Tuesday, June 30, 2009

We're Number 37! USA! USA! Insecurity as an American Social Force

When Charles Krauthammer won the Eric Breindel Award for Excellence in Journalism a few weeks back, he said, “A few years ago, I was on a radio show with a well-known political reporter who lamented the loss of a pristine past in which the whole country could agree on what the facts were, even if they disagreed on how to interpret and act upon them. All that was gone now. The country had become so fractured we couldn't even agree on what reality was…I'm proud to be part of this televised apostasy.”

In the health care debate we're about to get a heaping helping of socially constructed reality. The World Health Organization evaluated the health care systems around the world and the US is ranked 37th -- right below Costa Rica. The American medical system delivers less effective health care to fewer people at a higher cost. By any reasonable measure, that means we have something to learn from other systems.

Yet, we are incapable of admitting this. We will hear over and over again that we have the best health care system in the world when it is not true. Why are we incapable of admitting the truth?

My claim is that insecurity is the most important force in shaping American society. It manifests itself in two ways. In the middle class, it is class insecurity. There is the sense that our kids will not only fail to have more than we have, but that they may fall from being middle class. This is why schools are simultaneously turned into prisons providing environments that are not conducive to learning and overburdening our kids with too much homework. If they don't get into the right pre-school they won't get into the right college and then they might not end up with a good job. The kids are so risk averse that they refuse to think interesting thoughts. Just get the B, just don't screw up. It is there in the way we create gated communities both in terms of actual gates and in terms of infrastructure. We can't build public transportation because then the wrong kind would have easy access to our homes and our stuff. It's all fear of losing our stuff and our kids not being able to get it for themselves. Look at our drug laws, look at the way we pay for schools through property taxes, look at the discussions around affirmative action. The group of voters who went for Reagan and Clinton are governed by class insecurity and both of them knew it and played them like a fiddle.

The middle class doesn't want health care reform, not because they think ours is the best system in the world, but because it is good enough for them and they are afraid that helping someone else would be a zero sum game and thereby cost them. It works for me and mine so don't mess with it. Insecurity leads to malicious, selfish inaction.

In the working class, it runs just as deep, but in a different way. This class-based insecurity manifests itself in terms of education and culture. The term "elite" is synonymous with evil. Anyone who is well-read, well-traveled, well-versed in the ways of the world is not to be trusted, is not a real American. Arugala is the anti-Christ. It is why Bush was elected as national drinkin' buddy and why Sarah Palin has a deep resonance. These are people who display a clear discomfort with the world. Combine that with a swagger and a devil may care attitude and you've won their insecure hearts.

And so we lie to ourselves in a way that continues to hurt us. Insurance companies admitted on Capitol Hill that they reward their employees for purging the roles of patients who actually need care because profits are more important than people's lives. And yet we are too childish to admit that we are letting people die who would not in other countries with fewer resources. We don't need a health care debate, we need a therapist.

The Complexities of Infidelity

I've been thinking about the Governor Sanford Affair sparked by Governor Sanford's affair and JimB goes and sends me this message,

To celebrate my birthday, a few of us decided to travel to Montreal as part of our quest to visit the best breweries around the world. While walking past one of the XXX "Gentleman's Clubs", a bouncer said to us "don't be a loner come on in and get a boner",a quote which had me in stitches. As we made our way to the next stop, I began to think about what the bouncer said. Even if we went into the club, wouldn't we still be leaving the way we had entered, loners? From the perspective of the bouncer, was a "loner" someone who was not with a woman, thereby finding companionship from half/fully nude women who make anyone with a pocket full of money feel like the ultimate ladies man? The topic brought up some good conversation, but most importantly a good laugh at the "wordsmanship" of the bouncer in an attempt to lure us into his club.

I do not know if you have brought up the topic of "adult clubs" etc. on philosophers playground, but I was looking for your thoughts. Does going to a strip club constitute moral/mental cheating, or is it harmless fun, and just another example of market economy of supply and demand?
First of all, happy belated birthday JimB. Second, why do they call them "Gentlemen's clubs" when no gentleman would ever go into one?

The question of fidelity seems simple at first glance. There are certain things you ought not do with someone who is not your committed partner when you have a committed partner. Of course, the question gets interesting when we ask what exactly are these "certain things" and what criteria do we use to put them on the list?

The case of Mark Sanford is the easy limiting case -- don't fly to South America to have sex with your mistress. Certainly, there is a behavioral component here that requires certain body parts to remain out of contact with other people. When Newt Gingrich contended that he never really cheated on his wife who was in the hospital with cancer because he was merely receiving the oral favors of a staffer and not actively doing anything, he was wrong both semantically and ethically. The response, "It didn't really mean anything," does not get you off the hook.

But it is a meaningful claim. There is not only a physical component here, fidelity in body, but also a psychological one, fidelity in mind. When one is engaged in a relationship, the idea is that there is a unique commitment of care. so, there may be a deserved sense of betrayal in cases where the contact is intimate, but not sexual, say a meaningful kiss or embrace.

Jim's case is trickier still because there is no care and no contact, just arousal. On the one hand, no matter how much one cares for and is committed to another, one will come across people who you find attractive. That "wow" moment is not the result of intention. Certainly, there will be situations, say watching a movie, where one will find oneself aroused by someone not your partner. Again, this is not a choice, so there seems to be no problem here.

But what of the strip club? Here the difference seems to be that the primary intent of the action is to seek arousal by someone else. There does seem to be a difference here. Entering into a romantic relationship requires you to engage your arousal interpersonally only with your partner, but does it also require that you will only seek intentional arousal with your partner? I think most would assume it to be so, although you could see cases where within a relationship, creating that sort of unresolved tension would be thought acceptable within the relationship, but that seems the exception.

The only time we've come close to this issue here is one of my earliest posts that considered a yet more ambiguous case brought up in the lyrics of Texas Tornadoes'
Who were you thinking of
When I was making love, to you?

There was a smile on your face
I aint seen for some time

You got more out of it
Than I put into it, last night

Who were you thinking of
When we were loving, last night?
What of the case where you are with the other person physically, but not mentally? Is that infidelity? Is this different from faking it? Indeed, is faking it morally problematic?

Monday, June 29, 2009


An old classic -- A town had undergone a bitter fight over sex-ed in the schools when a woman's daughter comes home from first grade and announces proudly, "In school today, we learned how to make babies." The woman had been in favor of teaching reproduction, but to first graders? This seemed absurd. Trying to keep her cool, she wanted to know exactly what her daughter had been taught, so she asks, "How do you make babies, sweetie?" Smiling, the daughter replies, "Easy, Mommy, drop the 'y' and add 'ies'."

But do you always? We happen to have two people named Gary in the department this year (mind if we just call you Bruce?) and I've had cause to refer to them both both in writing an e-mail prompting the question, What is the plural of "Gary"? Is it "Garys" or "Garies"? If it is the latter, why do we treat the linguistic symbols for names differently than other words?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

RIP Ed McMahan

My Fellow Comedists,

This week we mourn the passing of Ed McMahan whose number finally came up in the great Publishers' Clearinghouse Sweepstakes in the sky. For the viewing, he has been hermetically sealed in a mayonaisse jar on Funk and Wagnall's porch since twelve o'clock this afternoon. He may not have been the funiiest of people, but Ed McMahan is in comedy heaven now, my friends, for there is a special place there reserved for straightmen (of course, one need be neither straight nor a man to be a straightman).

The rise of observational humor has all but done away with what used to be common -- comedy teams: Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Burns and Allen, Tom and Ray, the Smothers Brothers, Lewis and Martin, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. To set up and be willing to be the butt of jokes is to lay oneself out for the good of the comedy itself. The straightman does the heavylifting, keeping the audience's attention while setting up the joke in a way that does not telegraph the punchline, and for all this labor the straightman gets none of the glory of the clown who brings it home, collecting the laughs, being seen as the funny one while the straightman is left looking dour at best, foolish at worst. No one watches Marx Brothers movies for Margaret Dumont, but without her they would not have been what they are.

The straightman is the unsung hero of comedy and Ed McMahan was the ironman of straightmen sitting beside Johnny Carson night after night for decades, never stealing the spotlight, always with that laugh.

Thanks Ed, and one last hiyo for us all.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, June 26, 2009

BBC: 'Stoned wallabies make crop circles'

I suppose truth is indeed stranger than fiction. As we attempted to create false news stories yesterday, the Beeb outdid us all with this one.

"The one interesting bit that I found recently in one of my briefs on the poppy industry was that we have a problem with wallabies entering poppy fields, getting as high as a kite and going around in circles," Lara Giddings told the hearing. "Then they crash," she added. "We see crop circles in the poppy industry from wallabies that are high." ...Some people believe the mysterious circles that appear in fields in a number of countries are created by aliens. Others put them down to a human hoax.
Yes, there were the ones in England created by a couple of older gentlemen after downing several pints, but I love this one even more. It is not often one can put the words "aliens" and "stoned wallabies" in a single post.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

It's Not True, But It Should Be

Here's an idea for a new one. Let's see how it goes and maybe we'll make it a regular. The idea is to come up with stories that are not true, but ought to be. My contributions:

Pediatric gastrointerologists at Johns Hopkins have discovered that many children have a fibrous growth that bifurcates their stomachs. The temporary division causes them to actually have one part of their digestive system that fills up with dinner, but the other remains empty until dessert. This separation strangely and suddenly disappears around the time when one begins to enjoy the taste of broccoli and asparagus.

Archaeologists looking for Etruscan ruins have come across classical texts that may rewrite the history of Roman philosophy. Evidence has been found of Marcus Notrelius, an ancient skeptic whose work was so successful that not even his own students believed he existed.

People who talk annoying loud on their cell phones in public have more than glares to be worried about. The means of amplification in the phone increases the damage to the eardrum causing an increased likelihood of premature hearing loss.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Happy Birthday Chuck Taylor

Today would be the 108th birthday of Chuck Taylor, possibly the greatest shoe salesman in history. The Chuck Taylor hightop sneaker is every bit the American fashion icon as the Levi 501 or the leather bomber jacket.

A turn of the century basketball player of little reknown, Chuck Taylor designed a shoe that would support the ankle and convinced Converse to manufacture them. Joining the company, he travelled non-stop, moving from little town to big town convincing local high school and college coaches to co-sponsor clinics where they would provide the instruction and he would sell the shoes.

So wide and far were his travels and so magnetic was his personality that he became a force in the basketball world connecting rising playing and coaching prospects with different programs. Of course, once Chuck Taylor helped you get a spot on the team or better yet a better job, you were more than happy to bring him into your new home and give him a platform to sell his sneakers.

While no serious athlete today would prefer them over the highly engineered athletic footware, there is something funky and campy that will keep Chucks from ever going out of style.

Happy birthday, Chuck Taylor.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Is It Ever More Reasonable To Not Think For Yourself?

Just read a wonderfulpiece by John Hardwig called "Epistemic Dependence" in which he argues that for most of our beliefs, it is rational to not think for ourselves. He considers cases in which we are not capable of understanding, muchless evaluating, the evidence for a belief, but have a belief because someone we have good reason to be an expert believes it.

For example, in grad school at Johns Hopkins I took a course in general relativity from an astronomer who works with the Hubble Space Telecope Institute. The topic turned to contemporary views and when string theory came up, he told us that he had been on sabbatical the previous year at Princeton and his daughter just happened to be on the same soccer team as Ed Witten's daughter. Ed Witten is one of the BIG BIG BIG names in contemporary physics, a smart person of the highest order. He said that on the sidelines as they watched the game, he casually asked Witten about the prospects of string theory. The resulting animated response went completely over his head (astronomers are not physicists), but was unabashedly pro-string theory. He ended the story by saying that he had no idea exactly how strong the evidence for or against string theory was, but if it was good enough for Ed Witten, he'd believe it, too.

Now I believe it because he believed it because Ed Witten believes it. Surely, Ed Witten has a rational belief in the correctness of string theory, but do I? I believe it based upon an argument from authority, but I am incapable of assessing the evidence myself or even determining why this authority should be taken as one. I take it on authority that this authority is an authority. Is there an infinite regress here or is there good reason to believe? If I tried to gain the knowledge necessary, I would most likely screw it up because it is more complicated than I can make sense of. Is it then rational to necessarily farm out my beliefs or do I have to remain agnostic to avoid irrational belief?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Just Because You Are Innocent Doesn't Mean You Have the Right Under Due Process To Demonstrate Your Innocence

In a case decided 5-4 by the Supreme Court last Thursday, it was decided that you do not have the right to DNA test state's evidence against you, even when that evidence could demonstrate your innocence. Chief Justice Roberts writes for the majority,

"DNA testing has an unparalleled ability both to exonerate the wrongly convicted and to identify the guilty. The availability of new DNA testing technologies, however, cannot mean that every criminal conviction, or even every criminal conviction involving biological evidence, is suddenly in doubt. The task of establishing rules to harness DNA’s power to prove innocence without unnecessarily overthrowing the established criminal justice system belongs primarily to the legislature."
We have a criminal justice system based upon the false Enlightment principle that humans are rational beings whose beliefs are formed by logic applied to observational evidence. We know that jury decisions are based at least in part upon prevailing social biases (which tend to work in the favor of well off whites and against those of lower class or other racial backgrounds) and are influenced by effects of social psychology, for example, groupthink.

Now, we have a means that would correct for these defects, freeing the wrongly convicted. Allowing that one has a right to this technology would be tantamount to admitting that the system contains a pragmatic flaw that can be largely corrected. But this admission of a weakness would be revolutionary in the way we see the law. Hence, when the Constitution says one has a right to due process of law, we may allow that this includes a right to effective representation, but only if it is not so effective that it might actually work. It is one thing for professioal baseball to cite tradition in order to refuse to abandon the use of home plate umpires to make ball and strike calls knowing they will not be consistent and blow a few. It is quite another for the Supreme Court to do the same thing with people's freedom and lives.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Feast of Saint M.C.


This week saw the anniversary of the birth of Maurits Cornelius Escher. Traveling as a young artist, he found himself overwhelmed by the Alhambra. Mulsim artists largely found themselves required to create non-representational works. As such, we find incredible works relating to patterns and geometrical relations in the form of mosaics and asrchitecture. These, in turn, made their way into Eascher's work.

The comedist question for this weekend is whether or not his works are visual jokes. They seem to have a set up and a punchline of sorts, but is it really possible to have a non-linguistic joke? Is it a sort of psychological slapstick or a non-verbal pun?

Is Escher's "Drawing Hands" a version of the same joke in this scene from Spaceballs in a different medium?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, June 19, 2009

Cursing, Iran, and Competition

Claude asks,

Why are expletives such as shoot/fudge/darn considered not vulgar? I understand a word like "cowabunga" being completely innocent (or am I wrong here?), but the only reason shoot/fudge/darn are used is because they are a variant of shit/fuck/damn. Why don't they have the same impact?
This is something I've thought about for a while. It is odd that we could use a word that is synonymous with another word in terms of its usage and yet is not interchangeable. I actually wrote a post that discussed this very question about three years ago. quoting from that post, curse words are empty vessels that we can use to express anything we want -- they don't have a meaning in and of themselves, but acquire one in the context of an utterance -- they do come from somewhere. They have been selected as the empty syllables we designate as culturally impolite because they used to refer to something and that something is usually either sexual, heretical, or scatalogical and we think that the process of explaining this etymological past will have to include ideas or concepts that are age inappropriate. We may not be saying anything that refers to fecal matter when we say, "Oh shit" because the first basement let that ground ball go through his legs, but we are indirectly referring to it and we don't want kids talking about poopies.

This would explain why it is ok to substitute for curse words and express the same thing. "Sugar" or "shoot" can be used for "shit"; "freaking" or "flipping" for "fucking"; "fudge" for "fuck"; "dang" or "darn" for "damn" -- the idea is that these words while homophonically similar are etymologically distinct. They sound like the curse they are standing in for and so it is clear when I hit my finger with a hammer and say "sugar," I wanted to say "shit" but couldn't because of the company. So "sugar" linguistically points to "shit" but doesn't carry the same cultural baggage because when we use it to refer to something, that something is a nice substance used in cookies and not what we do an hour after eating the cookies.

Along these lines, I've been fascinated with the phrase "the N word." Philosophers draw a distinction between using a word "Boston has fine restaurants" and mentioning a word "'Boston' has six letters." I can talk about a word without using it when I am discussing the symbol and not employing it to refer to anything. Yet, with the N-word, where the usage is problematic, even the mention has also becomes so and as such we have a euphemism that refers to the word that we can use to mention the word without mentioning it.

YKW asks,
"Who lost the election in Iran this week?"
Taking the question literally: While there is no exit polling, there does seem to be good reason to think Mousavi took the day. The demographics resemble our last presidential election where the conservative candidate had his strength among the rural and older voters while the moderate has his strength in the urban areas and among the younger and better educated. Like our election, the turn-out was extremely high, especially in terms of the youth vote. If I were to bet, I'd put my money on Mousavi.

Taking it metaphorically: The big loser is the Ayatollah Khamenei. He clearly said that if Ahmadinejad loses he loses and there is no one in Iran or out of it who does not think that there was not intentional tampering. For the religious leader of the nation to be seen as ethically compromised costs him his patina of moral authority, exactly what gives the unelected part of the Iranian ruling powers their legitimacy, undermines the bifurcated system that has been in place since the revolution.

Gwydion asks,
what's one thing that conservatives generally get right (by comparison to liberals)?
The power of competition. Oversimplifying, conservatives trust competition while liberals trust cooperation. Of course, both have their place, but liberals do underestimate how competition can be used to help all sorts of systems progress. For a very good examination of ways in which markets can be better and worse than cooperative institutions, read Cass Sunstein's Infotopia.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Biased Reality

Philo asks,

"It is said "reality has a well-known liberal bias." [http://tr.im/owWY] Is it the case that reality "votes" for liberals more so than for conservatives, or is it "fair and balanced"?"
The line is used frequently by Stephen Colbert as a play on the working the refs strategy of the right which is to brand the media as having a liberal bias, but taken seriously, I would say that the answer is yes and no.

There are certainly places that portions of the conservative movement do place ideology before science. The religious right's attack on the teaching of evolution, global warming, and their insistence on abstinence only sex ed are examples where they give just so stories that happen not to line up with the way the world works.

Another way in which one could claim that reality has a liberal bias is in the conservative rejection of social science. The appeals to personal responsibility are, as I've discussed here many times, a rejection of social/economic/political factors in shaping how people behave. If social factors play a role and they can be changed, then government programs and regulations would be necessary. Of course, sociological factors are meaningfully operative and in this way the liberal approach is correct. That is not to say that liberals do not often overstate the role, neglecting the autonomy of individuals, but the sort of wholesale rejection of the effect of systemic factors is flawed.

But, there is a way in which reality is often biased against liberals. The famine in Ethiopia and then homelessness in the US became well funded, high visibility causes in the 80s. You had rock festivals and big time media attention. Every organization concerned about alleviating suffering somewhere took note and as a result began to compete for the attention. You began to see an arms race of liberal causes, each trying to portray itself as the most pressing issue of the times. As a result, you needed to take quite legitimate problems and show them in their worst possible light in order to try to elevate your situation of interest. There is incentive, if not to exaggerate, then certainly to push worst case scenarios without making fully clear that they are not the most likely scenarios. As such, reality often does not match up with the most dire predictions of those who were seeking public attention to their cause.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Intellectual Property and Empathy

Vince asks,

"I'm reading Richard Posner's "The Economic Structure of Intellectual Property Law" right now and I am interested in the tension I see between the economic approach and the moral Approach to intellectual property. Economically, Posner writes that "[t]he principle difference between the law of intellectual property and the law of physical property is that transaction costs tend to be much higher in the former case. This difference argues for less extensive propertization of intellectual than of physical property." Posner contrasts this idea with a Hegelian concept of possession of property as the mark of the free man. Under this idea, some argue that intellectual property rights should be inalienable.

I'm not that far into the book at all, and this is probably an oversimplification of the issues, but it's enough to present a question:

Do you think intellectual property rights should be inalienable?"
I do not think that intellectual property rights should be inalienable.

The core of the ethical justification is that one is rights-based, one is entitled to the fruits of one's labors. If you created it, it ought to be yours to do with as you see fit. In this case the it isn't actually an it and that is what causes the problems because when the it is an it, when you have it, I cannot. But with intellectual property, I may arrive at it independently or by giving it to me, you still have it. As such, the propertization is based on something that one could easily argue is a category mistake. That being said, clear cases such as someone pirating one of Kerry's books is clearly morally problematic.

The question gets even more interesting, however, when you think about what we now consider to be covered by intellectual property law. Gene sequences for members of natural kinds, for example, are considered intellectual property. Here, you have discovered, not invented or created that which is considered your intellectual property. the scientific version of finders keepers. Now, you may have had to create a means of discovery, but what is protected is not the means but the result as there may be other means of discovering the same information. Do the features of humanity itself belong to humanity as a whole or is this something that can be owned? What about cases in which making the information public will save innocent lives?

The utilitarian arguments in favor of propertization contend that the profit motive inherent in a competitive marketplace is more likely to bring advances than the open sharing of information which only gave us the entire history of science up until the last couple decades. But surely, even if you buy this consequentuialist line, there will be situations where it will be more than appropriate to strip someone of their intellectual property rights for the good of all. If we were having a pandemic and a drug company was intentionally slowing production to further increase scarcity or to force politicians into a less advantageous bargaining position (not that big pharma would ever do such a thing, the wonderful, caring humans that they are), it would seem to me necessary to put the usual market-based incentives by the side of the road and do what we need to do.

Less dire versions of the question can be found in the time it takes for published material or music to move into the public domain. Surely, there is no problem here stripping the heirs of an artist of the exclusive rights to that which is part of the culture. Yes, artists need protection, but 75 years? 100 years? given that artists emerge from and are nutured by their cultures it does not seem unreasonable that the propertized compositions or recordings would resort to communal ownership.

JMH asks,
"Is it possible to have too much empathy?"
Yes. Empathy is a good thing, even in a Supreme Court Justice. Realizing that other humans are in fact humans (and we certainly should extend that beyond humans to other sentient beings) is essential for community and as Aristotle correctly said, we are political animals in that we need community of some sort to flourish.

But can one overempathize? Yes. there will be times and situations where one needs to build an emotional wall to protect oneself from the suffering of others. Aid workers or reporters in a natural disaster or war zone, for example, will see horrible things and in order to do what they need to do to help folks in need, they need to distance themselves. I have a dear friend who is a surgeon and they are known for having very dark senses of humor, something necessary when you deal constantly with very ill people, some of whom will tragically die despite your best efforts.

From a more mundane point of view, Nel Noddings who argues for a care-based system of ethics contends that you cannot care for everyone or else you will not be able to adequately care for anyone -- unless of course you are Bono or Oprah. We need to understand that we are limited and that in some sense we can only extend ourselves so far. That said, few of us come anywhere near that limit and we all could certain stand to be more empathetic.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Good and Clouds

A couple from C. Ewing. First, he asks about the nature of goodness.

"Is good (or "goodness" to utilize the "-ness" fixation) natural or non-natural? Explain."
We begin with Aristotle's distinction between "good for" (the chair is good for sitting) and "good in itself" (helping that old lady across the street was good of you). We'll assume you are talking about the latter moral conception.

The usual line is that there are "is sentences" that describe how things are and "ought sentences" that describe how things should be, and that since ethical claims are of the ought variety, you cannot use is claims to justify them since the only thing is sentences do is describe how the world is and the ethical propositions run beyond that. Others have said that ethical claims can be justified with is claims because ethical statements are facts about personal preferences (ethical emotivism) or about the state of the world as a result of the action (ethical consequentualists).

I think the problem here is that the term "morally right" or "good" is an umbrella term, we have a cluster of concepts that we use a single word for. Usually, these concepts all point to the same thing, but occassionally they don't. These are our moral conundrums, the problems that seem irreconcilable. Unlike "bank" which has two meanings (a financial institution and the side of a river) and when we use the word, we mean only one or the other, the tricky part about "morally right" is that we simultaneoously apply the different senses as a single meaning. Look at the ways we rationally argue about moral issues -- there are several recognizable templates, each lining up with a traditional ethical system (virtue, duty, utility, rights, care) and each connecting with a different part of the ethical situation (who did it, what did they do, what are the effects of having done it, who did they do it to, and did they have relationships with special moral obligations).

So, the answer to the question is yes and no. There are some meanings in which moral rightness is built on natural properties and others in which it is not. Which is operative depends on the case and the context.

Next, he asks about vagueness.
In looking into vagueness, I stumbled upon Sorites Paradox. There seems to be an issue here, especially when it's used in relation to vagueness/the problem of the many.

1 grain of wheat does not make a heap.
If 1 grain of wheat does not make a heap then 2 grains of wheat do not.
If 2 grains of wheat do not make a heap then 3 grains do not.

If 9,999 grains of wheat do not make a heap then 10,000 do not.
-------------------------------------------------- ------------------
10,000 grains of wheat do not make a heap.

Thus, if we're using this to investigate what makes a heap or cloud, etc., then it seems we are already assuming we have some notion of what a heap/cloud is or--at the least--what does not qualify. That bit seems fine. If we hadn't the foggiest what we were attempting to discuss, then we wouldn't be able to discuss it, but as presented, this seems deceptive (there seems to be a hidden element not established nor presented in the argument/example) and circular.

Am I looking at this wrong? Maybe this is more of a logic question and I should toss it Hanno's way, but you're both welcome to respond.
Hanno would be a fine resource here. Indeed, the answer lies in a pair of articles that Hanno and I wrote a few years back. We looked at tautologies -- sentences that should always be true and therefore be vacuous, say nothing about the world -- which are used as if they have content. It turns out that there is a class of these sentences that do have content, those in which the operative term has two meanings, one which is well defined like "gross" and one that is not well defined like "bald" (a concept Hanno and I are both increasingly qualified to discuss). We use tautologies to demonstrate that we are using the word in its well-defined sense because this is the sense governed by standard two-valued logic in which it has to be true or false that "A has property P." When we talk of that which has degrees or for which there is a gray area where it is not clear whether to consider A to have or not have P, the usual means of reasoning need to be augmented.

The problem you pick up is trying to apply the forms of reasoning that work on clearly delimited properties and apply them to those that are not. It's the classical problem of the beard -- how many hairs does it take to have a beard. There may be no specific number, but that doens't mean that some people absolutely have beards and others clearly do not. It just means that there is a semantically mushy middle.

How do we deal with these? Often it is funcitonally. What do we want A to do and if it has enough of P can it do it? Can it rain? It's a cloud. Can it block sunlight enough to make it overcast? It's a cloud. If you are foggy about what makes a cloud, there is a reason (and a really nice pun), but if you feel the pressing need to decide for some random area of water density whether it is or is not a cloud, I'd (a) determine what the term cloud is doing for you, and (b) seek medication.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Cost of Modern Life

Let's start of the week with a good one. David Airth asks,

"I will start by saying that my grandfather had five children, a stay at home wife and at least one servant.

I am trying to understand how come he could afford such a life, with only him working, something that is impossible to do today.

Since my grandfather's time the work force has expanded. I suppose with that expansion some things have got more prohibitive and expensive.
What is interestingly implicit in the question is the claim that in certain ways the standard of living for folks in the upper class and upper middle class have decreased, yet by other markers one would certainly have to argue that they have also improved. The single earner with servant model is certainly not accessible to many, and there seem to be several factors.

On the one hand, after WWII, the GI Bill allowed a class of people access to higher education who never otherwise would have had it and because enrollment in college allowed an automatic deferment during the war in Vietnam, what had been a small elite class of college educated workers expanded significantly. The successes of the liberation movements also expanded the pool of folks competing for higher wage jobs which were no longer de facto reserved for white men. This rise of the white collar class led to stagnation in wages.

At the same time the money coming in was flattening out, the amount needed to maintain a normal middle class life was increasing. The Levittown suburbanization saw folks moving from more densely populated areas to less so, but not the inexpensive country land, rather the new suburban developments in which the homes themselves became larger and larger and more and more expensive. The market being driven by two income families, the cost of the "American Dream," a family in a family home went up and up and up.

This lifestyle required additional overhead that wasn't needed. If you were living in a city, you didn't need a car, or one at most. Now in the suburbs where nothing is in walking distance and public transportation is seen as lower property values, multiple cars with all the costs of fuel, maintenance, and insurance become a virtual necessity and a drain on the monthly income.

After WWII goods became cheaper (both in terms of cost and quality), but this meant that we could buy more of them, more often. This is why the size of houses has been inflating quicker than the economy -- we need places to put all our stuff and we spend an inordinate amount on stuff that our parents never did. They would buy furniture once in their lives, furniture that would last generations and much of which was handed down and didn't need to be bought. We constantly buy new particle board junk at IKEA to redo rooms and reredo rooms, something that wasn't in the budget for past generations. Same for clothing. We buy cheaper and thus buy more, but also have to buy more because it is inferior and wears out, unless we get too fat and have to buy another wardrobe at a bigger size because we are eating out much more than they ever did.

Additionally, they would pay electric and phone bills, but they used nowhere near the electricity we do -- think of how many vampires there are in your home with a digital clock on them, each one sucking electricity and adding to your bills. The electricity to run a record player is nothing compared to how much is needed for the laser inside a cd player. Instead of hanging clothes we run driers that chug the electricity. Now add in the monthly costs of cell phone, cable, high speed internet, Netflix, and other invisible monthly charges (this is not to mention the burden that student loans play in many lives) that were not even on the horizon for those earlier and suddenly you see that it is not only that the prices have found equilibrium in a world where more people have money, but that it flows out at a substantially greater rate.

We have luxuries that our grandparents couldn't fathom, but at the same time there are ways of life that they may have had access to that are certainly beyond us.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics: Any Questions?

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, June 12, 2009

Catcher's Ethics

The shorter of the short people has taken to playing catcher on his little league team. So, when we watch a ballgame, we often pay special attention to what the catcher does. In a game the night before last, the Orioles were playing the Mariners and with two strikes the catcher took a low pitch and raised his mitt framing the pitch as if it were in the strike zone. The ump took the bait and called the batter out. I pointed out to the kids what the catcher had done and they both screamed in protest that it was cheating.

Is it?

It would clearly be cheating if the catcher was calling the balls and strikes and moved it to fool everyone else. but it was not within the catcher's power to make the call. It would be cheating if the advantage was asymmetric, but the O's catcher of course does the same exact thing. As a result, it may be cheating, but it isn't unfair. It also is something that umps know and expect. It isn't as if he was being tricky in a way that runs counter to the ethos of the game. the ump knows catchers do this and do their best not to be fooled.

But it is dishonest. It is an attempt to misrepresent, to get someone to believe something is true that you do not believe to be true. In poker, this sort of dishonesty is part of the basic structure and strategy of the game. Is it so, too, with baseball? Are the kids right? Is it cheating?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Right-Wing Violence

We were given a report from Homeland Security warning of right-wing violence. Now in a short span of time, we have the assassination of Dr. George Tiller and a man opening fire in front of the Holocaust Museum. Is this an inevitable consequence of change? Is there something that can be done to release the pressure that causes it?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Why Do You Know That?

One of my new favorties that we haven't done for a little while. 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:

The first parking meters were operated in Oklahoma City in 1935.

Tony LaRussa not only has won the World Series and Manager of the Year in both leagues, he is a lawyer, holding a J.D. from Florida State.

Since WWII, half of the Presidents have been left-handed.
Your turn. what do you know and why do you know it?

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

What Is a Terrorist?

I've always hated the cliche, "It's just a matter of semantics." We say that, of course, when we mean that a discussion is trivial worrying about defnitions instead of content, but semantics, the study of meaning, is quite difficult and important. It matters what we mean by words. If an act is genocide or not determines how we must act under law. If an act is murder or not is a matter of ethical concern.

A recent discussion is over the term "terrorist." There are soem who have branded Scott Roeder, the murderer of Dr. George Tiller, a terrorist, while others have strongly objected to the use of the term. It does seem to make a difference if we call the slaying an act of terrorism, an assassination, or simply a homocide. We are possibly going to put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism -- a move with serious policy ramifications. Words matter. Meaning matters. Semantics matter.

So, the question is, what does the term "terrorist" mean? What makes something an act of terrorism?

Monday, June 08, 2009

Politics and the Purse

I live in the part of Maryland where you know you are below the Mason-Dixon line. This has given rise to something I've been thinking about. There's a kids' amusement area -- not a big theme park, but go-carts, laser tag, miniature golf,... -- close by me that the short people would greatly enjoy. But given the right-wing candidates that the owners openly and loudly support on the premises, it has set my feet against ever spending a dime there.

Is this intolerant or a legitimate response? Is this stifling discourse or is my lack of patronage equally legitimate political speech? Is this allowing the power of the purse to be a political power or am I wrongly corrupting an apolitical transaction, turning it political when it should not be? Certainly, I am free to use my hard earned money any way I choose, but am I wrongly trying to punish people for a mere political disagreement or standing up for what I believe in?

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Passing the Plate: Sports Edition

My Fellow Comedists,

I'm late with this weekend's Comedist post because of swim lessons, a soccer game, and a little league game. So, let's pass the plate, sporting style. Other religions ask for monetary donations, but in Comedism we tithe jokes. So, my friend, dig deep, give generously.

My donation:

In grad school, the philosophy department had a softball team. we called ourselves the "Home Platonists."

The abnormal psychology instructor having lectured on manic depression asks his class, "How would you diagnose a patient who walks back and forth screaming at the top of his lungs one minute, then sits in a chair weeping uncontrollably the next?" A young man in the rear of the room raised his hand and answered, "Bobby Knight?"

Your turn.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, June 05, 2009

Reframing Environmental Issues for Christian Fundamentalists

Today is the birthday of Bill Moyers. I'm not sure if there is anyone alive who better exemplifies the notion of "citizen." An ordained Baptist minister and a former White House Press Secretary, he brings the media and spiritual together. In a speech he gave a few years ago, he argues that we need to reframe environmental concerns for the religious right.

Here's an important statistic to ponder: 45 percent of Americans hold a creational view of the world, discounting Darwin's theory of evolution. I don't think it is a coincidence then that in a nation where nearly half our people believe in creationism, much of the populace also doubts the certainty of climate change science. Contrast that to other industrial nations where climate change science is overwhelmingly accepted as truth; in Britain, for example, where 8l% of the populace wants the government to implement the Kyoto Treat. What's going on here? Simply that millions of American Christians accept the literal story of Genesis, and they either dismiss or distrust a lot of science - not only evolution, but paleontology, archeology, geology, genetics, even biology and botany. To those Christians who believe that our history began with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and that it will end soon on the plains of Armageddon, environmental science with its urgent warnings of planetary peril must look at the best irrelevant. At worst the environmental woes we report may be stoically viewed as the inevitable playing out of the end of time as presented in the book of Revelation. For Christian dominionists who believe the Lord will provide for all human needs and never leave us short of oil or other resources, no matter how we overpopulate the earth, our reporting may be viewed as a direct attack on biblical teachings that urge humans "to be fruitful and multiply." It's even possible that among many Christian conservatives, our environmental reporting - if they see it at all - could seem arrogant in its assumptions, mechanistic, cold and godless in its world view. That's a tough indictment, but one that must be faced if we want to understand how these people get their news.

So if I were a free-lance journalist looking to offer a major piece on global warming to these people, how would I go about it? I wouldn't give up fact-based analysis, of course - the ethical obligation of journalists is to ground what we report in evidence. But I would tell some of my stories with an ear for spiritual language, the language of parable, for that is the language of faith.

Let's say I wanted to write a piece about the millions of species that might be put on the road to extinction by global warming. Reporting that story to a scientific audience, I would talk science: tell how a species decimated by climate change could reach a point of no return when its gene pool becomes too depleted to maintain its evolutionary adaptability. That genetic impoverishment can eventually lead to extinction.

But how to reach fundamentalist Christians who doubt evolution? How would I get them to hear me? I might interview a scientist who is also a person of faith and ask how he or she might frame the subject in a way to catch the attention of other believers. I might interview a minister who would couch the work of today's climate and biodiversity scientists in a biblical metaphor: the story of Noah and the flood, for example. The parallels of this parable are wonderful to behold. Both scientists and Noah possess knowledge of a potentially impending global catastrophe. They try to spread the word, to warn the world, but are laughed at, ridiculed. You can almost hear some philistine telling old Noah he is nothing but a "gloom and doom" environmentalist," spreading his tale of abrupt climate change, of a great flood that will drown the world, of the impending extinction of humanity and animals, if no one acts.
Is this right?

Thursday, June 04, 2009

R.I.P. Koko Taylor

Koko Taylor, the Queen of the Blues, died yesterday. Born near Memphis, she moved to Chicago and cleaned houses while sitting in at blues clubs at night...until Willie Dixon found her. Signed to Chess Records, she became a touring phenomenon. A serious car accident and a heart attack couldn't do it, but complications from intestinal surgery finally did.

Man oh man, was she amazing on stage. I got to see her about twenty years ago at a blues festival. Her set simply smoked, but the highlight was when she came up and surprised Albert King and sat in with his band. She was playful, soulful, amazing.

Rest in peace Koko and thank you.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Monkeys and Alcohol

A friend of mine sent this link to me. It's a BBC nature program that looks at monkey's drinking habits on St. Kitts.

Given that monkeys seem to have drinking patterns similar to those of humans -- most drink only moderately, others not at all, yet others to excess -- does this tell us anything about moral responsibility and addiction? Given that we have a non-human model, does this mean that the biological component should be weighed more heavily when comparing it to the that of volition?

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Voices in the Chorus

No one wants to deny that the murderer or Dr. George Tiller bears responsibility for his actions, but the fact is that this crime would not have happened without the groundwork having been laid by a number of people with big megaphones. While no one speech act on the part of Bill O'Reilly, Randall Terry, or anyone else can be causally linked to the horrible crime, certainly the sum total of them were a causal factor in creating the environment which did play a causal role. Having the big megaphone means having more impact on people, what moral responsibility comes with it? Inciting violence is clearly problematic, but what about what the speaker thinks is a merely rhetorical call for violence? What of charged rhetoric that does not directly call for violence, but is intended to get people riled up to a point where some could commit violence? Are the speakers responsible for acts they did not commit, but were a part of establishing the environment from which the acts spring?

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Effects of Standardized Testing on Students and the Classroom

Jim B.’s perspective from the trenches.

New York State has had our Regents program for over a century, so standardized testing has been our norm. Since NCLB was enacted in 2000, however, state testing has become mandatory for all students in grades 5-12. My 8th graders this year are the first cohort group to have been tested from elementary through middle school.

This year I have become aware of a growing trend of apathy among students towards learning. Now granted, I know most tweens complain everyday about the compulsory education law, however, I could always count on at least half-dozen students to have that glimmer in their eye and enthusiastic participation upon discovering a new idea or making a well supported argument or point of view. This year, students seem to be dazed zombies, looking at their teacher's passion for subject matter in an answering manner; like we are wasting their time. I refer to my students this year as programmed robots, they know that they have state tests approaching and they want the answers provided to them so they can robotic-ally internalize them for future recognition on tests. They become increasingly restless, apathetic, and downright angry when asked to perform any activity outside the facts, just the straight facts.

Talking to my fellow colleagues, they too have voiced their concern over the state of apathetic thinkers, sharing our teaching methods and practice. Many of my colleagues, like myself, majored in our respected majors as well as education. Our philosophy of education profs taught PHILOSOPHICAL THOUGHT towards generating classrooms in critical thought. We learned how to apply theories of Bloom, Gardner, Aristotle, Sartre, Dewey, and others. The thought of "teaching to a test" was never brought into a discussion. Talking to student teachers and many young untenured (another issue) teachers fresh out of college, philosophy of education has focused more upon rote memorization of presenting information, and an emphasis around technology. As a result, I believe many young teachers are coming out of their respected universities conditioned to the thought that one needs to teach to the test, and the strategies learned in their education classes reflect upon the strategies to be used.

Now, here are the philosophical questions asked by educators. The untenured teachers ask, "How can I get tenure?” For many school districts, the answer lies within the test scores. Many administrators have become evaluators of teachers basing criteria upon test scores; as opposed to evaluators of a teacher's enthusiasm for subject manner, differentiated practices, love of learning and a passion for teaching. Now, the administrator asks, "How can I be sure to have our school look good in the paper so I make my Superintendent happy? The superintendent asks, how can my school district look good in the paper so that I get families to more to my district, therefore increasing our tax revenue?” Much of the NCLB focuses around money for school districts, how contradictory is this, school districts who have low numbers are at risk for loosing state aide, while in return, those "exemplary" school districts who shine at the top of the paper every year, receive money to put towards their budget.

I fear that our system of education (public, at least, I cannot speak for private, Catholic, Montessori, home-schooling, etc.), has become driven by standings and money, or as Neil Peart wrote, "the power and the glory." Therefore, many choose to follow the predetermined path of teaching toward the test. There are still those, however, like myself who look to remain true to our passions of guiding and assisting the process of learning as opposed to programming learning. For example, using documents to open up dialog of various time periods of history, charting political, social, cultural and economically events, comparing and contrasting to similar decades and time periods, or my favorite, using song lyrics and music to exemplify how various Americans have utilized "freedom of speech" to make a political stance, or just simply, making the message of love and compassion accessible to any open minded listener. The Dionysian teachers, are beginning to find that our strategies are becoming "outdated." With students at younger grades now being programmed into the machine, by the time they reach us at junior high, and high school, they have learned how to take tests, successfully recognizing A, B, C, D, or writing essays using a pre-scripted and well orchestrated model, but lacking the skill to be able to analyze, evaluate, or debate using various perspectives. Slowly, the Apollonian forces are winning the battle within the corridors of education. I believe a more prudent question becomes not when to begin teaching philosophical ideas, but rather, are the educators available to teach these ideas? As a lover of philosophy, I am curious, what is the enrollment of philosophy programs? Have you witnessed a declining trend, especially in regard to education philosophy courses?