Saturday, May 30, 2009

Feast of Saint Tommy

My Fellow Comedists,

This week saw the feast day of Saint Tommy. Tommy Chong turned 71. Actually, I'm not sure if it was a feast day or if I just really has serious munchies, man.

Born to a Chinese father and a Scotch-Irish mother in Canada, he received his first guitar at age eleven and became a professional musician. His band was personally asked by the mayor of Calgary to leave town and they went to Vancouver where Chong bought an after-hours venue called "The Elegant Parlor." There he started playing with Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers who would get signed by Motown.

While performing, he caught the comedy bug doing short bits between songs and he left music to concentrate on comedy. He used his brother's club, Shanghai Junk, as the launching pad.

"It was a topless joint and I didn't have the heart to fire the strippers, so when I turned the show into a comedy troupe known as 'City Works,' I put the girls in the skits. We had the only topless improvisational theatre in Canada."
Other comics tried out their chops at Shanghai Junk, among them Richard Marin, who worked under his nickname "Cheech." Chong invited him to perform with City Works and the two found a chemistry that was comic gold.

Working the circuit, they were signed by Ode Records (a part of Warner Brothers) for whom they recorded seven classic albums. The success of their albums led to movies casting them solely as the bumbling potheads they became famous for playing.

Here's a classic bit from their stage days, Ralph and Herbie.

Happy birthday, Tommy Chong. Thanks for all the laughs.

What are your favorite Cheech and Chong moments?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Underread Blogs

Here's a call I make every once in a while that is probably worth making again. Are there bloggers out there that you read regularly who are not getting the readership they deserve? What are your favorites that more folks should know about? (Feel free to mention your own.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Workers Want Shorter Hours. Fine, Let's Start By Cutting Their Lunch Hour

I love my job. Especially these two weeks. The kids are in school and I am not. A little quiet time to get stuff done that has piled up over the year. But soon it'll be summer, wonderful summer. I'm extremely lucky that my line of work allows me to share so much of summer vacation with them.

The usual two weeks most people get is absurd. Our lives are generally scheduled by what is best for the boss, not what is best for us; what will generate more profit for someone else, not what will allow us to live the life we realistically could be living. In that fashion, how much is a reasonable amount of down time? Should we, like the French, declare August a de facto month off where the expectation is that businesses will close? How much annual discretionary vacation time would allow us to live fulfilled lives?

UPDATE: Helmut finds a graph that shows vacation days per worker in different countries.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tax Ethics

If someone donates all of the proceeds from some work, say an author donates his royalties from a book or a chef donates a meal, to a worthy cause, we think it is surely a good act. Suppose the person then claims the donation on their taxes. does that make the act less worthy? Does it do moral damage? The person will reap less of a reward from the deduction, than s/he sacrificed for the cause. The cause gets not a bit less support if the person claims the donation. Yet, it does seem that personal reward of any kind undermines the good will.

This triggers a second question: would knowingly not reporting deductions you know you are entitled to be lying? If you claimed deductions you are not entitled to, that would clearly be lying; but if you choose not to claim ones, thereby intentionally providing incomplete data, how would that be different? Is it not a lie if you are harmed not benefited?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Memorializing Jokes


Memorial Day is upon us and it always makes me think of my grandfather who fought in the 82nd Airborne in world War II. I used to spend a lot of time with him before he passed and the only thing I heard more than his war stories were his favorite jokes. So, this Memorial Day, I'll pay homage to a world class kibitzer with a couple of his favorites.

The first is an old Yiddish classic:

Morty and Sarah open up a restaurant in their village and the first customer to walk through the door is none other than the Rabbi. Seeing him come in, Morty nervously tells his wife to make sure everything is perfect. "What would you like?" he asks the Rabbi walking up to the table. "I'll try the roast beef," came the response.

After the meal, Morty asked the Rabbi how it was. "It was absolutely delicious," said the Rabbi, "but there is one small thing I hardly even want to mention." "Please, Rabbi, let me know so we can do better." "The food was wonderful, but it would be nice to have more than two slices of bread."

The next week, the Rabbi returned. This time he was given four slices of bread. "Well," Morty asked clearing the plates when the Rabbi had finished, "how was your meal today?" The Rabbi responded, "Fantastic, but to be honest, it could use a little more bread."

The following week Morty gave him six slices, the week after that eight, still the same complaint. "It could use more bread."

Finally, upon seeing the Rabbi come in, Morty took an entire loaf of rye bread, cut it in half and put it in front of the Rabbi. "How was the meal?" he asked, once the Rabbi had finished. "Delicious as usual," said the Rabbi, "but why go back to just two slices?"
The other is a joke that no one who came to the house for a meal ever left without hearing.
"A Texan visits New York City and stays at the Waldorf Astoria. He goes to check in and the man behind the desk tells him that he is in room 354. He asks that his bags be taken up to his room and he goes to the hotel restaurant.

When the waiter comes out, the Texan says, "I want the biggest steak you got and the biggest glass of beer." "And you'll start with the chicken soup," says the waiter. "No," says the Texan, "I want the biggest steak you got and the biggest glass of beer." "The waiter again responded, "And you'll start with the chicken soup." Indignantly, the Texan says with a slightly raised voice, "I don't want chicken soup. i just want the biggest steak you got and the biggest glass of beer." Unmoved, the waiter says, "And you'll start with the chicken soup." Enraged, the Texan shouts, "I don't want any god damned chicken soup. just bring me the biggest steak you got and the biggest glass of beer."

That night, the person staying in room 534 has severe abdominal pain and the hotel physician orders an enema, but the night manager taking the call writes down the number of the room incorrectly.

A week later the Texan is back at home and his friend asks him what he thought of New York City. "It's a great town," said the Texan, "but if you ever stay at the Waldorf Astoria and the waiter tells you to have the chicken soup, you better eat it 'cause they'll get it in you one way or another."
If anyone tried to say they were full or didn't want another helping at Sunday dinner over my grandparents, the simple response always came, "Remember the chicken soup."

So, on this Memorial Day, remember the chicken soup and please remember the favorite jokes of anyone you think deserves to be memorialized.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Advice for Graduates

Much has been made of Obama's comments at Notre Dame. Bill Cosby and Kurt Vonnegut's commencement comments were widely circulated a few years back. Our speakers last weekend were Judy Woodruff and Al Hunt. They were good. Some years you get folks who aren't. We had Harold Prince a few years back and for someone with such a rich theater background, he really didn't have a sense of the stage he was playing. He came off as angry and bitter (and I say this as someone who shares his politics and even shared his outrage at the time) in a way that masked any insights he might be trying to pass on at this meaningful point in the lives of the graduates and their families. It is a time of mixed emotions, joy and trepidation chief among them, and it requires the right touch.

So, suppose you got the call. In this tricky time of economic crisis with students about to head out into the so-called real world, what advice would you give them?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

How Early Should We Teach Philosophy?

I'm writing up a piece with the middle school teacher who invited me into her classroom for the last two years -- last year for a weekly logic/critical thinking module and this year's focusing on ethics and metaphysics. It has me thinking about philosophy in the classroom.

In the US, we don't teach philosophy until college. Some will have a philosophically minded English teacher who might slip some in and Catholic schools offer it earlier, but in the context of a specifically Catholic education. We always get excited first year students who had a taste and come back for more. It seems to say that high school students are certainly more than ready.

At the same time, it takes the brain a while before it can really process the abstract. The young mind is trying to figure out the concrete, so perhaps there is a too young to introduce philosophy. You need to have the standard way of thinking in place before questioning it becomes meaningful.

When would be the optimal age to begin teaching philosophy in schools. I understand that a study that encourages students and gives them the tools to effectively to question authority is not likely to end up in American classrooms anytime soon, but putting that aside, if we wanted to create maximally thoughtful, critical, and intellectual young citizens, at what age would we introduce them to philosophy?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Business Schools and the Meltdown

Here is but one example of someone arguing that business schools are in part responsible for the global financial crisis. Remember in 2000 when Bush was about to enter the Oval Office and we heard so much of the fact that he would be our first M.B.A. President. Surely, this meant good things for the economy, afterall holding an M.B.A. from Harvard had to mean he would be a good manager, put competant people in important positions, and oversee governmental operations so that they would run as efficiently as a well-oiled machine.

He isn't the only culprit with a business degree from a top business school. Indeed, virtually all the major players that undermined the health of the world economy do. Is thgis guilt by association or a causal link?

I gave a paper five or so years ago when the annual meeting of the Society of Business Ethics was in D.C. It dealt with an Aristotelean approach to corporate responsibility, but the moment from that conference I'll never forget was in the session before me. It was a panel with some of the big names in the field and the topic was the marginalization of business ethics in business schools. The social scientists thought business ethics too fuzzy, too fluffy to be in a serious program. They were having a serious discussion as to whether they even had a place in the M.B.A. programs. Were they just window dressing? Did they really have anything to offer other than pr. value?

I was stunned, but then I came to understand something of the politics of business schools. Business schools are odd things. On the one hand, there are deep and interesting questions of applied psychology, sociology, and ethics that are particular to the workplace. How do we work in groups to best solve problems? How do unequal power relations affect behavior? Are artificial entities like corporations that act independently of any particular mind morally responsible for their decisions? These are questions that can be approached rigorously and whose work can be enlightening about the nature of our world and us as humans in it.

But then business schools are also something else. They are seen as a bulwark against runaway liberalism in the academy. They are the Officers Candidate School for corporate capitalism, producing ready-made middle managers who have been properly indoctrinated. The presuppositions of the curriculum are designed to further the interests of powerful corporations, not to invite open challenges to them the way other traditional academic disciplines have fundamental challenges to central doctrine.

They also function as cash cows for the home institutions. These schools offer many evening classes for working managers looking to advance their careers, classes taught by adjuncts. The spin is that they are taught by working professionals who have real experience in the marketplace and so they can pay less money, no benefits and have it look as if they are not cutting corners. Further, if any of their grads do hit it big, they are more likely to give big money gifts if they think that their world is the one being taught. Rich people like to hold themselves up as superior and having a business school shows that their alma mater respects their way of life. So, universities have every incentive to look the other way in terms of the rigor of teaching as long as the seats are full and the tuition money keeps flowing in.

So, are business schools legitimate? Does the world economy teetering on the brink of disaster show a problem with them? Are they responsible at all? Should they be kept, removed, radically revamped?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Seemingly Trivial Unanswered Problems in Discourse: Old Dog Edition

"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.

Can you, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Feast of Saint Mort

My Fellow Comedists,

This week saw the feast day of Saint Mort. Mort Sahl turned 82. He was the pivot point about which comedy turned from the slapstick gags and schticks of Vaudeville to the hip, smart, topical, observational humor of today. In the early 50s, he began to do political humor in San Francisco, performing at the legendary Hungry i. Armed with a newspaper, he performed jazz-like improvisations on the headlines of the day, his insight and wit coming through in rambling discussions instead of punctuated set-ups and punchlines. He was the "rebel without a pause."

We take for granted today that comedians are part of the political landscape and that politicians are the targets of comic monologues, but that all owes its existence to Mort Sahl. Will Rogers may have pioneered the American form at the turn of the century, but it was Mort Sahl who resurrected it and presented it with its contemporary edge.

"Will Rogers...used to come out with a newspaper and pretend he was a yokel criticizing the intellectuals who ran the government. I come out with a newspaper and pretend I’m an intellectual making fun of the yokels running the government."
His jokes were so sharp and on target that politicians felt the need to respond and taking seriously the old adage to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, he found himself on stage with the very power brokers he was lampooning.

The Cold War needed him. The horrors of WWII needed the insanity of the Marx Brothers, but the anti-intellectual insanity of McCarthy, required a comic antidote quite different. He caught fire and stepped out of the coffeehouses, becoming a major force. In his autobiography, Woody Allen says that seeing Mort Sahl changed his life. Lenny Bruce took inspiration from Sahl. He recorded albums which became a standard comic practice. He truly changed the landscape of American comedy. In a 1997 routine looking back, he said that most comedians would write down to their audiences believing you had to work stupid to get laughs, but that he "always treated you like you had a Ph.D." He was smart and funny and his material would be the same. It would be edgy and sharp and it set the stage for so many that came after.

A few classics from the master:

"Liberals feel unworthy of their possessions. Conservatives feel they deserve everything they've stolen."

"Washington couldn't tell a lie, Nixon couldn't tell the truth, and Reagan couldn't tell the difference."

"Nixon's the kind of guy that if you were drowning fifty feet off shore, he'd throw you a thirty foot rope. Then Kissinger would go on TV the next night and say that the President had met you more than half-way."

"I took a course at Cal once called Statistical Analysis. And there was a guy in the course who used to make up all his computations and he never used Sigma. He used his own initials. 'Cause he was the standard deviation."

"A conservative is someone who believes in reform. But not now."

Happy birthday, Mort Sahl and thanks for the laughs.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Pictures of Evil

It is interesting to contrast the situation in South Africa after Apartheid with American acts of evil in Iraq. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed on the idea that without full knowledge and accounting of the horrors that had been perpetrated, the culture could not move on. The puss had to be cleaned from the wound. But this accounting would not take place if immunity from prosecution was not offered to many of those with knowledge of the horrific acts. Many argued that it was a crime against justice to absolve the guilty, but the pragmatic value and faith in the disinfectant power of sunlight prevailed.

President Obama's decision to keep the photos of American torture of detainees from the world comes from the same pragmatic impulse. Americans and most of the world are ignorant of the absolute desecration of the human spirit that has been executed in our name. Where South Africans knew of the unspeakable acts committed against prisoners and in naming them and the victims, they could confirm worst nightmares of loved ones, we talk only of waterboarding in intentionally deceptive terms (it's like getting your head dunked under water...). What we do not speak of is what else we really did. Seymour Hersh knows, having seen all the Abu Ghraib photos and even that war-hardened reporter who broke the story of the My Lai massacre holds these to be something truly evil.

He said that after he broke Abu Ghraib people are coming out of the woodwork to tell him this stuff. He said he had seen all the Abu Ghraib pictures. He said, "You haven't begun to see evil..." then trailed off. He said, "horrible things done to children of women prisoners, as the cameras run."
He has spoken of children being raped in front of mothers and refused to speak further. We have corroborating evidence for such claims.
Excerpt from statement provided by Kasim Mehaddi Hilas, Detainee #151108, on January 18 2004:

"I saw [name deleted] fucking a kid, his age would be about 15 - 18 years. The kid was hurting very bad and they covered all the doors with sheets. Then when I heard the screaming I climbed the door because on top it wasn't covered and I saw [name deleted] who was wearing the military uniform putting his dick in the little kid's ass. I couldn't see the face of the kid because his face wasn't in front of the door. And the female soldier was taking pictures".
The images in question include pure evil committed by Americans upon innocents whose only crimes were being born in Iraq.

The President thinks that these images are so horrendous that they would likely cause an inferno of hate against us and could possibly destabilize the region, if not the world, and make any diplomatic standing we may be gaining moot. To expose such acts would mandate justice for those who perpetrated and approved them. This would tie up Washington for so long that nothing else could be done. Every conversation about health care, the economy, global warming, everything would stop or become hyper-partisan and polarized. Unlike the South Africa case where sunlight disinfected, here he contends that exposure to the sun would cause geo-political melanoma.

But like South Africa, he thinks that pragmatic progress needs to be traded for justice. But should we? Will avoiding prosecuting all those connected with this lead to a greater likelihood of further atrocities? Is ignorance bliss and can this state of bliss bring about a better world in the end than having our eyes open? Like A Clockwork Orange, do we need to see it to be shocked away from it? We use the phrase "come clean" to perpetrators, will it cleanse us to be honest or will it only cause more harm to know how horrific Americans acted? Do utilitarian concerns trump justice and the right to know?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Scholar, Sure, But a Gentleman?

Driving to pick up the short people from school yesterday, I saw a car with a bumper sticker declaring the driver's child a scholar at some middle school or other. It started me thinking about that word.

I think that I am a scholar. I regularly study, interpret, analyze, and produce texts. I am regularly called upon to submit for evaluation lists of scholarly works and narratives about my scholarship. But I am a philosopher, when you think of a scholar and you think of a philosopher, the images are probably pretty similar.

But surely that's not what the bumper sticker meant, or what we mean when we declare someone a "scholar/athlete" or say that someone is "a scholar and a gentleman."

(My favorite story about that phrase concerns Charles Sanders Peirce, a philandering genius of the 19th century and William James, a Harvard Professor and the person who championed Peirce's thought, saving him from the dustbin of history although widely held to be overrated in terms of his own intellectual firepower. As the two were walking across Harvard Yard, a noted figure whose name cannot seem to recall, pointed sarcastically at the two and said to his companion, "There goes a scholar and a gentleman.")

It is interesting that in this anti-intellectual culture wherein anything cerebral is seen as elitist, egghead, or wonkish, the term scholar maintains its positive connotation. Is it a manifestation of the Protestant work ethic, that a scholar is a serious, hard working student? One could still be an athlete, just one who takes one's studies seriously? What of those students who work really hard for their B-/C+, are they scholars? How about the ones who skate through to an A with no effort? Is it a matter of achievement or effort?

Is it a matter of subject matter? Are scientists scholars? I have a friend who is a surgeon and who regularly does research on the relative efficacy of various surgical techniques. Is that scholarship? An anthropologist in the field or how about someone who traces their family genealogy? Sarah Palin is writing a memoir, is she now a scholar?

What is a scholar? Am I a scholar in the same sense as the middle school student? Is the term ambiguous (having more than one distinct meaning), vague (having one meaning that could be satisfied in very different ways), or just a meaningless platitude?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Pre-Emptive Slavery: A Modest Reductio

Richard Cohen has written a column asking that we have an open-minded fair consideration of torture. sure, he admits, Cheney has been a liar. But what if he was right?

If Cheney is right, then let the debate begin: What to do about enhanced interrogation methods? Should they be banned across the board, always and forever? Can we talk about what is and not just what ought to be?
I agree. The point Cohen is making is that this is a utilitarian calculation, we need to balance the value of lost human lives against one human feeling pain. Which is the least undesirable of bad choices? It seems a question for which we ought to set aside partisan posturing and engage in honest conversation.

Cohen is right, but we need to enlarge the context. If we are willing to engage in legitimate discourse about techniques that will stop terrorism, we need to also consider slavery. The evidence convincingly points to the ineffective nature of torture in preventing terrorist acts, but slavery is much more effective. Acts of terrorism require four things: planning, available funds, willing people, and the ability to purchase the materials needed (vehicles, weapons, explosives, etc.). All four would be beyond the grasp of possible future terrorists if they were enslaved. Hypothetically then, given that we know that there are likely to be terrorists from a population who will attempt to strike at the United States or its citizens or interests, and we know this with the same degree of confidence we would have in a ticking bomb scenario or in the cases Cheney has obliquely pointed to, then if it is an open-question as to whether it is acceptable to torture in this case, shouldn't it be equally conceivable to allow slavery?

Indeed, slavery ought to be seen as preferable to torture. We don't have to think of slavery in terms of pre-Civil War South. There don't have to be whips and the separation of families. We can prescribe meaningful work, livable work hours, cultural events, and good wholesome food. Where torture causes unfathomable pain, this would not. Indeed, it is not much different from a cancer survivor with a job she doesn't like in our culture. With the pre-existing condition, she would either be outright rejected for the health insurance that she needs to stay alive or it would be prohibitively expensive. She's just trapped in a job, they're just trapped in a job. What's the real difference?

Of course, there's the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery. But as we saw from Guantanamo, our laws end at the border. The US government can do anything it wants as long as it is on another country's soil. If habeas corpus and indefinite detention without charge in violation of the 5th amendment are allowable, then the 13th should be no different.

Further, the work of the enslaved potential terrorists could be selected to help the planet and the most vulnerable on it. We could have them growing food to feed the hungry, manufacturing solar panels, or any other work that could serve future generations. Where nothing but pain and possibly information that prevents a terrorist attack comes from torture, the prevention of terrorist attacks and any number of beneficial results could come from selective slavery. We have precedent for US supported slavery in the Marianas Islands. Now, instead of having it for mere profit of a few sweatshop owners, we do it for the good of the Earth, for our grandchildren.

If done right, slavery could prevent torture. The Central Intelligence Agency is not the only one using these techniques. We know that the drug gangs in Mexico also torture in addition to murder, running drugs, and smuggling people. If we opened "nuevo plantaciones" in border towns, we would not only end much of the illegal immigration and turn the tide in the war on drugs, but we could save the environment. If we move farmers from California's Central Valley down to run these Mexican mega-farms, we would no longer have to divert water for agriculture in a region that is in deep trouble, causing ecological damage and threatening to wipe out endangered species. Add to that the fact that the lives we could give those who now live in fear of the gangs and in squalor could live lives of contentment. Surely, we should prefer benign slavery to torture.

So, I think Richard Cohen has a point. What if Cheney is right? If he is, then maybe we ought to have an open, honest conversation about torture and if so, then we ought to also consider slavery in the same way.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Spiritual Nourishment of the Garden

I turned in my grades yesterday and then headed out straight to my garden. One cannot, of course, help but think of the end of Candide:

"Human grandeur," said Pangloss, "is very dangerous, if we believe the testimonies of almost all philosophers; for we find Eglon, King of Moab, was assassinated by Aod; Absalom was hanged by the hair of his head, and run through with three darts; King Nadab, son of Jeroboam, was slain by Baaza; King Ela by Zimri; Okosias by Jehu; Athaliah by Jehoiada; the Kings Jehooiakim, Jeconiah, and Zedekiah, were led into captivity: I need not tell you what was the fate of Croesus, Astyages, Darius, Dionysius of Syracuse, Pyrrhus, Perseus, Hannibal, Jugurtha, Ariovistus, Caesar, Pompey, Nero, Otho, Vitellius, Domitian, Richard II of England, Edward II, Henry VI, Richard Ill, Mary Stuart, Charles I, the three Henrys of France, and the Emperor Henry IV."

"Neither need you tell me," said Candide, "that we must take care of our garden."

"You are in the right," said Pangloss; "for when man was put into the garden of Eden, it was with an intent to dress it; and this proves that man was not born to be idle."

"Work then without disputing," said Martin; "it is the only way to render life supportable."

The little society, one and all, entered into this laudable design and set themselves to exert their different talents. The little piece of ground yielded them a plentiful crop. Cunegund indeed was very ugly, but she became an excellent hand at pastrywork: Pacquette embroidered; the old woman had the care of the linen. There was none, down to Brother Giroflee, but did some service; he was a very good carpenter, and became an honest man. Pangloss used now and then to say to Candide:

"There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunegund; had you not been put into the Inquisition; had you not traveled over America on foot; had you not run the Baron through the body; and had you not lost all your sheep, which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts."

"Excellently observed," answered Candide; "but let us cultivate our garden."
If we take Voltaire here not as metaphorical, but literally, is there something unique about work in the garden? Could he have used any physical work that aids in living or is there something about a garden that nourishes in a completely unique fashion? Are CSA's and home gardens something that ought to be more universally a part of life? Does alienation form the soil and the sources of our food cause a deep harm to us or is it just a hobby like any other?

Monday, May 11, 2009

You Learn Something New Everyday

Do you really learn something new everyday? Is this romanticized nonsense or is it actually the case? Is it necessarily true or does it just happen to be true? Is it trivial or meaningful?

Saturday, May 09, 2009

RIP Dom DeLuise


We've lost another great one. This week Dom DeLuise passed away from cancer. There are some folks who are clever, others who are witty, and then there are those who are just plain funny. Dom DeLuise was a funnyman in the deepest sense of the word. A lovable teadybear of a man, he could do the innocent, clueless bit like no one else. But his versatility allowed him to do so much more.

In the early 80s, he starred in a number of films with Burt Reynolds. Mediocre films overall, the inclusion of outtakes at the end were the funniest part of the movie. DeLuise simply cracked up Reynolds. We all have those friends who just have a comdic power over us and cause us to fall down, holding our sides over their antics. DeLuise was that for Reynolds and those outtakes were so human that they brought the humor of candid moments out as a genre of comedy. There had been the "Pardon My Blooper" albums in 50s and 60s, but it was DeLuise's ability to get Reynolds to giggle that really brought it into the mainstream, giving rise to regular tv shows dedicated to them.

For me, Dom DeLuise will always be connected with his parts in Mel Brooks' films. With small parts in Blazing Saddles, History of the World, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, he absolutely stole scenes. With meatier roles in The Twelve Chairs and Silent Movie, he was endearing.

Thank you, Saint Dom for all the laughs for all the years.

Here's a classic appearance on Carson.
What was your favorite Dom DeLuise scene?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, May 08, 2009

Swine Flu and Overreaction: How Would We Know?

There has been grumbling about an overreaction to the swine flu outbreak. The government has been too heavy-handed, the line goes. But what evidence can one have for this claim? We know what it would look like if the reaction was insufficient, but it seems that too much and just right give us the same observable consequences -- a small number of cases of the flu. But surely, overreaction is a possibility. My question is how do we make that attribution? If two epidemiologists were arguing about whether the government's steps were sufficient or beyond reasonable, what would they point to as data in support of one viewpoint or the other?

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Ethics of Outing

I heard an interview yesterday on Fresh Air with Kirky Dick, the documentary maker whose latest work Outrage is just about to be released. The film examines the outing of gay politicians, mostly Republicans, who have anti-gay voting records. Mike Rogers' posts on Blogactive are the focus and he's done a lot of the heavy lifting in this movement.

Rogers justifies the outings by saying that he is exposing hypocrisy and that far from harming those he outs, indeed, he is freeing them, lifting their burdens. Once they are emancipated from the lie they had to live, he contends, they frequently change their voting patterns to actually reflect their values. In this way, there is a benefit from the outing.

At the same time, in a homophobic community, these people surely felt it necessary to hide their sexual orientation and have built careers around their created personae. To undermine these without their permission or against their wishes takes away from them a large measure of autonomy and potentially their life's work in public office or service.

Is there something immoral about outing?

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

How Can You Have Any Pudding If You Don't Eat Your Meat: The Effectiveness of Grades

Thinking about grades for obvious reasons. I am ambivalent about grades. On the one hand, it is certainly true that students rise to expectations and the mechanism by which those expectations are communicated is grading work. If one teacher gives the easy A and another doesn't, students will tend -- all other things being equal --- to work harder and learn more for the tougher teacher.

At the same time, grades replace the true purpose of the class. The goal becomes to get a grade, not to become smarter, better trained, more well-read, well-rounded, or a deeper, more thoughtful intellectual. Grades, in this way, keep students from working and learning. Surely, we've all been in the position, "I'm going to get a B, no mattter what, so why think about it?" Or then there are those who are so worried about their grades that they take no risks because it is better to play it safe and get a sure ok grade, then to really try something interesting and risk a swing and a miss because teachers are always there with the red pen to punish misteps, no matter how well intentioned.

So, do grades help or hurt? Do they turn education into a commodity and strip it of its true joy and value or is it necessary for making sure a minimum amount of learning takes place? how can we take the emphasis off of grades, if we keep them?

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Zoos and Moral Responsibility

An interesting question from Lee:

I posted a link to a diary on DailyKos asking people to petition Mayor Bloomberg to maintain funding to the Bronx Zoo. I included a link where one could donate to the zoo itself. A friend replied, somewhat facetiously, asking why one should give money to a charity to help animals when there are countless humans that need help?

A corollary to this would be people who question donating to a charity to end hunger in Africa and not in Appalachia?

This seems like a false choice and questionable logic but I am not quite able to evince why.
There are three separate, but all very interesting questions here.

First, How do we divide up our charitable help? Do we do it serial or parallel? Do we triage the needs of the planet, focus solely on the worst with all of our resources and work our way through a prioritized list? Do we weight causes based on urgency or need and divide up resources accordingly? Do we seek out those which we may have the greatest effect upon or those which are the most grave? Do we have more obligation to those like ourselves or who live in the same community or country, or of the same species?

Second, do we have special obligations to zoos? We created them. We have placed animals in them that cannot be returned to their native habitats. Do we not then have special obligations to maintain them and create environments that are maximally satisfying for those trapped in them? Do these obligations override others that , all other things being equal, we might place ahead of them? Is there a sort of social contract that we have entered into with the animals by removing them from their natural state for our own amusement? Does the fact that they are "mere animals" limit our obligations?

Third, suppose we have moral problems with zoos. This is an open an interesting question, but let us assume for the sake of argument that we find zoos ethically problematic, do we still need to elevate their status in distributing resources? Can we inherit moral obligations with which we have moral concern, yet still inherit the obligation?

Monday, May 04, 2009

Self-Reference, I Said

A few years back, LilBro gave me a shirt he embroidered with the sentence, "There's something inherently funny about self-reference" above the pocket. I love that shirt, not only because it is true, but because I said it and having a self-referential claim about self-reference is inherently funny.

Then, last week I had reason to say, "Aristotle wrote the first seminal work on male reproduction." It is a sentence I adore. It made me think of the Moxy Fruvous song "King of Spain" which includes the wonderful phrase "a palatial palace."

So, what is your favorite example of self-reference? He worked judiciously during his years on the federal bench. They searched blindly for the cause of macular degeneration. She leafed through a volume on botany. Others?

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Passing the Plate: May Day Edition


I just finished my big gig in Lake Charles. I'll discuss it next weekend, but this weekend, yours truly needs some help. I'll be traveling tomorrow, so we'll be passing the plate.

In honor of May Day, it'll be worker jokes. They could involve any sort of occupation, but at least one must be mentioned. Here's my contribution: "A mathematician, a biologist and a physicist are sitting in a street cafe watching people going in and coming out of the house on the other side of the street. First they see two people going into the house. Time passes. After a while they notice three persons coming out of the house. The physicist says, "One of the two measurements wasn't very accurate." The biologist replies "They have reproduced".
The mathematician looks up and says, "If now exactly one person enters the house then it will be empty again."

Dig deep, people.

Live, love, and laugh.

Irreverend Steve

Friday, May 01, 2009

Language, Gender, and the Many

Wonderful questions this time around, folks. Thank you very much. Two good ones for today.

Anne asks,

"In Nigeria and parts of Cameroon, pidgin english only uses one gender to describe everyone. Men and women are both given the word man along with all associated he, him, his,... words. How do you think this lack of linguistic gender distinction changes the English language and gender issues regionally? Could this someday effect English and/or gender on a larger scale?"
There's been a lot of work done since the mid-70s on gender and language. The central insight comes from Nietzsche's work on ethics in which one of the benefits of power is the ability to define words. The meanings of words then reinforce the power structure by bringing with them connotations that presuppose the mythology of those in power. When a new group overthrows the old order, they redefine the words but traces of the old concepts remain.

This then became the jumping off point for the political correctness movement which hoped that by changing terms from those tainted by the oppressive past to shiny, new sterile words and phrases that we could affect social change. But this seems to put the linguistic cart before the social horse. Just as the standard use of the n-word within the African American community was an unsuccessful attempt led by Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor to strip the painful slur of its power, my guess is that adopting a gender-free language, or at least a language in which gender divisions are not explicitly made, would not have an effect on the place of women. Pure speculation, but my intuition is that while cultural biases are evident in the community's language, it is more effect than cause and changing the languge would not be a major cultural force.

C.Ewing asks
"What kind of problem is the problem of the many? Is it actually a psuedo-problem? Can we solve the linguistic vagueness simply by fiat and be done with it? Does this assist metaphysically? Should it be the subject of metaphysical analysis? Why or why not?"
The problem of the many is a question of individual identity. Given that things are made up of parts that are recognized as things themselves, how do we draw the line between things and collecitons? Humans are neighborhoods, including many, many little organisms that all help out the system as a whole run. Does the existence of beneficial bacteria in your gut that feed off of your system, but clearly are independent individuals and not organs of your body, mean you are not an individual?

This certainly is not a pseudo-problem as it pops up in menaingful ways in, for example, the philosophy of biology (what is a species?) and business ethics (is a corporation a moral agent in itself or just a collection of moral agents). We speak of sports teams as things. "I am an Oriole fan" is (sadly) meaningful even though there may be no common parts between the 1954 team and the 2008 team. "The Baltimore Orioles" seems to refer to something, not some collection of things. Similarly, an ecosystem.

In some cases it may be merely semantic, in other cases it is a metaphysical question. Is vagueness a piece of the solution? In some cases maybe, but I don't think it is the go-to move here. I would prefer something more functionalist -- do we consider it something that does something. Yes, the cloud is made up of water droplets, but can I meaningfully hold that the cloud dumps rain on my parade, the corporation files suit against me, the species is endangered. If it does something, it is something. This is not to say that the parts don't contribute, but if we can attribute action or intention to the collective, then that collective seems also to be an individual.