Thursday, April 30, 2009

Einstein, Marky Mark, Write-Offs

I cannot say for sure, but I would be surprised if there are other posts that discuss accounting rules, Einstein, and Mark Wahlberg. Welcome to the Playground.

YKW asks,

"What would Einstein say about the scientific viability of mark-to-market accounting for the value of illiquid securities?"
The best place to look is his speech in 1921 to the Prussian Academy of Sciences where he discusses linguistic conventions.
Let us for a moment consider from this point of view any axiom of geometry, for instance, the following: through two points in space there always passes one and only one straight line. How is this axiom to be interpreted in the older sense and in the more modern sense?

The older interpretation: everyone knows what a straight line is, and what a point is. Whether this knowledge springs from an ability of the human mind or from experience, from some cooperation of the two or from some other source, is not for the mathematician to decide. He leaves the question to the philosopher. Being based upon this knowledge, which precedes all mathematics, the axiom stated above is, like all other axioms, self-evident, that is, it is the expression of a part of this a priori knowledge.

The more modern interpretation: geometry treats of objects, which are denoted by the words straight line, point, etc. No knowledge or intuition of these objects is assumed but only the validity of the axioms, such as the one stated above, which are to be taken in a purely formal sense, i.e., as void of all content of intuition or experience. These axioms are free creations of the human mind. All other propositions of geometry are logical inferences from the axioms (which are to be taken in the nominalistic sense only). The axioms define the objects of which geometry treats. Schlick in his book on epistemology has therefore characterized axioms very aptly as "implicit definitions."
Here, he is arguing that certain aspects of mathematics are freely chosen linguistic conventions and this is also the case in terms of accounting rules. The tax code, like Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry, is a set of basic rules that are freely determined. Once they are in place, there are facts of the world about who owes what, who has paid what, and who has violated the law and should go to prison. But we are always free to alter those rules and that will mean a reinterpretation of empirical data.

Of course, you might also want to check out his essay "Why Socialism?" from 1949 in order to see what he thinks about our ability to make the changes that would benefit humanity:
"Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights."

Philo asks,
"What would Marky Mark say about the scientific viability of mark-to-market accounting for the value of illiquid securities?"
Deductions, good like Sunkist
Many wanna know who done this
Marky Mark and I'm here to move you
Write downs that will groove you
Balance sheet, I will improve you
That we can debit on the positive side
And truly amoratize
Default swaps took you on a ride
Accounting is my occupation
So feel my inflation

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

God and Stuff

A couple of God questions this week.

kzndr asks,

"Are any of the classical arguments for the existence of God actually any good?"

The interesting one, though, is Anselm's argument that a perfect being must exist because existence is a perfection and God by definition is all-perfect. In its standard form, as Kant pointed out, it confuses existence (a precondition for having properties) with a property. One doesn't have or not have the property of existence, if one exists, then one may have properties (especailly if playing Monopoly).

There are, however, some strengths of modal logical language in which one can derive as a logical truth that God must necessarily exist. It requires what logic geeks call a language of strength S5 in which the fact that some sentence p might be true means that it must be the case that it is necessarily the case that p is possible. Is this the case? It is an axiom that we can assume or not so it is possible that the possible necessity of God means that it is necessarily true that God necessarily exists.

The possibility of a modal logic discussion, necessarily brings out Hanno. He asks,
"Is Quantum Mechanics incompatible with an omniscient God?"
The correct answer, of course, is a superposition of yes and no.

The problem is with the so-called measurement problem. When a system is unobserved its natural state is one of a superposition of all possible states. Take spin which is easy because it has two values -- up and down -- making it like a quantum coin flip. When we do not measure the spin of a particle, it will be in a superposed state of up and down. The Schrodinger equation, the fundamental rule of quantum mechanics, talks about how this superposition evolves over time. And it does. This is completely deterministic; nothing random. It's just like Newton's laws.

But the weird thing is that we never ever see anything in its superposed state. The instant we observe, the system collapses into one of its possible property states and we see it there. In our example, it becomes either spin up or spin down. But here is the wierd part, we don't...indeed, can't...know which state it will fall into. THAT is where the randomness of quantum mechanics shows up. There are no hidden variables that we just haven't found yet that will tell us ahead of time and we know from experiments that it really is in this superposed state of multiple possible observable states because we can get it to do things like interfere with itself.

So, now we come to God. We have a particle whose spin we have not yet, but are about to measure. It will be spin up or down, but isn't either yet. Can God know which it will be? No. But the question is whether this is a challenge to omniscience. One the one hand, the genuine randomness does seem to challenge the idea that God knows all facts at any time, but one could also argue that there simply isn't a fact to be known until the measurement, so God's omniscience is saved.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

MASH and the Marx Brothers

A pair of favorite questions.

Gwydion asks,

"Which is your favorite episode of M*A*S*H and why?"
Dear Sigmund. I loved the character of Sydney Freedman, the psychiatrist who was an occasional character. On the one hand, it was introspective and thoughtful, speaking the truth that was generally pointed to by the show. But it was also funny, it was one of the practical joke episodes and those were always my favorites.

Hanno asks,
"What is the funniest scene in the Marx Brothers, and post the clip..."
This is toughie and Hanno and I have been batting it back and forth for a couple days now. It is hard not to go with the obvious -- the mirror scene from Animal Crackers, and then there is the best Groucho scene (either the introduction of Captain Spaulding or his conversation with Rosce W. Chandler), the best Chico scene (in Tarrantino's office in Duck Soup), the best Harpo scene (the lemonade stand in Animal Crackers or the end of A Night at the Opera), and the best Zeppo scene (Jamison, take a letter). But the funniest Marx brothers scene would be when they pretend to be the aviators in A Night at the Opera. Unfortunately, there isn't a complete clip on YouTube that getsChico's speech and Groucho's comments.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Clap and the Flu

B. Smith asks

"Why is clapping the standard gesture of approval at the end of any kind of performance? Where did this act of taking one hand and hitting it against another to make a clicking sound quickly and repeatedly originate?"
Clapping is something that has surely been with humans since before recorded history. It is a way to make a loud noise with minimal expense of energy and no chance of injury. We know that ancient Egyptian and Greek music included clapping, but the first records we have of clapping as applause for performances is from the Roman era. It is something all can do, it is anonymous (everyone's claps sound basically alike), and it is an means of expression that can vary in enthusiasm reflecting the level of approval making it simple and so it has become standard.

Gwydion asks,
"How worried should we all be about the new strain of swine flu? Me, I have a generic fear (or is it an expectation?) that in short order some new strain of flu will ravage the world... but what about this one?"
The answer is -- not sure. Influenza is something that is both common and extremely dangerous. Most years, we deal with a strain that is just a small genetic deviation from the previous year's version. Epidemiologists figure out (take an educated guess) as to which of those in the environment is going to be the most prevalent and develop a flu shot that folks -- especially the old, young, and immuno-compromised -- should take. Pandemics like that of 1918 can be incredibly destructive.

The swine flu, coming from infected pigs is different. It is a strain unlike any we've ever seen. It has pieces of the human flu, old swine flu strains, and avian flu. In addition, it has shown itself to be resistant to our two oldest and most tested remedies. Most alarming, it seems to hit those in the 18-40 range the hardest -- those whose defenses are usually the strongest.

The bright side is that we have a worldwide public health network that is monitoring it closely. There have been deaths in Mexico and a few sporadic cases in Texas, California, Arizona, and Kansas (a lot of Mexican immigrants work in meat packing plants there). A close eye was kept on bird flu and SARS a few years back was successfully contained. So, we are not in the place we were in 1918. That said, it is something to keep a wary eye upon.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics: Any Questions?

Been a while since we've done this, so let's go.

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, April 24, 2009

Why Do You Know That?

Let's pull this one back out. 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.

My contribution:

Stan Freberg's son was the original voice of Linus on the Peanuts television specials.

Benjamin Franklin was an expert swimmer and invented an early version of flippers. He is the earliest American inducted into a sporting Hall of Fame having been inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Jim Brown, one of the greatest running backs to ever play football, is not only in the Professional Football Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame, but also in the Lacrosse Hall of Fame for his career at Syracuse.
Your contribution? What do you know and why do you know it?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Complexity of Evil

With Hitler's birthday, the trials of former Khmer Rouge gaurds, the David Brooks article on "The End of Philosophy," and a brutal, horrible, violent crime on campus in the last few weeks, I've been thinking about evil lately. When I was in graduate school, I was a teaching assistant for Stephen Barker who while teaching the ethics portion of an intro class, found the students hesitant about retribution. I will never forget his New England Brahman accent asking the lecture hall, "Have we really come to place where we no longer wish vengeance upon the evil?"

Hannah Arendt, of course, wrote very powerfully about the banality of evil, that is, the ways in which evil can be spread out and compartmentalized so that those perpetrating even the most egregious crimes can see themselves with clean hands, as just doing their jobs. The ways in which evil can become invisible and part of the structure ought to concern us. It allows us to deny our responsibility to others, that we are what we are a part of. We see that in the current discussion around torture and culpability at different levels of the chain of command. Who ought to be considered responsible?

But perhaps equally important is the way we view evil since Freud. The psychoanalytic approach has deeply shaped the ways in which we think of evil. With the possibility that our minds work apart from our conscious desires and that there may be dark and nefarious urges below the surface that are expressed in ways that are quite different from the person we try to choose to be is truly frightening. There is not a horror film nowadays where there is not a Freudian account of some childhood happening that caused the antagonist to become the monster he is.

And so we are left with a bipolar view of evil which I saw haunting the friends of the young man who committed the heinous act here. We can make pure angels of victims, some rightly as in this case, but we can no longer make pure devils of aggressors. Surely, he wasn't a monster, but yet he was the person who committed the monstrous act. He had stopped taking his antidepressants, but while that may be an explanatory factor, is an explanation the same as an excuse? How do we assign blame and shame when we also have to account for psychological and sociological factors that condition our minds and behaviors? When the motivation for our acts becomes murky and complex, how do we make sense of that we want to cast in black and white?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bullshit or Not: Hitler 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.

Last weekend was Adolph Hitler's birthday, so let's take a passage from Mein Kampf,

"To take abstract and general principles, derived from a philosophy which is based on a solid foundation of truth, and transform them into a militant community whose members have the same political faith – a community which is precisely defined, rigidly organized, of one mind and one will – such a transformation is the most important task of all; for the possibility of successfully carrying out the idea is dependent on the successful fulfilment of that task. Out of the army of millions who feel the truth of these ideas, and even may understand them to some extent, one man must arise. This man must have the gift of being able to expound general ideas in a clear and definite form, and, from the world of vague ideas shimmering before the minds of the masses, he must formulate principles that will be as clear-cut and firm as granite. He must fight for these principles as the only true ones, until a solid rock of common faith and common will emerges above the troubled waves of vagrant ideas."
If we want to turn ideals and ideologies of any stripe into material reality, does this require the arising of a statesman as the face of the movement? Is the great individual a necessary condition for social change of any kind?

Bullshit or not? You decide. As usual, feel free to leave anything from a single word to a dissertation.

Monday, April 20, 2009

"This Isn't an Argument." "Yes it is."

This is the 1000th post on Philosophers' Playground. That's a lot of conversations. So, to celebrate, let's discuss the functionality of discussion.

We had our annual "Get Acquainted Day" at the college last weekend where incoming and undecided students are invited to campus for a day of events including meet and greets with department faculty. We were struck by several students who said that what brought them to philosophy was that they loved to argue. This led to a conversation amongst us over the nature of this love. Did it reduce philosophy to mere sport? Was this a manifestation of competition in which the need to win would blind these young people to insights from those they chose to disagree with? Or could this be seen as a desire to break loose of the intellectual bonds of high school in which they were never to challenge the authority of their teachers, a desire to stretch their own wings and become intellectuals instead of passive learners? Is it an urge to become participants in meaningful discourse or to become obnoxious sophists?

So, the question for us then is the value of debate. In philosophy classes and on this blog, are we training people to be mindlessly, if not effectively, contrary like John Cleese's character in argument clinic or is it more like those baby tigers you see wrestling on nature programs who are practicing and training to engage well when they get into actual situations of conflict in the real world? Is there an intrinsic worth to adversarial discourse like we have here or is it just a meaningless pastime?

4-20: What Is a Drug and How Ought We Deal with Them?

One of the comics last night had a great line. He said a friend told him that doing drugs would catch up with him, so he decided to start doing speed. 4-20 seems as good a time as any to think about drug policy.

We draw a distinction on the one hand between substances like alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine, and marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. Caught in the middle are prescription drugs like ritalin that are used medicinally and recreationally. What exactly is a drug? The notion of a substance that changes bodily chemistry is surely too broad since all food does that. "Creates an abnormal state of the body" will get you bogged down in the loaded notion of normal -- athletes carbo-load, but surely spaghetti isn't a drug. If that doesn't deter you, antibiotics are drugs but they restore a normal equilibrium. Is there a way to draw this line? Is it meaningful or problematic if it remains blurry?

Once we have the in/out line determined, how ought we think of these substances? The libertarian line leaves the individual entirely in charge of what s/he chooses to put into his/her body. The utilitarian line looks at the consequences which in some cases is extreemly harmful to both the indiviual and the community, in others less so. This line, of course, does not coincide with our legal/illegal line at all. How should we draw that line? What is the difference between alcohol and, say, marijuana that justifies prohibition on one and not the other? Should they both be prohibited? Both legal? Is there a difference between these and "harder" substances and what is the strongest argument for prohibiting/legalizing any of them?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Is Comedy Like Music?


This weekend we have a theological questions for all you thoughtful Comedists. I was listening to an interview with Ron White and the interviewer framed the question in terms of the Allman Brothers, whom White and the interviewer were both fans of. When you go to see an Allman's show (and they put on great shows), you want to hear Statesboro Blues, Ramblin' Man, and the other hits during the show.

Yet, White always tours with completely new material, even if he admits openly that his first album was his best stuff so far. His argument is that comedy is not like music. Hearing a joke you loved the first time again is a completely different experience from hearing a song you loved the first time again. He says that if he were to start "Tater Salad" at a show on this tour, it would get applause for the first 30 seconds, but because it is an eight minute bit, folks would have to sit through seven and a half minutes of stuff that won't be funny in the same way anymore. Comedy has a different shelf-life than music, they are just different art forms.

There is certainly something to this. For a joke to work, you need to be blindsided by the punchline. Knowing what is coming does to some degree kill the joke. Yet, there are bits that we can all listen to over and over again. They are comedicmasterpieces that are funny every time you hear them.

So, is White right? Is comedy like music or not?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, April 17, 2009

Pity Party

Quick note: I will be playing HighTops in Timonium Sunday night. It's a new venue for comedy and supposed to be a very nice room, so support is greatly appreciated. It's a free show with some quite good comics on the bill, so I can guarantee some laughs and I'll be doing new material, so please come out if you can.

It's been a while since we've had a pity party, so let's go at it.

I feel sorry for Mel Gibson. His wife of 28 years is divorcing this wonderful, kind, upstanding, anti-Semitic, piece of garbage who called a female police officer "Sugartits." The irony would be if she had a Jewish lawyer.

I feel sorry for George Will. Long considered the heir to William F. Buckley as the primary voice of reason and elitist intellect on the right, his period of dotage has arrived. Sure, it was bad to write a misinformed piece denying global warming, and then follow it up with more denials of global warming in which the researchers whose data he was interpreting publicly said that he had misunderstood their work. But now, this piece is just plain sad. He is railing against the wearing of blue jeans. "Those kids today in their dungarees..." I think we've finally reached that point where mom and dad have no choice but to agree to move gramps into an assisted living facility here, we just can't care for George Will at home anymore.

I feel sorry for Norm Coleman. Not only did he lose, but now he reminds me of Michael Schaivo. His beloved bid to keep his Senate seat has been dead for months and everyone knows it, but it has been kept on artificial life support by right-wingers for nothing but temporary and shallow political gain. Let it die with dignity, please.

So, who do you feel sorry for?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Ain't No Time to Hate: Safe Spaces for Freaks

Last night's Dead show (wild second set -- Space->Dark Star->King Solomon's Marbles->Drums->Come Together->Dark Star) reminded me of what got me there in the first place. I got on the bus in the Reagan 80s, a sensitive kid who felty that there had to be a more kind and thoughtful way of being together in the world. At my first shows, I saw not only a carnival, but a living social laboratory running thousands of simultaneous experiiments in alternative living. It was the first time, I did not feel like a freak, completely out of place. I think academia is another safe space for eccentrics, although that may be less and less true.

The question is where else do those safe spaces for people out of step with the mainstream exist?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bullshit or Not: Thomas Jefferson 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.

In honor of Thomas Jefferson's birthday yesterday, let's play with a quotation from this Founding Father,

"There is a debt of service due from every man to his country, proportioned to the bounties which nature and fortune have measured to him." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Rutledge, 1796. ME 9:354
So, does everyone owe a debt of service to his or her country and community? If so, is it like a progressive tax increasing with one's bounties or do we all have the same obligation to give back? Why should your reward for hard work give you an increased obligation? What forms could this service take? do accidental services count, for example, one often hears the argument for regressive tax breaks in the form of an argument that the wealthy create more jobs and therefore simply by being rich and doing what rich people do, they are doing their part.

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

Monday, April 13, 2009

Happy Birthday Ken Nordine

I was in college when I found the work of Ken Nordine. That voice, that voice, those words, flowing, growing, pedals in your mind melding common images of daily life with a quick pun that tangentially shifts, ships passing in the mind, not that he would ever mind. Quick, colorful, playful, absurd, and smart, he combines music with words, abstract creations of consciousness that bathe you in warmth.

You've heard his voice on a thousand commercials or the radio if you are a Blackhawks fan. His voice, deep and subtle, kind yet heavy, is unique. But he is more than pipes, he is a wordsmith in his own right and in the 50s began performing his Word Jazz with the likes of Chico Hamilton and Zoot Sims. Twenty albums later, he continues on abated with contemporary musicians including his son. The quality of his work has never wavered (I all but wore out Devout Catalyst). As if the good people of Chicago didn't horde enough culture, they are treated to his weekly radio show.

But stingy he isn't. His website is wonderful and there is many a piece set to visuals by his people on Youtube. Here are a couple to whet your appetite:

Happy birthday Ken Nordine and thanks for all the joy.

Friday, April 10, 2009

When the Moon Hits Your Eye...Happy Keister


It's that time again. As our Christian friends and neighbors celebrate their holy day of Easter, we Comedists celebrate Keister, our holiday in honor of the moon. Of all the parts of the human anatomy, none is more inherently funny than the backside, the gluteus maximus, the heinie. We see it in the references: you can be the butt of a joke, one who makes jokes is a smart ass.

What is it about the tush that is so funny? Why does mooning get laughs that exposing any other part of the body does not? Is it the shape? Puffy, fleshy, and round with a vertical crack. It does look kind of silly. If the body is a temple, the butt is like hanging a black velvet dogs playing poker over the alter.

Is it that it is associated with the passing of gas. Farts are funny on a number of sensory levels, the sound, the smell -- consider the classic beans scene from Blazing Saddles. The butt is the spatial representation of the floating air biscuit.

Could it be that it is always covered, a forbidden part that is shocking when made public. Backsides are only funny because they are something we don't usually see.

Or is it a combination of the two: because the tuchus is on the flip side of the more regal genitalia, it is treated with the same nobility, while all the time being the source of flatulence and fecal matter, amongst the least majestic of bodily functions. Is the humorous nature of the rear end to be found in this incongruous juxtaposition?

I leave you with a couple of jokes on the backside:

Did you hear about the woman who backed into an airplane propeller? Disaster.

What do you get if you sit on a waffle iron? Hot crossed buns.

Your momma's butt is so big that she gets taller when she sits down.

Any others, my friends?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, April 09, 2009

David Brooks: Philosophical Mohel

So David Brooks has been getting a lot of well deserved flack for his latest column in the New York Times proclaiming the end of philosophy (see, e.g. JCasey, Helmut and Hilzoy)

David Brooks has discovered social psychology. When making moral judgments, we do not deliberate but act in accord with emotional reactions that are almost immediately summoned by situations. This, to Brooks is news and spells the end of philosophy, or at least ethics. All of the real philosophers out there, after sighing and rolling their eyes, try to explain that sentiment has been a part of the discussion surrounding ethical theory since at least Hume and aestethic/ethical sensibilities since Aristotle. They then set out the fact/value distinction in which simply because we DO tend to act in a certain way does not meant we OUGHT to act in that way and that rational thought can help us condition ourselves to act better. Follow the links for this argument made well, so I will work through it no further.

What I want to comment upon is the fact that Brooks thinks this is a novel insight. I think he is being honest here because one of the hallmarks of contemporary conservatism is a blindness to social science. As I've discussed before, the central axiom of Reaganism, "personal responsibility" is really an attempt to say that sociology does not exist. There are no social factors at work influencing us one way or another. If I am wealthy, it is because I am virtuous, not because there were certain factors at work that put a wind in my social sail. And anyone who is poor is by definition lazy and undeserving of help, we cannot look at all to social factors to explain why certain groups are where they are.

Such an explanation, if cogent, would imply that different policies would affect the structure and help people. If we can help, then we ought to. So, simply deny the existence of psychology and sociology (unless you have Charles Murray who cooks the books to say it wouldn't help anyway). It is, in large part, a reaction against Marxism which places too much emphasis on the effect of the structure, as a neo-Hegelian would, downplaying the role of the individual; something the classical liberal perspective that is the root of American conservatism will not tolerate.

But I see worth in Brooks' column. It is an important development in the fracturing of the 20th century conservative movement. Yes, Brooks draws the wrong conclusion from what is interesting research (read Cass Sunstein's book Infotopia, if you want a good discussion about social psychological results and their effects on models of deliberation -- there are problems with his discussion, but not trivial ones), but he is a conservative who is just starting to wrestle with the complexities that those of us on the left have been thinking about for about a century and a half. How do you account for the effects of our individual wiring and the large scale, largely ossified structure of society and find ways to affect positive moral change? It is not only a hard question, in some sense it is THE hard question. It is the question that gives birth to modern ethics. The end of philosophy? No, my dear Brooksy, it is the birth of it. By trying to cut it short right after its birth, perhaps we ought to think of David Brooks as the philosophical mohel.

Cultural Relativism

Today is my birthday and that of Tom Lehrer. One of my favorite songs of his is "In Old Mexico" where he sings of a visit to that country. At one point in the narrative, he is waxing poet about a visit to a bullfight in the style of Hemingway, only with that classic Lehrer snark.

"I hadn't had so much fun since the day my brother's dog Rover got run over.

Rover was killed by a Pontiac and and it was done with such artistry and grace that the witnesses awarded the driver both ears and the tail."
He clearly calling something that is a part of Mexican culture cruel and barbaric.

Cultural relativists look at such proclamations as intolerant. Cultures have lenses and trying to make sense of another culture through your own lens will fail to give its rituals and practices full meaning. Any judgment rendered would then be ill-informed. As such, we should not try to judge the practices of other cultures since there is no morally neutral standpoint to occupy.

At the same time, shouldn't morality by extra-cultural? Human rights seem not limited by national border or cultural region. Where is the line between respect for different ways of being and protection of the innocent?

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Why Are Bad Words Bad?

So, apparently I am the Lenny Bruce of the Central Pennsylvania Planners Association. Certified planners -- city planners, zoning officials, land use managers -- have a mandated requirement for continuing education to remain in good standing and they must have an hour and a half of that continuing ed relate to ethics. Last year, the state-wide gathering was in Gettysburg and they asked if I could lead the ethics session. I agreed and it went well.

So, a few months ago I get an invite to speak again to the central regional group in Harrisburg. I agreed and went up yesterday and did my schtick. Afterward, I'm chatting with some of the planners who are on the organizing committee and they tell me that there was controversy around the invitation. The committee was split down the middle between those who found my stand-up comedian style refreshing given what these continuing ed seminars tend to be and those who were set against having me back because apparently last time I used a couple of four letter words during my lecture and they thought that some one who used bad words was not someone who had the credibility to talk about ethics. Of course, I use them as "flavoring particles" to shock, surprise, or get a laugh when I feel my audience slipping away, so they serve a purpose for me in the classroom. It is not gratuitous. But, needless to say, I am still chuckling about it.

And, of course, is re-raises the question, what is the meaning of "bad" in bad words? What makes profanity problematic? Is it a moral problem? Is it mere social etiquette? Are there contexts where it goes from a faux-pas to an unethical act? Is it a sign of disrespect? What is the nature of their naughtiness?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Team Building Exercise: It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Let's try something new that might become a regular irregular if it works. It's based on the obnoxious corporate team-building exercises. It'll be a sort of trivia relay. The idea is that one can only provide incomplete answers and hints to what what knows but cannot say in order to try to ultimately get the complete answer.

Here's the challenge: We are to try to name as many actors as possible who appeared in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" -- the greatest ensemble comedy in history.

Here's the catch: No one person can name more than five.

Here's the cooperative team-building element: After exhausting your five, you may leave hints for others to help them name the names you know but cannot name. They must be good faith hints that do not give away the name.

Now, no google, no IMDB, no cheating. All from memory. There were 75 people who appeared in the film, about two dozen of which are well-known figures in the world of early to mid 20th century comedy -- some quite surprising. Let's see how many we get.

Monday, April 06, 2009


Man, I want to play poker with Kim Jong Il. There is no advantage he won't blow. Launching a long-range missile gives him no more capital than threatening to do so. The mere threat gave him leverage with the international community to bargain for...well, it's not exactly clear what.

But instead of using his hole cards to draw in the other side and extract more Elvis movies, he lays them right out there on the table for everyone to see his two nine off suit. He launches it and what happens? The missile carrying the "communications satellite" ends up in the Pacific, another North Korean technological flop.

So now the big worry is that if they have successfully created nuclear warheads -- which of course, we do have reason to doubt they've done right -- we have to be concerned that in an act of aggression, he'll launch them and accidentally drop them on his own people...something he now only does metaphorically.

Sometimes you have to wonder if the villains from Rocky and Bullwinkle weren't just ahead of their time.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Feast of Saint Tom


I am humbled to share a birthday this week with a true Comedist saint, Tom Lehrer. An undergraduate and masters students at Harvard in mathematics in the late 40s and early 50s, he began to play novelty songs in the Cambridge area. Eventually, he spent $15 and made a record in 1953, "Songs by Tom Lehrer" -- recording all of the songs in one one hour session -- which he initially just sold around Harvard for $3.

He was a local underground success, with friends of friends at Harvard ordering copies from other universities until a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle got a copy and suddenly he was nationwide. He began to play shows in New York and sales began to pick up although major labels and radio refused him because of his controversial lyrics.

He joined the army for two years from '55-'57 -- a sure fire way to avoid the draft -- and after getting out he continued to write putting out another album in '59, "More Songs by Tom Lehrer."

The album was successful, he began touring which led to the live album "An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer," and then realized that he hated playing the same thing every night and gave up the road the next year. In the mid-sixties, he wrote for the television program "That Was the Week That Was" and collected the songs onto one last album "That Was the Year That Was." In the 70s, he did some work with "The Electric Company," but for all intents and purposes, he gave up show business altogether, teaching the occasional course in math or musical theater at the University of California Santa Cruz when he feels like it.

Tom Lehrer was counterculture before there was a counterculture. He was a wordsmith and punster par excellence who was not afraid to be smart. Coming from the Cold War 50s when the powers that were were not all that bright, he lampooned with razor sharp insights and a wit to match. He was part of a movement with people like Stan Freberg who were clean cut, educated, intellectual, political and just plain funny.

Here's the classic "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" and the ever-sharp "Werner von Braun."

Happy birthday Tom Lehrer and thanks.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, April 03, 2009

Otto Neurath and the Credit Crisis

One of my heroes is Otto Neurath. He was a member of the Vienna Circle, a philosopher and a sociologist. He turned down an opportunity to work with Max Weber and instead went into museum work. His idea was to create science museums to start a social revolution.

The key to upward mobility in class-ossified Europe, he believed, was education. But working people could never have the time or instruction to master the complex mathematical language in which science was couched. This was a boundary like the writing of all academic papers in Latin. It gave those with the social capital a lock on education and therefore on social control.

But if we were to develop a new language, the whole thing could change. It would have to be a language accessible to all, but yet sufficiently robust to be able to convey the complex mathematical relations needed to explain science. And so he developed "Isotype" (International System of TYpographic Picture Education), a pictorial language useful for representing abstractions and relations. Ever look at the symbol on a bathroom door to see if it is the men's or ladies' room? Ever check to see if it's a little guy or a big hand to see if it is safe cross? That's Isotype.

But the idea was not mere convenience or safety, it was to have a language that could explain the complexities of the world to non-scientists in a way they could understand. That's why I was tickled to find Jonathan Jarvis' work "The Crisis of Credit." The use of isotype in a video that does exactly what Neurath was hoping isotype could do in a way that would have tickled Neurath is a marvel. Do yourself a favor and watch both parts.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Evil, Structure, and Personal Responsibility

Trials for crimes against humanity by former members of the leadership of the Khmer Rouge have begun and the first is one of the most notorious prison commanders who not only ordered but carried out torture. His defense, of course, is based around "I was just carrying out orders."

No doubt that knowingly carrying out immoral orders makes you a party to the immorality, but the question is whether the moral corruption of the system that generates the orders does provide some ethical subtleties that we don't generally consider.

Hannah Arendt, of course, brings out in the case of Eichmann how evil becomes normalized, banal, compartmentalized in such a way that one becomes shielded from the horror and can convince oneself that one is simply doing normal logistical bureaucratic tasks like any other. But this problem is different. This is having full view of the evil one has a hand in, but in a prisoner's dilemma type problem, one also has an understanding that if one does not engage in the evil activity and does so not only willingly, but enthusiastically, one's own self and family may or will likely becomes victims of that violence. In a culture based on fear of the authorities, the only safe place is on the inside; but being on the inside requires selling one's soul. The paranoia is legitimate. Authoritarian regimes make everyone so worried that they will rat on their neighbors to make themselves more patriotic by comparison and to make sure no one is turning on them. Joining with the evil makes pragmatic sense.

But is this pragmatism morally relevant? Are we morally obliged to subject ourselves and our innocent loved ones to torture and death in order to keep our hands clean? Is there some way that those who knowingly did wrong to protect themselves and their families are less culpable? Do the means of normal moral consideration apply to irregular circumstances like those of Cambodia under Pol Pot, Russia under Stalin, China under Mao, or Germany under Hitler?

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Saint Shecky's Day Miracle and the Gospel According to Irreverend Steve


On this, the holiest day of the comedist year, I come to tell of a true Saint Shecky's Day miracle, all praise to the Cosmic Comic, funny be He. Last week I did sin before the All-funny One. My son -- and I have no idea where he learned this -- asked me why women live longer than men and I did not reply with Alan King's line "because they aren't married to women." I thought it, but didn't deliver. I was ashamed.

I've been writing my backside off to have enough material for a full set at McNeese State University in a few weeks and had a new bit that I needed to roadtest. So, I thought I'd perform it this week at Allstars Comedy Club. Now, this was college material, explicitly not apprpriate for a club. Jokes like "Your mama's so stupid she thinks 'broccoli' is an adverb" and "What do you get if you cross Sophocles with James Bond? Oedipussy Rex." But I needed to work through the delivery and timing and so I knowing went up there well aware that I would die on stage. I was willing to die for my jokes, comedic martyrdom. In the pureness of my comidic heart, I was forgiven by the Cosmic Comic for my earlier transgression and as I walked on stage I looked down to see a miraculous event, a table of no fewer than twelve college students from James Madison materialized right up front. They were smart, they had had a few drinks, and they laughed at what was probably the nerdiest set ever delivered from that stage. On Saint Shecky's Day eve, my set was saved by an act of Comic Divine Intervention. I write this humbled by his mercy and his humor.

In his honor, let me recount how our new religion came to be:

It all came to me when I was teaching a class in the philosophy of religion at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. We were discussing Anselm’s argument for the existence of God, which contends that an all-perfect being has to exist. The notion of perfection was to take all good qualities and extend them to an infinite degree. And then I realized, hey a sense of humor is a good thing, right? If you were trapped on a deserted island with someone, would you prefer someone who could make you laugh? Of course, but if you look at any of the standard Holy Books, and Sacred Scripture, there are no jokes. There’s no “‘Knocketh, knocketh,’ sayeth the Lord. And the angel did reply, ‘Who is there?’ And the Lord did say, ‘I am the Lord thy God.’ And the angel did say, ‘I am the Lord thy God who?’ And the Lord did quip, ‘I told you not to take my name in vain…ahh, got you again.’ And the Lord never grew tired of that joke. And the angels did roll their eyes.” Nothing like that. I mean if this God is supposed to be all-perfect, then he’d not only be all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving, he’d also be all-funny. But no.

At the same time, I realized that if you want to go anywhere today in the religion industry, you need to either be Mother Teresa or Pat Robertson and neither one of those were attractive career options to me. But there is a quick and easy way and the key is get in early. Look at Judaism. Among the greats is Abraham. Why? It’s not that he was so wonderful. Gets to Egypt and starts pimping out his wife to the Egyptian army, says she’s his sister. But he’s sitting at God’s right hand, why? He got in early. The disciples? Couldn’t agree on anything. But automatic sainthood. Why? Got in early.

It all came together one day when I was teaching a night school class in ethics at a community college. We were discussing the difference between ethical precepts and social mores. And one of the students asked, “Steve, what are mores?” And I said, “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.” Bathed in the groans of pain from my students I knew I was in the presence of the Divine. Set-ups that perfect could not just randomly happen. That was an act of Humorous Intervention. I had been tested by the Cosmic Comic.

So, I realized that this is what I had to do. I needed to start my own religion, one based upon comedy. The basic structure is like the Judeo-Christian ideas. Life is a test and when you die your souls goes up and there’s the Pearly Gates and behind them is Saint Shecky with a big book. You see, there are a certain number of set-ups that you get and for those whose punchlines you deliver, like the classroom example, you get one in the good column.

But then there are those you miss. When I was in grad school. I was out taking a walk and as I walked up a hill, there was a couple coming down. They both looked at me strangely and the guy says to me, “Didn’t we just see you with a dog?” I said, “I’m sorry, you must have me confused for somebody else.” As I watched them walk away, I realized that the correct answer was “Excuse me, that was my wife.” I blew it.

Saint Shecky keeps the tally and if you make more than you miss, you are invited in to sit at the right hand of Groucho. If you miss more than you make, you go to comedy hell where it is hot, all drinks are in dribble glasses, every seat has a whoopee cushion, and you are forced to watch reruns of Three’s Company for all of eternity.

Happy Saint Shecky's Day everyone!

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve