Thursday, September 30, 2010

Handwriting and the Examined Life

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but then Socrates never had to grade the exams. I have a stack of logic blue books in front of me which means I will do everything I can to avoid grading them...including writing a blog post about them. The first thing that strikes every prof when grading is how different the handwriting is. It leads to an empirical question that I've not yet been amply motivated to systematically study and so will, in the worst tradition of philosophy, ask for a priori guesses.

Is there a correlation between neatness of handwriting and success on handwritten exams? There are two elements here. The first of which I am less interested in, does the ease of reading by the instructor make the instructor more likely to give better grades? But we can set this aside by taking something more objective like a logic exam as our second element, which I find more interesting, is neater handwriting indicative of a more ordered mind? There has been handwriting analysis for centuries that has sought to uncover correspondences between personality and writing style. One might think that those who take the time to more neatly compose their answers also take the time to be more composed in answering. On the other hand, doctors are supposed to have notoriously poor handwriting and yet also are supposedly among the more intelligent and educated of the culture.

So, any relation between the neatness of one's handwriting and the cogence of the content of what has been written?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bullshit or Not: Cervantes 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.

Today is not only LilBro's birthday (happy birthday, man), but also that of Miguel de Cervantes, so let's play with a short quotation from him,

"Love and war are the same thing, and stratagems and policy are as allowable in the one as in the other."
Is it true that all is fair in love and war? In both, we leave ourselves vulnerable and seek certain objectives. Both tend to lead to hostilities which conclude with negotiations in which either (1) both sides find a way to exist next to each other, or (2) one dominates the other. In these negotiations are we not allowed strategems? But how apt is the metaphor, really?

As usual, feel free to leave either a response anywhere between one word and a dissertation.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Strong Gun Laws Work (Or, Rather, Weak Ones Don't)

Last week, a man with a concealed carry permit from the state of Virginia shot himself, his mother, and her doctor in Johns Hopkins Hospital because he wasn't pleased with the treatment offered by the top hospital on the planet Earth. Because he thought his mother's care was not moving her towards health quickly enough, he killed her. And then tried to kill the doctor. And then he killed himself. Thankfully there was an incredibly talented, incredibly smart, and incredibly dedicated trauma surgeon just two floors down (who wants to remain anonymous -- let's call him EGG) who saved the doctor's life.

Again, the state of Virginia decided that this man ought to be allowed to carry a loaded firearm with him wherever he went.

For those who claim that the more guns we have, the safer we are, please note that Johns Hopkins Hospital is crawling at all times with visibly armed Baltimore City Police officers. Their presence is sizable and unmistakable. The killer had to know they were there. He had to have seen them. This shooting did not occur because (and it is unbelievable that I have to type this next phrase) there were not enough guns in the hospital. These shootings happened because of Virginia's lax gun laws.

A new report out from Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group of over 500 mayors from across the country, traces the origins of guns used in crimes from every corner of the U.S. And guess what they found,

"states with the weakest gun laws are the top suppliers of the guns recovered in out-of-state crimes and are also the source of a greater proportion of likely trafficked guns."
Ten states provide the guns for almost half of the gun crimes across the country. Loosening restrictions does not make us safer, it makes ALL OF US less safe.

My suggestion, universal background checks with extended mandatory waiting periods of nine months and during that time, allow the person seeking the permit to have all the Viagra he can use -- after all, it serves the same purpose and is likely to harm many fewer people.

Monday, September 27, 2010

If You're Happy and You Know It

The shorter of the short people was singing "If You're Happy and You Know It" yesterday at the breakfast table and it led me to wonder whether the line is redundant. Is happiness opaque, can you be happy and not know it?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Comedist Confessions

My Fellow Comedists,

We just had Yom Kippur, the day when Jews around the world ask for forgiveness for their sins. (Leave it to the Jews to make the holiest day of the year a time set aside to feel guilty.) Catholics have confession and I was just listening the other day to Jim Gaffigan's take on confession -- "My wife keeps telling me I need to go to confession. It's been a long time. Now don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't enjoy lying to a holy man." And it struck me that we Comedists also need some means of absolution for our Comedist failings. We need an appropriate day. I was thinking of February 25th, Carrot Top's birthday, but I'll leave it open to suggestions.

Anyway, it seemed that in lieu of a formal day, we ought to have at least a post where we can air out our humorous sins and clear our consciences.

I will admit that I stifled a joke this week. I was driving the short people to school and as we passed a stable near us, the shorter of the short people read aloud a new sign that said "Weddings on horseback" and asked what it means. I thought it, but failed to say, "It means there will be more than one nag at the ceremony." Saint Shecky, please forgive me.

My fellow Comedists, where have you come up short?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, September 24, 2010

Prison Rape

Yesterday was the sentencing of the young man who stabbed his ex-girlfriend at the school where I teach and I overheard someone saying, upon hearing the sentence and the facility in which he would be held, that he would surely become someone's bitch there. It caught my ear in part because I had been thinking about my friend Andy lately who passed away last year. He was a criminologist who in the last years of his all too short life had become a leading expert on prison rape for the bureau of justice statistics.

It is interesting that prison rape has become a cultural cliche. Comedians have overused the theme, in films from The Shawshank Redemption to My Cousin Vinnie it is used as a plot device, and my guess that if a "Family Feud" style question of the form "Fill in the blank: 'prison ______'" were asked, "rape" would be one of the top answers.

Why is this?

My guess is that it is our eye for an eye notion of retributive justice. We see it as turnabout -- even when the crime for which the person was convicted was not rape. This is because at a deep level, we realize that rape is not about sex, but about power. Prison rape especially is about enforcing power relations and we revel in the just deserts of the person who has been arrested being forced into the position of the person who is victimized from a lack of power.

Crime in the public mind has had different meanings at different times. In the 1960s and 70s, portrayals of crime and lives that had to deal with crime were focused on social stability, on the ability to live a meaningful life in a world of crime. The assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK and then the drug related crime wave of the 70s made places unlivable. Think of the effect in the opening sequence of Barney Miller in which the chief's wife opens the drapes to expose the bars on the apartment window. Nice people felt trapped by crime.

In the early 80s, with Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky and the wave of white collar crime, the concept of crime became about greed and the problem was not the transaction but being caught. Think of the portrayal of Gordon Gecko in Wall Street.

But in the late 80s, we began to see prison rape show up as a cultural icon connected to crime in the collective consciousness. Why? Like so much else in our culture, it comes back to class insecurity. We are not comfortable that we and our families will necessarily be able to maintain our places and lifestyles and this constant low-level fear hums in us at all times and creates a sense of powerlessness. That manifests itself in a number of ways, but leads us to resent criminals because being victimized exacerbates our sense of being out of control. We see criminals through the lens of control as those who wrongly seized it and seek revenge upon them by positing prisons not as a place for rehabilitation or for being kept out of society, but rather as a place where they will become powerless, where they will experience at the hands of someone else what it means to not be in control of your life or body.

It will be interesting to see whether in the next couple of decades, if the social dynamics change whether the meaning of prison to white middle class Americans changes as well.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Is Stress a Choice?

Interesting question popped up in a conversation last night and wondered what you folks thought about it.

Is stress a choice? Do you choose to be stressed out by something or is it something that is not a matter of one's own control? We can practice stress reduction techniques, but do they alleviate the stress or just distract you from it? We tell people who are stressed about something we don't find stressful to relax, and we use the imperative form commanding them as if they could simply throw a switch and not be stressed by that particular stressor. But can you? If you use meditation, primal scream, or whatever other tool, are you masking the stress or actually eliminating it? Is that question even meaningful, that is, is stress nothing but the feeling of being stressed and therefore losing the feeling is equivalent to losing the stress? Or is choosing not to deal with something that would still cause the stress if faced head on? In Through the Looking Glass, the White Queen claims to believe six impossible things before breakfast. This is nonsense because we cannot just choose our beliefs. Is stress the same way?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Stickers and Gender

Guest-post from C.Ewing today:

So, I've been tutoring in a fourth grade class. The kids get stickers as they do their work, do chores in class, etc. At the beginning of the new week (usually Monday) they get a reward for having earned the most stickers. Positive reinforcement at work. But that's not the issue. The issue I have is that the boy with the most stickers and the girl with the most stickers are the two who get rewards.

And I'm wondering: why?

Now, it just so happens that in this particular case (the first I've seen) the boy and girl had precisely the same number of stickers. So the boy and girl in question were both on equal footing. If the two in class with the most stickers had been the ones getting prizes it would have worked out to be the same two people. There are more girls in the class. The ratio is actually about 2:1 in this particular class. There is thus more competition for the girls and less for the boys. That seems odd to me, since I would think it would be best just to have the class compete as a whole.

We've discussed gender interaction in schools on this blog before. I admit my staggering inexperience in this field. I've tutored before, but I've never done so in the classroom until now, and I've never done so with children until now. Is there an issue I'm missing here, which makes this make sense? I'm just not getting why the division. Granted, they're fourth graders, and maybe things are different with kids, but I don't see why or how.

If you're going to do the top two, I don't see why there's a gender division. Why top boy and top girl? Why no just the two with the most? There are more girls in the class. But wouldn't it just make the boys work harder so that at least one boy wins? Couldn't it beneficial in some way to have the boys and girls actually compete with one another? Is it just so that a boy and a girl will always win? What purpose does that serve? You just don't want to allow that one gender might not be represented?

Maybe I'm not looking at this right, but it seems odd to me, and possibly just outright wrong. Can anyone shed some light on this to help me make sense of it?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Plagiarism and Language

Guest-post from Michael Schmidt today:

The ethics of plagiarism have been crossing my computer screen a lot, lately.

On August 9, Stanley Fish wrote on opinion piece in the New York Times stating that plagiarism “is not a big moral deal.” The rules of plagiarism are “an insider’s obsession,” he contends, and plagiarism “is not a philosophical issue.” A lot of Fish’s argument (if it can be called that) seems to rest on the popularity (in some circles) of the notion that there is nothing that is truly original, so there’s no philosophically clean line distinguishing “original” text and copied text. The rules of what kind of copying are allowed, then, is just based on historical practice within disciplines.

I didn’t start by reading the Fish piece, however; I started by reading Lindsay Beyerstein’s critique of it , wherein she counters that plagiarism is a big moral deal, because it is deception and cheating. In this society, people get rewarded for having original ideas (no quotation marks) and to be rewarded for ideas you stole, and deceived others into thinking were yours, is morally wrong. That seemed about right to me.

Then, last week, The Scientist emailed me a blurb about an article on self-plagiarism. The topic of this article seems to give a little more weight to Fish’s contention that the rules of plagiarism are more like the arcane rules of golf; some people find it deeply wrong to steal words from yourself. If you aren’t stealing someone else’s ideas, who is harmed by such plagiarism?

I think that one answer to such a question is that others whom you are competing with are harmed. There are instances in which duplicate papers are published in multiple journals, which is a way of increasing your number of publications, and increasing the chances that your work will be cited. This is deception, because of the prevalent assumption that each article published represents new work. People who practice this sort of deception benefit unfairly in competition for jobs, promotions and grants, because, like it or not, some people in positions of evaluation just like to count up articles and citations.

But what if, as in the initial example in the linked article, you are just reusing a paragraph or two in the introduction? Is there an assumption made that all sentences are newly minted for the occasion? Are you really benefitting unfairly if you’re only saving yourself the 10 minutes needed for rewording the same old background to the same old problem you’ve been attacking the last 10 years? And what, really, would be the value of putting the same literature review in slightly different words?

That brought to mind the idea of “formulation.” Often, in science, we state a conclusion in a sentence of symbols, an equation. Nobody wants people to express equations differently every time; let’s say F = ma or E=mc2 and be done with it. Why do we find these repeated mathematical formulations salutary, but get upset when the same words are used in the same order in natural language sentences?

Monday, September 20, 2010

It's Pronounced I-gor

Listening to the news of the advancing hurricane, I cannot help but bristle every time the name of the storm being mispronounced.

If only the previous storm had been named Froedrich...

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Deep Metaphysical Quandary

My Fellow Comedists,

A brief metaphysical quandary this weekend (with apologies to Shulamith Oppenheim):

What is a full professor full of?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, September 17, 2010

Moral Obligation and Ignorance

Do we have a moral obligation to correct innocent ignorance? If you spot the Hank Aaron rookie card at a yard sale for a quarter, are you morally obligated to tell the owner what s/he has and how much it is really worth? Are we entitled to think badly of the person who doesn't and purchases it?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Big Unit

A foot is twelve inches long because that was the size of the King's foot. A rod is six and a half feet long -- methinks the King was a liar.

The unit of electrical resistance is the ohm, named after the Bavarian researcher Georg Ohm. The quantity electrical conductance is the inverse of resistance and its unit is therefore the mho, the only unit of measurement that makes any reference to the Three Stooges. The mho, however, is not universal and is sometimes called the siemens which I believe establishes a leitmotif for this post.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Can the Palestinian Authority Negotiate Peace With Israel?

Today's question is whether the Palestinian Authority can negotiate peace with Israel. I'm not asking whether it is likely to happen when Abbas sits down with Netanyahu, I'm asking a more basic question -- are they the ones who should be sitting down? What is being negotiated and who has the right to do it?

If they are negotiating peace, then it seems like the people who should be at the table are the combatants. The Palestinian Authority is not at war with Israel, Hamas is. So, why negotiate with the PA? Making peace wihtout addressing the combatants would be like apologizing to Hanno because I hit Kerry in the nose.

On the other hand, if they are negotiating and end to the occupation and establishing borders for a new Palestinian nation, it would seem that you would need to sit down with the closest thing to a provisional government. The PA is that, sort of, although they lost the election in Gaza to Hamas. Having Hamas at the table would in one way make any agreement that emerged more legitimate, but it would also practically guarantee that no agreement would emerge. You would be buying legitimacy at the price of sabotaging the process.

On the third hand, if what is being negotiated is something that will come back to the people for ratification in a referendum of some sort, then it wouldn't matter who did the negotiating since they really are not being given the power to speak for the people.

Should the PA be considered the voice for "the Palestinians"? What exactly are they negotiating? Or is there an exactly here?

Do You Have an Obligation to Join a Professional Organization?

I'm ashamed to admit that I did not renew my membership in the American Philosophical Association this year. Things are tight and it was expensive, so I let it go. I feel guilty about it; but not being on the job market, I can live without it, so it went.

Do we have a professional obligation to join our professional organization? It is not a union, so there's not the free rider concern one might have if the organization engaged in collective bargaining. At the same time, organizations like that do speak for the profession and one ought to have one's voice a part of the discussion. If folks pulled out, then it would no longer be a legitimate group whose size gives it a seat at the table in matters of public discourse.

Is there an professional obligation to join?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Pity Party

Haven't done this one in a while. Whom do you feel sorry for this week?

I feel sorry for Fred Phelps, spiritual leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, who has spent the last decade working his tail off to become the undisputed face of ignorant religious bigotry and lunacy for this nation only to get upstaged by some moron from Florida who threatens to burn the Koran on 9/11. All that work, all those signs, all the miles he's traveled protesting funerals and this schmuck gets national air time and even mentioned by the President for something that takes no creativity. Burning the Koran is so 1933, c'mon, and HE gets the attention? Dude, you were robbed.

I feel sorry for the fire chief of Boulder, Colorado. A major wildfire is raging and he goes before the t.v. cameras to report and tell the people that he understands their pain. Among those displaced by the fire and fearing for their homes and possessions, he disclosed, are his in-laws who are now living with him. No one wants this situation to end as soon as possible more than I do, he told the crowd of reporters. He said that he clearly understands how stressful the situation is.

I feel sorry for the nation's wealthy. Sure, we have a ballooning deficit, but not to extend the Bush tax cuts to those who are rich is absurd. Why punish the successful who worked so hard to inherit their wealth? Why take money from those who earn hundreds of times more than others who work long hours creating the products and services that generate their deservedly massive salaries. It's not fair asking them to pay their fair share.

So, whom do you feel sorry for today?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Repent, Terry Jones

My Fellow Comedists,

On this, the 9th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it's all over the news that the Dove World Outreach Center led by the Dr. Rev. Terry Jones is threatening to mark the date by burning copies of the Koran. While this act of hatred and bigotry ought to disturb everyone, it is especially offensive to Comedists who remember Terry Jones without the southern accent and white biker moustache, back when he was a member of Monty Python. Maybe playing a woman so frequently left him vulnerable to the homophobia of the Christian right. Maybe his roles as an upper-crust clueless businessman left him with sympathies for the well-heeled. Whatever the reason for his change from intellectual, irreverent comic to intolerant fundamentalist attention-seeker, we are deeply saddened and choose to remember Terry Jones as he was...a smart, funny man in a dress.

Remember, Terry Jones, he's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, September 10, 2010

Profitting From Non-Profits

Scott asks,

"Executives and employees of non-profit organizations can in many cases make a lot of money. (search here for some notable foundation and organization top salaries) It seems like a sham when a non-profit/not for profit exec drives around in $100,000 cars. But also, I don't think someone who manages multi-million dollar organization shouldn't be compensated decently.

Should the fact that someone is running a non-profit vs. for profit organization affect the size of the salary they should receive?

Personally, my gut reaction makes me think non-profit CEOs should take a pay cut because they should include the warm, fuzzy feeling you get working for non-profits (and presumably a deserving cause) as a benefit. But, I haven't been able to find good reason that would either back up or debunk my initial reaction."
There is a knee-jerk reaction that we have to large salaries in general, but deep unease when they are paid to executives of non-profits. Corporate executives draw their salaries off of the profits they accumulate for the shareholders of a corporations and are thereby seen in some way to be sharing in the wealth they generated. But those who run non-profits pull their salaries from donations that were made by people who thought that their money was going to help a cause they truly believe in. They thought they were helping the needy, not the greedy. To realize that your hard earned cash was not helping build schools in Haiti or food to flood victims in Pakistan, but going to pay for a car that you yourself could never afford does seem problematic.

But is it naive to believe that large charitable organizations, because they do good, ought to be run by poorly paid do-gooders? Often times, when it comes, for example, to policy matters, we have lobbyists on one side who are financed to the teeth by extremely well-off special interests and smaller groups of less well-financed people defending the needs of the less privileged or of the morally right. Three guesses who usually wins.

So, it does seem to be a utilitarian calculation. By paying big money to executives, are non-profits getting better people who will in turn raise even more money and be even more skilled at running organizations to both more efficiently provide help to those causes that need it and to more effectively advocate for change at the political level that will make the lot better for the most vulnerable? Sometimes you do get what you paid for. A money funnel does not solve problems, you do need folks with vision and organizational skill to put that money to its proper use and if you can get more out of the dollars donated by sending more than you'd like to one person's bank account, wouldn't the non-profit be well-served to do it. It would be an expensive, but prudent investment.

But, of course, that all hinges on a big IF. Do the high-paid executives really do the job better than there lesser compensated colleagues? Don't know, but that seems to be the point on which this discussion turns. We do lose a lot of good people from the non-profit sector because on many non-profit salaries, it's hard to raise a family and live comfortably. Should one have to give up personal security to live a life dedicated to a cause he or she believes in?

I wish I had a better answer, but I don't know where we would find the data to determine the effectiveness of our non-profit executives? We do have some regulars who work in the non-profit world (including Scott...and I'm looking at you too Ron). What is your sense?

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Nonsequitors, Class Discussions, and Salamanders

Michael Schmidt asks,

"When having a classroom discussion about relatively open-ended things like ethics, how do you signal to students that you value their contributions, while at the same time move the discussion in a different direction (ethical issues in science) from what they seem to want to discuss (the culpability of the German population under the Third Reich)?"
Oooh, a technical pedagogical question.

The underlying concern here, that students will stop participating if they don't feel safe in speaking, if they don't sense that their contributions will be validated as meaningful (even if they aren't) is a real one. Students are under immense pressure in the classroom. Grades are part of it, but only a small part. Those aren't just their classmates sitting around them: they're the people who will decide whether they get into a given fraternity or sorority, they are the people they hope to sleep with, they are the their entire peer group with whom they spend 24 hours a day, not just three or four hours a week and seeming too dumb or too smart is a risk.

The key to overcoming the worry voiced here requires us to enlarge the frame. The response to the off-topic comment will exist within a larger classroom context. Just as your best friend can tell you to STFU and you won't get offended, so too establishing a certain type of environment in the classroom is crucial. I do it two ways. One is with humor. It relaxes people. If you show that you are both deeply passionate about the subject and willing to laugh while discussing it, it sets a certain tone in which you can take things seriously without being completely serious. I also ask for questions, auto mechanics to quantum mechanics and use that time to show that I can and will take any comment or question seriously no matter how stupid it seems on the surface, showing it to have deeper implications.

By establishing this sort of feel to the room, a student will be less likely to internalize pulling the discussion away from their point back to where you wanted it to go. They won't feel slighted or called out for being stupid if they are more relaxed.

But then there's the question of dealing with the off-topic comment at the time. Two techniques that I use. The easy one is the extended dismissal. You want to say that while this is an interesting question, this is not a point we should be talking about right now. Notice that statement has two parts. First validate, second steer. Expand the validation by repeating the insight in new terms (a couple of them technical) and say in a sentence how this is connected with a live or classical and important debate. Then say, "This is actually something we talk about for weeks in philosophy 2XX, which is a great class. But I have something up my sleeve, I want to narrowly focus on this question."

The second technique is my favorite. It's intellectual improv, the Kevin Bacon approach, where you take what seems like a random comment and as seamlessly as possible make it appear to have been germane to the conversation the whole time. To use the example in the question, I would take the comment about the Third Reich and relate it to ethical issues in science by discussing the Nazis attempts to brand the theory of relativity as Jewish science and then we have a case study for the ethics in science point I originally wanted discussed. (Of course, that would be an easier step for me since I am writing a book on the subject and may just have some happy, happy news about it to report in the next couple weeks -- he types crossing his fingers, knocking on wood, and hoping that Gwydion doesn't use this as an excuse to start talking about superstition again...)

Other techniques?

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Free Trade and Fair Trade

An anonymous guest writes,

"What's the strongest case in the Free trade versus Fair trade argument? Do you a good book to recommend for further review?"
The argument on the free trade side is based on idea that economic growth benefits the entire economy. If we eliminate tariffs and other barriers to trade and leave the marketplace to its own design, then it will work with maximum efficiency, relocating jobs to where they produce the most goods at the lowest cost and creating a positive climate for consumers. This will give rise to an increase in economic activity and this causes a multiplier effect that will in turn allow prosperity to spread. If a rising tide lifts all boats, government control over economic behavior between nations is a dam that artificially keeps the tide from rising. By opening the dams and letting the water flow where and how it will, both economies will benefit.

Those on the fair trade side of things disavow this deep religious faith in markets for two reasons, one economic and one ethical. The economic argument contends that the increase in trade that results from opening markets does not positively affect all, but in fact negatively impacts the most vulnerable. Free trade might work, the line goes, if the playing field were level in terms of labor standards and environmental regulation, but this is not the case. As it stands, employers will take the jobs of those who have the fewest other prospects and move them to countries where they can get away with treating the workers the least humane and pollute with impunity. Arguing that those people benefit because this makes plastic goods at Walmart cheaper is missing the larger point. Yes, free trade does benefit some -- those among us with the most already -- but to think that benefiting them will then help everyone else is tantamount to thinking that one could dump gallon buckets of paint over the roof of a house and have it coat the walls evenly. Free trade, on this view, further exacerbates the divide in wealth causing even more to accumulate at the top to the detriment of those at the bottom.

The moral argument is that the move to free trade forces those who have the most reasonable safeguards for workers and the earth in place will then have to weaken them to remain competitive. Doing the right thing puts you at an unsustainable disadvantage, leaving you with the conundrum "do I do the right thing for the people and planet and let them starve or do I harm the people and planet in the name of helping them?" The third option is to insist that everyone do the right thing before they are allowed to play the game, but this is a rejection of free trade.

As for books, the only thing that pops to mind (and it's not a perfect fit) is Beth Shulman's The Betrayal of Work. I know others here (yes, I'm looking at you, Kerry) read a lot more on these issues and may have other suggestions.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Dangerous Fiction and More Dangerous Non-Fiction

Gwydion asks,

"What is the most dangerous fiction of the last 2500 years?"
It depends upon what we mean by dangerous. Dangerous to whom? Fiction derives its power by creating worlds which do not exist, but yet bear enough resemblance to the world which does exist that we are led to draw inferences about reality from the fantasy that can manipulated by what it is intentionally or unintentionally added in and left out.

If it means danger to the power structure, then we can look at works like Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Jungle which take real evil and humanize it by having us sympathize with fictional characters forced to live out in front of our eyes what we are able to successfully avoid by diverting our glances in the real world.

If on the other hand, we mean dangerous to the culture, we can look at a book like The Fountainhead which creates a fictional world designed to further ingrain harmful biases against those who are most in need of empathy. Dangerous fiction is writing that justifies the worst in us by oversimplifying the complexity that we live in.

Philo asks,
"Are political arguments (in newpaper columns, on TV, or blogs), as an effort to change people's politics, ultimately futile, if one's political orientation is biological?

"People's values are deeply embedded in their biology and genetic heritage," says UofT Professor and co-author Jordan Peterson. "This means you have to take a deeper view of political values and morality in terms of where these motives are coming from; political preferences do not emerge from a simple rational consideration of the issues."
[ ]"
Multifaceted question. I think that the premise of the question, that some aspect of one's political stance is strongly affected by biological factors is correct. There is no doubt that one's basic stance towards others is a major factor in determining one's politics and this comes at least in part from biology which may be affected by genetic, environmental, or other sources.

If it were completely deterministic -- if there were conservative or liberal genes -- then the question would be moot. But, of course, it is much more complicated than that. Surely, the Enlightenment picture of humans as rational calculators who weigh arguments and act according to the most reasonable is a gross oversimplification in the other direction, but political discourse does indeed play some active role sometimes in getting some people to change or at least reconsider long held positions.

At the same time, I don't think that opinion pieces are simply meant as rational considerations of issues. They are not meant to persuade in and of themselves. I believe that they are larger aspects of political p.r. No corporation believes that someone watching one commercial or seeing one billboard will suddenly decide to purchase their product, much less be moved to stop buying a competitor's product. But that is not the goal of the commercial speech act. The idea is to create a cloud around the consumer in which the product becomes a normal part of life, becomes comfortable, and thereby an option out of reflex.

In the same way, we have political messaging going on, where the idea is to associate ideas with images or concepts, not create logical inferences about them. This is the genius of Frank Luntz. Don't make arguments to convince people because it doesn't matter whether you are right or wrong, it only matters if you win and emotions are more powerful than logic. The purpose of much political speech to create a comfortable worldview within which one's policy preferences become natural.

This is not to say that we do not want inference within our political views, we do, because we are loathe to admit how much of it is indeed based on emotion and personality and so op/eds and the like often serve to backfill justifications for predetermined beliefs.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Baby Talk and Baseball

Kerry asks,

"Why do many of us speak to our pets in baby talk or in a voice different from our normal one?"

My conjecture is that because we think of our pets as our children. Now, it is actually a good thing to talk to newborn babies in our high pitched baby voice. The high pitch, especially a modulated high pitch, stimulates neural activity in the very young brain. Studies of the infants of depressed women show a marked retardation in the development of certain faculties and this is traced in large part to the difference in auditory stimulation. When one is depressed, one marker is a flat affect expressed in many ways, but in one's voice clearly. So, for the youngest children, the baby voice actually has biological value.

Our pets are thought of as members of the family, but ones we need to take responsibility for all the basic needs -- feeding, cleaning up after, training in the ways of living with the family. In these ways, pets are a lot like young children and my guess is that these similarities -- as well as that they are cute and look somewhat but not exactly like us -- trigger behaviors that are usually reserved for our treatment of kids.

PeterLC asks,
"Who is the greatest baseball player of all time and why? Let's settle it here for all time."
It's a pseudoquestion. It has no answer for two reasons. The first is Aristotle's objection to Plato in the Nicomachean Ethics -- there is no good, only good for. It is meaningful to ask whether Brooks Robinson or Mike Schmidt was the greatest defensive third baseman. It is meaningful to ask whether Sandy Koufax, Lefty Grove, or Whitey Ford was the greatest left-handed pitcher. It is meaningful to ask of all the ball players ever, who had the greatest impact on the game or who was the best leader in the locker room. But best ballplayer ever requires a "best for what?" answer first and that is precisely what this question doesn't give.

Second, even if we could answer this question, the problem is that we would have to be pulling from an incomplete data set because of the racism that keeps a number of the greatest players who ever played out of the conversation. The feats and talents of the Negro League players were not tallied or storied in the same way as their white counterparts. Josh Gibson, for example, should by all rights be a part of that conversation, but inevitably wouldn't be.


YKW asks,
"Two of the best baseball players of all time are also two of the biggest morons not worthy of being remembered, Cobb and Rose. And Bonds ain't far behind them on both accounts. Coincidence? Discuss."
Already did in one of my posts that has generated the most traffic in this blog's history -- the one discussing the absurdity that is Ayn Rand's "philosophy" titled "Is Human Excellence the Mark of Mental Illness?"". I do believe there is a reason why the greats were also head cases. Natural talent is enough to make one really, really good. But to be truly great, you have to have a certain kind of insecurity that drives you incessantly, that leads to irrational effort and focus, that allows you to devalue other parts of your life that ought to be valued in order to concentrate on this one element to a degree that is less than healthy. And that sort of insecurity also tends to make one a difficult personality, to see others as threats or inferior, to need to put others down to lift oneself up. you see it in every realm, not just sports. A lot of greats in every field are awkward human beings outside of the performance of their task.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics

I have schtick I do at the beginning of all my classes where I let students ask any question at all, anything from auto mechanics to quantum mechanics and if I don't know the answer I try to find it. When I first started the Playground, some former students asked if I could recreate it here, so every once in a while I do. If there is a question you've always wanted to ask, let 'er rip and we'll try to get to as many as I can during the week.

Porsches, Beetles, and Freedom

Today is 135th anniversary of the birth of Ferdinand Porsche, the Austrian engineer who created some of the most iconic automobiles in history. While he did design and build some of the early sportscars, the company bearing the family name was actually started by his son, Ferry. The father, on the other hand, is responsible for the greatest of the anti-sportscars, he is the brain behind the Volkswagen Beetle.

Porsche's original concept in the early 30s was a "car for everyone," a vehicle that would take automobiles from being playthings of the wealthy to standard means of transport and he had made long strides in making it. When Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, he liked the idea and brought it under the Reich's umbrella, changing the name slightly to Volkswagon -- the People's Car.

The great irony of this story is that the general who led the American troops in the World War Hitler started, Dwight D. Eisenhower, would become president and create the interstate highway system. These roads, envisioned originally in part as a means for moving military resources quickly about the country, combined with this vehicle and its microbus offspring with their facist roots to become the American symbol of life on the road, of the counter-culture with its anti-war commitments. War gave us our symbol of peace and fascism gave us our symbol of freedom.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Social Science and Technology

I'm leading a faculty development seminar designed to encourage the creation of Science, Technology, and society classes, courses that look at the ways in which science and/or technology affect and are affected by culture. At our first meeting yesterday, we began discussing the difference between science and technology. Science is the search for explanations for and the rules that govern natural phenomena. Technology, on the other hand, consists of human made tools that alter the way we do things. The two are different. One can create new technological advances without understanding anything of the science underlying their workings. Similarly, one can study science without any concern for applications.

But, of course, they are interconnected. New advances in our understandings of the way the world works does allow us to design new and better tools to solve preexisting problems. Similarly, new technologies often force us to realize that the world around us is more intricate and complex than we had thought before.

But when we think of scientific advances giving rise to new technologies, we think natural science -- physics giving us transistors, chemistry giving us plastics and Teflon, biology giving us new hybrid crops and gene therapy. But what about the social sciences? Do they spark technological advances? If a sociologist figures out a new way of organizing ourselves in a group that would make for a more efficient transfer and compilation of knowledge, for example, would that notion be a new technology? Would an economist who developed a new taxation scheme which increased fairness and encouraged economic growth have given us a new technology? Would a political scientist who develops a new voting regimen, something like instant run-off voting, or a new parliamentary structure be endowing humanity with a new technology?

We often think of technology in terms of objects, material tools we can hold in our hands like a light bulb. But now that most technological advances are really just clever sets of lines of code, should we consider these developments from the social sciences to be technologies too?

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The End of the Combat Mission and a Failed Experiment

Last night, the President, as he campaigned to do, declared an end to the combat mission in Iraq. I heard it reported on several news outlets that the reason for the invasion had been "to find weapons of mass destruction which were never discovered."

This is at best sloppy, at worst deceptive on the part of the news organizations. The weapons of mass destruction line was never a serious one among those who started this war and was adopted strictly because of its rhetorical power -- it polled best and was unassailable by critics. Insiders in the Bush administration admitted that this was not their true rationale and while it may be true that it was swallowed by those on Capital Hill who voted to fund the operation and in the media who pushed it on the public, nuclear, chemical, and biological weapon stocks were not the reason we went in.

Immediately after 9/11, Iraq was put on the table despite the fact that the nation and its brutal autocratic government had nothing to do with the attack. There was a longing from day one of the Bush administration to invade Iraq and they needed and excuse and cover that would manufacture consent. But why Iraq? Why couldn't they be satisfied with invading Afghanistan where there was a real link to the attacks? Or why not focus on Saudi Arabia where many of the hijackers and Osama bin Laden came from? There's plenty of oil there, why not them?

The fact is that the plans for Iraq had been in the works among heavyweight conservatives for a long time. Going back to the 90's, they gathered under the auspices of a think tank called the Project for the New American Century and formulated a plan. This plan was equal parts ideology, crony corporate capitalism, and scam.

The neo-conservatives who formulated this view differed from the conservative realists who sought a moderated peace and the old-line conservatives who had an isolationist, fortress America bent.

The basis for their view was an intellectualized version of "we're #1!" From conservative political philosopher Francis Fukuyama, neo-conservatism is based on a sort of neo-neo-Hegelianism. In Fukuyama's essay "The End of History?", he argues that liberal democracy is the ultimate form of government. All humans intrinsically will to be free. If you remove the impediments to that freedom, liberal democracy will spontaneously generate. As it spreads across the globe, it will lead to less and less conflict creating greater stability.

The neo-cons saw the newly sprouted liberal democracies as necessarily coupled with corporate capitalism. If you took down a repressive government, then a liberal democracy and open market would replace it. That country would have a multitude of needs which could be immediately filled by American-based corporations who would be able to rush into the void creating a higher standard of living in the invaded country, new profits in a new expanded market for the corporation, and a country that would then become economically dependent upon, politically grateful to, and therefore in every way a committed ally for the U.S.

Iraq was an easy target. It was living under sanctions that crippled its economy and military. No fly zones in the north and south left the government only in control of a third of its area. It was politically unstable inside that middle third. From the first Gulf War, there was already a negative feeling towards it on the part of the American public. In addition, it had the natural resources to generate the wealth that would fuel the whole project. It wasn't an accident that the original name for the invasion was Operation Iraqi Liberation. It was the perfect laboratory for the neo-conservative experiment.

Soon after Saddam Husein's government fell, a couple of enterprising Iraqis tried to start a cell phone company. You could think that the neo-conservatives who pay homage to the free market and the power of capitalism at every turn would laud such vision, such resourcefulness. But no. they were immediately shut down. these entrepreneurs were stepping on toes because in the run -up to the invasion, Bechtel, a major contributor to the G.O.P. was promised monopolistic control of the cell phone market. It was to be controlled by conservative and corporate interests.

And these insiders had their own insider ready to take over as their buddy at the top. Ahmed Chalabi was a frequent guest at the Heritage Foundation and other conservative think tanks. He was the head of the Iraqi National congress, a group opposed to the regime and friendly with U.S. interests. When the invasion started, the Bush administration made sure to parachute Chalabi himself and several compatriots into the country with weapons to make it look like he was a returning hero who could then be installed as the new President with nationalistic credentials. But the Iraqis didn't fall for it and he was not embraced by the people at all. The neo-cons, on the other hand, did fall for it as Chalabi ended up being an Iranian agent. The neo-cons were trying to give control of one of their designated "Axis of Evil" countries over to another member of that club. Geo-political Candid Camera at its best.

And so the whole experiment failed, crashed and burned. But any politician who pointed out the obvious was branded as unpatriotic. As it became undeniable, the move was to argue that it wasn't the invasion that was wrong, but that the occupation was poorly executed. Of course, this line undermines the entire reason for going. The liberal democracy and new market for American corporations were supposed to be unavoidable. they were supposed to just spring up, coming up from the ground like Jed Clampett's bubbling crude. But it didn't. The experiment was a complete and total failure.

But the most disappointing failure is that exactly what failed is not being pointed out. And for that reason, the legitimate fear is that we may be destined to repeat it.