Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Springtime in Detroit?

So, GM CEO Rick Wagoner was ousted by Obama as a first step towards possibly saving the US's largest auto maker. To start, get the captain away from the bridge of the Exxon Valdez...(hey, it's a hackneyed metaphor that didn't mention the Titanic!)

Is Detroit salvageable? There is a problem endemic to the industry. I think of a story that Ralph Nader tells about his battles with them in the 60s. While fighting the war to include seatbelts (which the auto industry did everything in its power to avoid), he set his aim lower. A simple problem. The latches on car doors were designed badly so that in accidents the doors would fly open and passengers would get thrown from the car causing much greater harm. The solution was a redesign that would be a reworking of the same material, it would not cost a penny more to do it better. It would not cause any supplier to have to raise a price. It was a simple little change that would have no effect on the industry, but would save many lives. And the industry fought tooth and nail to stop it just because they didn't want to be told anything.

This attitude is still there. They destroy electric cars. They scoffed at building anything but Escalades, Explorers, Corvettes, and other prostetic gentilia with wheels. High school never ends. The people who populate these big corporations are the towel snapping jerks we all remember only the locker room is now the board room. Will removing one really change anything? Is the entire structure contaminated? Can the auto industry really change in the ways it would save it?

Aldo Leopold writes of farmers plowing under windbreaks to plant a few more rows just five years after they watched most of their nieghbors driven from their family farms by the winds of the dust bowl. Is this goingto be the same thing?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Etiquette and Ethics

Been thinking of the line between social mores and morality. Had another funeral this weekend. A not-so-old deadhead friend passed away from cancer and the conversation amongst a bunch of us was whether to wear tie-dye to the service. On the one hand, there's no doubt that Andy would have smiled at the sight, it would have been done out of love, and would have been meaningful for many who did. But the concern was for the family. He was one thing to us, but like all people he was multi-faceted. Would the tribute seem to trivialize the occassion? It certainly would have been counter to etiquette, but would it have crossed the ethical line into disrespect? Surely, not every act that violates norms is wrong. There is nothing immoral about using the wrong fork. But is there a line at which a breach of etiqueete becomes more than a question of manners? If so, where is that line?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Feast of Saint Marcel


This week saw the 86th anniversary of the birth of Marcel Marceau. His real name was Mangel and he came from a Jewish family. He fell in love with Charlie Chaplin's work and would perform his versions of Chaplin's clowning acts for neighborhood children.

He took the name Marceau to hide his Jewish identity, something that would be necessary with the coming of World War II. He moved to Paris, which was safer and there he began studying mime with Etienne Decroux the father of modern mime.

When the war did come, the results were tragic, his father perished in Auschwitz. Marceau and his brother joined the French resistance and worked to help Jewish children avoid the concentration camps. After the war, he joined the French army.

He returned to his studies in 1946 and the following year introduced his famous character Bip which vaulted him to international stardom. Happy Birthday, Marcel Marceau.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, March 27, 2009

Happy Birthday, Quentin Tarantino

It's Quentin Tarantino's 46th birthday today. I do think he will be viewed as one of the essential American filmmakers of this generation. His trademark schitck, of course, is the juxtaposition of horribly gruesome violence captured in a way that makes it cutesy. He does for blood and gore what Betty Boop did for sex in the '30s.

He is someone who clearly loves the history of cinema and quotes from multiple periods in his films. You see influences from everywhere, concepts taken from Hitchcock to 60s blacksploitation to japanese martial arts. He has a broad palette, but never uses it in a fashion that is ostentatious or that strays from his own voice.

Most of all, what I admire about him is that he is a master at non-linear narrative. The stories he tells have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but they rarely appear in that order. He is able to jump from time to time and although you know how it ends, you are still on the edge of your seat not sure how you got from now to that, even though you've already seen some of what happens in the middle.

So, happy birthday. What are your favorite Tarantino films?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Happy Birthday Gloria Steinem

Yesterday was Gloria Steinem's 75th birthday. A wonderful event and an appropriate time to consider the state of gender equality and gender roles in our society.

Domestic violence has been all over the headlines lately. The pay gap for women still exists. Indeed, it becomes evident the first year out of college which belies the usual "women more often choose to stay home" line. From that first year, it just widens.

Yet, the academic achievement of women continues to distance them from their male counterparts (high school and college graduation rates are higher for women) and this is having real effects in terms of representation in traditionally male dominated fields. The number of new doctors and lawyers, for example, is very near parity (although the number of female partners in firms is still significantly lower).

So, what are the greatest strides forward in terms of eliminating patriarchal barriers and what are the most important gender-based hurdles remaining?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Taught my middle school class yesterday and the kids went bananas over the mind/body problem. So, I figure, let's try it here.

Are the mind and the brain the same thing?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The War on Cool

The shorter shorty rode his two wheeler without training wheels for the first time this weekend. You could tell he was nervous and asked at first that we not remove them. But some gentle coaxing from TheWife and he agreed to give it a try and it was just a few minutes later that I let go of the bike and he rode by himself for several yards. I gave the obligatory "You did it!" and he had that smile we all know, the "I'm so proud of myself, oh my god I didn't think I could do that, wow" smile. It is authentic joy. It is the opposite of cool.

I look at that smile and then I look at my college students. There is a tyranny of the cool. Authentic displays of emotion are "so gay" and are actively quelled...usually.

In my philosophy of science class, I have a critical mass of students who love science and who have decided that it is a geek-safe space. They just don't care about what the cool kids think of them. Man, were they into it yesterday in talking about Thomas Kuhn's notion of paradigm shift and whether there could be an extra-paradigmatic notion of rationality sufficiently robust to sustain a meaningful concept of scientific progress. It reminded me of the bike. It was so much fun.

So, I'm declaring war on cool again. Cool sucks. Cool keeps us from engaging with each other and the world. Cool keeps down the smart, the strange, the interesting.

But the Heathers have the social capital and are not about to give it up. I need strategy here people. How do we launch our attack? How do we make authenticity acceptable?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Our Third Blogoversary

Today is the third anniversary of Philosophers' Playground. Hard to believe it's been three years and 975 posts. I want thank everyone who has stopped by, commented, guest posted, or lurked. I am incredibly proud of the gang who frequents the place. Friends from various places, former students, family, and folks I know just from our daily fun here. I love the debate, I love the puns, I love the company. Thanks everyone.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Clown Princes of Basketball


Last weekend I took the short people to see the Harlem Globetrotters. I've loved them since I was a kid in the Meadowlark Lemon, Curly Neal, Geese Ausby, Marcus Haynes era (my first lunchbox when I was six featured the Globetrotters). Their shows still has all the elements it always has and the kids were still alternately mesmerized and howling. Everything from the bucket of confetti to the foul shot on a string, the weave and five touch slam, and of course the magic circle. If hearing Brother Bones' whistled version of Sweet Georgia Brown does not bring an instant smile to your face, may you play for the Washington Generals in your next life.

They started in the mid-1920s in Illinois as a serious competitive team. The clowning developed over time and would only come out once they had a significant lead. They were not entertainers, but basketball players.

Then Abe Saperstein came aboard and made the team's hometown Harlem, even though they were all from Chicago. As they were originally a Midwest touring group, the name Harlem made them seem more exotic and as this was the high point of the Harlem renaissance, it denoted something significant in its east coast reference.

But they were not a local act for long. The only sporting team to give command performances for the President of the United States, the Queen of England, and the Pope, the Globetrotters have not lost to their arch-rivals the Washington Generals since January 5, 1971. I am pleased to report that in Towson, Maryland last weekend, the streak stayed alive.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, March 20, 2009

Pros and Cons of Organized Youth Sports

Both of the short people are on teams right now. Big shorty is playing soccer and little shorty is in little league. I was an athlete back when and I wanted my kids to be involved in team athletics, but I'm not a little league parent and I'm finding myself more and more ambivalent.

On the plus side, we need to make physical activity more a part of the lives of people in this culture any way we can. Childhood obesity, diabetes, and all sorts of public health problems are rampant and fun exercise is a good thing. Additionally, it teaches kids that they can do things that are hard, they can push themselves, and they learn to find that extra-reserve to give it that extra kick when they needed it. I believe that these lessons helped me in grad school.

You also learn to be part of a team, to play fair, to work hard, to win with dignity, and lose with grace. You learn how to deal with jerks and to depend on others.

But, on the other hand, there is a stratification in this culture that puts people at the top who probably shouldn't be there. Youth athletics is an early indoctrination into our jocks are tops social structure where prowess on the field translates into social capital. The worst of our patriarchal culture is openly transmitted. There are starters and scrubs and the kids who end up as bench warmers are often the ones whose self-esteemed was already getting whacked. The "win baby win" ethos that destroyed our economy and foreign policy is there in miniature and the kids of jerks tend to be little jerks.

You do come away at the end of the day and wonder if what they picked up was on balance better or worse. So, with youth athletics, do the pros outweigh the cons?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The First Amendment and The Ambiguity of Marriage

Some marriages in Pennsylvania are being annulled. Not because of domestic strife, but because of over-zealous county clerks with political agendas.

In 2004, Michelle and Marc planned to marry in Philadelphia and get their license in Bucks County - a decision influenced only by the office's proximity to their home in Hatboro.

They were acting within the law, of course. Couples can buy their marriage licenses in any one of Pennsylvania's 67 counties and hold their ceremonies in any other.

So how, the Toths now wonder, is their marriage considered legal in Montgomery County, but possibly null and void in Bucks?

The short answer is that the people responsible for issuing marriage licenses - the 67 elected clerks of Orphans Court - are at odds with one another. And the growing ranks of couples using a nontraditional officiant or no officiant at all are getting caught in the conflict.

On one side are clerks, such as those in Bucks and Delaware counties, who want the state marriage-license law tightened. They say the institution of marriage is being sullied, if not undermined, by nontraditional ministers and those who they believe are irreligious, liberal couples seeking to stretch the law.

On the other side are clerks, including those in Philadelphia, Chester, and Montgomery counties, who say the law is clear as long as it is read without bias. Their position has the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union. (This issue does not exist in New Jersey.)
The irreligious are stretching the law by getting themselves married in a way that is consistent with their beliefs? Interesting. Seems like we need a reminder about that pesky First Amendment which says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This is not Congress acting, but it is well worth the time to review what it was that our Founding Fathers were concerned about to see why these clerks are being truly unamerican.

The context for the Founders' concern about Church and State comes from a conflict between their Enlightenment roots and their English heritage. England had an official Church, the Church of England, and this had two effects that they wanted to avoid for this nation. First, having an official Church meant having an official theology. This would curtail the open and free marketplace of religious ideas, something abhorrent to children of the Enlightenment. Further, it allowed the Church a place as the source of governmental legitimacy. The Divine Right of Kings was overseen by those who had a monopoly on the Divine. For thinkers trying to set up a democratic system where the government derived legitimacy from the will of the people, an official theological doctrine was problematic.

So, let's turn back to Pennsylvania. What is the worry of these clerks? People are getting married by people other than judges or "legitimate" clergy.
But in recent years, weddings have shifted toward a personalized approach. More couples, like the Toths, have wanted to write and conduct their own ceremonies or have someone close to them do the honors.

That troubled David Cleaver, the lawyer who represents the Association of Clerks, on two fronts. He envisioned that marriages solemnized by clergy from unknown, possibly Internet-based churches eventually might be challenged in court. And, Cleaver said, if self-uniting ceremonies ever were challenged, that would undermine the status of legitimate Quaker marriages, too.

Long-standing marriages could be declared null and void, Cleaver warned. Children could be bastardized, and government pensions and military benefits might be put in jeopardy.
Marriages would not be legitimate because the clergy who conducted them were not "legitimate" clergy. What makes them legitimate? According to York County judge Maria Musti Cook they have established congregations and church buildings. Truly a peculiar ruling.

We give clergy the power we give to justices of the peace and judges, but no one else. Why? Because marriage is ambiguous. Gay-marriage opponents repeatedly refer to THE definition of marriage, as if it only has one definition. But like so many words, of course, marriage has multiple definitions, many different senses in which the word may be legitimately used. It is a legal status, a religious ritual, and a social standing just to name three. And these are all different. When I was 13, I had a bar mitzvah. the rabbi said that on May 2, 1982 I was a man. But I could not legally drive a car, join the military, purchase or consume alcohol, was still covered by my parent's insurance...I was an adult in the religious community, but not in terms of the legal status. The two are separate.

This is precisely the separation we fail to make in the case of marriage. My wife and I wrote our ceremony and had a non-standard officiant. I recently was ordained myself by the Church of Universal Life in order to marry two dear, dear friends, writing the ceremony ourselves and including rituals we appropriated and created to make the moment spiritually meaningful in the broadest sense of that term. These were weddings in every way.

What the clerks in Pennsylvania (and the opponents of gay marriage -- and let's not fool ourselves into thinking these are separate issues, just as stem cell research is really a proxy abortion battle this is really about gay marriage) are doing has two steps: first, willfully conflate the religious status of marriage with the legal status of marriage; second, define the religious status of marriage theologically. Both steps are fallacious.

The first is the basis for the scare tactics of the "defense of marriage" bigots. Legalizing same sex marriages would not force any church to marry anyone they did not want. As an atheist, I could not get married by most Christian clergy. Churches are their own clubs and they run by their own rules. Just as the Moose or the Freemasons or the Shriners could refuse my request for membership, so too conservative churches could refuse requests to marry same sex couples just as they refuse to marry couples of other faith traditions. But the Shirners could not refuse my right to peaceably assemble with others. That is a right I have and needs to be protected even if they don't want me congregating with them. Similarly, the church may refuse to marry a couple, but it is wrong for them to deny them the right to marry.

But it is the second step that is particularly pernicious here. Clergy being defined in terms of established organizations with special status in that organization. This has crossed the line into government mandated theology, exactly what our Framers intended to avoid. Quakers do not allow that anyone has special standing or powers. Judaism, similarly, does not endow rabbis with any special powers or connection to the divine -- they are simply scholars, just another person with a job like any doctor or butcher. It also takes those who are deeply spiritual, but whose sense of the Divine is not to be found in any organized religion and excludes them, radicals like the Father of our Constitution, Thomas Paine,
"I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church."
This decision, this interpretation privileges a theological viewpoint and enshrines it in law. It is based upon the idea that while there is no one denomination that is an official religion, that there is a theological foundation that defines what is to be considered a religion officially. This is a distinction without a difference. In the Church of England, there were theologians with divergent opinions, but they were part of a religious movement that was married to the State. Here we have Catholic priests and Protestant ministers with theological differences, but are part of religious movement that is now married to the state.

That is unamerican, that is precisely what the First Amendment to the United States Constitution was designed to protect against. It is an offense to the open and free marketplace of ideas and it is an offense to the secular foundation of our government. It is not only wrong, it is a dishonest and disguised attempt to further a cause dedicated to removing the rights of an oppressed group of Americans.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Seemingly Trivial Unanswered Problems In Discourse: Easy Edition

Haven't done one of these in a while. "Seemingly Trivial Unanswered Problems In Discourse," which goes by the acronym D.U.C.K., is an exercise in which we take a question that should not be asked, a question that seems to have no answer or a perfectly trivial answer and actually have a discussion about it for no good reason.

Is pie, in fact, easy? If so, which is easier, pie or falling off a log?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bullshit or Not: James Joyce Edition

There's an old sketch film called Amazon Women on the Moon and one of the bits is a parody of the old Leonard Nimoy show, "In Search Of..." called, "Bullshit or Not?" with the tagline "Bullshit or not? You decide." It's a line I like so much that I've stolen it for an irregular series of posts.

On Saint Patrick's Day, it seems appropriate to pull a quotation for discussion from one of Ireland's greatest minds, James Joyce. Here's the quotation:

"Saying that a great genius is mad, while at the same time recognizing his artistic worth, is like saying that he had rheumatism or suffered from diabetes. Madness, in fact, is a medical term that can claim no more notice from the objective critic than he grants the charge of heresy raised by the theologian, or the charge of immorality raised by the police."
Is the notion of the mad genius just a fiction? Is it something we've dreamt up to make the great seem flawed for precisely what makes them superior, thereby protecting ourselves in our mediocrity? Or was Aristotle right that "There was never a genius without a tincture of madness"?

So, bullshit or not? You decide. As usual, feel free to leave anything from a one word comment to a dissertation.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Victims and Sympathy

I find myself unable to muster a lot of sympathy for two sets of victims who have been in the news lately.

The first group are those who lost money in the Madoff Ponzi scheme. Those who invested with Madoff did so because he was who he was and promised what he promised. Of course, what he promised and claimed to deliver was so spectacular that it could not be on the level if it was real. The folks who got taken surely knew this. They had to figure that because he was the consummate insider, Madoff was working on inside information and that's illegal. Sure, he was a crook, but he was a crook for them. Of course, that isn't how it turned out. Yes, I feel for those whose relatives invested their money for them, relatives who thought they were doing what was in their loved ones best interest, but for so many of these folks, it was greed that got them stung and while they are victims, I find it hard to feel sympathy.

The other is a group that NPR keeps profiling. Business owners who contributed to groups trying to pass proposition 8, which stripped gays and lesbians of their right to marry in California, complain of being targeted by protesters driving business away. They argue that they are being punished for a political disagreement. But, you know, here were customers of yours whose basic human rights you were helping to deny, do you really think they would continue to happily give you their money? Some folks have lost their jobs as managers, others have come close to losing their businesses. But, again, I have a hard time being sympathetic. These were human beings, human beings that you had a relationship with, and you still tried to take their rights away.

Do victims always deserve sympathy? If not, what conditions are necessary or sufficient?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Passing the Plate: Smart Joke Edition


Today is Einstein's birthday and in his honor, let's pass the plate. Other religions asks for monetary donations, but Comedists tithe jokes. So, for uncle Albert, let's do smart jokes of any variety.

My favorite new physics joke:

They built a fence around the physics building at my college, but forgot to put in a gate. So, they cut a slit in the fence and the physicists starting popping out one by one. Then they cut a second slit and now none of them come out, they just stand there and wave.

Two I just wrote:

I took part in a medical experiment testing the placebo effect, but unfortunately I was in the control group.

Did you hear that Adam Smith's wife divorced him. Apparently, it wasn't just his hand that was invisible.

Others? Dig deep, my friends.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Bullshit or Not: Einstein Edition

On the eve of his birthday, let's play Bullshit or Not.

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.

Here's the quotation,

“The psychological root of anti-Semitism lies in the fact that the Jews are a group of people unto themselves. Their Jewishness is visible in their physical appearance, and one notices their Jewish heritage in their intellectual work.”
Can you find Jewish heritage in intellectual work? Do Jews write peotry differently? Do biology differently?

Surely this is not restricted to Jews. Is there a Japanese style of particle physics? An African-American style of anthropology?

So, bullshit or not, you decide. As usual, feel free to leave a single word or a dissertation.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The GOP Is Right, It Is Clinton's Fault

I was listening to a local NPR talk show the other day and it struck me, it IS Clinton's fault, just like the Republicans claim.

The radio discussion concerned the near doubling of electric bills for many customers in Maryland. The cause? Deregulation of the electric industry. When the debate went on concerning it a decade ago, the line was that the free market would bring prices for consumers down. Competition good, regulation of industry bad. Market forces raise all boats. So, the legislature went along and -- of course -- the consumer got the shaft. So now there are attempts to put the genie back in the toothpaste tube and re-regulate the industry.

It is just one small example of everything we are seeing all the way across the economy. Why? Because high school never ends. The jerks from high school who lied, cheated, and stole? They went to college, got MBAs and now run corporations. Those with power positions in the marketplace are filthy rotten.

When their buddies got hold of the Congress and White House, of course, they invited the foxes into the hen house. Bush created a special tax break to help transport them into the hen house. But then so did Clinton. Clinton and his DLC chums happily sold out the party -- Clinton especially so when he realized that it was his ticket to a second term after Monica -- and played the deregulation game just like the GOoPers. VP Biden did it too with the bankruptcy bill. Call it "deregulation" and appeal to free market competition and how it will benefit everyone and really use the legislation to rig the game against most Americans in ways that someone without a law degree could never understand. Put on commercials with Harry and Louise to demonize anyone who doesn't want to hand the country over to our corporate overlords as dirty fucking hippies, socialists. And when it passes, let people with the moral fiber of Jesse James loot our entire economy into dust.

Yes, we have "people" like Phil Graham to blame. Yes, this sort of thing became endemic during the last eight years. But the snowball was rolling happily downhill for the years before that. To get himself another term William Jefferson Clinton gave our government to the people that destroyed it by becoming one of them.

The man did great things in terms of foreign policy which is why having Hilary at the helm of the Department of State is a very good thing. But keep the Clintons and their ilk away from anything that relates to economic regulation...you know, folks like Larry Summers who Obama put in one of the most powerful positions.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Intuition and Truth

Had lunch with Jeff Maynes yesterday and we got to talking about his research in experimental philosophy.

In philosophy, topics we deal with are often not open to empirical investigation. Therefore, we often use intuitions as data. This is frequently the case in ethics and the philosophy of language. We test boundary cases, for example, where clearly this act is wrong, yet moral system X permits it showing that the system is not a necessary condition for moral rightness.

But while the intuitions are about untestable claims, what becomes testable is how widespread the intuitions are. So a group of philosophers have recently begun testing exactly this. Experimental philosophy in part looks at the intuitions at the heart of certain major philosophical works and sees whether those intuitions are shared by non-technicians, by the average person.

The question we discussed is what this shows. Suppose you have a minority intuition, does this mean that your intuition is in some sense wrong? Can your intuitions change? Is this a result of life experiences? How about as a result of rational argumentation? If intuitions are malleable, can they be used in philosophy in the way we tend to? If we surrender them, what else do we have for discussing the cogency of many philosophical views?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Ritual and Body

My great-uncle just passed away and yesterday was the funeral. I've never been one for ritual because it seems that the process of scripting severely limits the room for authentic spontaneous expressions of meaning. But funerals seem different. The emotion is so overwhelming that having the stability of the structure is surely comforting. I'd always thought of cremation or giving my body to science, but it does seem that the body is an important part of the process for the loved ones. I remember when my grandfather passed, that it didn't seem entirely real until I felt the heft of the casket. It was the feeling of the weight that made me really understand that this was my last moment with him. Is the experience different when one spreads the ashes of a loved one? Is it the absence, the finality, or the physicality? Is the body an essential part of the letting go?

Monday, March 09, 2009

Recipes as Intellectual Property

So TheWife and I were in our favorite Persian restaurant yesterday, having a little late celebration of her birthday (if you're in the Baltimore area and have never tried the Orchard Market Cafe, you're in for a treat). We were enjoying our usual appetizers -- her an eggplant and artichoke dish and me haleem bedemajune, an eggplant and lentil dip -- when she looks up and asks, "So, if somehow, illicitly, I was able to photocopy the recipe, would there be anything wrong with that? I would not open a competing restaurant or make money off of it, but I could make it for myself at home." I asked whether it would mean she would come to the restaurant any less frequently? She said no, the salmon would bring her back, so they would suffer no loss of business. the idea then is that they would endure absolutely no harm as a result of her acquiring the recipe without permission, but was there still something wrong with taking it?

We shared the intuition that there would be something wrong here. I find the concept of intellectual property a bit problematic -- trying to patch a 17th century concept onto 20th century issues in a way that doesn't dovetail quite right in many cases -- but it seems appropriate here. A recipe, assuming it is novel, is a creative work and that seems to endow the creator with certain rights to it. Acquiring it on the sly would seem like stealing here and thereby wrong.

But then suppose by enjoying the dish, you were able to figure out what is in it -- clearly eggplant, artichoke heart, olive and a mustard-based cream sauce, but what else? If you tasted carefully and figured out what seasonings to add and tried a couple times until you got the proportions just right, would that be different? You've ended up with the respire that isn't yours, so it's the same end result, but it does seem a bit different. Why?

Is it because by tasting and recreating, I am adding my own labor? Is it now my creative act? But why would that little bit of effort entitle me to the creative work of someone else? Is it because the tasting is public -- the dish is offered for anyone who will purchase a serving and that act of giving me the dish makes it no longer private property? But I wouldn't have the right to ask for the recipe just because I ordered it. I may have the right to ask whether there is, say, peanut or wheat in it because of allergies, but that is not asking to be able to make it myself. Or is the intuition wrong and it remains wrong to try to "reverse engineer" a dish you've eaten somewhere and loved?

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Feast of Saint Lou


This week we celebrate the feast of Saint Bud. Born Louis Francis Cristillo, he grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, a tough town where he was a well known basketball player and an amateur boxer before becoming turning to show biz.

He got a few jobs in Hollywood as a stunt double and an extra, but his career didn't take off and trying to get back home, he ran out of money. Stuck in the midwest, he became a burlesque comic, adopting the stage name Costello after a popular actress of the times. It was working the circuit that he met straightman Bud Abbott and they worked together on and off until 1936 when they became an official team.

Their big break came in 1938 when they played the Kate Smith Hour, a major radio program where they performed possibly the best known skit in the history of comedy, "Who's on First." It cemented their place in comedy history and they went on to become two of the biggest names in radio and film.

Sunday mornings growing up always meant Abbott and Costello movies on the tv, something that cable has sadly displaced.

Happy Birthday, Lou Costello.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, March 06, 2009

Kind of Person: Jerk Edition

This worked well the first time we tried it, so let's go back to the well. The idea is to come up with descriptions of the form "S/he is the kind of person who..." that capture an archetype. Last time we tried the perfect people, this time let's go in the opposite direction and describe those erasable characters who you just have to hate, the real nasty jerks who revel in kicking you when you're down.

"He was the kind of person who grew a beard, knocked out his teeth, and gave himself a scar just to make sure no one would ever have the pleasure of defiling a photo of him."

"She was the kind of person who if ever you needed a hand, she'd always give you the back of it."

"He was the kind of person who would not only use a magnifying glass to set ants on fire, he would bring his own sunlamp in case it was cloudy."


Thursday, March 05, 2009

Bidirectional Words

So, this morning driving into school, the older of the short people asks me if there is a name for the class of words that spell a different word backwards. Palindromes are the special case where it is the same word in either direction, but what of the more general case where you get two different words? Is there a name for that?

She came up with a number of three and four letter examples -- saw/was, tool/loot, stop/pots. I mentioned the classic eight letter instance desserts/stressed. Others that you can think of? What is the longest?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Topics That Shock Classes

My favorite Doonesbury is this one.

My philosophy of science class last week made me think of it. Not because they are passionless note-scribblers, quite the opposite. It's a wonderfully lively bunch. But then we hit Hume's problem of induction and Goodman's grue paradox and they went absolutely bananas. Hume doesn't usually get the hackles up, but grue always does. Man, students HATE that argument...always gets them riled up.

My question is what else in your experience has this effect? What as a student just charged you up? What as a teacher do you find gets your students loud and passionate?

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Is Rush Limbaugh the de facto Leader of the GOP?

Rahm Emmanuel has been setting Rush Limbaugh up as the bogeyman to position the President's agenda against because Limbaugh, they argue, is the head of the Republican Party. Some argue that it is a cheap political tactic. It is. But is it true? D.L. Hughley asked Michael Steele about it and Steele said that he was the head of the GOP...well, until like Representative Peter King who also denied the power of Limbaugh, he had to crawl back on his belly and kiss Limbaugh's feet. So, is Limbaugh really the head of the GOP?

Monday, March 02, 2009

Intelligent Design Provocation: How To Respond?

So a Christian group on campus sponsored a showing of Ben Stein's pro-Intelligent Design polemic "No Intelligence Allowed" and sent around an e-mail asking for faculty or student group presence at the film and for a round-table afterward. The claim, and let's take it at face value, was to have an open discussion about the status of intelligent design and evolution for the campus community.

It seems like there were three options:

(1) Ignore it for political reasons -- after Dover, the air has come out of the ID balloon and engaging it only helps reinflate them by giving the false image of there actually being a debate.

(2) Dismiss it for intellectual reasons -- there hasn't been a live debate around this since the end of the 19th century and engaging gives a false impression that the question remains open.

(3) Engage it for discourse reasons -- it is public discourse, the offer was made in good faith, and there needs to be a voice in the conversation familiar with the science and with questions of scientific methodology.

I ignored it (to be honest because I've got too much else to do and it's just hard to get worked up over it anymore), but should I have?