Thursday, December 30, 2010

False Needs, Technological Regress, and the Mechanical Pencil

As I wasted a perfectly good hour of vacation fixing the shorter of the short people's mechanical pencil -- a stocking stuffer he asked for and received -- Marx's notion of false needs came to mind, that is, the idea that in order to sell more stuff, the capitalists will have to convince the consumers that they need things they really don't need. If the consumer was the rational agent that classical capitalist theory assumes, then there would be markedly less activity in the marketplace.

Along these lines, there is absolutely no reason for the existence of the mechanical pencil. It is less convenient, less dependable, and more expensive than its traditional counterpart. It does nothing the regular pencil doesn't and does what it does less well. It is an example of technological regress where something new and cool is actually less effective than the thing it replaces. Yet, we think we need it because it looks shiny, new, and cool. It is not only unnecessary, it is anti-necessary.

What other products can you think of that are hailed as advances on its predecessors, yet are actually a step backwards in terms of utility? MicroSoft Word would be example number 2 from me (I suppose the pencil should have been number 2, but that's a different issue). Others?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Value of Ethnic Studies

As if Arizona had not done enough with it's anti-immigrant law has now passed another law making it illegal to teach ethnic studies. African American Studies and especially Latino/a Studies are impermissible because giving attention to the lived experiences of minorities and the social structures that help shape those experiences is tantamount to being "taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people" where those others, of course, are white, straight, Christian Americans. We need to only see people as individuals, they argue. By outlawing such intellectual inquiries they are actually preventing bigotry, you see, because racism requires the notion of race and if we never admit there is such a concept, there could be no more racism, at least not towards the white, straight, Christian Americans who -- especially in Arizona -- would never dream of being racist themselves. They don't see race in Arizona. It never even occurred to them before that some of the people living among them were Latino/a.

So, the question is, then, what are the values of ethnic studies programs? Because such programs are inherently interdisciplinary, it seems that they contribute in five basic ways:

Literary value: Every culture has a body of writing and what words mean is contextual. To understand what an author is really saying requires an understanding of the audience he is speaking to and his/her background that led him/her to use those words in that way. This means that one who does not understand Soviet times could not fully appreciate Solzhenitzen, one who knows nothing of Victorian England can not fully appreciate Dickens, and one who does not fully understand South American culture of the 20th century will not see all there is to see in the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. the same is true with non-verbal forms of art. If we want to fully comprehend the art of a set of interconnected cultures, we need to understand the cultures.

Historical value: History is made up of narratives, the dots of events connected by lines drawn by historians and the broader culture. It is cliche to say that the victors write the history, but it is true. The meaning we inherit attached to events come from the cultural constructs of the powerful. Ethnic studies challenge those narratives, by providing counter-narratives, other sides and parts of the story that were conveniently left out of the usual approach to history. This, in part, is what scares conservatives, because when the full story is told, the white, straight, Christian Americans do not always come out looking very good. In the name of anti-racism, they are trying to protect their historical dirty laundry from ever being aired.

Anthropological value: The move to seeing us all as individuals is slimy because couched in pseudo-ethical terms is a denial of a basic truth of the world -- there are cultures. We have grouped ourselves in various ways and these groupings have given rise to different ways of life. Any phenomenon deserves to be studied scientifically. Cultures exist and anthropologists should be able to document what they are in a given place at a given time.

Sociological value: Cultures have institutions, norms, and means of enforcing those norms. Examining these aspects of culture in multiple cultures and what happens when cultures mix and interact gives insight into the ways humans organize.

Political value: Misunderstanding other cultures gives rise to misinterpretation of political actions and statements and this misunderstanding can cause unwise policies to become unwise laws -- not that such a thing would ever happen in Arizona. They way towards understanding and more moral laws is study and that study requires scholars and teachers, exactly what ethnic studies programs provide.

Those are my five. Other values in ethnic studies?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Is Blogging Passe?

This is my 1,500th post on the Playground. That's a lot of words. I first really got plugged into the blogging world during the Presidential primary of the 2004 elections when Howard Dean's campaign was largely a self-organized on-line phenomenon. At the time, a dear friend and colleague had a blog that sadly no longer exists and told me regularly that it was something I should do. It wasn't until I decided to try to write popular philosophy that I took the plunge. A book that helped first time authors get published suggested it, so I figured I'd give it a try.

It's been a wonderful experience, getting to watch interactions among a wide-range of folks, family, friends from virtually every part of my life, and folks who just found the place and settled in. People tend to come for a while, have a sizable presence, and then move on -- kind of like a college. Others are always around and you know with a given post who is going to get fired up by it. Sometimes a post that seems provocative falls flat and other times something I thought was thin gives rise to clever or passionate discussions with comments in the 50s. Occasionally there's a link from a big time blog and traffic goes sky high.

But things certainly aren't what they were in the blogosphere, say three years ago. It used to be the heart of the on-line opinion expressing world. But things went in two directions. Sites like the Huffington Post have tried to corporatize blogging and make it more like a traditional newspaper. In the other direction, Twitter and Facebook have displaced the personal blogs that were more diary-like. The ability to have short shots collected for you allows certain things blogging doesn't. So, it is caught in the middle.

Is blogging a transitional form of on-line communication on its way to extinction, replaced by newly evolved species more suited to the environment? Does it have lasting, but smaller niche role?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Festivus

My Fellow Comedists,

It is once again time to bring out the aluminum pole and celebrate another Festivus for the rest of us. A happy Festivus season to all!

As usual, please use the comments for the airing of grievances.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Is Cosmopolitanism Inherently Unstable?

One of the founding fathers of sociology, Ferdinand Tonnies discussed at length the inherent tension between communities (groups based on a shared identity) and societies (groups based on diversity). This came to mind this morning listening to Philip Mansel discuss his new book Splendour And Catastrophy On The Mediterranean on the BBC. He examines the rise and fall of Smyrna and Alexandria as a context in which to consider contemporary Beirut, a focus of cosmopolitanism in the contemporary Middle East.

It led me to wonder whether cosmopolitanism is an unstable social state. The joining of cultures with the possibilities for growth and synthesis is a major catalyst in social evolution. The times and places that have been the most cosmopolitan have also, by in large, been the most fruitful for human society. We do better when we do what we do with each other.

But it has to happen somewhere and therefore therefore cosmopolitanism always happens on someone's home turf. When things turn bad politically, socially, or economically, which they are bound to do eventually, it tends to give rise to a reflexive isolationism and scapegoating. If things are worse than usual, what is the cause? What is different? Oh, those people over there. They must be to blame. Of course, they are no doubt having a tough time of it also and then when the suspicion, the alienation, and especially the legal or economic measure are put into place to punish them, they become bitter and you get a circling of the wagons counter-movement that stresses purity within their community which may launch anything from separatist movements to terrorist attacks like the one we saw in Sweden.

Is this sort of dynamic unavoidable? How does one protect cosmopolitanism from the inherent dangers?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

RIP Steve Landesberg

Sadly, Steve Landesberg died yesterday from colon cancer. As a nerdy kid growing up in the 70s, his character detective Arthur Dietrich on the show "Barney Miller" was a great comfort. It was one of the few places you could see a positive, but realistic picture of what it was to be smart, but alienated from those around you. He was written and played beautifully as well-read and bright, with a sly and dry sense of humor, but always held slightly at arm's length by his co-workers. It was inspiring to see it portrayed so accurately, yet positively.

I was fortunate to see Landesberg do his stand-up in the early 80s -- don't remember if he was at the Lyric in Baltimore or at Shriver Hall on campus at Hopkins, but I remember his saying that he was awed by Abe Vigoda's timing, that he had a slow delivery that made his punch lines the focus of the episodes. He said then he realized that it was actually because he was so old he couldn't remember the line. Ironically, Abe Vigoda out lasted him.

RIP Steve Landesberg and thanks for the inspiration and the laughs.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Quantum Santa Hypothesis

I teach a first year seminar called "Einstein in Wonderland: Physics, Philosophy, and Other Nonsense" in which we consider the classical notion of sense from Descartes and Newton, classical nonsense from Lewis Carroll, and then look at relativity theory and quantum mechanics to decide whether they violate the classical notion of sense, whether modern science forces us to not only rework our understanding of the world, but also our understanding of understanding. This year's bunch went beyond philosophy and actually framed their own scientific theory -- the quantum Santa hypothesis.

In quantum mechanics, when a system is unobserved it behaves according to Schrodinger's equation. This means that it finds itself in what we call a superposed state, that is, a combination of all possible values for its observable properties. In the case of position, for example, it means that a things "spreads out" over all of the places it might be found. But we never see a system in its superposed state, when we make an observation, the system collapses into one of its property states, into one single value of the observable quantity, for example, into one place.

The class realized that this might be the answer to the Santa paradox -- how can Santa visit every house in one night when doing so would require him to move faster than the speed of light, which, of course, is prohibited by the theory of relativity? The proposed answer hinges on the fact that Santa always comes in the middle of the night when no one is watching. Because no one observes Santa, he would be in a superposed state, that is in every house simultaneously.

Further, the presents he brings are not truly independent of him, but rather part of a larger system that is superposed. The potential of the system is set by the children's behavior throughout the year making the bicycle/coal coefficient lean in one direction or the other and as soon as the first little one wakes up and looks under the tree, a present measurement is made and the Santa wave function collapses into a single present state in which the value of all presents are instantly determined throughout the whole world at that moment, just like electron spin in the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen-type cases.

Is the quantum Santa theory testable? I suppose one way would be to make constant observations throughout the night which would mean that Santa would be forced to remain in single positions throughout the entire eventing and thereby would be unable to deliver gifts to his full contingent of children. Perhaps there are some experiments that science shouldn't carry out.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Best Movie Theme

The kids just watched The Pink Panther. The only thing that comes close to rivaling Peter Sellers' performances in those films is Henry Mancini's theme song. Are there other movie themes on that level? The Bond movies always had great ones. On opposite ends of the spectrum are the themes from A Summer Place and Star Wars. What was the movie theme ever?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Comedy and Technology

My Fellow Comedists,

Every new technology brings with it comic possibilities. Radio gave us not only Burns and Allen and Jack Benny, but Spike Jones and the use of sound effects.

Television opened the door for comic geniuses like Ernie Kovacs and Sid Cesar who used the new medium to create comedy that couldn't have existed without it.

The internet gives us YouTube, an amazingly effective tool for humo distribution. So, this weekend, what's the funniest clip you've seen on YouTube? This week the talking animals have been viral:

So, what's the funniest YouTube clip you've seen?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, December 17, 2010

Dialogical Combobulation

We've been conducting interviews for an open position in our department and Kerry has been asking the candidates how their scholarship relates to their teaching. You can't go through the process and not think about how you would answer the questions if you were being interviewed. So, I've been thinking about the odd nature of this job.

You'd think it would be continuous. I sit in my office philosophizing and then go into the classroom and show the students how I do it, training them in the steps, so they can do it too. But it doesn't work like that. In fact, the doing philosophy and teaching philosophy are in a certain sense opposite tasks.

The job of a good philosophy instructor is to problematize. Students come in naively smug about their beliefs which they've never thought very hard about. This sort of simplistic certainty is inimical to the entire philosophical project, so it is the work of the philosophy instructor to disturb it. Every philosopher you will ever talk to will claim to use the "Socratic method," but what we really take from Socrates is his goal of being the gadfly. The one thing we want students to see is that no matter the view they came in with, you can assert the proposition "It's more complicated than that." When it happens several times in a row -- if you are doing it right -- it causes a crisis, students become completely discombobulated. It is an uncomfortable place and there is the ever-present fear that the reaction will be "Well, then there is no answer and it's just whatever you think it is."

But this is wrong. Being discombobulated is the starting point, not the end. The act of philosophizing is taking the problem and making sense of it, pulling insight out of it, restoring in a deep and subtle way an understanding of what really is true. Philosophy is the process by which we stop being discombobulated and resume in a more sophisticated way being combobulated. But recombobulation is a difficult task. It is really, really hard to do.

We assign names to views that make significant strides in the recombobulization -- Kantian ethics, Platonic realism, Cartesian skepticism -- and this gives the false appearance that it is something atomic individuals do on their own. When I am being a philosopher, I sit in front of my computer and combobulate myself. We attribute authorship to articles and books because they announce individual efforts leading to combobulation on some topic or another and by reading them in your study, you too may follow this path to combobulation.

But it doesn't work that way. Combobulation is a communal process. It takes interaction with other minds. It is the result of hard work undertaken jointly by all of the members of discourse communities. It takes cooperative and competitive conversations where we build on each others ideas, synthesize each others ideas, and challenge each others ideas. It is why we have conferences where we leave our families for a period time, converge on some city or other and spend entire days together giving and responding to papers, taking part in panel discussions, and then having a nice meal together at a Thai restaurant, and going back to have a couple beers in the hotel bar so that we can combobulate each other.

It takes a group to reach any sense of combobulation. You do it through interaction, through dialogue. That is why doing and teaching philosophy are so different. Where teaching philosophy is the art of discombobulation, doing it is an act of dialogical combobulation.

It's probably a good thing I already have the job...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The 2nd Amendment, Military Spending, and Abortion: A Curious Conservative Conundrum

Contemporary American conservatism has a deep commitment to originalism as a means of interpreting the Constitution. We need to understand the words of the Constitution, they argue, in the sense that they were intended by the framers.

The Constitution itself was adopted in 1787 setting out the structure of the government of the United States of America. Two years later it was amended with the Bill of Rights, ten declarations asserting freedoms necessary to maintain that form of government in reality. The first amendment, those freedoms which were deemed most vital to a functioning democracy were freedom of speech, freedom of peaceable assembly, freedom of the press (a form of speech), freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances (again a form of speech), and freedom of religion (which in its actual manifestation of congregating for prayer is a combination of assembling for speech). These were seen as establishing the preconditions for the possibility of democracy. Without these, you would not have a pluralistic, maximally rational, Enlightenment-inspired democratic system that is functional.

Then, they included amendments that would guarantee that these foundational freedoms could not be tampered with. What is the first most important protection for the basic operations of democracy?:

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
What is going on here? Why is this the most important issue that has to be set out to make sure our democratic government maintains itself? There are two possible threats to it. First, there is the need for defense of the country against external invaders and this requires an armed force. But this armed force could take one of two forms, either a professional standing army under the control of the government or a militia in which the force ceases to be during peace time, but assembles when necessary during invasion. The framers clearly opt for the latter. Why?

The decision to have a militia based defense force instead of a standing army is to both protect the borders from outside and freedoms established in the first amendment from inside. If one is exercising one's freedom of speech and says something unpopular, the discussion might go something like this:
"Shut up."
"I said shut up."
"And I said no."
"Shut up or I'll shut you up."
"Yeah, you and what army?"
Ooooooooh. So, that's why the framers didn't want a standing army. If the President as Commander-in-Chief has an armed force under his control that makes him more than first amongst equals -- he's no longer equal. That sort of power will inevitably be used to silence critics, but the criticism is essential to a healthy democracy which is why the first amendment guarantees it.

But if we need a military and it cannot be a standing army, then it must be a militia of citizen-soldiers who are citizens under normal circumstances and soldiers when needed to defend the borders. The framers' logic behind the 2nd amendment is:

1) We need a military for security and it could be either a standing army or a militia-based force.
2) We don't have a standing army if and only if we do have a militia.
3) A militia requires the citizens to have quick access to arms.
4) Citizens will have quick access to arms if they have the right to own them.
5) We don't have a standing army.
Therefore, we need the citizens to have the right to bear arms.

The framers' intent in declaring a right to bear arms was to protect both the country from other governments' attempts to invade and to make sure our government doesn't have the means to silence speech by force or threat.

But we decided that the framers' notion didn't work in the real world and we amended our government's structure to allow for professional soldiers in a standing army. No problem there, the framers allowed for changing the structure of the government through several different processes. But the 2nd amendment still stands as it is and by the originalist reading, must remain true to the writers' intended meaning. As such, the above argument still stands, but is altered so that premise 5 is false. But if 5 is false then by 2, we have no militia-based system and thus the argument for an armed citizenry it rendered moot. It is no longer operative because by the framers' reasoning -- which under the originalist reading is sacrosanct -- the preconditions necessitating the right no longer exist.

So, it seems like conservatives have one of three options:

A) Give up the standard understanding of the 2nd amendment as providing them with the right to own personal firearms.

B) Keep that right as it is currently understood, but zero out the military budget and disband the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.

C) Keep both the right to bear arms and the military as is, but give up originalism, thereby contending that the Constitution is a living document whose meaning needs to be understood in light of the current context.

If they go with C, then that forces them to surrender the objections they have to the reading of the Constitution which grants us the right to privacy which is the basis for the decision in Roe v. Wade. If conservatives want to keep their guns and the military, then they have to admit that they were wrong in their arguments against the legal permissibility of abortion. It seems, then, that you cannot consistently hold three of the marquis issues underlying contemporary conservatism. Here's three, pick two.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tripe My Guacamole, Baby or Hooked on Phonics

Yes, I was listening to Little Feat on the way home last night and the phrase "tripe my guacamole" stuck in my head. As "tripe" is a noun, the sentence is not syntactically a well formed sentence, forget the fact that the combination of words is not meaningful. Yet, it does seem to convey something.

It started me thinking about a talk a saw in grad school with a philosopher of language whose name I do not remember. But s/he was discussing the fact that words do have phonological meaning, that is, the sounds we use as verbal symbols for words do have psychological pull in terms of meaning. S/he used an example where we were going to replace the words "yes" and "no" with either "blip" or "bloop" and said that somehow it was obvious which of the two ought to represent the affirmative and which the negative.

But etymology is often filled with accidents, so there are some words that despite not being onomatopoetic in that they are not directly derived from a sound in the world do sound like they should and others that do not. "Perky," I've always thought is exactly the right word for perky. So, too, "lonely." "Pizazz," is good, but its converse "zzazip" seems to have it even more. "Sanguine," though seems phonologically inappropriate. It sounds depressing, not upbeat.

So, what other words sound like what they mean and which ones don't?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Should Managers Have Their Own Baseball Cards?

The shorter of the short people has started collecting baseball cards. It's been a real hoot for me, seeing some of the old cards I used to have back when I was a kid.

It's also provided ways to parent covertly because many cards give me a chance to start different conversations with him. Some about games I went to with his grandfather and his uncle years ago. Certain players give us a chance to discuss hard work, fair (or unfair) play, and how to treat and work with other people. Others, like Curt Flood, give us a chance to talk about fairness to workers. Some,like Frank Robinson or Roberto Clemente, lead to discussions about race and equality.

But then there are the manager cards. They have always struck me as a bit out of place. This is not to denigrate the manager. We have nice conversations around them because he has my love of strategy, of seeing the game as more than just a physical contest, but also a chess match and thinking about what could be done in various scenarios given the full context of the game. And in this way, the manager makes as much a difference as the players. But he isn't a player and baseball cards seem to be about the players, not really about the game in some sense. Yes, some are former players whose celebrity is worth still having a card -- Frank Robinson, Yogi Berra, and Ted Williams all managed. But it was as a player, not a manager that their real fame was made and celebrated.

For a while this incongruity was acknowledged by putting the manager's image and name on the front of the team card. He was at a different level, so he would be acknowledged in this higher place. But, then they went back.

So, do managers deserve their own baseball cards?

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Ethics of Incest

We had a senior thesis writer this semester look at the ethical limiting case of incest. So, it seemed a bit odd when this story broke only a week after her thesis defense:

A Columbia University professor has been arrested on charges of having sexual relations with his daughter, officials said on Friday. David Epstein, 46, a political science professor at the Ivy League school, faces one count of incest in the third degree, according to a complaint filed by the Manhattan District Attorney's office. He had relations with his daughter, now 24, from 2006 through 2009, the complaint said. Epstein was released on his own recognizance after appearing before a judge on Thursday. His attorney, Matthew Galluzzo, said on Friday that Epstein was innocent of the "unwarranted and unfair charges."
The student argued that while there are certainly cases of immoral sexual contact between relatives, one cannot give a blanket prohibition against all cases of incest. If one were to consider cases -- which this may or may not be -- of consensual contact between adults, say a brother and sister, such that procreation could not occur, she argued that libertarian type concerns would say that there is no reason to impinge on bodily autonomy.

I argued with her all semester that sexualizing inherently non-sexual relationships of various types -- doctor/patient, teacher/student, sibling/sibling -- even if consensual, when viewed from a larger context, would undermine the other element of the relationship, not to mention the relationships to those beyond the two. This harm, I contended, would outweigh the other concerns. She argued that this is true of all sorts of cases, sexual and non-sexual, and the fact that life is messy doesn't give grounds for limiting one's choices with one's own body. There need to be extremely severe concerns to curtail such a basic right, and these do not rise to that level.

So, the question today is what would be the moral argument to preclude adult/adult non-reproductive consensual incestuous relations?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Play It Again, Sam...or Should He?

Of course, the line "Play it again, Sam" never actually appears in Casablanca. What Ilsa says is, "Play it one time Sam, for old time's sake...Play it Sam, play 'As Time Goes By'."

I'm interested in Sam's predicament here. For those who have never seen the film (and you should be ashamed of yourself), Rick and Ilsa fell in love in Paris as WWII has just begun when Ilsa was a widow. But she learns that her husband, a great Czech statesman, is actually still alive, but she can tell no one lest he be hunted down by the Nazis. So she leaves Rick without explaining why which crushes him to the core. He ends up a curmudgeonly bar owner in Casablanca when of all the two bit gin joints in all the world, she walks into his. Sam, Rick's friend and employee, was there the whole time and has been ordered in no uncertain terms to NEVER, EVER under any circumstances play "As Time Goes By," their old song. But Ilsa asks to hear him play it again the way he played it for them in Paris so many times before (the clip cannot be embedded in the post, but you can see it here).

Sam lies -- "I'm rusty on it" -- but then, when she insists, plays it. Should he have? He was told never to play it and agreed. It is not quite a promise, but it wasn't exactly just an order from the boss either. It was a request from a friend to avoid something Sam knows would cause his friend great pain. As such, under normal circumstances, he would never do it.

Similarly, if Rick was at the Blue Parrot as Sam tried to lie about earlier, he would have had no problem playing it for Ilsa for old time's sake. It was a simple enough request for a piano player and one that would have brought back bittersweet memories for his old friend.

But here, he's caught in between. On one hand, Rick's pain would clearly be more intense than Ilsa's joy at hearing it, so on a utilitarian calculation, it seems that he shouldn't play it. On the other hand, she's in the bar, he's going to see her. The pain will happen whether he plays it or not. So, why not give Ilsa the little bit of pleasure? But even if the pain would happen regardless, it would still be his choice that caused the pain to be instantiated in that particular way. So, ethically, should Sam have played it again?

Thursday, December 09, 2010

A Comedist "Dylan Goes Electric"

Steve Martin has written his first novel, "An Object of Beauty," that is set in the contemporary art world, something he knows quite a bit about. Since his wild and crazy days as a meteoric rising star in the 70s comedy scene, Steve Martin has become a serious member of the arts community. So, with the launching of his novel, a public interview was arranged at the 92nd Street Y in New York, a place where such events often take place. He was interviewed by Deborah Solomon, also someone with deep knowledge of contemporary art, and the two began to have a thoughtful conversation about the theory and culture of the current art scene.

There was an audience revolt. Tickets were $50 and those who bought them were angry that they weren't treated to any of Martin's comic antics, but rather a philosophical conversation. Sensing the crowd's displeasure, notes were passed to Solomon to ask Martin about his past, about his comedy. She refused and they continued their conversational trajectory. Afterward, responding to complaints, the Y sent out refunds and apologized that the event was not up to their usual standard of excellence. Steve Martin replied with an op/ed in the Times that is clearly miffed by the apology and the reception.

The question here today is who has a right to be upset. The audience members shelled out a good chunk of change and did not get what they expected, although they certainly got something of value. They came for an A and ended up with a really good B. Is it bait and switch? Just because it's Steve Martin does not entail that it will be comedy. Were they too shallow in their expectations? Steve Martin has a following that made him what he is. Does he owe them what they expect every time he appears in public? He is not only a clown, but a very smart person with other interests, does he have to put out a warning that this will be serious every time he wants to be taken seriously? This was in support of a book project, should the audience members have been expected to do their homework and assume responsibility for figuring out what they were likely to be discussing? Is it a problem that people can't be interested in something deep that is not merely amusing?

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

What's the Difference: Happy, Content, Satisfied

It's an old coaches cliche, "It's o.k. to be content, but never be satisfied." Good enough is never good enough. This gives us a chance for "what's the difference." So, what is the difference between being happy, content, and satisfied?

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Weed Out Classes and the Nature of the Student/Teacher Relationship

Scott Aiken, over at The NonSequitor, has an interesting discussion of the appeal to students not to plagiarize. It has led me to think about how odd the student/teacher relationship is.

Carol Gilligan distinguishes between those relationships that are based on contract and those based upon care. A contractual relation is one in which the terms are clearly delimited and by acting, I am freeing myself from the relationship. "I did my part, now you do yours." This is a relationship based on the marketplace. I hire you, you do what we've agreed to -- nothing more, nothing less -- and in return I pay you the agreed upon price -- nothing more, nothing less. If we choose to contract again, fine, if not, nice knowing you. See ya. In care-based relationships, your goal in acting is other-directed, you act not for your own negotiated benefit, but for the good of the other person. You think about what the other person needs to make him/herself better and you work to give it to him/her. Acting, in this context, does not free you from the relationship, but rather only makes you more involved in it. Think of a parent/child or lover/beloved relationship. By being there you are letting the other person know that you will be there for him/her.

The student/teacher relation is a mixed on on Gilligan's picture. On one hand, teaching is just a job. I get paid to show up, talk, and grade. I didn't contract with my students, but with my school and I owe the school a well-thought out set of learning goals, lectures, group exercises, assignments, and grades that reflect student success in meeting the goals. The students are just the moving parts. End of semester, class, have a nice life.

But, of course, that isn't really how it goes. It is a classroom full of humans and my job is to improve them -- to introduce them to ideas they never had, to teach them how to think about those ideas, to challenge their presuppositions, to show them subtle and rigorous, but creative thought. You do emerge changed from a good class, deeper, smarter, more interesting, and hopefully more thoughtful about the world around you. It is the teacher's job to be a partner in that growth. in that way, it is more like a parent's place. I'm not trying to milk maximum self-interested results from them, I'm trying to help them. They are my students and I need to be attentive to their needs and give them encouragement, a stiff kick in the butt, extra study guides, extensions on papers in certain circumstances, and whatever else I can identify in order to help them learn what it is I am trying to teach.

But in doing this, am I going beyond what is required in the class? Some students take the class to take a class with me. That seems to indicate a relationship of the sort Gilligan labels "care." But in other cases it is more contractual; they take the class because they need the class to fill some requirement and I just happen to be the one teaching it. But even in an arranged marriage, there are spousal expectations. And it is, in a sense contractual in that I provide a syllabus and it sets out expectations of what they will do for a passing grade. You don't do it, forget you, you don't get the passing mark you need. No reason to feel guilty on my part, you didn't live up to your side of the bargain.

Is the teacher/student relationship one that makes sense in terms of Gilligan's care/contract distinction? Is it a hybrid, or a different sort altogether? Does it differ by discipline or level? Introductory classes in the sciences, for example, often tend to be too large to have any sort of relationship and are often seen by departments as "weed out" courses. In that case, the idea is not to give the majority of students what they need to thrive, only give the few, the proud, the future physics/chem/bio/econ students what they need to survive, and at the end of the semester identify those who made it through the academic hazing ritual and deem them worthy of either another round or entrance into the major's club with all the rights and privileges there attached.

I understand that everyone comes to college thinking they are going to be doctors, physicists, or the next Warren Buffet and that these department could not do what they do with so many majors, especially those with insufficient quantitative reasoning skills. But there does still seem something wrong, something unteacherly about the weed out course. Is this a mushy, bleeding-heart misreading of the student/teacher relationship on my part? Is there a difference in the relationship a teacher should have with a student depending upon whether it is a naive freshman who happened to wander into your class for reasons nobody can figure out or whether it is a senior major who is your advisee? what is the nature of the student/teacher relation?

Monday, December 06, 2010

Bullshit or Not: Zappa Edition

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

Since, we're already talking about Frank Zappa, here's a quotation from an interview with him to play with today:

"I think love lyrics have contributed to the general aura of bad mental health in America. Love lyrics create expectations which can never be met in real life, and so the kid who hears these tunes doesn't realize that that kind of love doesn't exist. If he goes out looking for it, he's going to be a kind of love loser all his life. Where do you get your instructions about love? Your mother and father don't say, 'Now, son, now daughter, here's how love works.' They don't know, so how can they tell their kids? So all you love data comes to you through the lyrics on Top Forty radio, or, in some instances, in movies or novels. The singer-songwriters who write these lyrics earn their living by pretending to reveal their innermost personal turmoil over the way love has hurt them, which creates a false standard that people use as a guideline on how to behave in interpersonal relationships. 'Does my heart feel as broken as that guy's heart?', 'Am I loving well?', 'Is my dick long enough?'"
So, are love songs responsible for unattainable images of love whose lack causes psychological distress? Are we psychologically poisoned by our popular music, striving for an unreachable ideal and feeling wrongly inferior because of it?

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

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Remembering Frank Zappa

My Fellow Comedists,

Today is the 17th anniversary of the passing of Frank Zappa. He had the talent, the brains, and the wit to be a massive commercial success, but his loathing of the corporate capitalist culture led him to make sure he sabotaged any attempt to mainstream him. And thank goodness for it. His work was not only prolific, intelligent, and intricate, it was just darn funny. Part of it was the shock stuff, but there was always a part of Zappa that was always clever or surreal and another part where you could never tell what he was making fun of and what he was authentically doing.

Funniest Zappa tune? My suggestion is the version of Sofa #1 on the first volume of "You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore."


Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, December 03, 2010

An Open Letter to Students

Time for the semi-annual appeal:

Dear Students,

Sorry to interrupt, I know how busy you are right now and how stressful the end of the semester is with papers and exams. I know you've been listening to me go on and on all semester, but I have one last thing I really need to say. Please do not plagiarize.

This is not some high-horse lecture about intellectual property, academic integrity, or personal growth, this is heart-to-heart advice from your Uncle Steve because I know you are in a vulnerable position. You are facing too much work, too little time, you are exhausted from a long semester and do not know how you are going to get everything done. You are nervous about your grades because you know that both the job market and grad school admission is getting more difficult, you know it is one of the first things your parents will ask about when you get home, and you are worried that your professors will think less of you if you do not work up to what you think are their expectations. Lack of sleep and not eating well have clouded your judgment and from this point of view it will seem very tempting to cut corners, especially since you see other people doing it and getting away with it. Still, please don't.

First of all, you just aren't that good at it. I've been reading your work all semester and I know what to expect from you. I know your writing style, I know the sort of things you've been thinking about from your comments in class, I generally know what sort of other classes you've been taking and how much background you have in complex topics in other fields. Yes, it would thrill me to get a really good paper from you, the sort of work that shows you were as excited about the material as I am, the sort of work that shows some kernel of insight just waiting to be unpacked through the years of experience to come, the sort of work that opens up discussions we could have next semester over a pizza because you just can't let this go.

But that paper looks a lot different from a plagiarized paper; it sounds like you, it sounds like an enthusiastic undergrad who has gotten a real glimpse of something, but is incomplete and sloppy in the ways an undergrad paper should be, ways that would allow new doors to be opened, it is not the polished work of a professional scholar whose years of training under experts and whose doctor dissertation required a collecting of evidence you would have no sense of. I know you haven't read the footnotes in Rawls' A Theory of Justice. I know that you do not understand general relativity. I know that you do not know about the non-standard interpretations of the later Plato. But I do know how to use all the same tools you would use in finding the material to cut and paste and it is actually quite easy nowadays to get right to the text you would plagiarize from. It's not that hard to detect and not that hard to gather the incriminating evidence. It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes.

Second, even if you did get away with it, it won't end up making that much of a difference in the end. By this point of the semester, so much of your grade is already determined that the difference between a B+ and a C- paper is quite small and even if it does move you a couple of +/- grades in one direction or another, that fact will most likely have no effect on who you marry, what job you get, what you name your kids, where you go for vacation when you are 48, nothing. I know grades seem a huge deal right now and professors are in part to blame because we are insecure and think that without the threat of grades hanging over your heads, you won't respect us. But in truth your college GPA means very little in the lives of most people. But getting busted for plagiarism could mean a lot. It is something that is becoming a show issue and you will be treated harshly to make a point. There is so little reward that it is absolutely not worth the risk.

Finally, your professors are not "the man," we are not looking to nail you. We like you (well, most of you anyway). We want you to succeed. We want you to keep in touch by e-mail and come back to campus ten years from now for alumni weekend and tell us funny stories about your time in college and about how you got to be wherever it is you will end up. And you know what, we won't care or remember that paper. To be honest, we will have forgotten about it long before next semester. We will not think less of you because you handed in one piece of garbage, we will think that you must have been overtaxed with work or that we gave a bad assignment. We will still like you. Attach a note to the bad paper telling us that you know it is not your best work and that if you had more time it would have been better and that you had hoped to take it in this other more interesting direction. We write papers all the time, often at the last minute for conferences. We understand, it happens to us too. We've just learned the trick of saying at the beginning, "this is a work in process" -- "in process" is professor-speak for "inferior work I hope to do well someday."

But when you plagiarize, you put us in a horrible position. We don't want to turn you in, in part because we want the best for you, but also because we don't want to have to deal with the process. We are tired too. It's been a really long semester and we just want to get our grades in so we can get to the plans we've made for break. And now you make us have to spend our time searching for your sources, documenting evidence, and explaining how we knew this had to be plagiarized. We have so much to do right now that we don't need the headache. You just made so much more work for us because you decided not to just turn in a lousy paper. We resent the fact that I now have all this extra work because you didn't want to do the work you knew you were supposed to do. You write a paper, I read a paper, that's the deal. Because you decided not to hold up your end of the bargain I now pay the price. Screw you! It is frustrating at a time when I'm exhausted and pissy, too.

But more than that, it feels like betrayal. All semester, you've been great in the classroom with interesting things to say. I looked forward to giving you a good grade and seeing you around the campus and now you go and do this to me? ME: the one who spent the time preparing for class, answering your e-mails at awkward hours, giving you extensions and offering to look at drafts. I was more than happy to write a letter of recommendation for that internship for you when I had a stack of blue books on my desk and a meeting for little league coaches to go to, and you do this to me?

So, students, please. Give me shoddy work if you must. It's the season of generosity. I know how tough it is for you right now because it's that tough for us too. Do us all a favor and try your best to get in the best work you can even if your best right now isn't that good. For all of our sakes, just don't plagiarize. Please.


Uncle Steve

p.s. Do try to get sleep, eat well, and take a break to get some exercise -- it will make you more efficient, improve the quality of your work, and keep you from getting sick.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Were the 80s a Cultural Wasteland?

Had my 8 a.m. Logic class translating dialogue from Casablanca into first order predicate logic the other day and then Confused, Maybe Not pops into the office and we started talking about the cultural legacy of decades. When we turned to our decade, the 80s, he said that looking back it seems like the entire decade is dark, just nothing there. Everything was so clearly corporately constructed for marketing purposes that there seemed to be so little that was novel and bold. It all seems so embarrassingly dated when it is looked at now, nothing that seems a timeless contribution to the collective consciousness of the culture.

We tried to think of what will be the iconic works, the lasting impact of the 80s. We couldn't think of much. TV-wise, there was "Cheers," "Hill Street Blues," and "St. Elsewhere," but are any of them really going to stand the test of time? Musically, in terms of mainstream success there were the Talking Heads, early U2 and REM, maybe Tom Petty. On the fringe was American punk and the early days of hip-hop, but what from any of them will take on a life of its own? Film-wise, The "Breakfast Club"? "Back to the Future"? We did mention "Brazil" a few days back. Literary works that define the 80s? Non-fiction? In terms of social activism, we had Apartheid rallies, Ethiopian hunger, and homelessness come to the fore and with it stadium-sized rock fundraisers featuring artists from the 60s and 70s. There was cable tv which freed us from the triopoly of the networks, but is that really it?

Can anyone cite anything that will culturally justify the Reagan years or is it all just one big Flock of Seagulls haircut?

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Envisioning Science

Otto Neurath argued that social progress depended on finding a visual language in which to express scientific facts and relations. We cannot expect everyone, especially working people, to acquire the technical proficiency with formal mathematics to understand the results of science, but that doesn't mean that not everyone can understand science. We all can if someone finds a way to translate it for the rest of us.

This piece from the BBC is an amazing example of this in terms of the relation between public health and economics (hat tip to Kerry for sending me the link):

In a democracy, especially one in which our stance towards the rest of the world makes a real difference in real lives, how come we have to go elsewhere -- to the BBC -- to see something like this. Why isn't CNN with all their technological flash and fluff using it to effectively educate us in this sort of way?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ray Guy Belongs in Canton

The list of semi-finalists for the Professional Football Hall of Fame came out yesterday. these things always lead to conflict because of deserving players who were left off. I, on the other hand, want to protest someone who is on the list; not because he wasn't good enough, but because it is a crime he is still being considered. Ray Guy belongs in Canton. He defined the position of punter. No other punter has ever been drafted in the first round and no other punter had the effect that Ray Guy had. Despite kicking over 1,000 punts, he never had a single one run back for a touchdown. They needed a calendar to determine the hang time on his punts. In fact, I believe there was one in the Oakland/Kansas City game in 1976 that is still in the air. Let's hope that this travesty is ended this year. Ray Guy belongs in Canton.

Monday, November 29, 2010

RIP Leslie Nielson: I AM dead and Don't Call Me Shirley

It is with great sadness that we discuss Leslie Nielson's death of pneumonia. He had been in the hospital (it's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now) for two days before his condition got worse and he succumbed to it last night.

He began his career as a serious leading man, playing the character he spoofed for decades on television and in the movies. Then came Airplane! It was a limited role as the plane's doctor, but he played it so perfectly that his are the lines often remembered. And it got him the role as Frank Dreben in the short-lived television series "Police Squad (In Color)" that was much beloved in my house for all three of the weeks it ran on network tv. Transferring to the big screen, Nielson became known for his comedy acting when all along he knew how to get out of the way of the comedy. It was his ability to deadpan, to never try to be funny but let the script be funny for him that made him.

He was great at what he did and we thank you for all the laughs.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Feast of Saint Allen

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend is the feast of saint Allen. Allen Sherman would turn 86. As a child, LilBro and I came across the Old Man's copy of his classic album My Son, the Folk Singer and were so enchanted by it, that we had the entire thing memorized in no time. His gentle, clever, Jewish style of song parody was the end of the Borscht Belt era. Allen Sherman was what would have happened if Tom Lehrer had taken prozac.

Getting his start in television, Sherman, lived next door to Harpo Marx who so loved Sherman's song parodies that he had Sherman perform at one his parties. George Burns, who attended the party, was so tickled with Sherman that he got him a record contract and the result was My Son, the Folk Singer.

When President Kennedy was discovered to be a fan, Sherman's luck took off and he had a run of several successful albums. His 1963 My Son, the Nut, contained the hit that made him a household name, "Hello Mudder, Hello Fadder."

With the cultural upheaval of the late 60s, Sherman was too old fashioned. He would make several attempts to revive his career and would ultimately return to television as the voice of Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat a year and a half before his quite premature death.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The War on Christmas Continues

Our friends Scott Aikin and Bob Talisse have a post up over at 3 Quarks daily called, "The War on Christmas, To Save Thanksgiving."

Seems as good a time as any to re-run this:

'Twas the month before Christmas and all through the malls
everything was ‘bout Christmas, no escaping at all.
The songs all about yuletide, and then on FOX news,
all the nut-jobs pretending there ain’t any Jews.

This country we know it’s a really big stew
of Muslims, and pagans, and atheists too.
But O’Reilly and Rush, not to mention Sir Hannity
are all trying to deny these good folks their humanity.

If you eat latkes, and liver, and kosher dill gherkins,
You are second class citizens, not real “Amurkans.”
We’re told “shut your hole,” if your season’s not elfish,
as these kinds of “Christians” are really quite selfish.

Don’t say “Happy Holidays” if you work in a store,
it’s “Merry Christmas” alone or they’ll declare war.
“We’re under siege!” they cry through their crocodile tears
“They’re trying to outlaw our holiday cheer!”

You can spot real Christians from those in wolves’ clothing
They’re the ones preaching love, not hatred and loathing.
But the Pharisees think it's only they who should count,
Truth be told, they should read what was said on the mount.

So Buddhists and Hindus and Hopi and Sioux,
the message is clear that is sent unto you.
When the tips of the branches get covered in frost
This country is theirs, time for you to get lost.

Those who believe that to keep of our brother
means to actually love and respect one another.
So when you are asked, “What would Jesus do?”
Answer them, “Welcome ones different from you.”

In conclusion, oh gasp, we guess we should say,
that Comet and Cupid are openly gay.
In this season of peace with the ground covered white,
Happy Holidays to ALL and to ALL a good night.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

That's Not a Boardng Pass, It's Foreplay

With the more personally invasive checks by the TSA, I'm wondering how long it will take Southwest to start running ads with the tagline, "$59 one-way, it's cheaper than dinner and a movie."

I'm just glad no one has told Homeland Security about this guy yet.

Abdullah Asieri avoided detection by two sets of airport security and palace security, in his mission to eliminate prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, head of Saudi Arabia's counter terrorism operations. Taking a trick from the narcotics trade - which has long smuggled drugs in body cavities - Asieri had a pound of explosives, plus a detonator inserted in his rectum, reports CBS News.
Maybe it is finally time to bring NIH under the Homeland Security umbrella and have our airport screeners also be licensed urologists so that the prevention of terrorist attacks and the early detection of prostate cancer both become national priorities. I mean, hey, they're already wearing the latex gloves...

Monday, November 22, 2010

Happy Birthday Terry Gilliam

Today is Terry Gilliam's 70's birthday. I will admit that I saw Brazil in the theater no fewer than six times which, I believe, comes to roughly one seventh of my lifespan.

Terry Gilliam is one of the few repositories of smart that we have in contemporary popular culture and what I love most about his work is the ability to run the whole range of human emotions from smart goofy to smart strident to smart gentle to smart alienated. If you can feel it, it's somewhere in a Terry Gilliam work and it is smart.

Happy birthday, Terry Gilliam and thanks.

And now for something...

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Feast of Saint Dick

My Fellow Comedists,

This week is brings us the birthday of Dick Smothers, straight man and stand-up bass player with his brother Tommy as part, of course, of the legendary Smothers Brothers. Before there was Saturday Night Live, before there was Laugh In, there was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The country was exploding in the late 60s, yet television still looked like it did in the 50s. Anything that smacked of criticism of the government or the war in Vietnam, or that pointed to the social problems of racism or poverty were forbidden, indeed there were network censors who made sure dissent did not make it the people over their Swanson tv dinners.

The Smothers Brothers, clean cut, looking like the Kingston Trio lost someone in Kingston seemed harmless enough. Good folk music with some well-timed silliness thrown in, they were a way to attract kids away from the ratings bonanza that was, well, Bonanza.

But, of course, there was folk music and there was folk music and despite their look, the Smothers Brothers came from the tradition in which folk music was a tool of emancipation and political protest. Their show quickly turned from cutsie to a censor's nightmare. They knew exactly where the line was and intentionally put clever material right on it, material that that was smart and sharp and not obscene or over the top, just dead on point and right. But it was the sort of criticism that supported the side of the cultural divide in the late 60s that the corporate networks did not care to bolster.

Their writers were the younger version of the Sid Cesar gang, including Albert Brooks and his brother (who played Super Dave Osborne), Rob Reiner, Steve Martin, and Don Novello (who would go on to be Father Guido Sarducci). Their material intentionally ranged from the innocent to the edgy, but the edgy was always done with an incredibly smart sense of humor and timing. They were pros and darn good at what they did...and that is what got them canceled.

But their brave fights on the side of what is right and what is funny were every bit as important to the history of American comedy on television as what Lenny Bruce was doing for American stand-up in the night clubs.

Thank you, Dick Smothers and happy birthday.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Value of False Rituals

TheWife loves rituals. She finds great meaning in them, even if they are new rituals that she or we are inventing for our family as we go. I, on the other hand, have never been one for rituals. They've always seemed like inauthentic actions performed not because one was intrinsically moved to act, but awkwardly constructed sets behaviors bound by expectation and, like a joke you've heard before, missing their ability to inspire. I understand that at certain times, say at the time of marriage or immediately following the death of a loved one, rituals can be extremely helpful in bringing together community, making sure that necessary details are attended to, and helping people process life altering changes that are being experienced. But not all rituals deal with big events that change the way you are in the world.

Last night the shorter of the short people lost a tooth. He is at the age where he no longer believes in the tooth fairy, yet I know he would be extremely upset should he not awaken this morning to find something under his pillow. It's not the money. If I handed him the money before bed, it would not be the same. No, it has to be done in this particular way. He knows who puts the money there because he inevitably comes in to our room the next morning and asks for his tooth back -- he's a sentimental who finds parting with part of himself difficult, even if a new and improved "adult" component is on its way in and he is certainly not willing to give back the newly acquired funds for the old tooth which always seems to him so unbelievably small for all the pain it caused on its way out.

So, the question is what accounts for the attachment to ritual here? Is it something about the meaningfulness of ritualized action itself or is it more likely specific to this case, that it is a Christmas morning-like scenario of awakening to something pleasant, and therefore says nothing about ritual in general? If he knows it is going to happen, where does the meaningfulness come from? What, in the end, accounts for the power that many experience from ritual?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Finders Keepers?: The Ethics of Scavaging

We're in the middle of a job search and that means reading lots of letters of recommendation. Every once in a while, you get one from an extremely influential and therefore famous philosopher. So, when one of our applicants had a letter from Jurgen Habermas, I did start thinking about all the names that have passed by us in our last several searches: Derrida, Searle, Putnam, real philosophical rock stars, thinkers bound for the pantheon of greats. If we had a philosophers hall of fame, these folks would be easy first ballot shoo-ins.

Now, the procedure for handling search materials is that they need to be kept for three years in case of legal questions regarding the fairness of the search process and then they are shredded so that confidential bits of information, like letters of recommendation, cease to be.

Suppose as a hobby, I collected the autographs of famous intellectuals. Here are prime examples that are bound for the shredder. Would it be morally acceptable to save the signatures? I wouldn't be stealing them FROM anyone, they were just going to be destroyed. Why not save something of value? We could cut them off the letter so none of the information would survive, just the signature. Would that be o.k.? Suppose I then turned around and tried to sell it on eBay to other intellectual autograph seekers, would that be o.k.? Would it make a difference if I waited five years or until the person passed away?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bullshit or Not: Schopenhauer Edition

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

Reading 19th century German social/political philosophy for the chapter of Einstein's Jewish Science that I'm currently working on, paying special attention to those thinkers who were railing against the Enlightenment concepts of egalitarianism. In that reading, I came upon this beauty from Schopenhauer's On Human Nature that lays out the classic case against democracy:

“A peculiar disadvantage attaching to republics—and one that might not be looked for—is that in this form of government it must be more difficult for men of ability to attain high position and exercise direct political influence than in the case of monarchies. For always and everywhere and under all circumstances there is a conspiracy, or instinctive alliance, against such men on the part of all the stupid, the weak, and the commonplace; they look upon such men as their natural enemies, and they are firmly held together by a common fear of them. There is always a numerous host of the stupid and the weak, and in a republican constitution it is easy for them to suppress and exclude the men of ability, so that they may not be outflanked by them. They are fifty to one; and here all have equal rights at the start.
In a monarchy, on the other hand, this natural and universal league of the stupid against those who are possessed of intellectual advantages is a one-sided affair; it exists only from below, for in a monarchy talent and intelligence receive a natural advocacy and support from above.”
Nothing we don't see in Plato, but well said.

If we want to defend democratic rule, we need to show why this is nonsense or, if not how it is counteracted.

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

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Folk Physics

Let's test the intuitions today with one I gave to my first year seminar yesterday:

You are sitting in the aisle seat of a jet awaiting take-off when the child next to you hands you his helium balloon. You hold it in your hand next to the aisle as the plane taxis down the runway. During the taxiing, before take off, does the balloon move towards the back of the airplane, the front of the airplane, or float straight up?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Colors and Numbers

Are colors and numbers things? We use them as nouns, but are they really nouns or just adjectives that function like nouns? Things are red or a group of objects has the property of having four members, but we treat red and four as if they have independent existence. Do they?

With numbers, we attribute properties and relations among them. That seems to be good reason to think them things. But what kind of things?

Is the same true of colors? We do label some primary and other secondary or tertiary. Does this bring colors on par with numbers?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Atheist Songs

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend we turn our thoughts to music. Good brother Gwydion pointed me to a recent project of a true comedist saint, Steve Martin, who while on his latest banjo tour with the Steep Canyon Rangers composed a song for atheists.
It seems only fair since he did write the Comedist hymn "Grandmother's Song." But it raises a question. Are there other atheist songs?

Here is one from the Gettysburg Pirate Orchestra (billed as central Pennsylvania's premier landlocked nautical-themed ensemble)

Do feel free to download their new album Simon von Utrecht
-- much there for a comedist to love (especially "Crazy Squirrels").

So, other good atheist tunes?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, November 11, 2010

War and the Cultural Conscience

Today is Veteran's Day, what used to be Armistice Day commemorating the end of The Great War which was reduced to World War I once another great war came along. Because of the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, we tend to forget about World War I but it was a horror of epic proportions. Trench warfare in which one side would charge only to get mowed down, then the other side would charge only to get mowed down. Lives lost by the thousands and no change. Just death for the sake of death. The use of chemical weapons causing more mass death in absolutely horrible ways.

The unfathomable reality of what they had done to themselves undermined European culture which before the war considered itself the ultimate end of cultural evolution. They were what history had always intended, the full complete actualization of humanity. And then they did this. What did it mean? What was it to be human after this? These questions were very much real to them and you see radical turns in almost every human endeavor that follows from the sciences to the arts to the human sciences. The war had triggered the cultural conscience.

We saw something similar with the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the bombing that killed the children in Omaugh in Northern Ireland, a point at which the horrible simply reaches a place where the culture demands an intellectual time-out.

Is American culture capable of this anymore? Do we even have a culture conscience anymore? We permitted torture and there was no outrage. The CIA destroyed evidence of torture and no one is even going to be charged. Is there anything anymore that will make us step back and ask what it means to be human if we allow this? On a day we set aside to think about the human cost of warfare, I worry that the answer is no.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Is There a Hippocratic Type Obligation to Write a Bad Rec Letter?

It's recommendation season and as I write a number of rec letters for former students and colleagues who are very much qualified for the graduate school and/or employment opportunities for which they are applying (don't worry A Stranger --it was a good letter), I can't help but wonder about having to write the negative rec letter.

I'm not talking about the case where the student is not qualified for the position. Of course, the proper thing to do is to politely decline to write. "Given that you received a D in my logic class, I don't think a letter from me will be very helpful in your attempt to get into law school." Those students, by in large, are not going to be admitted, so your lack of a letter is not really the operative factor.

But what of the student who is qualified in terms of the standard measures (grades, board scores,...), but just is the absolute wrong person for the job? Suppose someone has the grades for medical school, but you know they lack the compassion to be a good doctor or social worker? Or the convictions to be a good lawyer or climate scientist? Suppose you have good reason to think that he or she would use their advanced training in a way that would harm others or the planet? If you don't write the letter, someone else will and the person will become the person you are worried she or he will become. You can help stop it. Should you?

By agreeing to write the letter, aren't you implicitly agreeing to write a supportive letter? Doesn't the community ethos lead the person to expect to be told that you cannot write a letter in strong support? If you are using this as a chance to torpedo their application, isn't that misleading in some sense?

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Should There Still Be a Security Council?

Yesterday, speaking to the Indian parliament, President Obama pledged his support for expanding the security council to include India as a permanent member. It is unclear whether this would come with veto power or not, but either way it leads to a more general question, should there be a security council at all? If the nations are united in the UN, should some countries be more equal than others?

One can argue that it was necessary in the beginning to get stronger nations to agree to join, after all if might might make right, why allow any say from the weak. If the strong are guaranteed more say, then that might be alright. One can argue that it made sense in the bipolar world of the Cold War. Why bother having the fake proxy arguments when you can cut through the nonsense and just have the major actors sitting at a special table?

But does it still make sense? With a planet full of emerging nations and countries who are disproportionately affected by the actions and consumption of the larger nations, should we still give the lion's share of the power to a handful of countries? Or is it real politik, a fact on the ground that these are the power brokers, so if anything is to be done, cut out the time consuming wrangling and just put those who need to lead in a place to do so?

Monday, November 08, 2010

Movie Better Than the Book?

At dinner last night, the less short of the short people claimed that while the Percy Jackson movie was significantly worse than the book, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs was, in fact, better. The explanation, I hold, is that one is a children's book while the other aimed at pre-teens. the Percy Jackson books have much more room to develop characters and plot intricacies that do not translate well to the hour and a half film format. The former, on the other hand, needs to be filled out to be made into a movie and thus becomes more interesting.

I'm wondering if anyone thinks there are exceptions to this, movies made from books other than those geared towards young children where the film was better than the original fiction piece.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Funny Foods

My Fellow Comedists,

Between the short people discovering the Swedish chef and an in depth conversation with colleagues about garbanzo beans, it seemed as if the Cosmic Comic wanted a funny foods discussion this weekend.

My point in the latter conversation was that there seemed no reason to ever say "chick pea" and surrender a perfectly good opportunity to say "garbanzo bean" which is inherently much funnier. Indeed, I would claim that garbanzo bean is one of the funniest food names, right up there with "knish," "borscht," and "gherkin." So as not to make the list overly European, one cannot forget those fat Chinese noodle dish called "chow fun" and of course, there is the magnificently onomatopoetic "kung pao" is also wonderfully humorous.

Are there others funnier than these? What is the funniest food name?

Bork, bork, bork,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, November 05, 2010

Philosophy for Workers?

Today is the 125th anniversary of the birth of Will Durant author of The Story of Philosophy, a classic book aimed at presenting a popularly accessible account of the thought of great philosophers from Plato through John Dewey. It has been in print continuously now for 84 years and is still usable.

What may not be known is that it was not written as a book, but rather as a series of "Little Blue Books," that is cheap pamphlets that could be afforded and understood by workers in the 1920s, lower class people with little education who wanted to improve themselves and their lives. Education was the key, many including Durant thought, to helping lift people out of poverty.

We've given up on that project. Now popular philosophy is aimed at the already educated in hopes of creating a bulwark against other entertainment options which entrench thoughtless, sometimes harmful, but always commercially successful passivity.

But why not gear philosophical discussion at today's workers? Is it that education is not seen as the salvation we thought it was or are we still suffering from the picture we got from Ronald Reagan that the poor are that way because they are lazy and do not deserve our attention? We'd be wasting our time trying to better those who clearly cannot be. Is it that working and lower class people themselves do not want to be philosophically engaged? Or is it that it simply doesn't generate sufficient profit since they are not a primary book buying or philosophical media consuming demographic?

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Can There Be a Fake Religion?

Before a meeting yesterday, I was glancing around the room at some of the older books in our religion department's library. One that caught my eye was called The World's Great Religions. I proposed other volumes for the series. For those that just missed making the first volume, we'd have The World's Pretty Darn Good Religions and of course one for The World's Really Crappy Religions. My colleague suggested one for The World's Fake Religions, and talked about an interesting student presentation in her Philosophy of Law class a few years back that examined the fourteen conditions put forward by a British court that define a religion and why Scientology fails to meet them.

I'm not interested in a discussion of the details of Scientology here, but rather am fascinated by the phrase "fake religion." Could there be such a thing?

A fake religion would not be a false religion, that is, one whose foundational beliefs turn out not to be the case. That would still be a legitimate religion, just one that turned out not to preach the absolute truth it thought it had. It would have to be something else.

What about the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Again, that seems not to fit either because it is not meant to be a religion at all, but rather a set of absurd doctrines and artistic artifacts that mirror those of legitimate religions in order to create a logical equivalence between something designed to be clearly irrational to be used in a larger reduction ad absurdum. It is not a fake religion, but a religion-like non-religion.

If people at the top do not believe, but there are legitimate faithful below, is that sufficient to make a religion a real religion? Can there be a fake religion?

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Is Non-Fiction Writing Art?

As I work on tightening up chapter 3 of Einstein's Jewish Science, I can't help but think of non-fiction books that I really love, books like David Quammen's The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, or Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter, or Loius Menand's The Metaphysical Club or classic works from Tom Wolfe or Truman Capote that are so incredible fascinating or powerful. When non-fiction is done right, it is incredibly affective.

But is it art? Does the fact that the author is bound by reality limit the creativity of the act in such a way as to make it mere stylized journalism or is the process of stroy telling enough to make non-fiction writing art? Is it art in some cases and not others? If so, what are the criteria that differentiate one from the other?

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Value of Freedom

Had lunch yesterday with a political scientist and a sociologist and the following question came up: Could there be a prison in which you would be willing to voluntarily be incarcerated? Is liberty inherently so valuable that no matter the material comforts it is necessarily trumped by the freedom to come and go and do as you choose?

Monday, November 01, 2010

Trick or Treat?

Once again, we took the short people trick or treating last night. It's really not fair. They go door to door collecting attractive little packages of candy they are not allowed to have. Taking kids who can't have candy trick or treating is a little like taking Michael Vick to PetSmart. There's just something not right about it.

I still say we need a new iPhone app called "wiki treat" that takes neighborhood maps and lets people enter what each house is giving. There can be little icons for each major candy and a special flashing icon if it is a full-sized bar or they are giving the kids a handful. That way kids know to skip the ones with dum-dums and head right for the snickers. There will be a black skull for houses that have run out of candy and a marker for houses that scare little kids. Any developers out there?

One thing I do wonder about every year, what is the appropriate age to stop trick or treating? At what point are kids too old to be collecting candy? 16? 14?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Happy Halloween

My Fellow Comedists,

In our efforts to be environmentally friendly, it's probably worth recycling this one:

I love Halloween because I love clever costumes. My best was in college. My girlfriend wore a blue dress with a ribbon in her straight blond hair and little black shoes. I wore a white trash bag with yellow, red, and blue dots. We went as Alice and Wonderbread.

The next year I couldn't talk her into wearing a sequined dress with a beehive hairdo while I wore a long robe and long white beard -- we would have been Diana Ross and the Supreme Being.

But at the party we went to I saw a guy, at least six feet tall, dressed as a condom. He was drinking whiskey, so I went over and warned him that he'd better stop soon or he'd be a midget before the night was through. He didn't find it very funny, but then, he did kind of look like a dick.

Best Halloween costume you've ever worn or seen?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irrevend Steve

Friday, October 29, 2010

Novel Graphics and Graphic Novels

Gwydion asks,

"Of late, the trend in superhero comic book art has been a move toward a more painterly style, as expressed best (perhaps) by Alex Ross, rather than the simpler line drawings of our youth. Why is that?"
It is a reflection of a change in status of the once maligned art form. Comic books were printed on the cheapest of paper with line drawings in order to entice young boys to spend their allowances. But then three things happened.

With the sentimentalism of the baby boomers, comic books and baseball cards went from toys to serious collectibles. The price of older rare comic books went sky high and brought up the monetary values of not so old, not so rare editions. With this increase in worth came an increased sense of value and the notion that the comic books would have to live up to this new found status.

At the same time, popular culture was being elevated from its status as low art. No doubt the works of Roy Lichtenstein made everyone look at comic book illustrations differently, but in general we started looking at everything from television sitcoms to comic books with a more critical and sociological eye, trying to make sense of what our art forms said about us. My Grateful Dead book is part of this tide that takes what was once held to be beneath intellectual treatment and allows it the pride of place of other more standard topics of deep conversation. The works of artists like R. Crumb, Steve Gerber, and Gilbert Shelton put comics in the political arena while not lapsing into the separate world of political cartooning. So, it became a more serious place.

Indeed, we now have a new category of "graphic novels." A graphic novel used to be a story with elements for adults only, now it is a comic book for grown-ups. Works like Art Spiegelman's Maus took the medium to a completely different sphere. Now, you see complexity and sophistication not only in the artwork, but in the plots of series like The Watchmen that were not there a couple generations ago.

Finally, there is technology. Art is now done not with pen and ink or paint and brush, but with a mouse and software. Better than simple line drawings can be easily generated and disseminated free through on-line comics. If you want to charge for your art you better be able to do better than what is free.

Any art form will have movements and I think the comic book has emerged as a legitimate art form. I think what Gwydion points out is simply one trend among many that are and are to come.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever?

PeterLC asks,

"As I sit here ill, is there any credence to 'feeding a cold and starving a fever?' or is it the other way around?"
First of all, get better, my friend. As for the advice, nope.

Medicine worked for centuries under the humour model (not to be confused with Comedist medical theory which focuses mainly on the sounds of digestion) in which health was based on a balance of moist and dry and warm and cold. Different bodily fluids had different properties with respect to these factors and if you had an imbalance of fluids, it caused physical and mental instability. We still have notions left over in contemporary language from this view -- we still call people sanguine or phlegmatic.

It was thought that if you had too much or too little of certain substances that it would create an excess of heat thereby causing a fever or a deficit of heat causing a cold -- which is why we call it that. Doctors would try to cure the ailment by bringing the amount of fluids into balance. This is why doctors used to bleed people with leeches, it was thought that an excess of blood caused certain ailments.

It was also believed that food created warmth within the body. So, if you have a cold, it means you are warmth deficient and food, in creating heat, would help to reestablish balance. If you had a fever, it meant an overabundance of heat and thereby eating and adding to the heat would only make the imbalance and therefore the illness worse.

Of course, we know that colds are actually caused by exposure to a rhinovirus and the effects are ways of trapping them in mucus and expelling them from the body and that fever are usually the result of infections and is the body's way of creating a hostile environment which makes them less likely to propagate and easier to kill. So, feed a cold starve a fever is not the way to go, but eat healthy foods as your body wants them and make sure to stay hydrated in either case.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Understanding Unacceptable Utterances

Kerry asks,

"So Juan Williams follows Rick Sanchez, Octavia Nasr, and Helen Thomas as the fourth journalist to get fired recently for expressing personal opinions on their own time, not on the job. Political correctness run amok, justifiable punishment, or something in-between?"
To be honest, not sure. We have a strange media right now where part of it is fact-free partisan rhetoric designed for explicitly propagandistic purposes and half that sees itself as a quaint little village of elite opinion makers. Those who were fired were removed from the island not because they voiced personal opinions, but because they embarrassed the village by breaking a rule -- no talking about groups except "real Merkans" and they are to be spoken of with the utmost reverence. Aside from white male Christian conservatives who have a peculiar knack for embodying authenticity and truth (maybe it's something in the water or the Budweiser), all else is an atomistic meritocracy and we never, never, never say anything about any ethnic group except to speculate how they will vote as a homogeneous bloc.

What is interesting is that, in a sense, these firings were based on a desire to make sure that their respective news outlets are seen as not-FOX -- in part out of self-image and in part because their audience is upper-middle class socially liberal and fiscally conservative so-called "moderates" or "centrists" or some other name that indicates virtue and superiority. Yet, when the White House had the temerity to label FOX "News" as not a legitimate news outlet, they all feign shock and outrage and rushed to Fox "News"'s side. They are part of the tribe, just don't show yourself doing their part of the job.

Is it political correctness run amok? Well, sort of. The insight behind political correctness is that language is loaded with connotations that can reinforce unfair political structures in ways that we are not directly aware of. As such, we want to be careful with our language to keep from further entrenching injustice. What it turned into was something else, something in which offensiveness was seen as the ultimate crime and this then transformed into the prohibition of speaking about groups. In a sense it is not political correctness, but it is a result of what political correctness turned into, something irrational that instead of allowing us to address thorny issues in a way that allows everyone a seat at the table, limits what can be said in a way that reinforces the power structure's "moderate" position.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Evolution and Humor

Kerry asks,

"What evolutionary sense can we make of humor?"
There is no doubt that there is a physiological element to laughter and whenever there is something built in, the temptation is always there to try to explain it in terms of natural selection. Alastair Clarke, for example, makes the case that humor is the brain's way of rewarding itself for seeing new patterns.
“The development of pattern recognition as displayed in humour could form the basis of humankind’s instinctive linguistic ability. Syntax and grammar function in fundamental patterns for which a child has an innate facility. All that differs from one individual to the next is the content of those patterns in terms of vocabulary.”
It is an interesting conjecture, but like so much evolutionary psychology, little more than a just-so story.

It is certainly the case that certain heritable properties have been selected for in terms of their ability to aid in survival and reproduction, but that does not mean that every trait for which we can find advantageous was itself selected for. It may be an evolutionary free rider, that is, something that came along with other traits that were selected for.

There is no doubt that certain kinds of humor are as Clarke points out connected with intellectual abilities that would have given our ancestors certain advantages. Although I'm not sure that finding someone else's slipping on a banana peel and falling into a large pile of lion dung only to have a chimp pelt him with rotten fruit while on a hunt in the jungle necessarily conveys anything useful, but it would certainly be recounted around the fire for years to howls of approval.

The historical developmental case would have to be made with evidence that may or may not be there. These sorts of claims are notoriously difficult to establish, but it is certainly possible. Finding things funny does develop alongside language, so the question of what is responsible for what and what was the trait actually selected for is an interesting one. Either way, it certainly is natural.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Tea for Two?

Philo asks,

"With people like O'Donnell, Angle, Paul, Miller, Buck, Paladino, ... running for the highest offices in the land as evidence, can we safely conclude this is the craziest election in the last fifty years?"
On the one hand, we've always had fringe characters running on the outsider platform. Minnesota did elect a professional wrestler as its governor not so long ago. In Louisiana, the former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan did receive a third of the popular vote. And, of course, let's John Ashcroft's loss to Mel Carnahan for Senate in Missouri despite the fact that the Carnahan campaign had probably the most significant public relations hurdle possible to deal with -- the fact that the candidate was dead at the time of the election.

But those were individual sideshows, not a general trend. What we have this year does seem different. It has been building for a while, of course, but it does seem to have reached critical mass in a peculiar and scary sort of way. There seem to be three related lines that have intersected this election: We don't need competent managers, but ideologically pure conservatives, the "Joe Sixpack" fetish,

Between the 70s and 80s, the elite pro-corporate conservatives struck a deal with the major figures among the religious, cultural conservatives to unite behind a conglomeration of their views. The corporate conservative anti-tax, anti-regulation message was framed as a smaller government message which then transformed into a broad anti-government message. When you have people who don't believe in the power of government who are then running to acquire the power of government, it means that they don't have to be the most capable individuals because they are there to destroy, to dismantle, not to accomplish anything.

Add to this, the "Joe Sixpack" fetish of the media in which "real America" is white, Midwestern, Christian, and conservative. The goal to strip the working class vote from the Democrats is nothing new, it was the heart of Nixon's Southern Strategy and has been in play for decades. Part of this has been standard conservative rhetoric since William F. Buckley in the sixties argued that names picked at random from the phone book would be better for government than the best and the brightest Ivy League figures (especially the women and minorities) the Democrats placed in visible posts. "Elite" became a four-letter word and education the mark of a lack of knowledge and understanding. When combined with voter guides distributed in churches, you had a group that had not be used to political power suddenly greatly emboldened and Republicans winning elections.

Then with the rise of Sarah Palin, this group that had been the engine of the Republican Revolution decided that it would also claim the steering wheel. They no longer wanted to just vote for the conservative establishment, they wanted to rule the roost themselves. This, of course, scares the solid excrement from many of those who have long occupied positions of power in the Republican hierarchy. The tide they have been fomenting in order to surf to power was now washing over them. They had figured they were playing these people, getting them to do their bidding; but now they've come back expecting to be the ones with the power themselves. The check of the structure has been swamped and as a result you get a crop of candidates who are not the polished, vetted types of figures we are used to. The mediation of the organization has broken down and the result is something that is unusual.