Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,
Selecting an envelope from those that have been hermetically sealed in a mayonnaise jar on Funk and Wagnall's front porch since noon today...The answer is "Sherwin Williams, botulism, George W. Bush, and Johnny Carson." (rip) Name a paint, a taint, an ain't, a saint.
Yes, this week we celebrate the feast of Saint Johnny. Johnny Carson would have been 84 years old this week. Taking over the Tonight Show from Jack Paar in 1962, he was the ultimate comedic iron man being continuously funny for thirty years. His monologues were always well written and impeccably delivered -- indeed, no one blew a joke better than Johnny, the one's he lost often ended up funnier than the ones he hit. Coming from Iowa through Nebraska, he had the gentle midwestern clean feel about him that let him get away with lines on network tv that others might not have been able to.
He became an American fixture, who not only brought decades of laughs himself, but intentionally nurtured the comedic community being THE place for young comics to get the widest possible exposure. To play Johnny was the break of breaks for stand-up artists and Carson helped launch some of the greatest careers in comic history.
The funniest moment ever on Carson. Had to be either the marmoset or the tomahawk. Heck, here's both.
Favorite Johnny bits or moments?
Live, love, and laugh,
Saturday, January 31, 2009
Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,
Friday, January 30, 2009
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of Kind of Blue, possibly the greatest sessions in history. Miles Davis assembled one of the most talented group of musicians -- John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb -- wrote up charts, and with viturally no rehearsal they put it down on tape. That was the album, an authentic sense of the musicians in that space at that time giving completely original interpretations of tunes that had never previously existed. There was no chance for micro-managing, for trying to do what Bird had done with the tune years earlier, for trying to recapture some bit of magic that had happened at rehearsal, it was now, it real. And it was one of the greatest albums to ever be made. The solos are lyrical, the band is tight, the music simply haunting.
Seems like lessons for life. Get good folks around you and let them to do what they do best. Trust is essential. It could flop horrendously, but then again, you never know how it could add up beyond the sum of the parts. Let go of the reigns, and let it come. Magic happens, it can't be forced. You need to work hard to put yourself in a place with the skills for it to pop, but you need to let it flow. Playing doesn't mean not working hard, it means putting your entire spirit into it, but still having fun.
So not to sound like a cheesy motivational poster, there are some negative lessons, too. Lay off the herion. It catches up with you it end.
Thursday, January 29, 2009
Pushing for economic stimulus, Obama makes significant alterations to draw support from Republicans -- adding tax cuts economists have said are not going to work, stripping out funds for contraception -- asks that they not adopt the Rush Limbaugh line, and sits down on their home turf for face time. The response? Bohner and Cantor before the meeting preemptively demand that the entire package be opposed.
Anyone who has not lived in a cave for the last eight years knows that the GOP sees compromise as weakness. The minute you try to give them an inch, they demand everything or nothing. They've never bought into post-partisanship. They reflexively oppose anything Democratic whether it would work or not. Their proposals are the same ones that created the mess we're trying to solve. But, of course, they are. Would anyone expect anything different?
It is generally a bad idea to attribute stupid motives to smart people. But you have to wonder what Obama is doing. Seems to be three possibilities:
1) The naive possibility -- He thinks that the some portion of the GOP has read the writing on the wall from the last two elections, expects that they will put country before party, and believes that he can create a truly bipartisan effort to get the country's economy back on track.
2) The earnest possibility -- He thinks it unlikely that some portion of GOP has read the writing on the wall from the last two elections, expects that they will put country before party, but will legitimately do his best to try to "change the tone in Washington" by engaging in good faith attempts at bipartisanship. If they don't come along, he has the votes, but he will do his level best to try to heal the partisan chasm while he does what he knows need to be done.
3) The cynical possibility -- He knows that GOP will never read the writing on the wall from the last two elections, knows that they will not put country before party, and is doing what Israel does with the Palestinians, put up something you know they won't support and then have plausible deniability by saying, "We tried, we have no partner here."
Is he getting played by the Republicans or is he setting them up knowing their knee-jerk reaction is exactly what Rush Limbaugh enunciates -- oppose everything and hope it fails because if it goes through and works then Democrats get the credit and we'd rather see people lose their jobs and homes than concede a political point? Is this a strategic move to marginalize Republicans or is it a good faith, but naive effort?
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
A number of sports stories in the news lately. Today, the trial began for a football coach from Louisville, Kentucky charged with reckless homocide for running his team so hard in the heat and depriving them of water that two of the kids ended up in the hospital, one of them, a fifteen year old child, died. In Texas, the girls' basketball team from the Covenant Academy displayed a true spirit of Christian charity, beating an opponent 100-0. After running up the score, the school apologized for continuing their full court press and taking three-pointers, but the coach Micah Grimes said that there was nothing to apologize for. In a basketball game between Houston and Arizona, Houston player Aubrey Coleman intentionally stepped on the face of Arizona player Chase Budinger, showing no sense of empathy or concern for him afterward at all.
The culture of sport has become a repository of everything poisonous in our society. I am not anti-athletics. I was a division I athlete. Sports helped pay for college and I want my children to learn what sport has to teach them about physicality, team work, humility when things are good and bad, focus and hard work, finding that your limits beyond where you think they are. But the virtue of sport is eclipsed by the culture, enforced by many coaches whose warped and dangerous picture of masculinity (which has infected women's sports as well) hurts the children, hurts the game, and hurts the society which venerates athletes above those who make actual contributions to the culture.
How do we get it back from them? How do we put sports in their proper place as enjoyable? It is something you do for fun, for health, for socializing. But not if you look at high schools or even the older divisions of little league. Do we cut our losses and form other sporting communities with a different ethos? I think the popularity of soccer, for example, is a reaction to the unhealthy hyper-masculinty of the football world. Similarly, ultimate frisbee is not merely a great game, it is a culture unto itself with a funky spirit, a character that makes it the game it is. Bowling is perhaps the best example of a sport with its own way of being in the world.
Is this a cop out? Is it realism to admit defeat? Can we reclaim sports?
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
A friend just passed suddenly.
You know that feeling you get when you go to a ballgame and you come through the tunnel out to the stands and you can feel the electricity run through you and know its going to be loud and rowdy and fun. It was the same sensation as soon as you saw Jon in the room. Some people soak life in, others exude it, sending it out like Tesla's lost invention with a soul patch, radiating energy for everyone.
Nothing soothes loss, but I always find it comforting to remember that the great British physicist Sir James Jeans showed that the odds are that each of us has in our lungs five of the molecules of Julius Caesar's last breath. The air we breathe was the air Jon breathed and that bit of pneuma, the breath of life, will remain with us.
We've been fighting a war on drugs...which explains why we've been doing it so badly. The Rockefeller plan of locking up ever more non-violent offenders surely is not the answer. But simple legalization in this culture would probably work about as well as getting rid of the drinking age. If you think we have binge drinking problems now...
But what is the middle path? Medicalization of marijuana is a no-brainer. Give doctors all the tools they need to best treat the sick, but the question here is recreational use. Should there be an Amsterdam-type distinction between marijuana and other drugs or should they all be treated in the same way? What we have isn't working, but what should we put in its place?
Monday, January 26, 2009
It worked a little while back, so let's try "Why Do You Know That?" again. It's the converse of "auto mechanics to quantum mechanics," where the idea now is to contribute those bits of knowledge that seem really cool even if they are not directly applicable to anything.
"I" and "MIX" are the only numbers expressible in Roman numerals that are also English words.So, what do you know and why do you know it?
Next to Stonehenge there actually was a Woodhenge, although contrary to Eddie Izzard's routine, there is no reason to believe there was also a Strawhenge that was blown down by a big bad wolf.
Isaac Newton's father died before he was born.
Baltimore and Saint Louis are the only cities that in the country that are part of a state, but not part of a county.
Labels: why do you know that?
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,
Before we get to the sermon, a quick anouncement. For those in the Baltimore area, I'll be playing Magooby's Joke House this coming Thursday night. It's an all ages gig, $7 at the door, 8-11 p.m. I'd love to see anyone who cares to show. Not sure if I'll be doing the "Pickup Trucks with Fake Rubber Testicles" set or the "Why They Don't Have Hooters in France" set, yet. (The Old Man and Jeff Maynes I believe are the only ones who have seen both, so feel free to let me know which you think would play better there.)
Now, this week, we saw the inauguration of Barack Obama and almost everyone is happy about it...almost.
Leno comes out and says, "George W. Bush is no longer President. Therefore, there will be no monologue this evening." Surely, this is overstating the case. This is America where the right to petition the government and insult the President are inalienable. So, this week, let's collect Obama jokes.
"Since Obama's election, relations have gotten much closer between the U.S. and Great Britain. The English are now less self-conscious about Prince Charles' ears."
"So, we have a new leader. Barack Obama, or as my wife calls him, 'President Cutie-Pie.' After that shirtless picture from Hawaii, it's gotten so bad I need to use his campaign speeches as foreplay. Just before we reach the moment of ecstasy, she now screams 'Yes we can.' Four years of a big O now has a completely different meaning...or does it?"
Best Obama jokes you've seen, heard, or written?
Live, love, and laugh,
Friday, January 23, 2009
Thursday, January 22, 2009
I've been struck by three things relating to our economic discourse lately. First, was the use of the term "socialist" in relation to Obama's econmic views during the campaign and since. Second and third are Alan Greenspan's testimony before House Oversight Committee in which he says that foundational aspects of his economic philosophy turned out to be false in light of the economic meltdown seem to have had zero effect on the arguments put forward by people like Eric Cantor and Newt Gingerich who continue to take them as axiomatic and undeniable. Macroeconomic issues are and will remain at the top of the docket for a good long while and the way we speak about them seems incredibly impoverished.
Been chatting about this briefly with Maynard from Creative Destruction (a real, live macroeconomist...well, o.k. a real one at least) about why there is no explicit theoretical awareness to our discussions about the economy. It's there, of course. We have Keynesians against Friedmanites all over the tv and radio, but we never seem to locate the discussions of particular issues -- TARP bailout funds, stimulus package components -- in terms of where they come from. I'm not asking anyone to become an amateur economist, but it does seem odd that there is a basis to the debate which is never, ever referenced.
It seems that at least a cursory sense of the views would inform our discourse and make for better conversation. At least we would know what assumptions we were making when we adhere to a view and we could see when those foundational intuitions were being challenged.
So, to start the discussion, let's set out four major viewpoints using a terrible analogy, clocks.
Milton Friedman -- The economy is like a well-built watch in which the gears are perfectly meshed and any messing with it by the government will only break it by applying forces to the gears that they were not intended to and will not be able to bear. The economy is a self-correcting system which will naturally find its most healthy state by virtue of internal mechanisms. There is an equilibrium point that maximizes the workings of the economy and left to its own devices, that point will be maintained.
John Maynard Keynes -- The economy is like a well-biult electric clock. Generally, it runs fine, but every once in a while it will run down and not work properly. The only way to get it to run again is for the government to buy new batteries and put them in. The economy is a semi-self-correcting system that has a number of different stability points. Given certain markers, the economy will settle at one of these stability points, but some of them are really, really bad for everyone involved. This is what happened in the Great Depression where macroeconomic factors did not rescue the economy, but kept it pinned to the wall. The only way to move the economy off of a really bad stable point is to jolt the system and the only thing big enough to do the jolting is government.
Our conservative/liberal debates are usually really debates between those who take Friedman's view and those who take Keynes' view. Greenspan's testimony basically said that his long held view that Friedman was correct and Keynes was wrong was faulty, yet we continue to hear repeated Friedmanesque arguments from people who seem to not realize that there appears to be deep problems with the view.
These views are, of course, different from:
Socialism -- It's an ok clock, but not terribly reliable. It almost always runs a little fast or a little slow and while we let it run most of the time, the government needs to keep resetting it to make sure it reads the time we want it to read. It also needs regular rewinding accomplished by governmental controls of major sectors.
Marxism -- The clock, if left to its own, will always read the wrong time. Why do they call it the second hand when it is first in terms of actual work done for the clock as a whole? Notice that the little hand moves the least, is the fattest, yet is considered the most important. The little hand wields the fist of oppression, comrades. Nature is red in tooth and claw and left to its natural state, the economy will lead to human bondage. The laws of history, on the other hand, will fix it all and bring human freedom.
Note that liberal economic policy resembles neither of these last two. To labor another terrible metaphor (and what could be more relevant than labor), the idea from the right is that the laws of economics produce a wind that always steers us in the proper direction, we just need to keep our sails set straight ahead. Liberal arguments are that we ought to sail as much as possible, but occasionally we need the government to turn on the outboard motor to get us back on course and we need the authorities to set up buoys and lighthouses to keep us aware of the rocks and shoals. Regulation and oversight are needed lest we fiscally find our boat run aground or sinking. This is not socialism at all. Yet, the term was able to be used in the same way that "value voter" never got challenged.
How do we get people to talk in terms of the debate? Or should we, at all? Is this unnecessary academizing?
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Watching Dick Cheney, the outgoing President in charge of Vice, yesterday, I thought of the story "The Monkey's Paw." You do have to be careful what you ask for because you just might get it.
Cheney is a legitimate ideologue. He is not someone whose beliefs change to suit his party's interest in the situation. As chair of the Vice Presidential search committee, he selected himself for one reason. Going back to his service for Richard Nixon, he was entirely convinced that the Founders' notion of the balance of powers had become unbalanced. He thought that the Presidency had become unconstitutionally weakened and he chose himself for the job not to be the most powerful veep, but to re-empower the Presidency.
And he did.
Bush was elected in 2000 in large part because the general sense was that there was no difference between the parties, the government was just running on auto-pilot, and it didn't matter who was the POTUS. Instead of a coin-flip between the frat boy/cowboy and the policy wonk, let's use the "who would I rather have a beer with" test. His regular vacations seemed no big deal because we elected him president not PRESIDENT.
But as a result of eight years of Cheney, the country had no doubt that it matters who is PRESIDENT. We wanted not only the new guy, we wanted the smart guy. We all know, without a doubt that we need a PRESIDENT.
Cheney tried to increase the strength of the Presidency through manufactured legal opinions and sleazy power grabs. And with that ill-gotten power they wrecked the joint. Now the country demand action and as a result of the will of the governed, the Presidency is stronger than it has been in decades.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Monday, January 19, 2009
TheWife and I were in Baltimore Saturday to see the President Elect speak as a part of his whistle-stop tour. It was crowded. I saw Americans of many, many backgrounds: Middle-Eastern, East Asian, Latino, South Asian, African-American, European-American, Jewish. Everyone smiling.
On the way out an African-American woman behind me said, "This is so wonderful. This is not about race. This is about being an American." I turned around and looked at her, saying nothing, but the fact that she said that meant a lot.
"It is not about race. It's about being an American." This was the feeling of someone whose family for half of this nation's history were not free, were considered three fifths of a human being, don't even begin to consider citizens. They were not considered Americans.
These are people against whom laws were passed to make sure they were denied opportunity, convenience, and most of all dignity. Their second-class status was made a part of the structure of our legal system. Bigotry was the law of the land.
Even when it was determined that such obvious discrimination was contrary to the founding notion that all men are created equal, the segregation was a sham equality. Soldiers came home from the World Wars, where they fought and bled for our nation, only to be treated like less than a full citizen.
Even after the courts demanded integration, the bias became social instead of legal. The hurdles placed in front of African-Americans became structural, ingrained in our society in terms of school funding, health care, hiring, and a thousand unspoken gestures.
Yet, coming from that legacy, this woman at that moment felt simply an American. She looked at the people around her, the spectrum that we were, and saw us as her fellow citizens. If it wasn't about race, it was all about race. Someone who has had every reason to not feel a complete citizen of this nation, now does.
This does not mean that there is no such thing as racism. This does not mean that we are judged on the content of our character alone. this does not mean that the moral arc of the universe has completed its bend towards justice. But on this day, when we honor Dr. King's memory and take time to think about how we treat our fellow citizens, there is something to be happy about.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,
This week we celebrate the feast day of Saint Alfred Hawthorne Hill, better known by his stage name Benny Hill, patron saint of the cheap adolescent joke. Born into a working class family, he moved from blue collar job to blue collar job until he decided to try to make it in show business. He took the name "Benny" from Jack Benny and began working the strip club circuit.
His big break was getting hired to be the straight man for British comedian Reg Varney, a position for which he was chosen over Peter Sellars. He worked in radio, tv, and film where he had roles in movies as big as Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
But he is remembered for his television work. The Benny Hill Show was a nonstop montage of cheap visual gags, scantily clad women, and sped up chase scenes to Boots Randolph's Yakety Sax which will forver be known as the show's theme song. Jackie Wright, his four foot eleven, bald headed side-kick and Hill's Angels never pushed the material to new places, but always delivered exactly what one expected from Benny Hill, the last remnant of Vaudeville.Never married, he lived with his beloved mother at the family home until her death in 1976. Benny died of heart problems on Easter weekend of 1992.
Live, love, and laugh,
Friday, January 16, 2009
Let's try something new, something completely different. I've had this idea for a while and wasn't sure if it would fly, but what the heck. It'll be called "The Kind of Person" and the idea is that I will sketch an archetype and in the comments we try to come up with sentences of the form "S/He's the kind of person who _________" that perfectly capture the archetype.
Let's start with that person we all know who is simply too perfect. I had a friend in high school who for an entire summer shaved half his face because his girlfriend was going away and he was so good looking he wanted to cut down the temptation of getting constantly hit on. You wanted to hate the guy, but he was so kind, so much fun, so talented, such a Mensch that you just couldn't.
She's the kind of person who can draw a perfect circle on an etchasketch.
He's the kind of person who can wear khakis and never get "the spot."
She's the kind of person who trips on a crack in the sidewalk and looks like she's dancing.
He's the kind of person who can call a wrong number and get asked to call back.
Best comment gets a year's free subscription to Philosophers' Playground.
Labels: kind of person
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Picking up on yesterday's discussion, let's consider the difference between morality and the marketplace. What is the fair price for something?
When you go to, say, the Kelley Blue Book site, they will tell you what the fair market value for any given car is, by which they mean what most people in your area are paying for that vehicle. Why does the willingness of many to pay a certain amount mean that it is an appropriate price to pay? These people are trading cash for something and if the price was unfair to them, they would refuse, the line goes. That people choose to buy at this price demonstrates how much it is worth to them and thereby in general terms the value of the item.
This, of course, presupposes that those in the marketplace are rational and if that presupposition were true there would be no such thing as advertising as we know it. I may get ripped off, know I'm getting ripped off, but still be glad to have gotten whatever it is that I bought. The move "Well, then clearly it was worth that much to you," is purely tautological. I may be aware of my own irrationality, I can say that I just paid way too much for this, but that awareness does not then redefine the act as rational. Consider the meaningfulness of statements like, "That stock is grossly overvalued." It means the price most people are willing to pay is more than it is worth. The going price does not mean a reasonable price.
But we can layer onto rationality the question of morality. Even Adam Smith, the father of Capitalism, wrote his classic Theory of Sentiments to argue that enlightened self-interest which guides the invisible hand of the marketplace is insufficient for a good human life, one must also have what he termed "sympathy," what we call empathy. Human ethical behavior must smooth the rough workings of the marketplace. We see this after natural disasters when price gauging is a both a crime and a dastardly undertaken, that is, it is deemed wrong to sell something at market price.
How do you go about determining the fair price of something? The Dead tickets are overpriced, but that is done paternalistically to protect the community from itself. The first concert I ever paid $30 to see was the Rolling Stones. I had to swallow hard and said to myself, "Man, they better have fireworks to make it worth this much." Turns out they actually had fireworks.
We know when we buy something and walk away feeling ripped off and we know when we think we just got the bargain of the year. But we also know when we just paid a fair price for something. What is it that makes a price fair? Certainly one needs to consider the consumer as a person with a whole life and not just a target to be taken. But then one must also consider paying a fair wage to the workers who are responsible for it. Could these ever clash? Is it possible that, say, the fair price for food when we figure in sustainable agricultural practices and fair wages for farm workers would be higher than a fair price for working people who need to feed their families? Is the notion of a single fair price meaningful?
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
The Dead just announced a spring tour. Lots of excited chatter on the internets tubes. Then the prices were announced. Around $100 a ticket. Much grumbling ensued.
The reason for the exorbitant prices during a recession is that they are afraid. At the end of the band's thirty year run, things got ugly. The tour scene got out of hand, there were many more people at the venues than there were tickets, and at several places, most notably Deer Creek, it was bad. The idea here is clearly to make the price high enough that people will see the band once or twice, but discourage touring.
But it's also brought up something I've been thinking about for a while now. The Obama Dead/Allman Brothers show at Penn State ended with Playing In The Band->Dark Star->St. Stephen->Unbroken Chain->The Other One->Throwin' Stones->Playing -- a dream for anyone who loves the band. A series that would have made a show with Jerry legendary. Walking through the parking lot with YKW, I began to wonder, did we really see what we just saw? Yes, it is a question frequently asked in the parking lot after Dead shows, but I mean it in an ontological sense. Was that a Dead show or a facsimile of a Dead show?
After the band came back together for their first Obama concert in San Francisco, David Gans, host of the Grateful Dead Hour and author of the blog Cloud Surfing, wrote (I believe this is verbatim) "It was the best Grateful Dead music I've seen in a while," and I really was struck by the implicit distinction in there between "Grateful Dead music" and "Dead show."
But the real question -- and here's where the ticket prices brought it back up -- is what is it that we are we buying tickets for? After Pig Pen (the Dead's original frontman, singer, organ and harmonica player) died, it was still the same band, just a different incarnation. Lots of bands have had major personnel changes and stayed the same band. Roomful of Blues may be an extreme example on one end of the spectrum (they've had over 50 different players go through playing their wonderfully dancy jump blues) being perhaps more a collective than a band. Post-Pig Pen Dead and others bands like Black Sabbath, Van Halen, and AC/DC who replaced major figures on the other end, where they kept going and developed the music along a different path would offer a different species of band that reformed through personnel change.
But then there's the aborted Led Zeppelin tour. After their London gig, it was in the works. Then Plant backed out and Page, Jones, and Bonham Jr. considered going through with it anyway, but all agreed that it could not be billed as Led Zeppelin. Why is it ok to replace Bonham -- certainly a major part of the sound and mystique -- but not Plant? The answer I came up with (yes, I was recruited to write a piece for "Led Zep and Philosophy") is that in the cases of post-Pig GD and others, the bands were living, evolving, artistic entities, still seeking new fertile creative places. Led Zeppelin, on the contrary, was not reforming, but reuniting, that is, it was not bringing the band back to life trying to go new places beyond their old work, but creating a museum piece, trying to create a facsimile of a mid-70s Zeppelin show. The representational value of that facsimile requires Plant.
So, is this Dead tour a reforming or a reunion? The dream list of Penn State seems to say recreation not creation. The way they played, however, smelled of creation. Is it authentic, whatever that word means? It is Grateful Dead music in Gans' sense surely, but is it something more? By doubling the ticket price of a Ratdog or Phil and Friends show, is this an indication of reformation or a highly priced facsimile?
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Today is the birthday of Horatio Alger, the man whose dime store novels helped cement the "rags to riches" if only you work hard myth in our collective conscience. Rags to riches is not completely accurate, of course. It was more rags to middle class. The modern day version might be something like Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car":
You got a fast carThe question is, to what degree is this realistic? Certainly, there is a naivite and a willful disregard for sociological factors and barriers that make social climbing difficult, if not impossible in some cases. We have education inequality, wealth and health disparities, and institutionalized racism and classism. There is no doubt that the "personal responsibility" rhetoric of the right is an attempt to cage and frame, to keep us from even discussing social programs that work because those programs cost money, but is there a sense in which this pull yourself up by your bootstraps talk is warranted? We hear it from Bill Cosby, for example.
And we go cruising to entertain ourselves
You still ain't got a job
And I work in a market as a checkout girl
I know things will get better
You'll find work and I'll get promoted
We'll move out of the shelter
Buy a big house and live in the suburbs
Yet, when we look at, say, the Stanford prison experiment and we know that most people when put in certain life contexts would behave in a certain way that keeps them and those around them from succeeding in living good lives. These are facts on the ground. But, surely, on some level we want to condemn most people for doing what most people would do. How do we divide up responsibility between social causes and individual causes?
Should it be a longer view? Instead of individuals, should we look across generations? That one can raise their children up the ladder, if not themselves?
How seriously should we take Alger's picture? How responsible are we for our social status and position?
Monday, January 12, 2009
Today happens to be the birthdays of both Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern. Probably a good time to think about radio.
The Republican Revolution of the 90s could not have happened without the power of radio. But now, Obama takes the Presdient's weekly radio address and makes it a YouTube event transforming it from something no one paid attention to into something that is liable to actually have an audience.
Will radio continue to have the same social and political oomph it has had over the last couple decades? Will it draw the same audiences? Will the introduction of Sirius and XM have the same effect that cable had on the big three networks, watering down their influences by fragmenting audiences into a thousand small pieces or will it revitalize radio the way the VCR saved movie theaters? Air America seems to have whittled itself down to a small fragment, but then that was widely predicted because liberals tend to prefer the long form of NPR to sound-bite sized, partisan red meat attacks. But what of NPR? With the laying off of staff, it seems to be in some trouble. What of Pacifica?
Saturday, January 10, 2009
Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists everywhere,
It has been a while since we've spoken of the foundations of Comedist theology, so for those who are recent additions to the Playground and the new religion, let's review.
Comedism came about because of a flaw in all other major religions. Their God is supposedly all perfect and they quickly list their Diety's virtues including being all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving. But then it hit me, if I were trapped on a deserted island with someone, what property would be most important? A sense of humor...something lacking not only in their God, but in so many of His followers as well...especially the most reverent. And you can't blame them, look at their sacred texts. No jokes. Not even one "'Knocketh, knocketh,' sayeth the Lord."
It was something I discovered while teaching a course in philosophy of religion at the United States Naval Academy while writing my dissertation. I taught several places so that I could afford rice and ramen noodles and when teaching a night course in ethics at Anne Arundel Community College, I was distinguishing between social mores and ethical precepts. One student raised his hand and asked, "Steve, what are mores?" I looked at him and replied, "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's a more."
A warm feeling went through my body as I was bathed in groans. I felt my spirit separate from my body. I knew that I was in the presence of the Divine, no not the 300 pound transvestite, but that would have been incredibly cool, too. No, it was the Cosmic Comic. It had to be. The odds of a set-up that perfect occurring naturally was staggering. It was comedic design. It had to be.
That was when it all came together. Our lives on Earth are a test, we are given a certain number of set-ups. Those whose punchlines we deliver, count as one in our favor. But then there are the other ones...
When I wasn't writing or teaching, I had a habit of taking long walks to clear my head and work through the chapter I was trying to write. On one such walk, I was strolling up a long hill when a couple was walking in the opposite direction. As they came closer they looked at me with strange expressions and the man said, "Excuse me, didn't we just see you with a dog?" I said, "I'm sorry. You must have me confused with someone else. I don't have a dog." As they walked past me, I realized that the correct answer was an indignant, "Excuse me, that was my wife." I had blown a divine set-up. It was one against me.
When one dies, your soul goes up and there behind the pearly gates is Saint Shecky with the great book. If you made more jokes than you missed, you are allowed into Comedy heaven where you may sit at the right hand of Groucho. If you missed more than you made, it's Comedy Heaven where it is very hot and all drinks are in dribble glasses, where all chairs have whoopie cushions and you are forced to watch re-runs of Three's Company for all of eternity, or is it one episode of Three's Company? Either way, same thing.
So, our God is funnier than their God. Our sacred scripture is, of course, the Comedist Manifesto, and excerpts can be read here and here. Our most sacred holiday is Saint Shecky's Day, that is, April 1. I was quite vigorously reminded by the editors of Shecky Magazine (a wonderful on-line resource for the stand-up community and all who love stand-up comedy) that Shecky Green is still very much alive, a fact we are all happy about, above all the man himself, but in Comedism one does not need to die to be a saint, to the contrary, one must regularly kill. The Christians make so much of Christ having died and then standing-up three days later; hell, comedians die all the time and then have to stand-up the very next night with the same material.
To join our congregation, all you have to do is say you did. We do tithe, but instead of donating money, from time to time we will pass the plate and ask for donations of jokes. Please give generously. to show you what it looks like, this week, let's keep with our theme and ask for religious jokes.
A priest has a rabbi over for dinner and as they are discussing politics and theology, they sit down for dinner which is served by the priest's gorgeous housekeeper. With raised eyebrows, the rabbi looks at the priest who responds, "I know what you are thinking, but she is just my housekeeper." The rabbi says, "I'm not insinuating anything."Here's another
A week later, the rabbi gets a letter from the priest. "Dear Rabbi, I'm not saying you stole our silver ladle, I'm not saying you did not. I'm merely stating the fact that we had it before you came to dinner and did not after." The rabbi responds with a note that reads, "I'm not saying you sleep with your housekeeper, I'm not saying you don't. But if you look on her pillow, you will find your ladle."
The Pope dies at the exact same time as a Jewish lawyer. Saint Peter looks at them and says, "Congratulations, you may both enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Let me show you to your new homes." they get in a golf cart and putter down the golden lane. Saint Peter stops in front of a palatial mansion and says to the lawyer, "Here is where you will spend eternity." Graciously thanking him, the lawyer walks into the grand estate. "Wow," thinks the Pope to himself, if that's what a Jewish lawyer gets, imagine my home." Saint Peter stops next in front of a nondescript row-house. "Here you go." "Um, I don't mean to question God's will or complain, Saint Peter," the Pope says, "but compared with the last one, this seems a bit, how shall I put it, plain." "Saint Peter looks at him and says, "Well, up here, Popes we got plenty of, but Jewish lawyers..."
So, deep deep and give. Those long-time congregants, show the newbies how it's done.
Live, love, and laugh,
Friday, January 09, 2009
Michael Schmidt asks,
"Can the idea of 'caging,' which you often apply to moral discourse, also be profitably applied to education? Is the current emphasis on 'standards,' 'assessment,' and 'accountability' effectively 'caging' what education can or should involve? In the absence of these emphases, are there other impulses amongst faculty, students, and educational bureaucracies that 'cage' education? Should we care?"Man, what a great point.
For those who have not followed this occasional conversation here, the notion of rhetorical caging is a trick used when you want an entire subject area placed outside of community discourse. The trick is to pick a single issue from the subject, generally the one that can be most easily or effectively framed to give you the rhetorical advantage, and take it out of the cage. You scream and yell about it at the top of your lungs in order to present your opponent with a dilemma -- either they concede the issue to you putting you on a roll and letting you take another issue out to beat them on, or they match you in intensity thereby using up all the oxygen in the room and nothing gets done in the entire area just as you wanted, but with the added bonus that to most people the yelling and screaming from both sides makes it look as if there is fair and open debate.
Is the assessment-crazy edu-fad an example of this? No one is satisfied with our public schools. Some are wonderful. The public school I went to produced some amazing minds attached to wonderful people who are living interesting rewarding lives contributing to society -- and sometimes this blog. But if you look at the overall results of our educational system compared to other industrialized nations, they are lacking.
But while there may be universal agreement that there are problems in public secondary ed writ large, exactly what the problems are is not a point of agreement. A major source of discord is the question "What are the goals of public education?"
A pre-collegiate education should provide a background of basic skills and knowledge needed to...to what? To get into college? To become employable? To be able to cope in modern society? To be an informed and rational citizen? To become an interesting person capable of thinking for him or herself?
I heard a couple behind me in line at Border's the other day complaining that a friend of their son's is in college and cannot do long division. The were people whom I would be willing to bet $1000 could not locate Afghanistan or Iraq on an unlabeled globe. Are either of these essential? What skills do we need? What facts do we need to know? Science? Civics? Geography? Grammar? Literature?
From there we reach the more difficult problem "How do we best reach these goals?" Accountability folks love objective test measures, but they raise two problems. First, are the tests valid? Consider the famous example of the SAT which is designed for one thing only -- as a predictor of success in the first year of college. Well known that males do better than females on the test and that overwhelmingly females do better than males in the first year of college. Second, of course, observing the system alters the system. In the educational version of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, high-stakes testing changes how teachers teach. They teach to the test, killing the real educational value of classroom time. Think of that teacher -- and we all have one -- the one who lit the intellectual fire, the one who made you excited about a subject you had never heard of. Testing destroys the gems to give us more rocks.
All of this, of course, is based on the assumption that skill acquisition and fact memorization is the primary, or only, goal of public education. Is it? Of course not. But it is all that we will talk about, so Michael, I think you may be onto something here.
"Ooh, this was bugging me a few weeks ago while I was grading exams. Why blue books? Why are they blue, where did they start, and how did they spread?"From the LA Times:
Michele V. Cloonan, chairwoman of UCLA’s Department of Library and Information Science, believes they evolved from the cheaply produced, paper-covered school books, almanacs and novels known as the bibliotheque bleue, or blue library, in 18th century France.Now, many are made from recycled paper and some producers are using green covers to market that point. Other schools pick their own colors to prevent cheating (blue books are easily attained) and as a fashion statement.
Before the invention of chlorine bleach in 1774 revolutionized paper production, white books had to be made from white rags. Blue books came from blue rags, often from the old clothes of sailors. Blue paper was the cheap stuff, used for the covers of throwaway books...
It was 1857 when Harvard’s faculty and Board of Overseers approved the first use of blue books in the New World. The rationale was that this was a better test of a student’s analytic and writing skills than the traditional oral exams, said John R. Thelin, a University of Kentucky historian. By 1865, Yale fell into line with written exams. Blue books spread from there.
Finally, YKW asks,
"What would the price of a gallon of gas need to be for one to turn a healthy profit on the driving of a truck loaded with 10-cent refund cans to Michigan from New York City? Assume for purposes of this question that the cans can be collected over time for no marginal cost (or that the collector/s enjoyed the beverages well enough to consider the cans garbage and not worth the $0.05 return available). Also, lets assume a Ford Econoline, rentable for $100/day."Is it even possible? Well, given that it is 614 miles from NYC to Detroit and econoline vans get 17 mpg on the highway, and according to the latest Lundberg Survey of 5000 gas stations nationwide, the average price of a gallon of unleaded is $1.75, it would cost $63.21 in fuel. Add in the c-note for the rental (assuming you can drop it off in Detroit), that's $163.21 in overhead. now, if you get the cans for free and turn them in for a dime a piece, that 16, 321 cans. Assuming that each can can be crushed to about 3 inches by 3 inches by 2 inches, you could fit 22,080 of them in the 230 cubic foot econoline making it possible.
However, in light of the Seinfeld episode, there were folks who tried importing out of state cans and were given 25 years hard time for fraud and continuing a criminal enterprise. As a result, a new law has been put into place where a single person can only be reimbursed $25 per day. So, now you need to factor in overnight stays for seven nights and the cost of twenty-one meals. Let's say, a $60 motel and $20 a day for food -- that's another $560 to be added to the cost.
At this point, my guess is that the price of gas would have to be a healthy negative number to make the endeavor profitable. But, of course, if gasoline was available for a negative price, you could just make a living taking gasoline, getting paid for it, and storing it somewhere.
Thursday, January 08, 2009
"What properties (or relations to their subjects) make one work of art more realistic than another? Can one unicorn painting be more realistic than another, given that there's no actual unicorn to compare them to?"One could certainly imagine the sentence "No, your picture of a unicorn is much more realistic than hers" being meaningfully said. In this case, I think the criteria of realism would not be strength of representation since the thing being represented does not exist, but rather a matter of coherence, that is, how well does the painting of the mythical beast connect with our other beliefs about how the world is. Does it look like it could be a photograph of a unicorn? Is the texture striking in the way we expect to be struck? The subject of the painting may not exist, but how close does it resemble what we would expect to observe should we have hypothetically happened upon that being presented in the work?
We often make precisely this sort of judgment in drama or literature when we object to something the author or director does. "No, no, no, she would never do that." The character, of course, is fictitious, yet we can sense when something unrealistic in the portrayal occurs. It seems like there would be an analog for the visual arts.
Brock also asks,
"In the broadest possible sense of "thing", i.e. absolutely everything counts as a thing, how many things are there?"That's a fun one.
If we use the broadest possible definition, does that include abstract entities like justice and love? Love is a many splendered thing, so do we count each splender? W. V. O. Quine argued that numbers are such abstract entities and that they exist, meaning that we are now automatically in the realm of uncountable infinities.
Even if we restrict ourselves to things as material substances, we know the number is astronomically large (literally astronomically since we are talking the universe here). The real question, of course, is whether the answer would be finite or not and what size of infinity.
On this view, is my thumb a thing or merely part of a thing? If parts of things are to be counted as things themselves, we have redundancies that will increase our results tremendously.
But it gets worse because if we are counting parts, then we should count subatomic parts and given that energy and time are non-commuting observables, for very short periods of time the uncertainty in the energy becomes very large, large enough for particles to appear changing our count. So, are we talking about things at a time, during a small duration of time, throughout time?
The cheesy move would be to take the Parmenidean route and say one, all that exists is The Field and everything in it is a local field effect. But then we could ask how many such effects there are and we are right back to your question. My answer is more than eight, but then eight is enough.
"Is it really true that questions are more important than answers? If so, why?"If it is true, then the answer you seek is less important than the question itself and since the question is likely of little importance, the answer is trivial and can be ignored no matter what it is.
But seriously, one could say that questioning is a process and that process brings to light presuppositions in one's views, something essential to living an examined life and something liable to decrease our errors. The answers are useful, but it is the path of gaining the answers, the questioning in which we gain depth. Merely being given the answer does not allow us to answer similar questions or ask deeper questions.
"Is "Rectum? Damn near killed 'em!" still the funniest joke, ever?"While this tidbit was intentionally included in our sacred text, The Comedist Manifesto, because of its great comedic power, the funniest joke ever, of course, was written by Ernest Scribbler and then used by the British during WWII:
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
David Airth asks,
"Marshall Mcluhan came to mind the other day with his "the media is message" idea.A couple very interesting questions here. Eric Alterman has done some of the best work out there on this question and conservatives themselves have admitted that the "liberal media" line is an attempt to "work the refs," that is, if a coach complains loud enough and often enough, refs will make calls in that coach's favor just to keep from having to hear the complaints. So, too, conservatives have cowed the media into self-censorship and false "balance."
Many people argue that the media is bias towards liberalism. Is the media message then supposed to be liberal? But in the build-up to the Iraqi war the media was said to be bias towards the war.
The question is, is the media bias to that which has to be and is in the best interest?"
So is there a bias? Sure, everyone has a point of view, a set of categories from which they make sense of the world which contains certain presuppositions. There is certainly a bias towards their own. They are wealthy and clubby and if you want example after example of their Heather-like behavior, read Bob Somerby. These are not progressives in the media, you will never ever see a real progressive anywhere on television outside of, say, Democracy Now. They will put up folks from the center-left, who by comparison seem liberal, but are not truly progressive. The media bias keeps anyone who would truly offend the wealthy off the air.
"So my 12 year old is watching "Mulan" and wonders why it is against the law for women to be in the army. So why, in China in 1300, is it against the law for women to be in the army? Why in 1776? Why now?"There has been a shift in both the function of the military and gender. In 14th century China and 18th century Europe and America, life was divided by both problematic views of gender and the need to get things done that to some degree required a division of labor.
As such, military service was not merely about defending national borders, but also played a part in defining masculinity. The code of chivalry may have been explicit at one time, but the idea that honor, bravery, and all the virtues specific to men would be tied up with martial service was certainly not unique.
But since Vietnam, the military has a different cultural meaning and occupies a different place politically. It has been largely technologized and the tough jobs done by folks of lower class. Military service is no longer the marker of virtue it once was -- in part because of events from My Lai to Tailhook and in part because of the class status of many of those in the military. Look at "Operation Yellow Elephant" that sought college conservatives who were championing the Iraq War who would sign up. They overwhelmingly opted out in favor of high paying, more prestigious positions. Even those who were the loudest boosters for "the troops" did not want to join them because military service has become a negative class indicator, a place of necessity for those who will have a tough time otherwise finding a good paying job. Add to this the overturning of traditional gender roles in many fields, and the military is a different institution than it was, women can perform the duties which no longer define what it is to be a man in this culture the way it did in other places and earlier times.
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
A few astronomical questions.
"What are the odds that we will send humans to Mars and eitherI say the odds are very slim that we'll ever send a human to Mars. Manned spaceflight is expensive in terms of time, money, and resources that could be dedicated to lots of real science that isn't getting done. Further, with robotics there isn't that much advantage given the excessive price.
1) return them safely to Earth, or
2) successfully colonize Mars
by 2057 (the Sputnik Centennial)?"
Carl Sagan decades ago famously discussed the possibility of planting dark vegetation on Mars to capture heat and hold water, create an atmosphere and biosphere to make it habitable for humans, but the the odds it would work are small and the need does not seem pressing to colonize another planet.
Mars came back up a few years ago because the Hubble's fate was uncertain. It required major repairs and the Bush administration was trying to avoid making them because young Earth creationists hate the Hubble and all of its evidence that the universe is more than four thousand years old. In a classic misdirection move, Bush proposed going to Mars with one hand to seem as bold as Kennedy, garnering lots of "look, he's pro-space" headlines, while using the other hand to kill one of NASA's most beloved projects. As soon as the possibility of Hubble's demise became public, the storm made abandoning it untenable and Mars-talk went away, too.
"Will jokes about Uranus ever stop being funny?"No. But on a serious note, there are deep and interesting questions about the outer planets, so make sure to try hard to wrap your head around Uranus.
C. Ewing asks,
"Is there an important difference between a stout and a porter?"According to Michael Jackson, the term "Porter" for dark heavy beers came into being first, most likely to define a mixture of the three types of beer brewed at the the time -- ale, beer, and two-penny. It became popular around the time that mass transit first started and the name "Porter" became attached to it most likely because it was popular with manual laborers. As these became more widely appreciated, different approaches to Porter started to develop and those with a fuller, deeper body were termed stout porters. At this point, the names are generally used interchangeably.
Monday, January 05, 2009
Gwydion asks, "Are there hotels on Easter Island? Can you travel there as a tourist and spend a night or two? How expensive is it?"
Easter Island with its famous stone heads is one of the most remote places on Earth, requiring a 5 1/2 hour flight from Santiago, Chile. There is a small airport on the island and about a dozen hotels, the nicest of which seems to be the Vai Moana which wouldn't set you back much more than a low to mid-range room in an American city. Apparently, many locals open their homes as b&b's. The flight will cost about a grand, but all in all, for such an incredibly beautiful and monumental location, it seems quite reasonable.
Gwydion also asks "Why is it against your better judgment?"
Because Q&A requires the Q part and this week is traditionally one of the weakest of the year in terms of blog traffic. People tend to read at school or work and with folks still enjoying the tail-end of the holidays, I thought it less likely that we'd get the number of questions that make it fun. I humbly apologize for doubting my dear friends here at the Playground.
Hanno asks, "Why is it mechanical tools break down faster when you do not use them?"
For mechanical tools that have moving parts, parts that rub, rubbing causes friction, friction causes wear. If tools are used regularly, parts run past each other well. However, if left to the elements, a couple of things happen -- lubricated joints dry out and moisture in the air causes rust, both of which hamper the functioning of the tool. For tools with no moving parts, like a saw, the answer is similar -- the elements affect the surface of the metal which makes the saw less easy to use even if still sharp.
Saturday, January 03, 2009
Against my better judgment, let's start off the year with 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, January 02, 2009
YKW pointed me to this article, "Premarital Abstinence Pledges Ineffective, Study Finds" which points out,
Teenagers who pledge to remain virgins until marriage are just as likely to have premarital sex as those who do not promise abstinence and are significantly less likely to use condoms and other forms of birth control when they do, according to a study released today.It is of little surprise that in a country so schizophrenic about sexuality, our children would not emerge from an information vacuum/scared straight approach to learning how to be sexual beings with healthy approaches to a central part of human life.
The new analysis of data from a large federal survey found that more than half of youths became sexually active before marriage regardless of whether they had taken a "virginity pledge," but that the percentage who took precautions against pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases was 10 points lower for pledgers than for non-pledgers.
Should children be having sex? No, of course not. But neither should they be designing bridges, yet we teach them math. The goal should be to ultimately create people who have safe, satisfying sexual lives and that requires much information and thoughtful discussion, neither of which we want to provide our kids. We believe instead in Plato's the noble lie approach where we demonize and vilify sex, placing it next to drug use in the "just say no" category in which catchphrases and denial are supposed to be legitimate substitutes for actual preparation for one of the most intricate, complex aspects of being a person. Freud may have been wrong about a lot of things, but he was absolutely right that sexuality is tied inextricably into many of our deepest insecurities and repression reveals itself in unexpected and unhealthy ways.
Of course, it need not be like this. There are other models that are more effective. Barbara at Mahablog has a wonderful discussion where she points out:
The fact is that in spite of all our puritanical shudderings about sex, the U.S. has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world. The lowest? For several years running, it’s been the ultra-liberal Netherlands. And it’s a big difference, too. The teenage pregnancy rate in the U.S. is 44 pregnancies per 1,000 teenage girls per year. In the Netherlands, that number is 5.If it works better why not adopt it? If it would make the "we're number 1" crowd happy, we could steal it and claim it was ours first. But no. Why not?
In other words, the little country infamous for legal drugs and prostitution does a better job of keeping its teenagers from getting pregnant than the good ol’ USA, Land of Sexual Repression. I believe the Netherlands also has the lowest rate of STDs among young people on the planet.
It is not about stopping teen pregnancies, it is not about stopping STDs, it is not about stopping abortions or gay marriage, it is about stopping sex. It is about a radical strain of Christian dogma tied to a hyper-anti-physical metaphysic in which anything bodily, anything pleasurable, takes one away from the Divine. It is in our Protestant work ethic, it is more deeply in our odd love/hate relationship with making love. Not all Christian doctrine is like this, there are many very healthy Christian approaches to the body, but the one that has the power is the one that equates most sexual expression with sin.
Of course, this approach only makes it more desirable and warps it in unhealthy ways. When John Ashcroft -- former Senator from Missouri who lost to Mel Carnahan...after Carnahan died -- became the first Attorney General under George W. Bush, he announced that pornography was going to be a central priority. I could not understand why he would take his eye off of real crime, real problems. Then, we drove through Missouri. I didn't want my kids looking out the window. Every third billboard was for a "Gentleman's Club" and should have been wrapped in brown paper. By setting off on this wack-a-mole strategy of denial, it only reappears in strange ways and undesirable places.
They push the bizarre line that sexuality has one and one purpose only, procreation. No doubt it does have that function, but it has a huge number of other functions as well, some are beneficial like bringing intimacy to a relationship, satisfying physiological needs, maintaining a sense of playfulness between partners, stimulating the chocolate industry; others not so much like instantiating power relationships or facilitating manipulation. The problem is that by keeping our kids metaphorically in the dark, they don't learn how to thrive when they are literally in the dark. By allowing the anti-sexual lobby to define how "people with values" view human sexuality, we have harmed ourselves and our children by giving them a distorted, unwholesome picture of what should be an incredibly joyful part of life.
Barbara could not be more tragically correct when she writes that, "Our teens wrap themselves up in so much denial some of them probably can’t admit to themselves they have sex even while they are having it." I've seen this with some of the students I see, students who want the intimacy, who want the pleasure, who feel the need to be sexual, but who have been so thoroughly stunted in their psychological development about their own sexuality that very bad things happen to them and their unwitting, inexperienced partners. We leave them to bumble through what would under the best circumstances be exhilarating, but exasperating moments making mistakes that do not need to be made, mistakes that change lives, often not for the better in terms of pregnancies, STDs, and legal proceedings.
We are animals, we have urges and those urges are going to begin to be felt at a time of life when we do not necessarily want them expressed because we have so much to learn, so much to do, so far to go to become adults who can flourish in many ways. We are animals, but not merely animals; we are complex social and psychological beings living in a time in a place when we have many projects, when we mature and create ourselves through what we do and who we love. And, also, we create ourselves through how we love, something our children are not learning well, something we are failing as a culture in conveying to them.