Saturday, October 31, 2009

Tricks and Treats

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend we celebrate Halloween, truly one of the funnier holidays with funny costumes and practical jokes woven inexorably into its fabric. I want to focus on the trick part of the trick or treat.

One of our Playground regulars sent me one the greatest practical jokes I've heard about in a long time. Good brother 71 and his beloved fiancee were in Florida recently at a philosophy conference -- the annual meeting of the "Lighthearted Philosophers Society," a group dedicated to the philosophical analysis of humor -- and taking a break from the proceedings, they were walking along the beach. I'll let 71 pick up the story:

as we're walking along the beach on Sunday evening, with the sun setting behind us, we stumbled upon a guy setting up for a wedding right on the beach. They had a chuppa set up in the sand with flowers and all, so Katy and I stopped and asked the guy to take our picture under it. We got a few shots holding hands, kissing, etc. And when we got back to the hotel I wrote an email to our parents with the pics attached explaining that we had just stumbled upon this sight that was just too beautiful to pass up. The moment just felt right, so we went for it. I apologized for not calling them before we did it, and told them we'd tell them all about it when we got home. We ended the email by signing our names with a hyphenated last name and a smiley face, thinking that this would make the joke fairly obvious. Needless to say, by morning I had a number of text messages from my mom and emails from Katy's parents. They had called each other and didn't know what to make of it. We're still not sure they've gotten over it, but we sure got a helluva laugh.
What makes the story even funnier is that neither of them is Jewish, so the chuppa makes zero sense especially with the sort of impromptu set up of the supposed nuptials.

What makes this so fantastic is that it was right there on the edge of believability even though 71 and Mrs. 71-to-be didn't think so. Any farther out and it would have been just dumb, but it was right on that tipping point where the parents were teetering, "is it true? no, couldn't be. well, you mean it could be..."

Closest I've ever come to that one is about six years ago when I sent in an e-mail to the department on April 1 (praise be to Saint Shecky) informing them that I had an offer on the table from Swarthmore, but that TheWife and I hadn't decided if we really wanted to move the kids to Philly. Figuring, they'd see right through it as an April Fools prank, I got into the office late to find a message on my phone from the Provost asking for an emergency meeting. Like 71, it had never occurred to me that they'd be fooled.

So, for Halloween, let's have tales of your best prank when you fooled someone.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, October 30, 2009

Darwin and the Death of the Tragic Hero

The post earlier this week about Darwin and Bill Gates has brought back a thought I've had for some time now. TheWife and I have very different tastes in film -- I prefer comedy or something with an odd narrative architecture and she like action films, especially, but not exclusively from the 70s.

What is interesting about these films from an odd narrative architecture point of view is that while today's films all start at the same point A (respectable male character has something dastardly happen to someone he cares about) and end at the same point B (evil person falls from a great height on fire while respectable person looking slightly disheveled quips something witty in a flat stoic voice while walking away), the older films had two possible endpoints and you never knew which one it was going to. There was the hero riding off into the sunset ending, but there was also the tragic hero who dies for the cause, someone so committed that he heroically makes the ultimate sacrifice. That is something that has virtually disappeared from Hollywood film. We don't see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid type endings anymore.

It seems to me that there are two reasons here. The mundane explanation is money. Test audiences probably prefer happy endings to tragic ones and they dictate plot. Further, if your film is a success and you haven't killed off the hero, a sequel is sure cash in hand, for example, the Bruce Willis Die Hard cash cow. I'm sure these brazenly financial aspects are a large part of the demise of the tragic hero from American film.

But there does also seem to be another explanatory hypothesis that comes from the history of ideas. Darwin's theory has become so embedded in our collective consciousness that we see death as evidence of being unfit for survival and such a lack of fitness is unbecoming in a hero. If they weren't clever enough, tough enough, or unemotional enough to survive, then they don't conform to our iconic image of a hero.

There will be deaths in these films, but it is usually the killing of a someone close to the hero -- often a dedicated buddy or partner whose unjust killing spurs the hero on. The last main characters that I can recall dying tragically for their cause were Thelma and Louise. But, of course, they were women and I do think that gender is relevant here. Our male heroes are required to become something akin to the Nietzschean Ubermensch, a combination of super-rational human and pre-human instinctive animal thrust into a state of nature, red in tooth and claw, where the social contract is thrown out the window, and for such a being death is the ultimate insult. Our heroes don't die, they just get cheesier and cheesier scripts until we no longer care about them.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Campus Mental Health and False Urgency

NPR had a series last week about mental health on college campuses and we've been getting a similar push here. Counseling services at colleges and universities across the country are getting clobbered. Several explanations have been proposed. One, is that the success of psychotropic medications have made it possible for students who in the past would have been unable to attend college to do so, meaning that students who are being treated for all sorts of psychological issues are being integrated into campus cultures at rates far beyond anything that had been seen. Others reverse the cart and the horse, that students are getting diagnosed at a higher rate and that the stigma has been greatly reduced making it more likely that they would have been treated by a mental health professional or would seek treatment. This camp is divided between those who contend that we are better at diagnosing problems and those who argue that we overdiagnose and over treat, especially with medication.

But there's a third line, that while students may or may not be coming to campus with higher rates of psychological concerns, we are creating them at a higher rate on our campuses. Students come with more weight on their shoulders from home. There is a deep sense of class insecurity because parents are worried that their kids will fall out of the comfort of middle class life if they don't keep up. Students bear this burden while the profs ratchet it up. I don't know if it's always been true, but there's a strong sense among faculty that students do not know how to properly prepare each day for college level work, that they do homework assignments, but really don't know how to study. As a result professors feel like they need to create a false sense of urgency, threatening draconian consequences to motivate students. The combination of the threats from the parents and instructors regularly creates a horribly unhealthy world for our college-bound kids.

You see it in even the most mundane aspects of advising. Students who want to drop a class and who should drop a class are made to feel that dropping is quitting and quitting makes you a loser and being a loser will destroy your life, so rather than do the rational thing and jettison a course from your schedule that you don't want or weren't prepared for yet in order to take it again when the time is right, they internalize it as a character flaw. They dread coming to you because they see it as a cross between betrayal and admission of vice. Of course, profs don't care that much. We don't think any different of students who drop and often the next semester. We see LOTS of students and, more than likely, we've completely forgotten whether you finished or not and will say hi as we pass you in exactly the same way.

But the students are frightened unnecessarily and this is only a simple example. We have students coming to class with flu-like symptoms because we're so afraid of slacking that we've beaten into thinking that missing class is a mortal sin. I have students writing bizarre e-mails about trying to speed back from funerals and being with their mom who is getting treatment for cancer in order to not miss class or a deadline for an assignment that I wasn't going to begin to grade until the weekend anyway. They live in a bizarro world of stress that has no correlation with reality because we are so afraid that they will have their pudding without eating their meat.

We do have an extended adolescence in contemporary society. Our college students are in many ways still kids. But the false construction of the collegiate world seems fraught with unhealthy elements that needn't be there and I wonder whether they are an operative factor in the rise in mental health concerns on today's campuses.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bullshit or Not: Bill Gates Edition

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

Since today is Bill Gates' birthday, let's...hang on, let me reboot. %#$*&!#@ Vista...

O.k., sorry about that.

Since today is Bill Gates' birthday, let's play with a short quotation from him:

Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can't lose.
It's very easy to say we learn from our mistakes, but doesn't Darwin argue the opposite, that it is the accumulation of successes that leads to fitness? Failures do not leave us back at square one, but in a hole, so that our new context doesn't resemble the last. Are lessons you take from a post-mortem ever really applicable? And after all, shouldn't the winners have a higher degree of confidence in their intuitions? There is no doubt that we do learn from small mistakes, but is it true of all errors, big and small alike?

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

File Sharing Killed the Video Star

I was listening to an NPR show this weekend where a guest argued that the age of stadium rock shows was ending. He said that when big room filling acts hang it up, they aren't being replaced. There's U2 and maybe Metallica from the late 80s/early 90s, but beyond them there isn't a Rolling Stones waiting in the wings.

It is an interesting claim. I starting thinking about the time frame. What happened at that time that would have caused such a shift. Three hypotheses came to mind. First, cash. Big concerts have finally priced themselves out of existence.

Problem is that we are still spending absurd amounts on entertainment of other sorts, so it is unclear why concerts would be any different.

Second, demographic shifts. The stadium fillers tended to be baby boomer groups that appealed to those of us who wished we were 60s flower children after the fact -- the Stone, the Who, the Dead, Paul McCartney... Once the baby boomers moved beyond their stadium show days, there was not the demand.

The problem here is that the baby boomers had kids, so there has been a second boomlet and they are prime concert going age now. That group should be big enough to support

The third hypothesis is the web. It perfectly coincides with the birth of Napster and on-line file sharing. The thought is not that file sharing deprived groups of the royalties they deserved and that caused problems, but rather that removing the whole stadium scene required funneling large portions of the youth to a few acts and that in turn required limiting the number of acts who get past the gate keepers onto cds and then get radio airplay. By removing the gatekeepers, have we democratized the marketplace and done away with the necessary conditions for megagroups while opening the field for more reasonable success. We cut down the old oaks and let a thousand flowers bloom in the meadow.

Reasonable hypothesis? Other factors? Simply false presupposition?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Is the Security Council Secure?

This weekend we celebrated United Nations Day. While its lack of speed, lack of teeth, and often lack of fortitude can be frustrating, it is a wonderful thing to have a functional space for international deliberation and cooperation. Right now in The Hague, Radovan Karadzic is having his day in court before an international tribunal dedicated to openness, fairness, and due process. Again, the process is not perfect and it remains an open question whether he actually will appear in the courtroom, but that there is such a trial is a very good thing for the world and a testament to the progress that can be made when there is an extra-governmental forum that has legitimacy.

The question for today concerns its structure. Like the British Parliament of old, it has a bicameral nature, the General Assembly is the House of Commons and the Security Council is the House of Lords where the privileged sit in their higher place. Such an arrangement made sense during the Cold War when there were two main superpowers locked in a game of geopolitical chicken. Provide a place where the US and the USSR along with their lieutenants could duke it out because the General Assembly would be precisely the same thing by proxy. Eliminate the charade and have the star chamber where what could get done would get done.

But now that the Cold War's bifurcation of the planet has ended and the world is a more complicated place, does it make sense to maintain the Security Council? Can we make the same argument today, that the permanent members have a disproportionate amount of influence over the governance of the world that they ought to have a special place in the United Nations? One could say that the wealthier nations pay much higher dues and thereby are bankrolling the U.N., so,. as B.B. King put it, they are paying the cost to be the boss. Does this fly? With the collapse of the capitalism/communism world divide does having an exclusive club in the middle of the more democratic United Nations' structure make sense?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Feast of Saint Weird

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend we celebrate the 50th birthday of Weird Al Yankovic. I remember listening to a call-in interview show where a listener asked him if "Weird Al Yankovic" was his real name. Without missing a beat he responded that no "Weird Al" was not his given name, that his mother named him "Weird Alfred."

Weird Al is the contemporary Spike Jones. In the 40s, he led the City Slickers, a band that parodied big band swing hits of the day. They were goofy, they were clever, and most of all, they were extremely talented musicians. Spike Jones' run came to an end in the 50s with the rise of rock and roll which he said could not be parodied, being too much of a parody itself.

Perhaps he was right, but for a different reason. Parody requires twisting easily identifiable icons and rock and roll was too new to have the sort of figures and themes that could be played off of.

But by the late 70s/early 80s, it did and Al Yankovic was there with accordion in hand. From his parody of the Knack with "My Bologna" and the support of Dr. Demento (blessed be his name), he got a contract with Capitol Records. "Another One Rides the Bus" and "I Love Rocky Road" on his well received first album led the way to "Eat It" which landed him permanently on the cultural landscape. While he trades on silliness, his band is no joke, a very talented lot with his drummer Joe "Bermuda" Schwartz playing the part of Spike Jones' George Rock, his on-stage foil and gagman.

Happy birthday, Weird Al.

Here's some Spike Jones and Weird Al to celebrate:

Friday, October 23, 2009

RIP Soupy Sales

Sad news. Soupy Sales just died. He had been in failing health for a while and now joins the Cosmic Comic in comedy heaven.

He was a dj, a stand-up, and dance show host before landing the gig that would be his path to comic stardom, children's programming. In the age of Howdy Doody, Soupy Sales changed the landscape. It is now assumed that if I take the short people to see a movie that it will be written in such a way as to entertain them with age appropriate humor while a parallel line of subtle jokes, allusions, and references that will go over their heads will be included for the parents. It was Soupy Sales who first entrenched the two-tiered style in kid's comedy. It's not true that he worked blue, a persistent rumor that annoyed him throughout his life, but he definitely worked as hard to crack up the crew as he did the kids.

His trademark, of course, was the pie in the face. Sure, plenty of comics had taken one before him, but he is reported to have taken 25,000 pies to the face. If you got hit with a pie in the face non-stop once a minute, it would would last continuously for 17 days, 8 hours, and 40 minutes to get hit with as many pies as Soupy Sales.

Rest in peace, Soupy.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Placebos, Doctors, and Patients

We know that the placebo effect is real. Some people will actually get better if they think they are being treated. It is not that they think they're getting better, they actually are.

So, if I am ill and my doctor thinks that given what he knows of me and my ailment, that it might be good to try a placebo before another treatment which might be more expensive, risky, have serious side effects, can he?

The placebo effect requires deception and deception makes a relationship unequal. Is my doctor my partner in health care or my medical master? If it is the first, it seems that he or she is not legitimate in fooling me, even for my own good because it is an affront to my autonomy, to my being an adult in the relationship. If the doctor occupies a special position in the relationship, like a parent to a child, then it seems ok for him or her to lie and tell me I'm getting a new very effective treatment.

In the case of medical studies where placebos are a necessary part of good double blind study, the participants are told that they may be receiving a placebo, but in this case, it would undermine the effectiveness.

So, would it be ok for the doctor to prescribe a placebo?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Episcopalians, the Catholic Church, and Corporate Reunion

The eighth commandment may be "Thou shalt not steal," but surely that doesn't mean thou shalt not poach.

What is wonderful about sociology is that it shows how there are foundational dynamics at work in all groups and organizations. Indeed the more organized a group is, the more one can see intentionality in terms of goal setting, reward structure, and decision-making apparatus. We often fail to see the corporate skeleton beneath the fleshy exterior of an organization. We see science as concerning an objective search for the truth with scientists as one part Joe Friday (just the facts, ma'am) and one part Mr. Spock (that is not logical). We often don't catch a glimpse of the politics in or around science, the ways in which cultural biases and power grabs determine who gets to do science and what science gets done.

This is true in spades in religion. Organized religions are organizations and their world is much more like selling cola than we generally see. Just as a corporation needs to advertise its goods to gain consumers and then try to inspire brand loyalty to maintain a healthy revenue stream so that they can launch new campaigns to increase market share, individual churches are franchises of immense multinational conglomerates.

Size matters. These mega-churches are the spiritual versions of WalMart. They work by crushing the small mom and pop congregations with size and volume. They generate huge amounts of money which can then be funneled into efforts to grow and take over increasingly larger portions of local markets.

They do a great job of hiding this aspect, but every once in a while, it peeks through -- like now. The Pope has released a statement:

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has announced his plans to allow provisions that would accept groups of former Anglicans who wish to convert to the Roman Catholic Church, according to an Oct. 20 press release from The Vatican.

The press release announced the preparation of an Apostolic Constitution that would allow such converts to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of Anglican spirituality and liturgy. Under the terms of the Apostolic
Constitution, the release said, "pastoral oversight and guidance will be provided for groups of former Anglicans through a Personal Ordinariate, whose Ordinary will usually be appointed from among former Anglican clergy."
This is the faith-based version of those Apple commercials where John Hodgman plays the out of touch PC.

Understand that the Catholic Church has been in serious trouble for decades. For centuries, they were the Coca-Cola of religious organizations. They were the biggest and that kind of market share and infiltration into the power structure meant they were incredibly well off. Their position underwrote the political authority of kings throughout Europe and with this came great wealth which they used in part to dazzle and thereby entrench their position as the religion to watch and in part used to build an immense organizational structure.

But then the Pepsi of Protestantism became the religious voice of a new generation. This is not your father's old liturgy. The evangelical Protestants, especially the most fundamentalist strands, made a huge marketing push into the underdeveloped nations, especially those of Africa and Central and South America, places where Catholicism had a virtual monopoly. And it paid off. These places where Catholicism was as much a part of the culture as the language or local food started to see incredible waves of conversion.

At the same time the domestic European and American markets were shrinking horribly because the people were moving away from organized religion to either become irreligious or "spiritual, not religious," that is, they had given up drinking soda for bottled water or organically grown herbal tea.

Then there was the brand-damaging pr fiasco that was the world-wide clergy sex scandal. This Pope came to power because of his handling of it in a way that put the organization first. Before becoming Pope, he oversaw the Church's handling of the multiplicity of cases in which priests sexually abused their parishioners in a way that saved the Vatican money and worked to save face. The night before the vote, he gave a speech in which he warned the Church that elevating someone who did not share his corporate philosophy would be deadly to the institution and when the white smoke emerged, he became CEO and made clear from day one that his interest was in being more aggressive in exactly the ways the Protestants had been. Vatican II was like the New Coke, we need to go back to the old formula and sell it harder.

So, when the Episcopalians -- the RC cola of organized religions -- began to undertake a risky strategy of allowing gay bishops and female clergy, a struggle began in their boardroom. Those in the parts of the world where evangelic Protestantism plays the best, tried to stage a shareholder revolt because serious people needed to take on those sandal wearing, long-haired, bearded types from the wealthy nations had to be stopped before they sullied the image of the Prince of Peace who surely would not stand for such treatment of the other. Why it's almost asking me to treat these sinners as if they were my own brother. Stop it right now and be Christian or else we'll rip this organization in two.

And the Pope saw an opening, a way to find a new market for Catholicism. Push hard for these disillusioned Anglicans before the Protestants move in or before the Episcopalians could work things out among themselves. Tired of the flat taste of lite religion with a third less persecution of women and gays, try a full-bodied brew of theological conservatism.

What is interesting is that while the capitalistic aspect of religion is real and ever-present, it also is something that must be veiled. The faithful need to see the corporate brand behind their franchise church as being more than a fast food restaurant for the entire edifice to sustain itself. This worldly side is at odds with the branding and marketing that fills the pews, that it is something beyond the material, beyond the strategic, beyond the marketplace. But, of course, it isn't. Indeed it can't be. It is an organization and organizations need to act in the world to survive. They do need resources -- money and believers -- to maintain themselves. That is a simple fact of the world. It's just that we don't usually see it in such a brazen fashion.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Anonymity and Anonymity

Guy Brian at the MSU phil blog discusses a case in which Butler University sued one of their students who was blogging anonymously about the firing of a professor and saying mean things about administrators. The Deans had their widdle feelings hurt, so they sent their big, bad university attorneys after him in order to force his name into the open.

It's started me thinking about online anonymity again. There seems to be three levels of anonymity. The shallowest, what we could call pseudo-anonymity, is what I was using when I first started this blog using only the moniker "Steve G." Anyone who really cared could easily find enough clues to figure out who I am. I wasn't hiding my identity, I just wasn't overtly advertising it.

The second level is akin to adopting a pen-name. There are folks who use a handle and everyone in the community knows them by their handle and the viewpoints and personalities that come with them. They may or may not be like that in real life, but in their on-line incarnation, you get a sense of when one these folks is yanking your chain, when they are truly passionate, and when they are being sarcastic. You know when you read certain comments to expect a response from them. Indeed, some folks I know will have two or more which they use for types of comments: funny ones come from one name, serious ones come from another. You know who they are without knowing their identity. We could call this semi-anonymity since there is an advertisement of the name of the character, we just don't know who is writing the character and how much the character resembles the writer.

Then there is full anonymity where the name slot on comments is left blank and the name "anonymous" shows up. Here it is intended to be a completely disembodied voice and since anyone who leaves an unattributed comment will receive the same name, it will be uncertain which anonymous commenter left a given message.

The question I want to pose concerns the difference between the ways in which we experience semi- and fully anonymous comments. Does the attribution of a name, even if it is a name we have never seen and may never see again affect how you take a comment? Does full anonymity give a sense of freedom that semi-anonymity does not? Do you take comments from named people more seriously even if you have equally little information about the actual identity of the commenter?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Ability, Capability, and Capacity

What is the difference between ability, capability, and capacity? It seems true that I have the capacity to speak Swedish, but I lack the ability. Do I have the capability? What is the difference?

Friday, October 16, 2009

And Now for Something...

My Fellow Comedists,

This week is the 40th anniversary of Monty Python. What can you really say?

Best Python sketch ever?

My entry, cliche as it is:


Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

You Ain't Gonna Learn What You Don't Want To Know...Is That True?

Last week was John Perry Barlow's birthday and I meant to post this then, but let's play with it today.

One of my favorite Barlow lyrics comes from "Black Throated Wind," "You ain't gonna learn what you don't want to know." I'm wondering whether that's true.

That assessment requires knowing what it means. Like so many Dead lyrics it is wonderfully ambiguous, lending itself to expensive interpretations. The first would relate to factual knowledge, if there is a truth about the world that conflicts with your desired belief, you will ignore the inconvenient truth.

Does that mean that rational thought and legitimate means of persuasion about controversial topics are futile? Doesn't this mean that the foundation of democracy itself, a rational, well-informed electorate, is impossible to achieve and that it is doomed to fail? Or is it just difficult, but something that can be overcome with rhetorical means that cause cracks in the wall where logic can seep in? Or is it all just rhetoric?

A second interpretation has come to mind recently because we are about to begin our regular twice a decade discussion about curricular requirements at Gettysburg and one could apply this sentiment to fields of study. If there are subjects that students don't care about, is it pointless to require them? Will students learn anything in courses they don't want to take? Should profs spend a significant amount of time motivating a subject, rather than working through the arguments in it?

Can you learn what you don't want to know? If so, how do we create a mind open enough to be so influenced?

Should you need some context:

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Irony Can Be So Ironic: Is Ad Hominem Acceptable Here?

We have a rule here at the Playground with regards to comments -- no ad hominem attacks, that is, disagree with the argument, refute the purported fact, offer a counter-example, but don't attack the person. It is the argument, not the arguer that needs discussing. If Michael Moore suggests you lose weight, if Keith Richards tells you to stay away from heroin, if Rush Limbaugh tells you to be a good, caring, empathetic human being who doesn't lie, if Dick Cheney tells you to be careful with firearms, you ought to listen. It is good advice regardless of the source.

But are there times when the source does matter? Take this example from Anne, a Playground regular.

"My friend read a book titled Acing the Interview: How to Ask and Answer the Questions That Will Get You the Job. He noticed several spelling errors and typos and posted a review of the book to this effect. The author responded in a manner that makes me question whether he is qualified to right a book about professionalism.

Here's the review and the author's response:
By A reviewer
The advice itself in the book seems good, but when the first 13 pages have 6 typos in them it is hard to take the author seriously. This trend follows through the rest of the book and I would say on average I encountered 1 mistake every 3 pages or so. If reading a book with tons of typos, spelling errors and omitted words distracts you from the content, don't even bother with this book because it will drive you crazy.

dear "A"...this is the author...appreciate your thoughts and comments...sorry you were upset about the obviously aren't needing a job..if you were, you'd be more concerned about the content than typos....if you need the advise, you don't really care about the typos...and you aren't gonna count them..counting the typos won't put food on your table or cloth your kids..but, hey, send me the corrections and i'll pay you for your time..

Now, I don't want to interfere with anyone putting cloth on their children, but would poor editing and/or such unprofessional behavior give us good reason to think that the advice in the book was not the best way to ace an interview? sure, this goes in the "irony can be so ironic" file, but do we have good reason to discount the argument because of the arguer here?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Health Insurance Industry Lies, But Is It Wrong?

AHIP, the industry lobbying group for health insurance corporations, paid the venerable firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to take a look at the bill that worked its way through the Senate Finance Committee yesterday. In their report, which the industry trumpeted loudly and made its way on to front pages of the nation's most prestigious newspapers, was the claim that costs would skyrocket given some of the the provisions of the bill and that health insurance companies would have no choice but to spike rates to roughly double what they are now.

But then, one day later, when folks actually looked at the report and noted something one page one, they went back to PricewaterhouseCoopers and ask for clarification. Indeed, it is true, said the auditors, we were asked by our client, AHIP, to work up the numbers ignoring all cost savings. So, if you remove the cost containment measures, the cost goes up. Well...yeah, that's true, but that isn't what the insurers were saying this meant. They were trying to get us to believe that this bill would not help but harm us by making health insurance more costly when it wouldn't be. That's lying.

But lying is not always wrong. It is context-dependent. Think of that scene from Life of Brian -- this bloke won't haggle!

Brian is wrong to not haggle because he is breaking the social contract of the marketplace and since effective haggling requires misrepresentation, he's wrong not to lie. If a running back doesn't juke to try to deceive an open field tackler, trying to get him to believe he's cutting right when he is really going left, he's not doing his job. If a poker player refuses to bluff on moral grounds, he's doing something wrong by depriving his fellow players of the good game they expected when he agreed to sit at the table with them.

The question here is whether the health insurance corporations are wrongly lying or merely haggling. Is it expected that people in the marketplace of political ideas will be like the merchant in the fictional bazaar in Life of Brian or is the expectation that you will advocate for your position up to but not across the line of misrepresentation? Is the AHIP lie part of how the game is played or is it a foul?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

How Reliable is Wikipedia?

The taller of the short people is working on a research project on Ruth Wakefield, the accidental inventor of the chocolate chip cookie. She's finding few resources in the public library, so we did a web search and pointing to the results, she tells me that her teacher has told her that is to be considered a reliable source, but not wikipedia.

I, too, tell my students not to go to wikipedia as an academic source, but then a college class in philosophy is in part an experience in learning how to be a scholar, how to find and interpret texts. Encyclopedias of any sort are fine for factual purposes, but when you are working through complex arguments and living debates, you need to engage the participants, working through the primary and secondary literature.

But wikipedia is coming to be the icon for untrustworthiness, the used car salesman of the knowledge world. The internet is the intellectual version of the wild West, anyone can say anything and they do. Then it's out there. Wikipedia, because it is a wiki, is employed as the symbol of this factual lawlessness of this opposition to intellectual authoritarianism where the sun never sets on the Encyclopedia Britannica, despite having in place safeguards to avoid as many problematic changes as possible.

I've found it very useful for acquaintance type fact searching, for giving a context to something I had a vague sense of, in other words, exactly the sort of thing you go to an encyclopedia for. So, the question is whether it is deserved or a bum rap. How reliable is wikipedia?

Monday, October 12, 2009

What Was That? French Horns.

Columbus Day means one thing. Stan Freberg.

"We going out on that joke?" "No. We do reprise of song. That help." "But not much, no."

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Feast of Saint Lenny

My Fellow Comedists,

This week we celebrate the feast day of Saint Lenny. Lenny Bruce would be 84 this week. Few comedians have had more of an effect on the craft. Working strip joints with his wife Honey Harlow, Lenny developed his frenetic delivery that combined classic character driven skit work with monologues. He left the burlesque scene for the straight clubs which paid better and led to fame and television. He became a social force, a cultural earthquake.

Most remembered for the obscenity charges against him, there is no doubt that Lenny Bruce was the original shock comic. Lenny Bruce ended the Will Rogers era in American comedy. It was, after all the 50s, and the nation was deeply entrenched in its post-war tv dinner suburban complacency. Steve Allen represented the edge. And then Lenny blew it up. Yes, he talked about sex and abortion, he talked about lesbianism when it was a completely taboo subject. He used words that would have been common on board the ships he served on in the Navy, but which never came from stages in nightclubs. But he was not just someone who received notoriety by saying things that could not be said. He was one of the best writers and stage performers to ever pick up a microphone. His razor sharp mind took on the Jewish community and the generation gap between those who came over and those who had become assimilated. He took on relationships. He took on religion. His was a quick and penetrating mind that sliced away at the vanilla that was America at the time. Lenny not only set the stage for the next half century of comedy that was to follow, but was one of the opening shots in the culture war. He led the way for the counter-culture.

Here's one of his classic bits, Religion, Inc.

Thank you, Lenny Bruce.

Live, love, and laugh.

Irreverend Steve

Friday, October 09, 2009

Obama's Nobel Peace Prize: For What?

President Obama today was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." Extraordinary efforts? He hasn't actually done anything yet...other than not be George W. Bush. And that, I believe, is the point. Sure, lukewarm seems hot when compared to freezing cold and reversing the Bush doctrine may be a giant step in the right direction because we had been accelerating so greatly in the wrong direction, but it diminishes the Nobel to give it to someone on a relative scale, especially when there are so many out there who toil in obscurity who are doing incredible work for the betterment of humanity and particular suffering humans, people whose work would be aided by the attention of the Nobel committee. This was not an award for Obama, but a slap against Bush and such a move is petty and beneath what the prize should be.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Of Balls and Laws

Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies hit 200 home runs faster than anyone in history. His 200th came in a game against the Florida Marlins and was caught by a 12 year old girl in the stands who was accompanied only by her 15 year old brother. Being a home run of personal historical significance, Howard wanted the ball and the Marlins' security people escorted the young girl to the Phillies locker room where they said they would give her cotton candy and an autographed ball for the one she caught. She agreed. When the parents heard the story, they filed a lawsuit to get the ball back and the Phillies agreed to keep the case out of court.

The lawyer has been receiving nasty messages in the local newspaper's website. The argument is that he and the parents are contributing to the degradation of the game by making it all about money. This was a ball that should have gone to Howard because it is the physical manifestation of this great achievement and the sentimental value ought to be put before selfish monetary impulses. The other line is that the girl agreed to the switch and that she was compensated by getting to meet this great ball player and receiving something of value in return.

The argument on the other side is that the Phillies took candy from a baby. They knew the home run ball was worth thousands of dollars on the open market and they tricked a child into giving it up for something worth at most $100. Indeed, Howard may do what may other sports figures do and sell it himself. the idea that this is something of only sentimental value is false when you see the number of World Series rings that get sold.

Further, this is a child and children cannot enter into legally binding contracts. Even if we ignore the legal side and look at the moral angle, you approach the parents who have a sense of what is happening, not a minor who is easily intimidated by adults in positions of authority. It was a form of bullying or deception.

So, are the parents and lawyer in the wrong here for making this about money instead of accomplishment? Have they reduced the game to something where the humanity is removed? Should the meaning of the moment transcend material considerations? Is the home run ball like a work of art that belongs to the artist? We are entitled to the fruits of our labor, isn't this the fruit of his? Did the Phillies act wrongly or did they act in a way that made everyone happy until the parents stoked the fire?

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Bars, Codes, and Bar codes

This is the anniversary of two events that happened three years apart to the day. Today marks the first reading of Allen Ginsburg's "Howl" which occurred exactly three years after the invention of the bar code. The latter has become the symbol of modern life with its generic uniformity designed to maximize corporate profit, while the former is emblematic of the counter-cultural struggle against the dehumanization we face in our current cultural context.

The post-war 50s was a time in which the reality-altering aspects of technology -- from tv dinners and moon shots to the threat of nuclear annihilation -- was celebrated in the collective consciousness. But the beats challenged the idea of better living through chemistry with better living through living on the road, escaping, emoting, contemplating jazz with its lack of regularity, its improvisational, ineliminably human elements overtly on display.

The Beats set the stage for the hippie revolution of the late 60s which in turn embedded the crack in the cultural cohesion that first truly surfaced during FDR's rescue of the nation from the Depression, turning it into a full fledged culture war, making us two Americas, causing a rift that if not as stark as it was is at least ossified in ways that make our social and political discourse frozen, vacuous, ingenuous.

The Republicans have been running for a quarter century on a platform that seeks to turn the clock back to the fictional construct of the Richie Cunningham 50s. Yet, ironically with town hall outrage are seeing this as their 1960s. Glenn Beck's howling makes him the Allen Ginsburg of the modern conservative movement. No longer is it "angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection," but baldheaded broken hipsters burning for the insurance companies' right to deny them coverage by using coded dog whistle rhetoric that is as hyperbolic as it is thinly veiled.

And we have a President who ran on post-partisan hope, the hope that we could move beyond our petty and not so petty divisions. Obama did not run as the next Lincoln, but the next Eisenhower. It is now the Democrats who stand for the placid picture of Norman Rockwell American simplicity and harmony that is our false image of the 50s. Those who instigated torture are not put behind bars out of a concern that it might offend the delicate sensibilities of the body politic. In The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche writes of inversions of values coming with revolution. The last 50 years has seen this sort of switch.

But the switch has also reversed other aspects of the equation. The iconic example of being out of touch was the apocryphal surprise of Bush the elder in seeing a grocery store scanner. The bar code is the emblem of the alienation of modern America. Yet the dehumanization that was supposed to accompany the technological age has been turned on its head. Ipods rob the entertainment industry of its gatekeeper status, allowing us to download music they have not contractually approved. Blogs give voice to those who have no PACs. We literally have in our pockets the two-way wrist televisions that were fantasy in Dick Tracy comics allowing connection anywhere anytime. Long-lost friends are no more as Facebook lets me know exactly the last time the child of the woman I sat next to in seventh grade English class vomited and I know what she served for dinner that night.

Are the best minds of this generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix? Or are did they saunter through Suburban streets finding their contented fix at Starbucks, tweeting inane soundbites? Has the inversion robbed us of our edge, the energy needed to re-envision ourselves or are we catching up with the vision the Beats gave us and trying to make sense of it from the inside? Kerouac could not have gone on the road with a GPS. We cannot lose ourselves knowing we can never be lost. But can we find features we never would have found otherwise? Can we still walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of Allen Ginsburg's cottage in the Western night?

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Metaphysics of Money

Been thinking about money. Sciences describe the behavior of observable systems. In physics, there are empirical terms that are directly measurable, things like mass and distance. We know that these things are real as far as we can know that anything is real. Then there are theoretical terms, things like gravitational potentials and field values, parts of the theories that we use to connect observable results to each other in a way that explains and predicts. The metaphysical status of these objects is a matter of philosophical conversation. Realists argue that the more and more surprising the predictions, the more simple, wide-ranging, and unified the explanations, the more likely it is that these theoretical terms describe part of the furniture of the universe. Instrumentalists argue that all that is real is what is measurable and the theoretical terms are simply useful tools in coordinating those observable quantities.

But what about economics? What are the observables? Price? If we picked some random class of objects and for no good reason all decided that something they were worth absurd amounts of money, then it would be, right? (See babies, beanie) But at the same time, they do have real consequences, for example, whether someone can retire or buy a house. How do we make sense of the basic notions of economics? Do they describe something real? If so, what? If not, what is it the science of?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Lying and the Price of Gas

I was having a conversation with the short people while pumping gas and they asked about the strange numbers on the sign in front of the station. I answered that it was the price of a gallon of gas and they asked why it always ended with 9/10ths of a cent. I explained that it was so that people seeing the sign would think they are paying $2.49 per gallon, but really paid $2.50. They got quite upset accusing all gas stations of lying. I said, grinning, that they were clearly advertising the true price, so how could it be lying? Their response (in different words) was that while they were telling the truth, they were saying it in a way they knew would be deceptive and it was that intention to use our psychology against us to make us believe something different than what they knew to be the case that made it lying. So, is it a lie?

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Drugs and Comedy

My Fellow Comedists,

I've been thinking about the way comics' whose on-stage personas were tied to supposed drug use have changed with time. The originals were those whose acts hinged on their being drunks. Foster Brooks made a career of it, but many comics had it as part of their repertoire: Red Skelton and, of course, Dudley Moore were greats. The drunk was the male version of the dizzy blonde, someone whose wits were slow and who saw things not quite right.

Once the 60s hit, of course, we saw the rise of Cheech and Chong who tweeked the drunk bit, taking it a bit farther out. The cleverness of their writing could easily get lost in the clueless stoner schtick.

The 80s brought two divergent comics. With the rising use of cocaine, we see Bobcat Goldthwait whose mix of manic delivery, paranoia, and high-pitched cracking voice was entirely unique. Perhaps because it was a white-collar drug, you start to see with him some overt cleverness. He is less of a clown and just someone who is out of control, a feeling common to the middle class. That line was then followed in the 90s by Bill Hicks who had the fire of Goldthwait, but instead of someone hopped up on speed, his delivery was the angry ranting of someone who just gave up smoking. Hicks was aggressively smart. His drug discussions were always wrapped in social commentary concerning how dissatisfying life in a corporate culture is, how alienating and soul-crushing it is, and ways to seek alternative modes of being.

Then there was the other direction. Taxi gave us Reverend Jim who was a post-60s Gracie Allen. But a new slant was put on it by Steven Wright who strips it entirely of its ditsiness, replacing it with overtly intelligent surrealism. The stoner is the fool in King Lear, the only one who sees things clearly as they actually are, who points them out to us who are stuck in the old way of seeing. The line was pushed by Mitch Hedberg who played with it in a fascinating way, restoring some of the innocence, but coming through with the same "you never thought of it like that, did you?" punch.

It is interesting how we see the complete inversion from stupid drunk we laugh at because they don't see the world right to enlightened one who has seen reality beneath the veil of ignorance. A legacy of the psychedelic 60s? A sense that there is something askew in our buttondown perspective?

Let's leave you with some Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg:

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, October 02, 2009

The Purpose of Punishment

Interesting conversation going on at Lawyers, Guns, and Money. It came from a Roman Polanski thread wherein some commenters argued that he should not be prosecuted because convicting and sentencing Polanski (i) holds no deterrence effect for the community at large, and (ii) have no effect on him because since the crime (and no one argues that the rape of the 13 year old was not committed by him), he has led the life of a productive, responsible citizen.

So, what is the purpose of punishment? Is it to exact revenge? Is it a matter of retributive justice? Is it a matter of securing society from wrong doers? Is it to discourage others from committing similar acts? Is it a matter of reforming those with deformed characters? Is it a matter or making clear society's disapproval of the act? Does it matter if the victim or the victim's family does not want the crime punished and has forgiven the perpetrator? What of victimless crimes? Should everyone who commits a similar crime receive similar punishments?

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Stand and Deliver

Guest post today from YKW:

My wife and I attended the U2 concert at FedEx Field last night with 80,000 other lucky souls and had a great time except … every time we got up to dance the guy in the seats behind us yelled we should sit down. The first time he did that I turned around, smiled and exhorted him to “stand up and dance!” since it was, after all, A FRIGGIN U2 CONCERT. About halfway through the concert (and we did not stand the whole time), I noticed the guy had left the seats behind me.

Normally, standing up and blocking the view of the people behind you is rude – if you stood during the pitches of a baseball game, I think the people behind you would be correct in asking you to sit. Standing up when everyone in front of you are already standing makes sense, so you can see over them. But I think there’s a generally accepted dancing-at-a-rock-concert exception to the sitting down rule – especially when the band plays one of their big numbers, and it is danceable, you’re SUPPOSED to be up and dancing, even in the upper deck of FedEx Field. Am I right?