for any funeral, muchless his own. As a result, he felt it the most appropriate way to keep his mourners off-balance, just the way he did his audiences.

Thank you, Saint Peter for all the laughs.

What are your favorite Peter Sellers moments?

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, September 05, 2008

Is A Foolish Consistency Really the Hobgoblin of Little Minds?

Guest-post from C. Ewing

In perusing matters of faith, I was also reminded of this quote from the movie Secondhand Lions:

"Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love... true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn't matter if it's true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in."
This line of thought initially came about in relation to "credere est assensione cogitare". I'm also reminded of a reoccurring stance that our pseudo-illustrious Hanno will take. Let us presume, just for sake of argument, that God, god(s), Goddess, the divine, or any notion of theism is simply, unutterably, and hopelessly wrong. I'm wondering: is this important in some way? If willfully holding to this belief makes you happier or a better person (in the moral sense, which we'll leave conveniently vague at this point in time) does it ultimately matter that you are in error?

In short: is it sometimes actually for the best that we dismiss reason? And I don't want to stick to the Judeo-Christian here. The same is true of our Wiccan friends, our neo-Celtic compatriots, etc. If believing in some sort of Gaea theory, fairies, etc., will make you more compassionate, more considerate, more concerned for the environment, etc., should we press forward the inconsistencies or absurdities of such notions?

A part of me wants to say: yes, of course. Merely holding an inconsistent, obviously false or unsubstantiated view is reprehensible, and should be corrected with all due haste. But, in the end, we will all maintain certain inconsistencies. Indeed, we will always harbor favored biases, which will lead us to dismiss certain evidence in favor of other, perhaps far more questionable evidence in support of the view we want, simply because we want it. Why is this a particular case where that is somehow not permissible?

Maybe, for some of us at least, these are things simply worthy of assent. That the world is a mysterious and wonderful place. That we have an ultimate Father and/or Mother figure who loves us unconditionally, and will always do right by us. That our enemies and neighbors should be loved. That forgiveness is always possible. That good will always triumph, and that there really are such things as miracles and magic.

I'm at a loss. Maybe I'm just resentful of a certain nun who taught me in fourth grade and seemed to have a passionate distaste for my very being. I would like to be dismissive. But at the same time: isn't a world with faeries and good people a far better world? Even if for me, they only go so far as being sparkly stickers.

Just a thought. I'm not sure how intellectually stimulating this actually is, but my initial reaction puzzles, and slightly disappoints me. I had hoped I was better than that.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Whose Speech Act Is This?

The notion of an utterance seems simple enough. I have a thought I want to express. I select words and a tone in which to express it. I say those words in that way.

But what if the words aren't yours, but you still say them? Quoting someone else still makes it your utterance. You chose Gandhi's words or Hitler's words or Carrot Top's words. And that selection makes the words yours in a sense.

But when Sarah Palin speaks before the Republican National Convention, they will not be her words. not strange, politcal speechwriters have been used for a very long time. What makes this wierd, though, is that according to McCain's campaign manager, the speech existed before a choice was made for VP.The speech was written when there was no such entity as John McCain's running mate. As such, while some tweaking has been done, the speech is, in a very real sense, not her speech.

So, when there are plaudits or harsh criticisms of the speech, whose speech is it? Can we hold the candidate responsible for more than just execution? Is she like an actor? Are we judging a performance the way we would judge the lead in a production of Hamlet? Or is it something else? What do we look for in political oratory? The same words can give rise to very different speeches. Does one claim the speech by giving it, as if having written it?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Pity Party: Whom Do You Feel Sorry For?

Been a while since we've had a pity party, so let's open it up.

This week, I feel sorry for Joe Lieberman. Apparently, John "Maverick" McCain really wanted to pick Holy Joe as his VP choice, but Karl Rove, the Bushes, and party insiders said no. McCain caved, being the maverick he is, not wanting to buck his party and instead of Romney (whom they were trying to shove down his throat), he chose Palin. And after all the time Joe spent checking McCain's bearings, he goes and chooses someone else. So, in the end, poor Lieberman gets rejected by the Democratic Party for being a Republican, only to get rejected by the Republican Party for being an Independent Democrat.

I feel sorry for David Duchovny. He's in treatment for sex addiction. The guy just put out a film that's a sequal to the X-Files, so it only stands to reason that his next project would be the XXX-Files. He was just doing research.

I feel sorry for Levi Johnston, the unmarried father of Bristol Palin's child or as Michele Malkin would put it, the "baby daddy". Describing himself on his Facebook page as a "fuckin' redneck," he's on his way to St. Paul for the world's most televised shotgun wedding. Kids make lots of mistakes, but this one goes to the top of the all-time "wrong place, wrong time" list.

I feel sorry for George W. Bush. He costs McCain his shot at the White House in 2000 with false smears about having a black child out of wedlock and how does McCain show his gratitude? He cuts Bush from the Republican National Convention, allowing him to do a videolink from the Oval Office. And apparently, W is pissed. After Bush chose sharing birthday cake with McCain instead of leading the nation during Katrina, McCain goes and chooses a hurricane over Bush. Is that what passes for loyalty today? I mean really.

So, whom do you feel sorry for today?

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

In Loco Parentis or Just Plain Loco?

We had an all-faculty conversation about advising the other day and then I met with my in-coming first year advisees just after this post came out on Crooked Timber.

The post discusses gender and student expectations concerning student-faculty relationships.

students demand much more emotional work from female professors than they do of male profs. If the women don’t provide it, they are often viewed as cold bitchy profs that don’t care about students. Although I don’t know of any systematic studies of what types of topics students bring up during interactions with professors by gender, I have heard plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that female profs get approached much more by students wanting to talk about life issues than male profs.

Setting aside the quite legitimate questions about gender here, I am interested in the legitimacy of student expectations. While I may get less of it than, say, Aspazia, I do plenty (read LOTS) of personal councilling -- not psychological councelling, but the need advice about issues that are deeply personal or need someone I trust to talk to Uncle Steve type councilling. Is this part of my job? It is not in my job description, of course, but de facto, is this not part of what a professor does? Should I expect it and be open to it?

These are eighteen to twenty-one year olds, people who are confused about many things, opening their eyes for the first time to the world in many ways, under extreme pressure from a number of sources, on their own for the first time, of course, they are going to need someone they can talk to. The relationship between an advisor and an advisee is in some ways parental when it works correctly, no? My grad advisors have been wonderful in looking out for me when I was newly minted and I look with great pride and affection with advisees who have gone on to do wonderful things (including commenting on this blog).

Yet, should this be expected of the advisor? Is it really part of the job? Anyone who knows academics is surely aware that we are not necessarily the most, how shall I put this, the most socially adept group of humans on the planet.

What is the role of a prof in this way? How involved should you be willing to be in terms of the lives of your students beyond your classroom?

Monday, September 01, 2008

Hillary Clinton is to Sarah Palin as Thurgood Marshall is to Clarence Thomas

Guest-post from YKW today:

Only one thing in common, and both times a very cynical, politically fashioned, lump of turds designed to make the Republican appear to be interested in the issues, only to find the single least qualified person for the job who fits the perceived conditions - in Thomas's case it was his race (and absolutely not his judgment) and in Palin's case, well, she apparently has a nice rack, and none of Hillary's experience, judgment, or politics. I've come to expect the worst, basest kinds of moves over the years from the GOP, but this one truly harkens back to Clarence Thomas. Just like Thomas, there are plenty of other more qualified Republican women who McCain could have chosen (Eliz. Dole and Kay Bailey Hutchinson come to mind, even Condaleeza Rice - none of whose politics I care for, but you have to admit they
are infinitely more qualified) and instead they go with a complete unknown, blank slate Tina Fey knock-off, a Dan Quayle for the 21st Century, on the theory that no record is better than some record. They can attack Obama and Biden at will, knowing that Palin has no record to judge.

I think the Hillary voters that McCain was attempting to seduce with this pick see through this charade. And the rest of the country will begin to think, do we want an untested 2-yr governor of Alaska a heartbeat (of the oldest ever if elected president) away from the White House? I think not. I don't see how any independent will think she's a smart addition to the ticket.

Sorry John, your misjudgment, and your underestimation of the maturity of the voting population, is showing. Again.