Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Feast of Saint Gilbert

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend is the feast of Saint Gilbert. Gilbert Gottfried turns 55 this weekend. Probably best known now for his voice work in Aladdin and as the AFLAC duck, he is a master stand-up. Indeed, Gilbert Gottfried is a throwback. He does something no other comedian does anymore...he tells jokes. It's not narrative or observational stuff, it's good old fashion jokes. And there is no one in the world who can take a joke and stretch it, milk it, work it in a way that fellow comics who know the joke are rolling on the floor at the way he takes twelve minutes to get through a four line joke like Gilbert Gottfried. Yes, the voice and the squint are obnoxious, but that's the point. When he gets laughs it isn't because he got a cheap laugh off his personality which will often leave you feeling uncomfortable.

He carries the torch from Milton Berle. Berle had the biggest book. There was not a joke written that Berle didn't know and didn't do. Jack Benny said that when you steal a joke from Berle, it isn't stealing, it's repossessing. In the same way, Gilbert Gottfried is encyclopedic in his knowledge of jokes.

Happy birthday, Gilbert Gottfried.

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, February 26, 2010

Is There a Duty of Self-Improvement?

We often think of ethical duties in negative terms, as a series of thou shalt not rules. And while it certainly is true that in general, one ought not lie, one ought not steal, one ought not put glue sticks where your roommate usually keeps his roll-on deodorant, there are also positive duties, things you need to do. But where there are the ones that everyone has to do whenever called upon, what about the ones that you have a choice about?

It is a good thing to learn to speak another language, to pick up an instrument, to read a book that opens your mind to new horizons. These sort of activities enrich you as a human being. They make you more interesting, more well rounded, closer to the ideal self you could be. Do you have to do something like this? If someone stays out of trouble, but uses their leisure time to be a slug, never going to concerts, plays, museums, or lectures, never finds films or books that make him rethink his assumptions about the world, never works on his backhand or gets in shape, is there something morally wrong with the lack of action? Do we have a duty to -- not at all times, but often enough -- do something to grow?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Exactly How Much Do You Hate the New Comment System?

O.k., so here's the deal with the comments. I've been using a comment system called Haloscan for the last almost four years, the entire length of this blog's history. Haloscan was free, but there were always those little ads at the bottom of the comment thread which were to be the source of the company's revenue stream. Haloscan was acquired by Echo who is now claiming that "Haloscan's software and hardware is beginning to fail. It is simply not feasible for Echo to continue to properly maintain two separate platforms." They automatically switched everyone over to their Echo comment system which comes with a short free trial period and then costs $12/year.

Everyone seems to dislike this new system and it seems silly to pay for something that does not do the job when there is a comment system internal to blogger that is free. Why not just switch?

The answer is that if I switch, I lose every comment in the history of the blog; four years of conversation -- gone. I've been poking around and there seems to be no way to get the comments out of Haloscan and into Blogger. The blog is not about me, but about setting up interesting questions and letting you folks go at it...and it's been an absolute joy for all this time. I hate to lose all those conversations. But I also hate wasting money on something that detracts from the blog and I really hate being coerced into it.

So, what would be your suggestion? Switch? Stay? Anyone know of any way to import the Haloscan comments into Blogger?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Interactive Observation

One of the tasks I have inherited as department chair is evaluating my colleagues and in this line of work, that means performing class observations. As a philosopher of science, questions of observation and measurement are central. It is a basic truism that there is no God's eye point of view, that in observing a system, you necessarily disturb that system. In other words, you can never quite measure what it is you want to measure because the very act of measurement is an interaction that causes whatever you are measuring to change.

This is relevant in terms of observing a philosophy class which is a discussion-based endeavor. Philosophy classes are often very sensitive to class make-up and chemistry. Add or subtract one or two people and it completely changes the room and therefore the conversation and thus the class as a whole. Add a strange faculty member who is evaluating the professor they feel an allegiance to and they get odd, often clamming up out of fear that they'll say something stupid and make the prof look bad.

But trying to become a classroom avatar is a mixed bag. Showing an engaged love of the material will make me seem sympathetic and thus relax the students, but I am clearly a different sort of presence in the conversation and cannot blend in. I speak with a different sense of authority, not only as a professional philosopher, but one with local authority.

So, the question is what do I do? If I do not contribute to the conversation, the artificiality of my strangely silent presence negatively affects the room and harms the measurement. If I do talk, then my contribution changes the system possibly throwing my colleague off a bit, possibly taking the class in a slightly different direction and because many of the students have been in my classes before it now becomes an awkward combination of my colleague's class and my class, something that clearly skews the observation. Further, by asking questions, I get a better sense of what the students have learned, but at the cost of a sense of my colleague's classroom style and acumen.

Is it appropriate to become a member of the class in observing a class or should the observer try to maintain distance?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Dream Interpretation

Last night I dreamed that I was playing in a pick-up basketball game against a young Carol Burnett. I could rebound over her, but she was in my face and I couldn't get off a good shot. What did it mean? Did it mean anything?

There is a long tradition of trying to figure out the meaning of dreams. The question is whether such an endeavor is itself meaningful.We can think of images and events in the dream as dots and the interpretation we give of them as lines connecting them. The question then seems to have five possible answers:

(1) The dots are random and not intrinsically connected. Dreams are just a by-product of neurological happenings during sleep. The body is fixing and cleaning itself, and when this happens to certain parts of the brain, images pop up. They don't really mean anything, so trying to connect the dots is an exercise in futility.

(2) The dots are random, but there is value in the creative act of trying to connect them. Dreams don't have any implicit meaning, but the act of interpretation endows them with meaning. Like reading poetry, where we can understand ourselves better through images, the randomness of dreams allows us a novel standpoint from which to rethink our lives.

(3) The dots are not random, but the lines aren't terribly interesting. Dreams are the result of neurological processes that are influenced by the brain states immediately before sleep, so all that we get from dreams is a sense of what we were thinking about before bed in a jumbled way. I saw a bit of the West Virginia/UConn game that evening, so of course basketball appears in the dream. So what?

(4) The dots are not random and the lines will give you insight into what your mind was really doing. This is the Freudian take in which the conscious mind is only a small part of psychological activity. Dreams are one place where we can get a sense of all that is happening behind the curtain. Interpretation of dreams is a crucial way to gain insight into our true selves.

(5) The dots are not random and the lines extend beyond yourself. Dreams, on this line, are the conduit connecting your mind with something outside of it, a collective consciousness or an aspect of reality one usually does not have access to. Dreams may be foretelling future events, giving you access to the dead, or other insights beyond reason.

Which seems the most reasonable? Or is there another possibility?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Teabag Terrorism?

Kerry wanted to have a discussion about whether Joseph Stack's suicide bombing of the IRS building in Austin last week constituted a terrorist attack. This is a semantic question (although do NOT think that this means it is trivial), what exactly do we mean by "an act of terrorism"?

The case in favor of it would be based on what we call an ostensive definition -- that is, defining a word X by pointing at clear examples that satisfy the sense of X and saying that "this and everything like it are X." We can point to the events of 9/11 and the attack in Oklahoma City as clear examples of terrorism and argue that there are important similarities with this example. In the Austin and 9/11 cases, you have individuals who had great antipathy for the policies of the American government and then used airplanes as weapons against notable buildings associated with the government in an attempt to cause death and destruction. Like the Oklahoma City case, it was someone tied to violent radicals on the American right who see themselves as the sole owners of "real America" and who see the democratic process as a threat when it does not give them what they want. We see these people charged by fringe and not so fringe conservative elements who preach hate and violence. Oklahoma City was clearly designed by these folks to send a message to the government by attacking a prominent federal building. This happened in this case as well. On these grounds, there does seem to be a case that this is terrorism in the way these other cases are.

The case against calling it terrorism is in the intent. It seems to be a necessary condition of an act of terrorism to cause terror, fear of a continuing wave of retributive attacks if a policy direction is not changed. the bombing of abortion clinics and the Atlanta Olympic Games by Eric Rudolph, for example, would be clear home-grown terrorism of this sort. The Austin case, however, did not seem to be designed to cause fear of death, but death itself. It seemed to be less associated with a centralized plan to undermine confidence in the government's ability to keep its citizens safe, than an attempt to murder federal employees because Stack did not like the mission of the agency. This was someone who was clearly connected with the violent rhetoric of the right, but it is not clear that this is part of a coordinated effort to create an atmosphere of fear. One might be able to argue that it was treason, that it was an act of war in a sense, but according to this line, one wouldn't call it terrorism.

To be honest, I don't know which is right. What do you think? Was it an act of terrorism?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Feast of Saint Jackie

My Fellow Comedists,

A quick note to those who didn't see this item in the bulletin, but I will be appearing at Magooby's Joke House in Baltimore on Sunday. Show starts at 8 and I've got a new set, so would be great to see people there.

This week is the birthday of the Great One, Jackie Gleason, actor, band leader, radio, tv, and movie star, but best known for his role as Ralph Kramden on The Honeymooners.

Comedy on television in the early days was dominated by folks like Ernie Kovacs and Sid Caesar, both of which gave us very heady sketch comedy. In the earliest days of television, the only people who could afford them were professionals, doctors, lawyers, and like, folks with more education than the average person in the 50s and so tv catered towards a particular socio-economic class where radio was a much more populist medium. Once the price started to come down and television became a more standard part of the post-war home across the board, radio stars crossed over and the content of television comedy started to aim at a different audience.

The Honeymooners came from a series of sketches Gleason had done on his variety show, Cavalcade of Stars, which featured singers, the June Taylor dancers, and comedy skits from his regulars which included the magnificent Art Carney (and of course, always opened with Gleason's tagline "and away we go..."). Gleason based the skits on his life growing up in tenements in Brooklyn. The characters were so real, so human, so flawed, that everyone could identify with their hopes, their failures, their insecurities. It became so popular that it was picked up by CBS as a stand alone show, although the original Alice, Pert Kelton, was not allowed to make the move because CBS would not pick up her contract because she was named in the red scare McCarthyist garbage of the era. And so Audrey Meadows was named for the role.

The Honeymooners stands as a monument to honesty in comedy. Don't try to be funny, try to be real. The reality is unsettling enough that seeing ourselves in the mirror forces us to laugh. This calls for a clip. And away we go...Happy birthday, Jackie Gleason.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, February 19, 2010

Olympic Unease: A Phenomenology of Fandom

I have long watched televised sports without the sound because commentators drive me nuts with their vacuous mumblings. Half the time you can say exactly what they are going to say when they say it and the other half of the time you are glad you would never have thought of anything so dumb.

The Olympics are perhaps the worst. The announcers are such homers, openly cheering for the Americans and taking nasty cheap shots at competitors from other nations. I hate it. The most indicative moment was from the winter games a decade or so back when American speed skater Dan Jansen who had been featured to death and was expected to win the gold medal, wiped out in a race. The American commentator looking to make excuses (because clearly an American athlete, much less one expected to win gold, certainly would never make a mistake), opened the interview by asking if the ice was slippery tonight. Jansen, looking at her like she was a moron replied, "It's ice. It's always slippery." These people have undermined any enthusiasm I had for watching.

At first, I couldn't figure out exactly what it was. But now I think I get it. My understanding of what it is to be a fan has been shaped by my experiences growing up in Baltimore, a city with a proud sports heritage, but a middle market city whose teams, at best, go through regular rebuilding cycles.

When you are a fan of teams that don't often win championships, being a fan means having hope in the face of doubt. You know they probably won't, but what is wonderful are the moments where you can see a glimmer of chance that they might. And when they do...WOW.

But cheering for the US in the Olympics is different. It's like rooting for the Yankees or Duke. It's not the thrill of hope and possibility, it's about entitlement and expectation. If they lose, it wasn't some heroic effort against the odds that inspires us with their moxy, rather it is a let down, a disappointment. We deserved that gold, it should have been ours. How dare someone else take it. It's like rooting for corporate lawyers in a product liability case. It just feels wrong.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Of Liberals and Libertarians

We've been getting a bunch of libertarians coming over to the playground in the last week, so it seems an opportune moment to pull out of Emile Durkheim's The Rules of Sociological Method passages that capture the difference between the two views.

Libertarianism is a movement spawning from the Enlightenment in which human beings were seen as discrete atomic rational entities. Just as ping pong balls in a box are subject to Newton's laws that will govern their motion, we are individuals endowed with reason and interests and we use this reason to determine how best to serve our self-interest. In this way, we are well-ordered beings. Our welfare is maximized when our self-interest is best met and being rational, I will always be able to determine for my interests in my context what will best serve my interests. Hence, any interference in my autonomy, any limits placed upon my liberty, will necessarily shut off the best path to my fulfillment, my self-actualization, and therefore should be opposed. as long as contracts are being honored and personal safety is ensured, just leave me alone. I am an atom, let me seek my natural energy state.

Contemporary liberalism, on the other hand, begins by denying this atomistic precondition. It begins by asserting the existence of what Durkheim calls "social facts."

"Here, then, is a category of facts with very distinctive characteristics: it consists of ways of acting, thinking, and feeling, external to the individual, and endowed with a power of coercion, by reason of which they control him. These ways of thinking could not be confused with biological phenomena, since they consist of representations and actions; nor with psychological phenomena, which exist only in the individual consciousness and through it."
These are objectively real things which (1) exist outside of individual consciousnesses, and (2) exert a coercive force on the individuals within the society in which the fact exists.
"If I do not submit to the conventions of society, if in my dress I do not conform to customs observed in my country and in my class, the ridicule I provoke, the social isolation in which I am kept, produce, although in attenuated form, the same effects as punishment in the strict sense of the word."
There are social facts that are usually not noticed because when we in accord with them, we get left alone or rewards we think we deserve because we exert effort in staying within the socially constructed boundaries. We only feel them when we violate them and the result is either internal (guilt, worry, paranoia) or external (arrest, social shunning, getting turned down for dates).

These social facts are not biological or psychological in that we can resist them (although doing so comes with a cost) and we can shape them by altering aspects of our culture and its institutions. While they do not have deterministic effects on any given person or any given decision, they do have empirically demonstrable statistical effects. It makes it more likely that a person in society X will do X or not do Y. He illustrated this with his work on suicide, clearly a personal decision deeply tied to individual circumstance and choice, but the rates of which predictably increase with certain social factors such as religious mix in an area (the more Protestants in a region, the higher the suicide rate in proportion).

Contemporary liberalism starts from the premise that we do not decide our action from the will of a blank slate endowed with reason, rather we are social beings who are affected in ways we don't realize by forces that result from the structure of our society. In addition, these forces are not randomly distributed, but weigh the cultural dice in the favor of some and against others. This means that advancement is in part the result of unfair capricious causes tied to our social structure, unfairness that can be dealt with by changing the culture.

Think of the hackneyed cliche "leveling the playing field." Libertarianism in its focus on atomic individuals argues that the only thing operative is the players. The playing field is irrelevant. Liberals on the other hand, argue that the playing itself is something that needs to be considered because while it does not force players to move in certain directions, the social facts "on the ground" do make certain moves more difficult and therefore both less likely to be tried by those moving in a certain direction and less likely to be successful. If you have two punters who kick equally well and who have been training equally hard, but one gets to kick with the wind while the other kicks against it, the effects will be different and we shouldn't celebrate the one and condemn the other. Liberals argue that there is a cultural wind. Speed skaters do not start next to one another, but are staggered. Libertarians would argue that one is being given an unfair head start, but in fact because of the social facts governing the lengths of turns on the inside and outside lanes, the seemingly unfair stagger is actually maximally fair.

The difference is a disagreement over the existence and effect of social facts.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Ethics of the Scam

Confused, Maybe Not clued me in to this article about an atheist run company that contracts with Christians to take care of their beloved pets after they a raptured away. When the end times comes, who will be around to take care of Fido and Fluffy? For $110, they'll take care of it.

I had a similar idea about fifteen years ago when reading an article about people who were having themselves cryogenically frozen when close to death in order to be thawed out when their diseases could be cured. My idea is that they could be cured if they had the money to afford the operation, but since everyone they know would be dead and since they would be considered legally dead and therefore could own no property, they would need a source of ready cash. They would have no cash, but they would have plenty of time before that, so why not use the power of compound interest? I would set up an account such that as soon as they are unfrozen , they would get the cash meaning that they would not only be healthy, but also rich. I would only take a small percentage of the interest as a management fee.

In both cases, neither I nor the post-apocalyptic dog walkers expect to have to pay up. We see it as free money, as taking a rube. But those buying the pet insurance or the post-mortem mutual fund see it as perfectly rational, indeed as desirable. They enter into the contract willingly, thinking it to their advantage.

The ethicist in the article sees this as identical to any sort of insurance arrangement. Those who sell auto insurance expect not to have to pay. That's how they make money. She sees nothing unusual, and therefore nothing wrong.

But surely this is a flawed analogy. In the case of health or auto insurance, they have actuaries who figure out the risk and adjust the price in their favor. It is an odds game that we play in case we hit the lotto of bad fortune. But this is a case where the insurer thinks there is absolutely no chance, that those who are their customers are just plain missing the boat. They think they are scamming them. Isn't there a problem there morally? Does the intent to scam mean that this is wrong or is it o.k. if the people you think you are scamming are hip to the scam and still do not think they are being taken? Is there something ethically problematic with this arrangement or is it like a Jewish publisher selling the New Testament, just business?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Percy Jackson, The Lightning Thief, and a Rebirth of Classical Education

I had the short people on campus not long ago and the strangest thing happened. We passed a colleague of mine and they asked what she taught. When I said Greek, the less short of the short people said, "Coooool. I wish I could do that when I grow up." She and her friends, of course, are head over heels for the Percy Jackson series. (She thought the movie was good but nowhere near as good as the book. She's a little literary snob...I'm so proud.)

I reflected on the wonder of seeing Rick Riordan at the DC Book Festival a while back and how youth book culture has gotten to a point where authors are treated like rock stars. But the questions that academics don't like to ask -- yet should ask anyway -- is "how do we capitalize on this?" My short person is so smitten that she is studying every book she can find at the library on ancient Greek mythology and classical Greek culture. She's learning how to transliterate into the Greek alphabet so she can pass notes with her friends. Because of these books, she is asking about The Iliad and The Odyssey. There is legitimate interest here in classical studies, what has long been among the least sexy fields in the academy.

I'm not saying that we'll see a generation of new classicists come out of this, but surely a new soft spot is being prepared. When CSI hit big, there was a giant leap in courses in chemistry and forensic science. If we play it right, could we eventually see something similar in classics. How do we appeal to these youngsters who are already primed to be interested in the deep questions the Greeks asked? I've thought we need a new series like the Hardy Boys, where Aristotle and Eudoxus leave Plato's Academy and try to solve eternal mysteries. Alright, what would be a good idea?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Ambiguity is the Pits

You pick up a jar of olives off of the shelf at the store and it says "pitted." Would you assume that "pitted" is an adjective describing the olives, that is, that the olives have pits in them, or would you interpret it as the simple past tense of the verb "to pit," that is, that the olives have had the pits removed? Both seem reasonable to me, but which one would you take it to mean at first glance?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Take My Wife, Please

My Fellow Comedists,

It's time to pass the plate again. In most religions they ask for money, but Comedists tithe jokes. In honor of Valentine's Day, let's do relationship jokes. So, dig deep and be generous.

My offering is an old classic:

A husband and wife are sitting around the breakfast table on Sunday morning and the wife says, "If I die before you, would you remarry?" Not looking up from his paper, the husband says, "Huh?" "I'm serious. If I die before you, would you remarry?" Turning the page, he says, "I don't know, I guess so." "Would you live with her in the house?" "Why are doing this?" he asks. "I just want to know. Would you live in the house?" "I don't know, I guess. It's paid off, why move?" "Would you sleep in the bed, OUR bed?" "Well, you've got to sleep somewhere and it's a perfectly good bed." "Would you let her use my golf clubs?" "Absolutely not." he replies. "You'd sleep in our bed, but you wouldn't let her use my golf clubs?" "No, she's left-handed."

Favorite relationship jokes?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, February 12, 2010

Is Love Natural?

With Valentine's Day (or VD, as it is sometimes abbreviated) coming up this weekend, let's think about love. Is romantic something we are biologically pre-programed to feel or is it culturally constructed, something we've been taught to feel? I'm not talking about crushes or the "oooooh" feeling one gets, but the "happily ever after" kind of love. Is it part of being human or part of being socialized in a culture like ours?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Human Limits

With the Olympics coming up, it is a good time to think of the physical limits of human abilities. Every year, humans set new records running faster, jumping higher, lifting more weight. Yes, some of it is the result of performance enhancing drugs, but because of superior training regimens and analytic technologies that perfect form to maximum efficiency, humans are able to do things they have never been able to do.

Yet, there are places where there hasn't been significant advancement. For example, Nolan Ryan pitched a baseball more than 100 miles per hour in the late 60s/early 70s, and here it is 40 years later and still you don't have anyone throwing significantly harder. Is there a human limitation here? Are there other examples of skills or achievements, physical or otherwise, that have not been improved upon over time?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Cheating and Breaking the Rules

Professional golf has made a certain kind of club illegal. It disallows certain kinds of grooves on the head that add spin to the shot, allowing players to cover up what would have been a bad spot with the extra spin. As the rule is written, there happen to be old clubs that no one uses anymore that slip in through a loophole, but clearly violate the spirit of the rule. Pro golfer Phil Mickelson tracked down one of these old clubs and was using it. His fellow golfers accused him of cheating. He argued that he was following the rules, but he was clearly trying to gain an advantage that his competitors did not have achieved not through effort or skill, but by using equipment they did not have because they were trying to adhere to both the letter and spirit of the rule.

He was following the rule, but was he cheating?

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Is Crime Healthy?

I've been working through Emile Durkheim's classic The Rules of Sociological Method and in one section he works to draw a line between types of acts that are normal and those that are pathological. I don't want to discuss the criterion, but as an example in the section he argues that crime is normal. Not only is it present in all societies, but he argues, it needs to be -- both because it serves a positive function and because it follows from the nature of social structures that there must be crime.

Crime, he argues, is deviance from socially expected norms that are initially culturally enforced through shame and ostracism, but eventually become encoded into law and formally enforced. But while society has formal and informal mechanisms to enforce uniformity, social change requires people who challenge the norms. Durkheim follows a path analogous to Darwin in saying that individuals will have random mutations that will cause them to be different, to act differently, and some of the changes are selected for and are social progress, while others are selected against and are crimes that the society needs to punish to maintain its integrity. Trying and punishing criminals provides opportunities to reflect on what makes something a crime and either strengthens the norm because it is seen as necessary for the social order or gets weaker because it is seen as arbitrary, capricious, and unnecessarily limiting. While individual crimes may be harmful to the society, crime as a general phenomenon is a challenging of the social order and needed for advancement.

The Utopian dream of a culture without crime is not only undesirable, but impossible. If a society were to eliminate everything it considered criminal activity at a given time, then it would not only have a stultifying degree of conformity, but it would take minor differences from the norm, differences that could previously be accepted and ignored, and turn them into crimes further crushing opportunities for progress and human freedom and growth.

Is this right? Is there a difference between criminal behavior and harmless weirdness? Would we outlaw weirdness if we got rid of more serious crimes? Is crime really something socially healthy? Couldn't we have a happier, freer society without crime?

Monday, February 08, 2010

If You Know Your History

This weekend would have been Bob Marley's 65th birthday, so let's play with a line from "Buffalo Soldier":

"If you know your history, then you know where you're coming from."
Is this true? Is history really that important? Was Santayana right that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it or is it more important to simply know what is going on now? Does it really matter how we got here, if we just care about where we are going? Was Winston Churchill correct that "history is written by the victors" and thereby is a biased account that reinforces the power of the powerful works and thus against Marley's image of the knowledge of history as an emancipating force?

Either way, happy birthday, Bob. We should all indeed lively up ourselves.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Practical Jokes

My Fellow Comedists,

This week's topic is practical jokes. The experience of having been pranked is the key to it all: first, the confusion, then the realization which gives rise to need for evasive action, then the sense of having been had, and finally a sense of perspective and appreciation that that was a good one.

My favorite one was the old bouillon cube in the shower head in college. The amount of time it took to start dissolving was just about the amount of time needed to get a head full of shampoo. Kool-aid powder in the shower head came out too fast and too quickly, but the bouillon cubes worked just right.

Of course, there are always the untended consequences. Like the time in high school when we doused a friend's underwear in women's perfume while he was still in the shower after gym class only to have him have an allergic reaction and have to go home thinking he had the chicken pox.

So, what are the best practical jokes you've ever pulled or know of? Any unintended consequence stories?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, February 05, 2010

Bipartisanship, Direct Democracy, and Neo-Lamarckianism

Thanks everyone for amazing questions this week. You folks are incredible. A couple political and a biological one today. 71 asks,

"What is bipartisanism and is there any real hope for it?"
One is tempted to say that "bipartisan" is like "politically correct," a phrase that has no real meaning, just emotive, rhetorical power. But i think the truth is that it is has several different meanings.

The Joe Lieberman meaning of bipartisan is "Let's get Republicans and centrist Democrats to come together on the one thing we all agree on. We hate liberals. Aren't they annoying? They are like that kid in class who would remind the teacher to assign us the homework she forgot about. Man, I hate those obnoxious goody-goodies, don't you? Do they not realize that corporations have MONEY and that they will give it to US?"

Then there's the David Broder approach to bipartisanism which is a deep underlying affinity for the greedy, self-interested aspect of conservatism, but a distaste for displaying the overt bigotry associated with it. They buy into social long as they don't have to pay for it or surrender their privileged position. It is a higher level approach that pairs positions on social concerns relating to unfair practices and institutions that resemble those of the Democrats with spending and taxation policy positions that resemble those of the "fiscally conservative" Republicans and when they conflict, tax cuts (at least for people in their tax bracket) and service cuts (for people not in their tax bracket) always get the trump card. Bipartisanship, on this approach, is the "Dockersization of America" "I don't mind black people, as long as they dress up to my level and wear khakis. And I don't mind gay people, as long as they dress down to my level and wear khakis."

Then we have the Obama approach to bipartisanship which is issue-specific. Take the public option as a perfect example. The liberals argued that health care is a matter of care, not contract, that we need a single-payer government run program that puts people ahead of profit. The conservatives say that the free market always improves efficiency, that the decisions of government bureaucrats are always inferior to those of profit-motivated executives, and that consumers always benefit from less government. So, let's try to meld these seemingly conflicting points of view. We'll create a situation where we keep competition in the marketplace, but we'll add a governmental competitor. That way, if the conservatives are right that competition fosters innovation, an extra competitor will supercharge them and if profit-driven corporations always outperform public sector offerings, they have nothing to fear. If the liberals are right, then there will be a government run choice for them and private sector competitors to keep them honest. It was set out to make both sides happy by including their most cherished principles.

But what happened? Conservatives complained that they didn't get absolutely everything they wanted making it equivalent to Hitler exterminating Jews and since it was coming from Obama anyway, forget it, they'll oppose anything short of his immediate resignation, free guns for all, and mandatory detention for anyone who votes Democratic. Liberals were beside themselves with joy because while they weren't getting everything, they might actually be getting SOMETHING (Go ask gramps again about the time they got Social Security passed. I never get tired of that story. It almost seems like science fiction.). And so-called moderates like Joe Lieberman turned violent in opposition to positions he had previously not only supported, but actively put forward because liberals like Anthony Weiner said they liked them and the entire point of politics is to make sure those liberals don't get anything they want, even if the American public has to suffer for it.

So, what are the chances for bipartisanship? If it means changing nothing and giving more money to large companies for obscene bonuses to upper management? I'd say the chances are pretty darn good.

Justin asks,
"Should the mass opinion of the people completely dictate which laws are passed by elected officials?"
Our system is a representative democracy, rather than a direct one. So, in that sense, we elect people who then vote their mind and conscience. The opinion of the people is expressed only at the time when the office holder runs for re-election. Indeed, this was in part the idea -- to isolate those who make the decisions from the populace because as Founding Father Alexander Hamilton held "The masses are asses." Surely, those who govern will be superior to the rabble and should not be beholden to their ill-informed opinions.

We have the system we have, instead of a parliamentary system, because the Founding Fathers didn't trust parties, thinking that they stepped on innovation and individual insight. They therefore instituted a winner take all system, instead of proportional representation and inadvertently made political parties stronger by forcing there to be only two (more than that in a winner take all system drives weaker third parties out) and having only two parties then means that monied interests can more easily influence the process, moving decision making away from the interests of the people (it should be made clear that the interests of the people and the positions preferred by the people are not identical).

Seeing this, a number of states have made the move halfway back towards direct democracy with ballot initiatives, a second legislative process the ability for the people to by-pass the legislature altogether and enact laws on their own. In this way, you have competing lawmaking processes and the elected officials thereby do have to be more responsive to the desires of their constituents, not only for re-election, but also because they can undo anything that they do. Thus we have a middle ground between complete legislative autonomy and politicians as puppets of the polls. It is an uneasy and imperfect arrangement, but occupies what I think is the proper middle ground. We don't our laws to change along with want the ebb and flow of public opinion. Tragic events, for example, have unexpected and often unfortunate effects on the collective psyche and we want our laws buffered from these intellectual potholes. At the same time, we do not want a group of legislators who are isolated from the people either. So, it is an awkward but necessary tension in our governmental structure.

Scott F asks,
"does Jean Baptiste Lamarck get to give a postmortem,"booyah!" to Darwinists with the growing findings indicating the importance of the epigenome?"
"Vive le gene!" indeed. Lamarck offered an evolutionary theory a generation before Darwin in which it is not random mutations that drive natural and sexual selection, but rather acquired traits. If the parents stretch their necks to reach higher leaves while foraging, their offspring will have necks that will stretch farther. Thus we get giraffes.

Lamarck was rejected by Darwin who postulated random changes as the source without a mechanism that was later supplied by Mendelian genetics. We see how traits are passed on and how random changes do pop up. So, we thought, case closed, Darwin 1, Lamarck 0. Game over.

But, of course, life is much more interesting than that. It turns out that genetic predisposition does mean genetic determinism. You may have the gene for x, but environmental circumstances may keep it from expressing itself in the way that makes x come about. Sure, nothing too weird there, the body responds to its environment and environmental changes might not give it a chance to do its worst. i may be genetically predisposed towards alcoholism, for example, but if I never drink, no harm done.

But it get stranger when we realize that -- ala Lamarck -- the environmental effects may not have been in MY environment, but rather those of previous generations. It turns out, for example, that people whose grandparents experienced periods of sustained hunger are much less likely to be diagnosed with type I diabetes whereas those whose grandparents were wealthy and never missed a meal are more likely to have the disease -- even when we control for genetics. Is this neo-Lamarckianism? In a sense, I think that's fair. We are not necessarily acquiring the trait as directly, but there is something resembling his mechanism at work in the world. Science is like fashion in some ways, things come back around just when you thought they were out of date.

Thanks again everyone for fantastic questions.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Optimism, Brains, Thinking, and Artificial Intelligence

Mind and brain questions today. David Airth asks,

"Why are some people optimistic and others pessimistic? I am an optimist, whereas my father was a pessimist."
Certainly, at least part of the answer lies in the brain. Researchers Tali Sharot, Alison Riccardi, Candace Raio, and Elizabeth Phelps had a much heralded article in Science recently that examined something related to this question (hat tip to Kevin). It is a well documented phenomenon that most people tend to be irrationally optimistic about future events. We project our hopes onto the world and convince ourselves that desired outcomes are more likely than they are and tend to act accordingly. This irrational optimism can be healthy in driving us to improve ourselves and our lot in life, but then it can lead to things like the housing bubble also.

This reflexive optimism, however, is not present in those who are depressed. Sharot, et al, looked to see whether there was activity in particular parts of the brain that could be correlated with this and found that there in deed were, areas in the amygdala and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex were much more active in those who were more optimistic.

So, we have a correlation, but what about causation? No doubt there are biological factors that may cause different normal brain states in different individuals and this can play out as a general tendency towards optimism or pessimism. Anyone with more than one child has no doubt been blown away with the subtle differences in personality that must at some level be biological.

Other biological factors no doubt play a part too. We know that exposure to sunlight, for example, has effects that change mood. But, of course, there are factors outside the brain, too. Experience changes the brain. What we see and what we think, is shaped by the brain but also shapes the brain. Those who are more pessimistic often have good reason for pessimism, having experienced insurmountable difficulties, terrible trauma, or shattered dreams. Parenting and childhood experiences surely have some effect.

Of course, it is an incredibly complex dance of biological and biographical factors intertwining that make us who we are. But, personally I'm with you. I'm an optimist. Maybe we can start a club.

Aside: a comic I've worked with several times wrote one of my current favorite jokes, "I went to a meeting of the Optimists' club. When I got here the room was half empty, but by the time I left it was half full."

Anonymous asks,
"How does Heidegger's notion of "thinking" differ from the normal way of thinking about "thinking"?"
Those who are better schooled in Heidegger, please correct me on this, but as I understand Heidegger, the key to being an authentic being (when you are truly authentic, you earn capitalization and are referred to as a Being) is acting, doing, creating yourself. We normally think of thinking as the opposite of doing, as passivity. There is the world we act in and then there is the mental world where we escape from our situation, our troubles, ourselves. This sort of thinking is seen by Heidegger as self-deception and takes you away from your humanity.

But this is not true of real thinking. To live a truly human life, you must not only do, but understand why you do what you do. Thinking, he argues, must be done in language and language is made up of concepts which endow the things they are attached to with meaning. By "thinking" what we are doing is connecting the world with language and thereby giving our lives meaning. "Language is the house of Being," he says. Mere contemplation keeps you from being fully human, merely acting will not work, but active thinking which connects your actions and situation in the world with a deeper sense of meaning will do the trick.

Crossing the analytic/continental divide, SteveD asks,
"If someone does not believe in the supernatural, on what basis can he reject the possibility of artificial intelligence? (Or, more pointedly, are folks like Searle who say strong AI is impossible smuggling in some supernatural notions of mind?)"
Let's start with the difference between weak and strong AI. Weak AI is a non-human brain that sure as heck looks like it's thinking. If I'm chatting over IM with two others, one a computer and one a human, and I can't tell the difference between them, that's weak AI since the simulation gives all appearances of thought. Strong AI is when there is actual thinking, internal experiences like we have, it not only reacts as if it is interested or in pain, but really is interested or in pain.

John Searle argues against the possibility of strong AI most famously with his Chinese Room argument wherein we have a person who speaks no Chinese sitting in a small room filled with manuals that have Chinese characters in them. When messages in Chinese are slipped under the door, he takes them, looks up the characters in the manuals and writes down the corresponding characters and slips the new message back under the door. To a Chinese speaker, it seems like he or she is having a conversation with someone. But who? The person in the room does not speak Chinese and has no idea what he is writing, so there is no thought there. It can only be said that the person is conversing with the room, but surely we don't want to attribute a mind to the room even if the person really, really thinks there is an intelligence conversing with him or her. It will be thus with any attempt to move from weak to strong AI. It will be an impostor mind, not a real mind.

Given that humans are intelligent, there must be something we have that the machine doesn't, indeed can't have. If you want to be a dualist and say that we have both a material brain and an immaterial soul, problem solved. But if the extra metaphysical baggage of a soul bothers you (and there is good reason for this), can you maintain Searle's position and still be a materialist, can we have something the computer can't without moving to anything non-material?

Searle himself is a materialist arguing that strong AI itself presumes dualism, that strong AI only makes sense if we presume that there is this difference between us and computational machines. If we den this, then we deny the possibility of strong AI and keep from importing a soul. It is akin to the move that the logical positivists make with God: it's not that I can prove that God doesn't exist, but rather that such metaphysical claims are not meaningful. Searle would say to you that no, you can't argue against strong AI without the supernatural if you accept the strong AI picture of what AI could be, but then it's a game of three card monty that you lose by even playing. Don't try to win the game, reject the game.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Cheating and Dumping

A couple good ethical and political questions. Anonymous (if that is your real name) asks,

"Is using cheat codes when playing a video game cheating?"
Clearly, the person is intentionally violating the spirit of the game in order to gain an unearned advantage. but is that cheating? There seems to be two angles here that need considering.

First is whether one can cheat when there is no one who is cheated. Games are subject to social contracts that can be changed at will by the players. When Gwydion and I would play racquetball in grad school, for example, the rules would change by the point. Was it still racquetball or something more akin to Calvinball? A semantic question, but it wasn't cheating as long as we both agreed to the change and played accordingly. Can you, then, cheat at solitaire? You can certainly violate the rules as standard play is understood. But since it is your game and yours alone, you are able to change the rules at will. Maybe the game you won isn't solitaire, but another easier solitaire-like game and you would certainly be guilty of lying if you said you had won without informing your listener of the illegal move/rule change. In the same way, you wouldn't have won the video game or achieved some degree of mastery even though you are in a place in the game that ordinarily requires such mastery. Is that cheating? Probably not, but it would be dishonest to claim that you legitimately reached that level.

The second interesting point is that it is a part of the code, a part of the game itself. Now if you are competing against the game and the game gives you this move, is it wrong to exploit its weakness? If you are playing chess and your opponent goofs and makes a stupid move, you are well within acceptable play to take advantage of it. Trick plays like the flea flicker in football are within the rules and so admissible. Isn't this just a clever use of the rules of the game which are coded into it? In a sense it is. but what it does is undermine the point of playing a game. Games are strange in that we simultaneously set out a goal for ourselves and cut off the easiest routes to that goal. the point of a game is to see if you can meet a challenge. Exploiting a cheat code may not be cheating, but it also isn't playing.

Brock asks,
"Under what circumstances is it morally acceptable to default on a debt? Specifically, they were discussing walking away from underwater mortgages, leaving the bank stuck with the property; but I'd be interested in a more general answer."
I've been thinking about posting on this question for a while, so I'm glad you asked it. An underwater mortgage is one in which the amount owed on the property is greater than the value of the property. With exploding adjustable rate mortgages that many consumers were tlaked into, not fully understanding what was happening, many people are left with the decision to overpay for a house or simply let the bank have it. I've heard a number of those stories on NPR also and it is amazing that those who stay couch it in explicitly moral terms -- I agreed to this mortgage and it would be wrong for me to abandon it. it is morally necessary to pay off your debts, even if it means that you no longer have the wealth needed to flourish in this culture. But is it a moral question? does a debt obligation imply a moral obligation?

One the one hand, it is interesting that this same question isn't asked of the lenders who lured people into these deals, many of whom certainly did not understand the intricate details. These contracts are incredibly complex and anyone without a financial and/or legal background will have a hard time making sense of them. Additionally, they believed -- because they were led to -- that those who sold them these mortgages were their advocates, were looking out for their interests, not that they were adversaries in a marketplace negotiation. Many of these people were manipulated for the profit of the lender or broker. Does this obviate the obligation they incur, if they were led into the deal in a way that violates the good faith they presumed was on the other side? I think a case could be made.

But the more basic question is whether it is a moral question at all. We have an odd obsession in this culture with "quitters being losers," but isn't discretion sometimes truly the better part of valor? When you signed on the bottom line, you entered into a deal, the line goes, and it is akin to lying if you don't follow through. But it was not a personal agreement, it was a contractual one. You set up an ongoing series of potential contracts. If you make all the payments, the bank will give you the house. If you do not make the payments, the bank gets the house and gets to keep your money. Don't you maintain the power to decide every time a payment is due whether you want to continue this business arrangement? If you can't make the payment, then you have no choice, but in a sense isn't it like a lease to own arrangement where you could discontinue the lease at any time for any reason or, if you chose, you could see it through? It seems to me that this line confuses the agreement I make with a friend to keep a secret or pick him up at his house at 8 with a financial agreement with a bank. these seem different in that the personal does come with moral attachments where the latter does not.

There is a moral consideration, though, and that is to the community. The abandoned houses have a horrible effect on the neighborhood in many ways. How much of an obligation do I have to my neighbors? That's an interesting question and it would be the one place where moral considerations come into play.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Singularities and Scientism

C. Ewing asks,

"how do we reconcile conservation of mass with singularities?"
Short answer, we don't.

Longer answer: Einstein's theory of general relativity accounts for gravitation in terms of a curvature of space with a fraction x/y. Under certain concentrations of mass and energy, the y in that fraction goes to zero. As we all remember from elementary school, you can't divide by zero, it is not defined, it has no meaning.

So, what happens when our equations in physics give us nonsense results? Three possibilities: First is ignore it. When we are figuring out a length and the answer is the square root of four, we may realize that the square root of four is either positive or negative two, but since we cannot have negative lengths, we just ignore the negative possibility because it is "not physical."

Second, is we say that we need an alternative interpretation of the trouble spots, that is, we come up with some story about what happens there that is consistent with the rest of the theory so that we can keep it. Physicists talk of "smoothing out" the singularities, that is, tinkering slightly with the math so that we keep the spirit of the approach, but patch up the problems. The problem is when we have multiple possible patches, how do we decide which one we want to accept?

Third, you point at that spot as a weakness in the theory. You say that theory works well as far as it goes, but the next theory that replaces it will have to improve on this. Science gives us insight, but always opens more questions to be answered and what happens in this sort of situation would just be one of the ones we need a new theory to deal with.

This gives us a nice segue to Gwydion's question,
"What are the critiques of scientism that do not resort to or invoke supernaturalism, and what (if any) merit do you give them? Layman's terms, please."
If we take scientism to be the view that the set of all justified beliefs is equivalent to the set of all legitimate scientific results, we have several problems. The first obvious one is determining what counts as a legitimate scientific result. Is it a matter of consensus among scientists? That then turns it into a sociological matter influenced by all sorts of economic, political, and race, gender, and class-based factors -- certainly not the rock solid basis that was advertised. Is it the set of conclusions that derive with certainty or high probability from that mythical logical beast "the scientific method"? There is no unique logic underlying all scientific practice and inference.

Further, tying one's beliefs to a literal interpretation of scientific theories comes with serious risk since our best theory at any given time is at least provisional. The great philosopher of science, Imre Lakatos, famously said that every theory is born refuted, in other words, scientists know that our best theories, strictly speaking are always wrong. They are useful, but they will be replaced by new theories after a time, new theories that come with different concepts. Newton's theory of mechanics and gravitation stood for 300 years, but when replaced by Einstein's theory of relativity, it required a radical revision of the basic notions of space, time, motion, mass, and energy. If we tie our cart to horses we know will die, we should not attach them in a way that doesn't allow them to be unhitched.

Finally, we come to the question of interpretation itself. The concerns with scientism are not in appeals to supernaturalism, but to metaphysics. If there was a half-way house for abused words, metaphysics is one of the poor lexicographic souls that would have to reside there. When philosophers say metaphysics (or "ontology" if we are trying to impress someone), is not pyramid power, ESP, and chaneling, but rather the study of reality. What really exists?

We want to say things about the world, for example, that there are electrons and gravitational fields, but this goes beyond the theory. Scientific theories are what an old physics prof of mine called "a bunch of squiggles." Some of those squiggles connect to observable quantities like distance or mass, things we can measure, often things we can experience. We seem to have good reason to believe these are real (although here Descartes' worry about bridging the gap between our perceptions and that which caused the perception). Other squiggles are mathematical formalism, mere grammar that is not meant to be world pointing. An equal sign or a negative sign, for example, are part of the language we use to express our equations, but not held to represent part of the system whose behavior is being described. But then there is a third group of squiggles, what we call "theoretical terms," things like potentials, affine connections, field values. these are terms we use to connect the observable terms into something we can use to make predictions about observations to come.

But are they real? The best our scientific theories will give us is that they are useful, or useful in certain contexts of modeling. The hard-core scientistic folks, for example Ernst Mach, held that because they are unobservable, they cannot be given a metaphysical status. They are mere tools, not real things. And thus Mach derided anyone who thought atoms were real. And therein lies the problem with scientism, it gets rid of God, but with him goes metaphysical entities that even the hard core lover of science would want.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Superbowl, Care Ethics, and Numbers

Tommy Scils asks,

"Saints or Colts?"

It depends on the question: which team do I think will win or which do I want to win? I think the colts will probably take it, but anyone who is not rooting for the Saints is a horrible person. I especially want the Saints because I started cheering for them in 1984 when Robert Irsay took the Colts from us in the middle of the night, like the spineless piece of garbage he was. When I was two years old, I carried Earl Morrall's playbook at training camp back at what used to be called Western Maryland College. My room as a boy was painted white and royal blue and I went to half the home games the last year they were in Memorial Stadium. Watching the colts win a Superbowl is like seeing your ex-wife, the one you loved with all your heart, who left you for the jerk she was cheating on you with, on television winning the lottery.

And that brings us to our second question from C. Ewing,
"Would you mind explaining cared-based ethics?"

Not at all. The idea is that human relations are not just calculations of pain and pleasure as the utilitarians would have it, contractual relations as the social contractarians argue, or based on abstract duties as Kant and the Deontologists (a great name for a band) argue, rather humans engage with each other in deep interpersonal ways, we have relationships. Those relationships come with moral weight. When I know you, I owe you.

If it is a dark rainy night and you are late for a very important meeting and you pass someone broken down on the side of the road without a cell phone and you don't stop, you should feel a bit guilty. But if it is an old friend, you are a complete cad. If it is your mom...what's the matter with you? The idea is that when you have a connection to someone, that connection is based on care, concern for the person's welfare and you need to act in such a way as to help promote that person's well-being.

It is a line that comes from insights of second-wave feminism who saw traditional ethics based upon notions of contract and exchange, ideas of the courtroom and marketplace. But these didn't fit when we looked at basic human roles like parent or spouse. I don't do something for TheWife in expectation that she will pay it back, I do it because I love her. Similarly for the shorties, I want what is best for them because I care and that care means that they occupy a privileged ethical position. Consider the classic utilitarian conundrum in which you have one child drowning at one end of a pool and two at the other. The utilitarian says that you must go to the side with two, but suppose the one was your child. We would think something wrong with the parent who acted according to this cold calculation. By having the child, you accepted a special ethical burden.

This is why when you send those chocolates to your beloved who doesn't care for you, she sends them back. Not that she doesn't like chocolate, after all, who doesn't like chocolate? But by accepting them, she would be completing an act of care and allowing herself to be part of a relationship and that means that she now has a certain standing towards you she does not want. "We can still be friends," delimits the relationship and the degree of care that can be expected.

An act is a good act if it reinforces, deepens the relationship and problematic if it violates the sense of care, alienating those in the relationship. Baltimore loved it Colts, but Irsay left for a new stadium. He took a care-based relationship and severed it for contractual, monetary concerns. And that is why I say "Geaux Saints!"

This also accounts for part of the answer to Claude's question:
"Why do people feel it dehumanizing to be labeled by a number instead of a name? There are hundreds, if not thousands, with my name (first + last), whereas numbers can be unique."

It is true that name or number would be a symbol we use to represent our identity and that the number would be unique, the difference is that the number is randomly assigned whereas the name is something we see as part of our identity. When someone addresses us by name s/he recognizes you for the person you are and thereby a relationship is implied. By using the number, or in many instances a title, it keeps you as an abstract being, as a generic human. But when we call someone by name, especially a first name or a nickname, we assert in our utterance that we are dealing with you as you, not just as anybody.