Friday, October 31, 2008

Boo Who?

Let's end the week of questions with a Halloween special from Aurora Geoes to Washington:

What is it that we should be scared of the most? And of course, why should this be our biggest fear?
The answer, of course, is contextual. If you are one of my logic students, then exam 3 on first-order predicate logic up through relations would likely top the list. For the rest of us, it's the twin meltdowns of the economy and the polar ice caps. Bad economic times means the large scale chipping away of (a) the sense of security that is more conducive to a life lived beyond present and basic pressing needs and allows us to occupy a space where we can more easily live deeper and meaningful lives for ourselves and others, and (b) actual security in terms of increased crime and desparation which brings out the worst in us. Global warming will only exacerbate this by (a) creating more natural catastrophes whose aftermaths we will be in a less favorable situaiton to deal with, not to mention in an emotional bunker where we will be less likely to be moved to help, and (b) causing problems with water which will give rise to additional geopolitical stressors.

That's mine. Others?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Fear, Love, and Experimental Philosophy

JMH asks,

Why do people fear the unknown?
Humans are amazing in this way. We will fight change even when it would benefit us. While I generally do not buy into a lot of the larger claims of evolutionary psychology, I do think that this is the fear of the unknown is a result of our biology. Anyone who has ever set foot in a classroom know how territorial we are. Marketers know perfectly well about the strength of brand loyalty. We are creatures of habit and that which breaks our habits worries us. The fear of the unknown is so widespread that I think it is programmed. I will not try to create a hypothetical made-up history which posits a possible advantage for the fear -- that's exactly what I think is problematic in some of the evolutionary psychology that gets floated -- but it does seem biological in nature.

71 asks,
do you think x-phi [experimental philosophy] is a worthwhile endeavor? if so, is it a philosophical endeavor? can it help to shed light on some of the really tough philosophical problems, or are the basic assumptions it's working with problematic? and, finally, what do you think of the flaming armchair?
We just happen to have an expert on this on the playground...jeff.maynes?

The way philosophy generally works is that we come up with a hard question, figure out what our intuition is, and then try to come up with an account to justify our intuitions. It turns out that some of these intuitions are about things we can test or at least we can test how widely these intuitions are shared. It will be interesting to see how far this goes. It clearly links into neuroscience and there is always the temptation to be reductionist. Sometimes it is warranted, other times not, but I think it will make at least as many new philosophical questions as it will answer longstanding issues.

Hanno asks
How many song lines from any song do you know that contain "Love is x" where x is a placeholder for any term or phrase that makes the sentence complete? Give as many examples as you can. Band name a bonus.
Love is all you need, Love is in the air, Love is all around,... Others?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Death, Hockey, and Love

A pair of questions from C.Ewing. First,

Is there an important distinction between "clinically dead" and "dead"? Is there a lingering dualism within that phrasing or something else entirely?
Yes, there is a difference. "Dead" is the explicandum and "clinically dead" is the explicans.

The godfather of analytic philosophy Rudolf Carnap argued that the job of the philosopher is explication, that is, taking a word in ordinary, spoken language which is vague, ambiguous, and altogether semantically mushy and to set out an explication of it, that is, devise a set of rigorous, clean, testable conditions to give the term a meaning that would not give rise to pseudoproblems, questions that look like real philosophical questions, sound like real philosophical questions, but aren't real philosophical questions, rather they are linguistic muddles, errors that arise from the lack of sharp delineation in meaning.

Death is one of those mushy terms. We think we know what it means and in most cases the mushiness doesn't cause any real problems, but in cases dealing with end of life issues like organ donation or persistent vegetative states, the lack of clarity does cause problems. To resolve this, we come up with "clinical death" a term that is meant to cover the sense we have of death, but with clearly delineated conditions by which we can judge whether someone is dead in this sense.

Second, we have this one:
Hockey. Is it just soccer for people in a cold climate or a legitimate sport on its own terms?
Different strategies, different skills, different body types, different sports.

jeff.maynes asks,
In King Lear, Cordelia makes a remark that she can love her father the King more than her sisters as they have to divide their love between their father and husbands. We can take "love" here to mean "attention" but even if we don't, is there a sense in which she is right? That love can be a finite quantity?
The easy answer is no, love is not a material commodity so scarcity is not a concern. But the easy answer is wrong.

To love someone is not merely to have the warm fuzzies when you hear your beloved's name or think of your beloved's face. Love may not mean attention, but it is an active relation where you take that person's welfare, well-being, and personal development as one of your own concerns. To love is at least to care and as Nel Noddings points out, to care is an active relationship or at least a potentially active one. That is why saying "I love you" is so deeply meaningful, because it is more than "Boy, my heart thumps when I think of you," it entails a depth of relationship and commitment.

No one (with the possible exceptions of Bono and Oprah) can love everyone. At some point, your love becomes empty because you are unable to truly relate in the loving fashion to those to whom you profess love. The intuition that Cordelia is mistaken is legitimate because she is setting the limit of love absurdly low, but to say that there is no limit at all is also wrong.

That said, my dear readers, rest assured that I love you all, each and every one of you (especially you)...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Philosophical Problems, Dark Matter, and Impersonation

Three more today.

pm asks,

Are there any genuinely philosophical problems? If so, what are they?
Sure there are. The first two that come to mind is, "Are there any genuinely philosophical questions?" and "If so, what are they?" Others include meta-ethical concerns, questions about the interpretation of physical theories, the nature of justice and beauty, and unpacking presuppositions beneath all our beliefs. Also, what exactly is they pay me for? Still not sure about that one.

Philo asks,
What do you think dark matter will turn out to be?
The idea here is that with the exception of astronomical objects very close by, the only things we can see are those that glow and they tend to be big and heavy. But we know from the way the universe is behaving that there has to be a whole bunch of stuff out there, stuff we can't see, but know from its gravitational effects must be there. The question is what is it?

The answer of course, is heck if I know, but my guess is that it will end up either being very boring or very exciting. It will either simply be dust, light molecules floating around or something that we never envisioned that makes up most of the universe and forces us to radically revise our image of reality.

R.A. Porter asks,
Is there no way to do impersonations of politicians with "standard" midwest/newsreader American accents in an interesting and funny way? Or is it just that the writers and performers on SNL lack the creativity needed to make Obama, McCain, or Biden funny? Is a distinctive voice, accent, or speaking style necessary for a truly funny impersonation?
Impersonations have three parts: the voice, the body, and the script. Impersonations are living caricatures, you need to take mannerisms, phrasings, cadence, accent, something notable that identifies the person and blow it up or at least bring it out and model it well. If one is vanilla enough that there are not the things to focus upon, to make the viewer say to him/herself, "Oh my God, that is so him/her," then you've got to do it with the jokes.

That said, SNL is a different case. Good impressions of these folks could be done, but I think that if you look at the way young comics come up there is much less focus on impersonations. It's always been a specialty, but most comedians did some impression work. My sense is that this is not a skill that many young comedians now need to develop and so when you get an ensemble of young talent, you will have performers with a lot of talent, but less in the impression category.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Nursing and Private Colleges

Let's start of the week with our first two questions.

Annie asks,

Why is nursing excluded from health care media reportage, health policy decisions, and from all discussions and major decisions about health care?
The only time we hear about nursing is when there is a story about the nursing shortage. When larger elements of health care are reported on, it is true that the people who do the majority of the actual "in the trenches" work caring for those in need are not the voices we hear from. I think that part of the answer is surely that nurses tend to come from and remain in a lower socio-economic class than doctors and HMO executives, and they tend to be female. When you look at the distribution of social power, these are folks who tend not to have it and therefore are not paid much attention by those who construct the news. Their line would most likely be that they want to talk to those who make higher-level decisions and for that you talk to the players we usually hear from.

I think this is changing, though, at least to some degree. The nurses made a lot of noise in California recently when their union shadowed the Governor and had a major effect on the political discourse. Yes, they had to work harder just to have their voice heard, but maybe this will help them get a seat more readily henceforth.

Anon asks,
What will happen to over-priced educational institutions if the economy continues to tank? Let us suppose there was a small liberal arts college which charges an obscene amount of money per year, and lets call it, for the sake of argument "GC." Let us assume a serious decline in economic production, and not merely a painful slowdown. Let us also assume people cannot barrow the money to pay, say, 30k a year, because the banks do not trust people to pay them back, nor can they pay out of pocket because their portfolio just collapsed, too.
A great question. There is no doubt that the current economic downturn will have effects on education at liberal arts colleges in a number of ways. There is no doubt that less expensive public universities may end up being the choice of some who would otherwise prefer the smaller classes, more personalized attention, and greater focus on skills like writing that you get at liberal arts schools. The problems in the stock market affect college's bottom lines which depend on their endowments which rise and fall with the market. Less money means fewer and smaller scholarships and financial aid packages and that affects students and the school.

Add to that the demographic situation we now face with the end of the mini-baby boom, the backside of the larger number of college aged students who are the kids of the baby-boomers, and you are looking at a double whammy for tuition-driven schools. Things could get very tough for institutions like GC in the coming years.

At the same time, an important lens through which to understand social phenomena is class insecurity. College is not merely an institution for education, it is also seen -- especially by parents -- as a necessary step in making sure their kids remain in the middle or upper middle class. People today are very worried that the next generation won't have it as good as their parents and they look to higher ed as a stepping stone up or at least a bulwark to prevent socio-economic backsliding. As such, liberal arts schools do have a certain cache that makes them even more attractive in hard times, an investment (yes, a very pricey one) that may pay larger dividends in the end. The community at a smaller school, the personal relationship with professors instead of teaching assistants, the focus on breadth and interdisciplinarity, the way teaching and not research is put foremost in the values of the institution are what you pay the extra money for and the question then becomes whether the advantages conveyed are worth the extra loan burden.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Auto Mechanics to Quatum Mechanics: Any Questions?

Man, it's been a while since we've done this.

I have a schtick I do at the beginning of every class where I let my students ask me absolutely any question they have, any question at all, as I say, from auto mechanics to quantum mechanics. When I started up this blog years ago, some former students asked me to revive it on-line, so every once in a while I open it up.

So, if there's a question you've always wanted to ask or something that's just been stumping you, here's your chance. Ask away and I'll try to open up to discussion as many as possible in this week's posts.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Placebos and Autonomy

A new study finds that about half of American doctors prescribe placebos for their patients. In order for the placebo effect to work, the patient must believe that the prescribed treatment is generally effective, something the doctor knows to be false. Hence the doctor is misleading the patient, albeit for the patient's own good. This is a clear insult to patient autonomy; the doctor is not being a partner in health with the patient when seeing if the placebo effect -- a very real phenomenon which does lead to the patient's own body curing the ailment -- will work in the case, rather the doctor is putting him/herself in a paternalistic position.

The doctor is lying to the patient for the patient's own good, yet for the doctor/patient relationship to be successful surely requires a significant degree of trust, trust undermined by this approach. Placebos in research are one thing where the participant not only knows of the possibility, but knows that it is a necessary structural element. With one's own personal physician, though, one does have the expectation of both honesty and good faith attempts to improve your health. Is there something wrong with placebos in this case? Is it morally permissible for a doctor to put health promotion above honesty in a patient/doctor relationship? If the placebo doesn't work, would the patient be right in being angry or should s/he be glad that his/her doctor was pursuing every avenue of treatment?

Blogroll Additions

I have an open-link blogroll policy, that is, I'm happy to link to anyone who links here. I have a message in the sidebar asking anyone who has the Playground blogrolled to e-mail me to let me know, but I know that folks don't often read it and many are always a bit shy about contacting someone they don't know.

I'll be updating the kaiser/blogroll soon, eliminating dead links for blogs that no longer exist and redirecting to the ones that have been moved. I'd also like to make a call for folks who would like reciprocal links. So, if you don't see your blog listed and would like it to be, leave a comment with the address (and feel free to do a bit of shameless self-promotion telling us the sort of thing you usually write about). Also, if there's a wonderful blog that folks here at the Playground should be reading, please let me know.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

M.B.A.'s and the Meltdown

A letter to Marketplace made an interesting point. This economic meltdown was the result of the actions of businesspeople at a time when more people have M.B.A.'s than at any time in history. The letter-writer was bemoaning the fact that the graduate education should have kept people from engaging in risky behavior and in unethical behavior, yet this did not happen.

I gave a paper a few years ago at a meeting of the Society of Business Ethics on Aristotle and the nature of corporate moral responsibility. The session before mine had a bunch of heavy-hitters in the world of business ethics and considered whether business ethics had a place in M.B.A. programs at all. They generally contended that their colleagues who study applied psychology and sociology considered their work too mushy to be taken seriously. The question was whether to accept this and work outside of the community or try to fight it in some way. Regardless of the answer, it seems to say that those with M.B.A.'s would be given a certain attitude towards ethical questions -- whether they are given coursework in it or not.

Is the education attached to the M.B.A. irrelevant to the goings on in the marketplace? Could it have been a contributing factor?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

David Palmer and Barack Obama

With so much talk of the Bradley effect and the reverse Bradley effect lately, I began wondering about something that might be a common cause but could probably not be accounted for in quantitative analysis. The character of President David Palmer on the show 24, was a strong, smart, competent African American. Could the prominence of this character have created the archetype of an acceptable African American president in the minds of Americans worried about national security?

The Bradley effect, in which people tell pollsters that they support a minority candidate, but do not vote for him/her, is based upon racial beliefs and those beliefs are affected by what we think is normal. Our perceptions of normality are shaped by what we see, even -- perhaps especially -- fiction. We know that 24 has shaped the national debate on the morality of torture, for example, being cited even by a Supreme Court justice. Could it also be affecting the larger cultural mind about what is acceptable in terms of race?

If so, the idea that a pro-torture, neo-conservative, fear-mongering drama on Fox setting the table for a Democratic President would have to go in the "irony can be so ironic" file.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Stress and Health

I was listening to an interview with Stanford neurologist Robert Sapolsky on NPR a few weeks back and it really struck me. Sapolsky who studies the relation between the neurological and the social in primates told a fascinating story in discussing his latest book, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers.

He pointed to the well-known relation between wealth and health. The usual explanation, that more money means more access to health care and higher quality health care, he argued, is belied by the fact that we see the same thing in European countries with socialized health care systems. Everyone has the same access to the same health care, yet it still holds true that the better off financially, the better off physically. Why?

He contends that the answer is class-related stress; the lower you are on the pecking order, the more stressful your life, and the more stressful your life, the worse your health. He used an anecdote to illustrate the point. He discussed a group of mountain gorillas that lived close to a human settlement. Gorillas have a strict social hierarchy based on and maintained by physical aggression. As a result, he contends, great stress and stress related health problems that are more frequent among those lower on the social ladder. Through interaction with humans, the more aggressive males had all been killed in interactions with humans, leaving the troop with only females and less aggressive males. The result, he contended was a new culture in the troop which was more egalitarian and gentle. Newcomers were socialized into this structure and as a result fewer health problems were found among this group than in troops of comparable size that have the usual hierarchical structure.

Is this a fair argument? Of course, there are many, many other factors at play, but can we point to the artificial stress of contemporary life as one of the more significant threats to public health or is it overstated?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Palin, Sex, and Women

A couple of thoughts on Sarah Palin now that several weeks have past.

The first comes from a piece by Tom Perrotta in Slate called "The Sexy Puritan" in which he discusses an archetype of political talking head, the sexy puritan of which Palin is only the latest instance. He reaches back to Anita Bryant, and points to contemporary versions like Britney Spears, Elizabeth Hasselbeck, and Monica Goodling. Of course, to be added to the list are Ann Coulter and Michele Malkin.

The move is interestingly discussed by the General:

To what extent is the anti-sex party selling their anti-sex policies by using sexy women like Sarah Palin to deliver the sex-is-bad medicine with a wink and a nod?...

Sex is being separated from Sexiness, which shouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. Being sexy isn't an invitation to sex and sex can be enjoyed without conforming to society's standards of sexiness. This separation isn't being done, though, to free people from impossible standards of sexiness but is rather exploiting and reinforcing those standards for ideological goals. This separation isn't being done to protect women's choices about sex, but rather to limit their choices even further.

The question before us, then, is how to properly challenge this without on the one hand reinforcing the tactic in ways that might make the anti-sex brigades' job easier or, on the other hand reinforcing some of society's notions about sex and sexiness which should be reformed anyway.
To what extent is sexual repression being played upon? To what extent is the unhealthy attitude we as a culture we have towards human sexuality being manipulated for political means that only reinforce that unhealthiness?

Secondly, is this connected with Palin's lack of popularity with women? From Time:
Overall, Palin is viewed favorably by 47% of likely voters and unfavorably by 40%. But her numbers are worse among women than men: 45% of all women surveyed have a negative opinion of Palin, compared to 42% who view her positively. Fifty-two percent of men have a favorable opinion, while 35% are in the unfavorable camp.
Clearly, the McCain folks had hoped that in light of Clinton's loss in the Democratic primary, that putting a woman on the ticket would draw women in, yet it seems to be driving them away. Why?

Some argue that trying to substitute a novice like Palin for a seasoned political veteran and obviously extremely intelligent candidate like Clinton is an insult to women by taking them to put identity politics above substantive issues. Others point to her displayed lack of coherence and intellectual curiosity during interviews...the few she has been allowed to do.

I don't want to argue that both of these are not truly contributing factors, certainly they are, but I also wonder if there is something else that is often operative, something that comes from the gut, not the brain. It comes from combining the "sexy puritan" schtick with the viciousness of the attacks from Governor Palin during her speeches. As I told a class a few weeks back, despite what we wish, high school never ends. Put sexy and nasty together and it takes many folks back to high school where everyone knew that in-crowd, the Heathers, the cool kids who would were in the top clique and always made sure that the rest of us knew we weren't one of them. My hypothesis is that one of the reason that women are less positive on Governor Palin than men is that there is an emotional association that women have that men do not.

Thoughts?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Comedy and the Turing Test

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists everywhere,

This week, good brother 71 sent me a link to this article, "Computers Crack Jokes in Unusual Artificial Intelligence Test."

Alan Turing used as a sufficient condition for artificial intelligence a test wherein if a human could not tell he or she was conversing with a machine, then that machine would have to be considered to be thinking. A competition is held in Reading, England based on this idea and human judges carry on two IM type conversations at the same time with one of the conversants being human and one being computer-generated. The judges are then asked to determine which is which and the program that fools the most judges wins. Some of the computers used jokes to disguise themselves as human:

Cleverbot, designed by Rollo Carpenter, used humor to try to fool the judges.

Roberts said Elbot worked by catching some of the judges off-guard with provocative answers or impishly hinting that it was, in fact, a machine.

"Hi. How's it going?" one judge began.

"I feel terrible today," Elbot replied. "This morning I made a mistake and poured milk over my breakfast instead of oil, and it rusted before I could eat it."
So, what would happen if you could program a computer to generate great material and have perfect timing. Suppose that these were not jokes programed in by the programmer, but rather a complex program that could, say, make puns that the programmer never thought of. The machine would be funny, but, in line with the Turing Test, could it be said to have a sense of humor?

I will leave you with a computer joke:

A doctor, a civil engineer, and a computer scientist were arguing about what was the oldest profession in the world. The doctor remarked "Well, in the Bible it says that God created Eve from a rib taken from Adam. This clearly required surgery so I can rightly claim that mine is the oldest profession in the world."

The civil engineer interrupted and said "But even earlier in the book of Genesis, it states that God created the order of the heavens and the earth from out of the chaos. This was the first and certainly the most spectacular application of civil engineering. Therefore, fair doctor, you are wrong; mine is the oldest profession in the world."

The computer scientist leaned back in his chair, smiled, and said confidently, "Ah, but who do you think created the chaos?

Your favorite computer joke?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, October 16, 2008

What Can be Taught?

Strange that we don't ask this question before we begin to teach, but what is it that can be taught?

Skills can be taught. That seems uncontroversial. But what else?

As a teacher of critical thinking, can people be taught to be rational? As an ethics teacher, can people be taught to be good? to be empathetic? to be caring? Can you be taught to find great art beautiful? Can you teach someone to be creative? You could teach them new techniques to channel their creativity by, say, teaching them the form of a sonnet, but can you teach someone to be more creative than they were before the lessons? You can teach someone to play an instrument, but can you teach them to play with with feeling or soul?

What can and cannot be taught?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Bullshit or Not: Nietzsche 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.

Since today is Friedrich Nietzsche's birthday, let's play with a passage from The Twilight of the Idols:

My demand upon the philosopher is known, that he take his stand beyond good and evil and leave the illusion of moral judgment beneath himself. This demand follows from an insight which I was the first to formulate: that there are altogether no moral facts. Moral judgments agree with religious ones in believing in realities which are no realities. Morality is merely an interpretation of certain phenomena.
So, are there moral facts? Bullshit or not, you decide. As usual, feel free to leave anything from a single word to a dissertation.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Electing God

So, apparently it is not just an election to determine who gets to be President, it's an election to determine who gets to be God:

Unhelpful for establishing the tone McCain sought in Davenport was the Rev. Arnold Conrad, past pastor of the Grace Evangelical Free Church. His prayer before McCain arrived at the convention center blocks from the Mississippi River appeared to dismiss faiths other than Christianity and cast the election as a referendum on God himself.

"I would also pray, Lord, that your reputation is involved in all that happens between now and November, because there are millions of people around this world praying to their god — whether it's Hindu, Buddha, Allah — that his opponent wins, for a variety of reasons," Conrad said.

"And Lord, I pray that you would guard your own reputation, because they're going to think that their god is bigger than you, if that happens. So I pray that you will step forward and honor your own name with all that happens between now and Election Day," he said.
Lest you be worried, my flock, just remember Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live...game, set, match, Comedists.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Are Atoms Real?

I gave a talk to a group of parents last Friday and asked whether we should believe atoms are real. The group overwhelmingly thought it was a silly question until one parent, clearly a scientist, piped up and informed everyone that atoms are not directly observed, but merely a part of our best current model.

Models, I mentioned, are not true or false, but better or worse. A model airplane may be good if it looks like an airplane, but it may not be as good as another model that bears a stronger resemblance. Scientists use models all the time, indeed many contemporary philosophers of science see scientific theories as sets of models. A theory is successful if the actual system in the world bears a significantly strong resemblance relationship to the posited model, where the resemblance is strong if it allows us to make a wide enough array of successful predictions that it suits our needs.

Of course, every theory will eventually be replaced with a better theory. What does this mean for the way we understand the relationship between theories and the world?
Realists contend that we have good reason to think that we should understand our scientific theories literally, that is, we have good reason to believe that the world actually looks the way described by our best theories. Instrumentalists hold theories to merely be useful tools in providing images by which we can work with systems and produce further results, but one should not confuse a successful tool with a description of some underlying reality.

So, should we believe that atoms are real and if so, why?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Making Fun Of vs. Joking Reference

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This weekend we consider another moral question in comedy. There is no doubt that humor can be used as a weapon. Indeed, our own Comedist security squad, the Fast Action Response Team whose motto is "If we don't kill, give 'em the gas", is among the most elite purveyors of the comic martial arts in the world. But the weapon can be used for ill as well as for good and we want to be clear on where that line is.

This issue has been rolling around in my mind for the last few weeks since TheWife thought a joke I had been trying to work into my routine crossed the line. It's a visual thing, but I'll try to explain it. At the start of a routine I've been working on lately around the fake rubber testicles hanging off of the trailer hitches of pickup trucks, I make the reference with an accompanying hand gesture using two cupped hands. I then pause and say, "For those of you who do not know sign language...testicles." I then remove one hand and say, "the sign for Lance Armstrong." She argued, convincingly, that it was making fun of a cancer victim and that is out of bounds.

But, the fact is that I wasn't making fun of Lance Armstrong or his cancer. At the same time Lance Armstrong and the result of his cancer are an essential, ineliminable element of the joke. There seems to be a difference here between jokes about and jokes that attack, that is jokes that make the referent the butt of the joke and those of which one is merely the subject.

This sort of thing pops up often. Every weekend I begin these homilies with a welcome to all brothers, sisters, and transgendered comedists and it is an authentic welcome. I want all to come here and feel the funny, especially transgendered members of the Comedist community who have such a rough time in the rest of society. The opening is also designed to give a laugh, not at transgendered individuals, but at the unexpected challenging of preconceptions. The essence of the joke is in setting up the listener to have one interpretation of a situation and then forcing an incompatible interpretation on them with the punch line, forcing their minds to try to reconcile the irreconcilable. The resulting short-circuit results in cerebral overload and thus laughter. In this case, it is standard religious fare to refer to brothers and sisters, presupposing that the two sexes exhaust the genders, but when you add in transgendered, you trip up that false presupposition. Thus the transgendered members of our community are not being made fun of, but are an essential element of the joke.

The question is tricky when the group referred to, like the transgendered, is oppressed. Even if the reference is not degrading, does the mere act of drawing attention to them, of singling them out with the joke, make even a mention with no malice whatsoever morally problematic?

A good friend admitted that he was made uncomfortable at my bit on Eskimo kissing because of the references to Eskimo women who are very much oppressed in northern culture (I'd say they are at the bottom of the totem pole, but that reference is itself in question).

Similarly, Melissa at Shakespeare's Sister takes umbrage at the use of the term "Caribou Barbie" to refer to Sarah Palin. The line is clearly a play on Malibu Barbie and the term Barbie is often used as an insulting term for women who use their looks, but come off as unintelligent and plastic. The converse "Ken Doll" is used to describe blow-dried, unintelligent plastic men (John Roberts of CNN was referred to in that way just today by a blog by a liberal economist that I can't seem to find; thought it was Brad Delong, but cannot find the post). Is there a difference in the two references because of the social context? Does the oppression of women break the comic symmetry?

As you consider that, here's another Lance Armstrong joke I wrote (only this one must be clear because it refers to his virility):

You know Lance Armstrong's girlfriend won't let him use yellow condoms because then he tries to finish first.

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, October 10, 2008

Other Reasons Newspapers Are Dying

The long-held discussion surrounding the slow decline of newspapers almost always points to reporting. Papers are cutting back on bureaus because they are not getting the readership levels which causes a decrease in the quality of reporting which causes a decrease in readership which requires a closing of more bureaus... The conversation often then turns to on-line sources and whether the balance, the accuracy, the breadth can be found outside of traditional journalism.

It is easy enough to find many of the opinion makers on tv, so why read their columns when they'll tell you what was in them? With the notable exception of a few rare voices, there are better informed and better argued pieces on line. Digby or Richard Cohen? Hmmm, now there's a hard one. And there's the added advantage that you won't accidentally find yourself reading Maureen Dowd.

But newspapers are not merely their front and op/ed pages, and it seems that the downfall of the newspaper may be in these other places. The newspaper used to have a large number of functions besides world, national, and local news. The sports page was THE goto place for scores. Now SportsCenter makes it obsolete. Need a job or a car? You had no choice but to check the classified. Now with monster.com and Craig's List, we have another relic. Weather? Not a chance. Style?...out of style by the time the printed edition hits the step.

That seems to leave comics, obits, and crossword puzzles. The newspaper has been so successful for so long because it had so many social functions to fulfill in addition to printing all the news that fits, functions that seem to be residing elsewhere. What else can a newspaper be in the contemporary world of 24-hour cable and internet access? What are the niches that only a newspaper can fill?

One seems to be personal recognition. "Look, mom, I'm in the newspaper!" likely could never be replaced by "Look, mom, I'm mentioned on this website." What else is there that we need or could need newspapers for?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

When Analytic Philosophy is a Life and Death Matter

Aurora Goes to Washington tipped me off on this article from the Washington Post, "The Doctors Who Are Redefining Life and Death." What is interesting is that it brought back something I had meant to comment on a while back after the Saddleback forum. Candidates were asked when they believed life begins and Obama's response was,

Well, you know, I think that whether you're looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade.
When I heard that, the answer bugged me for the same reason the article bugs me -- it is not about a science/religion debate over when life starts, science cannot answer that question because it is not an empirical question about how the world does or does not work. Rather, it is a question about what words mean. This is not a job for medical science. It is a job for analytic philosophy.

What is happening here is not definition, but explication. Words are used. When we use words, they have rough meanings for them that are generally sufficient for the sort of things we do in normal conversation. The fact that the ordinary meanings of words are vague and squishy does not usually cause us problems and we go on using them as if they were well-defined entities.

But occasionally, the fact that our words are not sharply interpreted does cause us trouble and those then seem to give rise to the sort of philosophical conundrums that we think are impenetrable and require appeals to politics or the divine. But as Rudolf Carnap pointed out, usually what is called for is explication, that is, to devise a set of formal conditions that are jointly necessary and sufficient to satisfy the term. It is a process of setting out the conditions in the world that must be met to be able to use the term. Science can tell us whether a given thing meets the conditions, but it cannot as Obama implies provide us with those conditions.

And that is where we are with "life" and "death." We can use them in everyday life (like that, for instance) such that we barely notice that they are not sharply delimited terms. But when we deal with contemporary moral issues (or contemporary morbid issues as Kerry likes to call them) we quickly come to realize that the sloppiness of our standard usage gives us fits. So, we look at possible conditions -- heart death, brain death, the beating of a heart, viability -- and try to determine whether they are too broad, too narrow, necessary, or sufficient to capture the sense of the word as we use it.

Of course, Carnap's project, Logical Positivism, ultimately fails, but his insight that the mushiness of language is what underlies many longstanding philosophical dilemmas is right on. Unfortunately, he was wrong that there would be an objective standpoint from which to explicate all terms and that all terms are capable of such explication. In this case, political agendas are so entangled with the terms that value neutral explication seems impossible. Ironically, one of the motivations behind the use of this method was to facilitate the separation of politics and religion from the meaning of language, something that the World Wars made clear to many of the more scientifically minded German language thinkers.

So, we need sharp definitions for life and death. There is no doubt that better understandings about the processes will aid us, but it is not a job we can hand off to the scientists. It is a job for all of us, philosophers especially.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Join Us In the Real World

If you want to point to something in order to give an ostensive definition of intestinal fortitude, try this speech by Naomi Klein at the University of Chicago. I will post snippets, but it is a must read.

what we are seeing with the crash on Wall Street, I believe, should be for Friedmanism what the fall of the Berlin Wall was for authoritarian communism: an indictment of ideology. It cannot simply be written off as corruption or greed, because what we have been living, since Reagan, is a policy of liberating the forces of greed to discard the idea of the government as regulator, of protecting citizens and consumers from the detrimental impact of greed, ideas that, of course, gained great currency after the market crash of 1929, but that really what we have been living is a liberation movement, indeed the most successful liberation movement of our time, which is the movement by capital to liberate itself from all constraints on its accumulation.

So, as we say that this ideology is failing, I beg to differ. I actually believe it has been enormously successful, enormously successful, just not on the terms that we learn about in University of Chicago textbooks, that I don’t think the project actually has been the development of the world and the elimination of poverty. I think this has been a class war waged by the rich against the poor, and I think that they won. And I think the poor are fighting back. This should be an indictment of an ideology. Ideas have consequences...


I think all ideologies should be held accountable for the crimes committed in their names. I think it makes us better. Now, of course, there are still those on the far left who will insist that all of those crimes were just an aberration—Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot; reality is annoying—and they retreat into their sacred texts. We all know who I’m talking about.

But lately, particularly just in the past few months, I have noticed something similar happening on the far libertarian right, at places like the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation. It’s a kind of a panic, and it comes from the fact that the Bush administration adapted—adopted so much of their rhetoric, the fusing of free markets and free people, the championing of so many of their pet policies. But, of course, Bush is the worst thing that has ever happened to believers in this ideology, because while parroting the talking points of Friedmanism, he has overseen an explosion of crony capitalism, that they treat governing as a conveyor belt or an ATM machine, where private corporations make withdrawals of the government in the form of no-bid contracts and then pay back government in the form of campaign contributions. And we’re seeing this more and more. The Bush administration is a nightmare for these guys—the explosion of the debt and now, of course, these massive bailouts.

So, what we see from the ideologues of the far right—by far right, I mean the far economic right—frantically distancing themselves and retreating to their sacred texts: The Road to Serfdom, Capitalism and Freedom, Free to Choose. So that’s why I’ve taken to calling them right-wing Trotskyists, because they have this—and mostly because it annoys them, but also because they have the same sort of frozen-in-time quality. You know, it’s not, you know, 1917, but it’s definitely 1982. Now, the left-wing Trots don’t have very much money, as you know. They make their money selling newspapers outside of events like this. The right-wing Trots have a lot of money. They build think tanks in Washington, D.C., and they want to build a $200 million Milton Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago.


And I think it would be so wonderful to have the brilliant young economists of the University of Chicago—I don’t know if any of them bothered to come out tonight—but to have your minds at work meeting this crisis. We need you. We need open minds. We need flexible minds, as creative as possible. The Milton Friedman Institute, in its name and essence, is about trying to recapture a moment of ideological certainty that has long passed. It has long passed because reality has intervened. It was fun when it was all abstract. It was fun when it was all in the realm of promise and possibility. But we are well past that. Please, don’t retreat into your sacred texts. Join us in the real world.
I'd contend that the last eight years are not only a demonstration of the poverty of Freidmanism, but also of Kirkpatrickism, the combination of which is the touchstone for post-Reagan conservatism. I've been torn for a while that the basic tenets of neo-conservatism were not spelled out clearly and the evidence of their failure explicitly shown. Ideas have consequences, indeed, and we need to hold ideas responsible for those consequences.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Land of Misfit Toys

Somewhere out there is a land where Elvis sleeps comfortably on a ten mile high pile of all the socks that have disappeared from dryers the world over. Now, after the last couple of weeks, he has $1.1 trillion in stock and real estate wealth. Lest you contemplate trying to abscond with any of that escaped loot, be aware that the land is guarded by the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Bullshit or Not: Bertrand Russell 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.

The quotation today comes from Russell's 1918 paper "On the Notion of Cause,"

"The law of causality, I believe, like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm"
Russell is arguing that the entire concept of cause and effect is outdated, a relic left over from the days when we believed that gods in chariots pulled the sun across the sky. We've taken away the chariot and the conscious mover, but left the metaphysical notion of cause in its place out of habit. We can say what preceded a given event and give the laws by which the system evolved and why one should have expected the event, but to say that something caused the event is going too far.

Physics specifically, but science more generally, nowadays says nothing about causes, he argues. Science describes how and not why and the cause questions are why questions that are not even meaningful to ask. He proposes that we have replaced cause and effect statements with differential equations, only philosophers haven't yet gotten the memo...or if they have ignored it out of fear of losing their jobs or because they didn't know what a "differential equation" is.

So, bullshit or not? You decide. Is there any meaningful sense in which we can talk about causes and effects? As usual, feel free to leave anything from a single word to a dissertation.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Comic Marxists and Comic Platonists

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week was Groucho's birthday and it has led me to a place of Comedist meditation.

I played an open mic at the Ragged Edge, a coffee house near campus, on Groucho's birthday Thursday night and the set went quite well. I felt looser than I've yet been on stage, tried out some new material that hit bigger than I expected, pretty much nailed the timing; all in all, a good night.

As I was leaving, I bumped into one of the guys who was in the room and he thanked me for the routine saying that it was just what he needed. He explained that he had just lost his grandparents in a tragic car accident a few days ago and that he has been in a bad place lately inside his head. He cut his night class at the local community college because he wasn't in a state to be able to sit through class and so went to the coffee house to get out, and just happened upon the open mic expecting to hear some music. He expressed the most authentic gratitude for having been provided an island of joy in a sea of grief, a respite in which he could remember what life was usually like before his loss.

I was taken aback by it. I felt embarrassed and awkward in receiving this thankfulness because I performed that routine out of purely selfish motives -- wanted to get more mic time, wanted to try a different audience, wanted to be able to put a new place on my list, wanted to test out some new jokes,...it was all about me. But it ended up being bigger than me. The power of humor made it humane even if the intent was not.

The word selfish, though, is not entirely correct. In reflecting on my stand-up experiences, I've come to realize that I am a comedic Platonist. Plato argued that what is real is not the material world, but the forms, that is, the perfect immaterial, unchanging essences. I've watched a lot of comics who are all presentation and no substance, there is no evidence of craftsmanship in their writing. They are funny, but their material isn't. Their comedy is in the world. I, on the other hand, have appreciated comedy in a way that looks at the form of the joke. Is it well worded, well paced, well delivered? Does it tie in coherently, but cleverly with the larger routine? Whether it hits or misses is irrelevant, who it is told to doesn't matter, what I've always looked for is something in the structure of the joke itself that makes it good.

And I've found myself approaching the stage in the same way. I am relating more to the material than to the audience. The joke is not in the context, but in the form and the telling.

But this young man made me more of a comedic Marxist, that is, someone who believes that comedy can be used to overcome the alienation we have towards each other in modern life. The Marx Brothers' films came out during the Great Depression and World War II. Their comedy was not only social satire, but consciously played to those who were in the worst of ways, and used their nickle to try to escape for a couple hours to a happier place. They knew their comedy was not just jokes for jokes' sake, but an attempt to reach out an connect with people on every level in the head, in the gut, and even the genitals (or Gentiles depending upon what part of town you are in) in a way that could make lives better.

On his birthday, I was visited by the spirit of Groucho reminding me that comedy is holy, is a path to enlightenment, is a way to move beyond oneself and become one with others.

Any stories of funny moments that ended up being meaningful from the Congregation?

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve

What Is Genocide?

Sat in on a colleagues class yesterday and they were working on a piece by psychologist David Moshman called "Us and Them: Identity and Genocide" where Moshman argues that the traditional definition of genocide is too broad in that it only looks at the extreme of mass murder.

Genocide, he argues, is not necessarily violent, that is, it is not necessarily a crime against the body. Rather, it should be understood as a crime against identity. Genocide is the attempt to eliminate a cultural identity and one way to do it is to kill everyone who is so identified, but there are also non-violent genocides which aim to strip the identity from those who possess it. The example here is the boarding schools to which Native Americans were sent by the American government in order to "civilize" them, to remove their "savage" natures and thereby eliminate native culture, language, and everything associated with it. This was a crime against identity, he argues, and should be considered genocide, despite being non-violent.

Is this move warranted? Are the grouping of these acts legitimately called genocide or does it water down the concept? What work does the notion of genocide do for us practically and does this move bolster or harm it?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Beliefs and Public Office

In light of the upcoming VP debate tonight, here's one I've been thinking about.

The LA Times reports on a secondhand claim that Sarah Palin believes "that men and dinosaurs coexisted on an Earth created 6,000 years ago -- about 65 million years after scientists say most dinosaurs became extinct."

Let's make no claim about the veracity of the report. Maybe the music teacher misremembers, maybe Governor Palin has changed her mind...don't know. But if one were to hypothetically assign that belief to someone, would that disqualify the candidate from being qualified to hold the office? Would not believing something for which there is a great body of scientific evidence make one unfit for high office? If so, on what grounds?

What other sentences x might there be such that if candidate P believes (or fails to believe) x, P should not be in high office?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

"Fat man, you shoot a great game of pool."

Been wanting to write a Paul Newman memorial post. So much to say about him as an actor, an activist, an icon.

I've always loved grifter films and Newman was in two of the best. The Sting was a master film, but one you could only see once because the viewer is as much the mark as Doyle Lonnegan. But The Hustler, that is a film I could watch a hundred times.

It is the story of Fast Eddie Felson, a California pool shark who comes to Ames, Iowa to challenge Minnesota Fats on his home turf and show that he is the best there is. He beats Fats at first, but his drinking, attitude, and immaturity ultimately undermine his talent and Fats waits him out and beats him. Fats, of course, was played by Jackie Gleason, who in addition to being a master comedian and a band leader, was himself, a great pool shooter.

At a bus station, he finds love in the person of Sarah Packard, someone as smart and dysfunctional as he is and they become each others' crutches and the love begins to transform Eddie far enough to leave him entirely conflicted, being pulled up by his new-found ability to think beyond himself, but Sarah's alcoholism and neediness feeding his own pulling him back down.

Bert Gordon, the money man behind Fats (played by George C. Scott) saw Fast Eddie's talent and he begins playing for him. When the power struggle between Burt and Sarah over ownership of Eddie gets tough, Burt murders Sarah and when Eddie leaves, he has his hands broken. Eddie ultimately returns to beat Fats, to claim the glory he initially sought, but now it is to take the money from Burt -- the only thing Burt is capable of caring about -- to avenge the murder rather than for his own ego.

It is a magnificent film but leaves us with the sad question, do we really have to lose something to understand how much it means to us? In this case, we can point to people with problems, we can blame it on their dysfunctional, maladjusted lives, but isn't it more universal? Can we really appreciate something fully when we have it?