Friday, April 30, 2010

What Makes You Ready for Art?

The taller of the short people has taken up the clarinet and as a result, we've been listening to clarinet music every morning on the way in. This has led them both to come to prefer swing. Not Duke Ellington or Count Basie's band, but Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey. After the 10,000th listen to "In the Mood," I decided maybe this would be a good time to expand things and for the last week, we've been listening to a five CD set spanning the history of jazz. We just got to the point where swing gives way to the pioneers of bebop. Dizzy went over o.k., but Bird and Monk not so much.

It made me recall my own history. In high school, while searching the upstairs at a discount record store I used to frequent (Chick's, for those who hail from the northwest side of Baltimore), I found a recording of Coltrane's '61 Stockholm concert. I couldn't make it through half of one side and just filed it away. A couple years later in college, one night, for no good reason, I put it on. It blew me away and I listened to it non-stop for a week.

What is the difference between my first and second listening? I have no doubt that one or the other of the short people will eventually come to love and appreciate modern jazz, but they are not ready for it right now. What is the change that occurs that makes one ready, receptive to the beauty in a work of art that one cannot perceive earlier? The same vibrations happen in the ears, the same signals are sent to the eyes. What is it that changes?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Happy Birthday, Kurt Godel

Today would be the 104th birthday of Kurt Godel, one of the great geniuses of the 20th century. Born in Austria (a part that is now in the Czech Republic), he attended the university in Vienna where began his studies in mathematics. While a mathematical mind of the highest caliber, he was anything but a one-dimensional thinker. He took courses in the history of philosophy with Heinrich Gomperz and was struck by the thought of Plato, something that would shape his approach to the deepest mathematical and meta-mathematical problems of the day.

The University of Vienna in the late 20s and early 30s was the place to be if one cared about mathematics. Math had long been placed on an intellectual pedestal, elevated to the unique status of template for all other fields of study, as the one place where absolutely certain knowledge could be found. But then non-Euclidean geometry, Cantor's work on transinfinite sets, and the paradoxes that were appearing in set theory cast deep doubts upon the underlying foundations of all of mathematics. There was a full-blown intellectual crisis at hand and the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers, mathematicians, physicists, and a sociologist, were meeting to try to save human knowledge.

The wunderkind of the group, Rudolf Carnap, was teaching a class in the foundations of mathematics and Godel took the course. Carnap quickly realized Godel's genius and procured him an invitation to join the Circle and then the mathematical subcircle, a series of colloquia run by Karl Menger, an assistant professor.

The Vienna Circle had tried to bring together aspects of Einstein's theory of relativity, Ludwig Wittgenstein's thought in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell's Principia Mathematica, in order to create a new firm foundation for all knowledge. They began by trying to formulate a criterion of cognitive significance, a rule that would tell meaningful propositions from nonsense. Of the meaningful claims, they divided them into those that were necessary truths and those that just happened to be true. They then looked for a philosophy of mathematics to justify those that were necessary and a philosophy of science to justify those that were contingent. Their approach to mathematics followed Russell in trying to ground all of mathematics in logic. To be a true mathematical claim, they argued, was to be provable.

As a quiet member, sitting in the back of the room at these conversations, Godel became intrigued by the question of provability. What and how much of the mathematics we accept was in fact provable? It was a technical question at the heart of the Logical Positivist mathematical project. But while the question fascinated him, the underlying philosophy behind the Positivist approach did not. He thought they were dead wrong. He was a Platonist. He thought that mathematical truths were absolute truths, not just truths within a logical system. He thought there was a higher realm of being, mathematical being and we were accessing its higher nature by doing math. This sort of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo was despised by the Positivists who wanted a completely metaphysics-free, scientific basis for understanding everything.

But Godel was fascinated and that meant something big was about to happen. In 1930, Godel did something amazing. He proved that the Positivist approach and any other like it, had to fail. He developed what is called his Incompleteness Theorem (extended in 1931). What he did in the most ingenious way was to figure out how to create a dictionary that lets you translate statements ABOUT mathematics, about what is true, about what is provable,... into actual mathematical equations such that there is a perfect mapping between true sentences IN mathematics and true sentences ABOUT mathematics. He then created a sentence that said "This sentence is unprovable" and showed that either it was true and therefore we had a mathematical sentence that was both true and unprovable or it was provable which made it false. This showed that we could not, as the Positivists wanted to do, contend that mathematical truth and provability are the same thing thereby undermining the most promising line of reasoning we had for saving the certainty of mathematics.

Personally, Godel was as strange and conflicted as his work. He was the nerd's nerd. Skinny with big round glasses, he was nervous and perpetually cold, wearing a heavy coat even in the summer. Yet, he was a driven ladies-man, or at least tried very hard to be. He eventually married a dancer. It is not entirely clear what sort of dancer, but from the fact that she was brash and lower class, there is good reason to suppose that her dancing was of a particular sort. The two of them bonded in a way that allowed them to fill the other's needs. When Nazi thugs would attack him on the street, figuring that since he was small and nerdy he must be Jewish, she would defend him, beating them off with an umbrella. She would taste his food -- Godel was perpetually concerned that someone was trying to poison him. He gave her position and status. Being a professor's wife was a big deal, and she wielded this in ways that put off those who were used to significant class status. They were both fascinated by the supernatural and attended seances and believed in much of what we would now call "new age."

After the Anschluss, once the Nazis took over Austria and the rest of his colleagues fled, Godel stayed, oblivious to politics. But once the attacks became frequent enough, he and his wife accepted an invitation to come to the U.S. He stayed at the Center for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he became very close with another refugee of the war Albert Einstein.

Those at the Institute convinced Godel that he ought to apply for American citizenship. This meant that one had to swear to uphold and defend the American Constitution, something most took as nominal. Not Godel. If he was going to adhere and defend something, he would know exactly what it is and so he undertook an exhaustive study of the document. And being Godel, he found a contradiction. He discovered that through the amendment process one could create a system that was both a democracy and a non-democracy. It is a basic theorem in logic that if a single contradiction is true, then all sentences are true, in other words, truth disappears, becomes meaningless. For a Platonist, this is disaster. Godel was frantic. He could not in good conscience say that he was willing to accept and defend it. He could not become an American. On the drive from Princeton to Philadelphia, Einstein and Oskar Morgenstern, mathematician and economist, tried to calm him down and convince him to just take the oath. He could help fix it once he was an American. They succeeded in getting him to agree to go through with it and as they walked into the immigration office, the judge who was to administer the oath saw Einstein. It happened to be the same judge who granted citizenship to Einstein, and the chance to have some face time with one of the world's most famous people was something he was not going to pass up. So, he invited Einstein back to his chambers. After some pleasantries, Einstein explained that they were here to get Godel his citizenship and the judge agreed to do it there personally, so they wouldn't have to wait in line. Before he administered the oath, he looked over at the mathematician and casually remarked that he must be relieved to be here in the United States, a democracy that could never become a fascist dictatorial state like his home in Europe. Godel jumped out of his skin and began citing chapter and verse explaining how the U.S. Constitution was rendered meaningless by its own structure, lecturing the judge on the intricacies of the document and formal logic. It took some time to calm him down, but eventually, he agreed to the oath and became a citizen.

But he became a lonely one when his wife passed away. She was his connection to the world and now he was alone and in a strange place. He shut himself off and, without his taster, stopped eating, sure that he was being poisoned. The poison didn't kill him, but the lack of food did as he all but starved himself to death. The irony of the man who showed that the provable had to be unprovable dying from that which was an attempt to stave off death is the sort of twist that one could only get with someone like Godel. And there was only one like Godel.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Justice and Progress

Today is Freedom Day in South Africa and seems like a fine day to raise a question philosophers have been kicking around for a while. The relaunching of the country came with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings where many of those who committed heinous acts came clean about what they did and in return faced no official sanctions. It was deemed necessary to have an honest and as full as possible accounting of what what actually happened to cleanse the national spirit, so that it could go forward with a positive and more unified sense of itself and not have the lingering hatred and mistrust.

At the time, many argued that this was a miscarriage of justice or at least a deal where they traded tranquility for justice. Others argued that it was anew sense of justice. Philosophers talk of justice in two standard ways. Distributive justice concerns itself with fairness in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunity, and power. Retributive justice is the notion of just deserts for one's actions.

Some tried to characterize what happened in South Africa as either an activity in retributive justice -- for their crimes again the culture and the majority, the formerly power lost the ability to frame the national narrative and construct the national mythology. To the victors go the spoils, but also the ability to shape the culture in their image and what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did was to make their version of the story impossible to maintain and therefore they paid their fine not only in power, but also in terms of the ability to shape the soul of the country, they became the outsiders, the oppressors, the villains.

Some argue that the notion of justice is too narrow with these two senses and that what we saw in South Africa's rebirth was a new and different type of justice. It is not one in which we punish the wicked by exacting some sort of revenge against them, but one in which those who are guilty are made to accept their guilt. It is the intrinsic act of honesty within the individual, the having to fully accept the picture of oneself as the person who acted intentionally and created the resulting effects, that brings the justice and not the externally imposed, eye for an eye, "take that, you scoundrel," doing unto the person. This is a third distinct notion of justice.

Yet others say that this does not amount to individual sanction and therefore no justice was done. Who is right?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Spill, Baby, Spill

Interesting time to start thinking about the energy bill. In the last week we had an oil platform explode, and sink off the coast of Louisiana, killing workers and spilling 1,000 barrels a day into the Gulf of Mexico which could harm the shrimp and fish industries and we've had the burials of 29 workers from the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch mine. With chants of "drill here, drill now" and we must deregulate, the ramifications of the Republicans' energy policy is clear for all to see.

"Clean coal" is a myth, a catchphrase designed by pr people. Coal is dirty and harmful to environment and the mines are run by those who care neither for the planet nor their workers. Massey Energy runs a dirty operation in every sense of the word. It's CEO, Don Blankenship, is a right-wing climate change denier who was caught in the French Riviera with the West Virginia Supreme court Chief Justice who was hearing a multimillion dollar case against Massey.

Conservatives follow Grover Norquist in saying that they want to make government small enough to drown in a bathtub. By allowing one of their major contributors to get away with running shoddy mines, they've already murdered the loved ones of 29 families, in the name of increased profits and pollution.

And then we've got the oil spill. Obama tried a Clintonian triangulation move, opening up more domestic shoreline for drilling thinking that he could take away a conservative talking point. Of course, that doesn't seem like a very good idea right now.

What are the options? With all the hot air around energy, may wind is something to think about. How effective is it? "Spanish power prices fell an annual 26 percent in the first quarter because of the surge in supplies from wind and hydroelectric production, the Spanish wind-industry trade group said in a statement yesterday on its Web site." Indeed, in Germany, they have had times of negative energy prices, "Negative electricity prices happen when supply outstrips demand and we literally don’t know where to put it,” Peter Smits, head of central Europe at Swiss power-equipment maker ABB Ltd., said in an interview on April 20 in Hanover. “We will see this happen more often in the future."

So, should we go with a renewable source that causes no pollution or should we continue to have miners die or our shorelines destroyed by oil spills? We know which way the elected officials will take us. What do we need to do to change it?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Passing the Plate: Exam Jokes

My Fellow Comedists,

It's that time again. Most religions ask you to donate money, but Comedists tithe jokes. Since we are only a week out from final exams, let's do school and exam jokes. My contributions:

A teacher was wrapping up the last day of class by discussing the final exam. Being stern, he said there would be no excuses for not showing up on time, barring a dire medical condition or an immediate family member's death.

One smart ass, male student asked, "What about extreme sexual exhaustion?"

After the laughter had subsided, the teacher glared at the student, and said, "Not an excuse, you can use your other hand to write."

A student interrupts the physics professor's lecture with the one question all professors hate, "Why do I need to know this?" the professor looks at the young man and asks what his major is. "Pre-med," he replies. "Then the answer would be that you need to know this to saves lives." "And how exactly does knowing physics saves lives?" he asks with a snotty attitude. "It keep morons like you from becoming doctors," the professor replied.

Your favorites? Give generously.

Live, love, and laugh.

Irreverend Steve

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Metaphysics of Rainbows

There's a line from a Radiators' song "Give me a rainbow that's for real" that leads to the question, "Are rainbows real?" Are rainbows things or are they illusions? Can X be an illusion if any competent observer would observe X?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Love and Lust

Springtime, when thoughts supposedly turn to love. Or something close, at least. What is the relationship -- if any -- between romantic love and lust? Are they completely unrelated? Does one always accompany the other? Does one tend to lead to the other? If so, under what conditions? More likely for certain types of people than others?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bullshit or Not: John Muir Edition

Been a while since we've done this, but on the eve of Earth Day and John Muir's birthday, it seems appropriate to play with a quotation from him:

Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation? And what creature of all that the Lord has taken the pains to make is not essential to the completeness of that unit - the cosmos? The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge. From the dust of the earth, from the common elementary fund, the Creator has made Homo sapiens. From the same material he has made every other creature, however noxious and insignificant to us. They are earth-born companions and our fellow mortals.... This star, our own good earth, made many a successful journey around the heavens ere man was made, and whole kingdoms of creatures enjoyed existence and returned to dust ere man appeared to claim them. After human beings have also played their part in Creation's plan, they too may disappear without any general burning or extraordinary commotion whatever.
Are humans just another species of equivalent moral value to the smallest transmicroscopic creature, or is there sopmething special about us? Human exceptionalism, bullshit or not?

As usual, feel free to leave anything in the comments from a single word to a dissertation.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Medical Mushrooms and the Politcs of Medicine

It seems like an appropriate subject for 4/20. We've got a medical marijuana march today in Harrisburg, a subject that seems like it's a just a matter of time. Doctors should have any tools at the ready that can help people who are suffering or that can aid in overall wellness.

An article in The New York Times last week, took the subject beyond marijuana to hallucinogenics.

As a retired clinical psychologist, Clark Martin was well acquainted with traditional treatments for depression, but his own case seemed untreatable as he struggled through chemotherapy and other grueling regimens for kidney cancer. Counseling seemed futile to him. So did the antidepressant pills he tried.

Nothing had any lasting effect until, at the age of 65, he had his first psychedelic experience. He left his home in Vancouver, Wash., to take part in an experiment at Johns Hopkins medical school involving psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient found in certain mushrooms...

After taking the hallucinogen, Dr. Martin put on an eye mask and headphones, and lay on a couch listening to classical music as he contemplated the universe.

“All of a sudden, everything familiar started evaporating,” he recalled. “Imagine you fall off a boat out in the open ocean, and you turn around, and the boat is gone. And then the water’s gone. And then you’re gone.”

Today, more than a year later, Dr. Martin credits that six-hour experience with helping him overcome his depression and profoundly transforming his relationships with his daughter and friends. He ranks it among the most meaningful events of his life, which makes him a fairly typical member of a growing club of experimental subjects. As a retired clinical psychologist, Clark Martin was well acquainted with traditional treatments for depression, but his own case seemed untreatable as he struggled through chemotherapy and other grueling regimens for kidney cancer. Counseling seemed futile to him. So did the antidepressant pills he tried.
The writer points out that these substances became unavailable for research when the became associated with the counter-culture. If those dirty hippies are saying they are good, then they must not only be of no help, but surely they are so harmful we won't even consider them. The culture war in this country has had an effect on the direction of science.

It makes you realize exactly how delicate scientific pursuit is in the face of the social/cultural/political context in which it is embedded. The first sociologist to think systematically about the scientific community and how it works was Robert K. Merton who argued that you cannot separate the scientific revolution from the social upheaval surrounding the battle between Catholicism and Protestantism. what science gets done when is a function of the when as much as it is of the science.

That these experiments are beginning again is a sign of cultural shift. the baby-boomers are old enough now to be non-threatening to the system -- indeed, they are the system -- and this is but one sign of a different zeitgeist, a signal that in certain interesting ways the times they are a-changing.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Discrimination and Exclusivity

The Supreme Court is hearing a case today about the right to exclude. The University of California's Hastings Law School has an "all comers" policy in which groups can receive school recognition and a small budget by applying and meeting certain criteria, among them is that the group be open to everyone. The campus chapter of the Christian Legal Society joined the national organization and thereby wrote into their charter that gay men, lesbians, and anyone advocating premarital sex could not join. They were then removed from the list of groups receiving school recognition and funding.

Among their arguments is that this is challenging their right of assembly. Of course, it isn't, it is challenging their right to assemble with public funding, but it raises an interesting question. Is there a difference between discrimination and exclusivity?

Fraternities and sororities would violate an "all comers" clause on gender grounds and because they disallow belonging to more than one Greek organization. But what about sports teams, honor societies, or plays? Does the fact that everyone can try out mean that it is not discriminatory even though it is exclusive?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Feast of Saint Pigmeat

My Fellow Comedists,

This week marks the feast day of Dewey Markham, better known as Pigmeat from one of the characters he played in his routine, "Sweet Papa Pigmeat." Born in Durham, north Carolina, he started in show business as a tap dancer, but quickly came to the stage as a comedian. He toured the Vaudeville circuit, playing mostly in the south performing alongside such talents as Bessie Smith, Red Buttons, and Milton Berle. His humor was typical for the time, racy and character-based, but as big as they come on stage.

In the segregated world of post-WWII show business, Pigmeat was trapped in the African-American community. His talent made him a star in black clubs becoming the house comic of The Apollo in New York City and releasing a series of comedy albums. He appeared on The Ed Sullivan show, but his biggest hit would lead to a come-back later in the 60s. Lampooning southern formality, he played a southern judge dealing with all sorts of oddballs in his courtroom. Setting it to music, in what may be the first rap album of all time, is famous line "Here comes da' judge" became a catchphrase when he was brought onto Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In to resurrect the bit.

Thank you Pigmeat.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, April 16, 2010

Age, Hair, and Gender

As a graying, balding male, it was interesting to see yesterday that a friend of mine, a female professor here, decided to stop coloring her hair. While we as a culture worship youth as a general policy, the choice to allow one's grays to show is a much bigger deal for women. Why is this? It is especially interesting when you are in a job where authority is an issue and age generally brings with it, respect that is wrongly denied female instructors. What is at issue with allowing oneself to be a woman in this culture with gray hair that is not an issue for men?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Is Manned Spaceflight Obsolete?

With new proposals for NASA on the table, it seems a good time to ask whether a manned flight to Mars -- the centerpiece of the Bush space priorities -- makes any sense and more generally whether sending people instead of robots into space makes sense.

To support human life, there has to be a whole host of systems added to the flight which takes space, time, weight, and lots of cash that could otherwise be dedicated to scientific instrumentation that could be taking meaurements and running additional experiments. What is the payoff for these costs? Yes, there are some things that can be done by people that we cannot do or at least cannot be done well without. And there is a cost to the image -- the public loves seeing people in space because it accords with our science fiction fantasies. But if the purpose of space exploration is science and more science is done by sending metal and no flesh, why spend money to do less science, just for a boost of the cultural imagination?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Heritage Not Hate?

In the last week, we have had the Virginia governor declare April Confederate History Month and downplay the role of slavery and had Mississippi governor and former chair of the Republican National Committee Haley Barber back him up declaring the unimportance of that small fact.

It is certainly true that every culture has aspects that deserve to be celebrated. There are parts of Southern American life that should be held up and enjoyed in both in past and present form. Every culture has its skeletons, that for which it ought to be ashamed and which it ought to wrestle with authentically in its evolution towards a more just community. At times of cultural celebration, we should be able to look past these things with an asterisk in order to celebrate what is admirable about the heritage of a group.

Yet, the calls to do this with Southern culture seem odd in that the icons and remembrances intentionally selected are not those of the culture writ large, but tend to be the ones associated with the injustices. The South is a part of this country and those representing it have been quick to praise those who serve and die for the nation and to paint those who disagree with them as unamerican or treasonous. So, it stands to reason that being an American is something they treasure. Yet the emblem they choose for their part of American culture is that associated with the ultimate treasonous act, the succession of the Southern States, indeed one which occurred for the purposes of defending the institution of slavery, the ultimate form of racism short of genocide. The "State's rights" movement -- which was a fight for the right for states to discriminate against minorities -- chose as its symbol the Confederate battle flag, something that carries the emotional and historical baggage of hate.

So, it is odd that the claim is made that such celebrations of Southern culture are wrapped up as "Confederate history" along with claims that it is purely about heritage, not hate. "The South" is not synonymous with "the Confederacy" unless you want to include the intentional bigotry the Confederacy was fighting for. We can certainly celebrate the 4th of July setting aside the genocide we committed against the Native Americans, but it would be absurd if we did it by wearing Custer beards and then got upset that people were being provoked.

Southern culture deserves to be celebrated, but the question is if such moves are really about heritage not hate, why are these supposed celebrations always made with explicit reference to intentionally provocative symbols that evoke the history of hate and not neutral icons that denote the positive aspects of the culture?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

How Ugly, How Soon?

A couple posts about race today and tomorrow. This one is about a book. Dan Gutman has written a nice series of books that the shorter of the short people enjoys. The protagonist is a boy living with his mother after a divorce who loves to play little league. He discovers an old baseball card in the attic and finds that he has the power to travel in time by rubbing the cards. He is transported back to the time of the card and finds himself in adventures with famous ballplayers.

They are thoughtful and well-researched. The Shoeless Joe Jackson book, for example, not only shows great empathy for what it must have been like for Joe to be famous and illiterate (his wife signed the autographs), but also showed how organized crime was a part of the times and the fear and frustrations that came from living through the flu epidemic.

He's been reading them and we were pleased to see a Jackie Robinson book in the series because we are always keen to bring up questions of social justice and do not want to hide from our children the explicitly racist past of this society and the way in which racist echoes still remain. They need to see injustice to be moved to help.

But then we read through before giving it to him and found an artistic decision that worried us. Gutman, not wanting to sugar-coat the treatment that Robinson received has him regularly called the n-word in the course of the book. On the one hand, it does perfectly well mesh with his historical accuracy and demonstrates how bad it was for Robinson. At the same time, I don't want my child exposed to that word yet. On the one hand, we have obliquely discussed lynching, but left out much of the gruesome nature of the act. On the other hand, this is a form of linguistic racism that is still live.

So, the question for today is how soon, how ugly? How much of our history should we be honest about and when?

Monday, April 12, 2010

What's the Difference: Work, Job, and Labor

David Brooks was rooting FOR Duke in the NCAA men's basketball championship. By itself, that is sufficient for condemnation on character grounds, but then he spelled out his reason -- the Duke players are "paragons of privilege" and in line with the central conservative myth, "rich people work longer hours than middle class or poor people." The wealthy are wealthy because they work harder and therefore deserve more.

Matt Taibbi in a take-down well worth the read, accuses Brooks of equivocating on "time spent on the job" and "time spent working," arguing that not all jobs are work.

I would give just about anything to sit David Brooks down in front of some single mother somewhere who’s pulling two shitty minimum-wage jobs just to be able to afford a pair of $19 Mossimo sneakers at Target for her kid, and have him tell her, with a straight face, that her main problem is that she doesn’t work as hard as Jamie Dimon.

Only a person who has never actually held a real job could say something like this. There is, of course, a huge difference between working 80 hours a week in a profession that you love and which promises you vast financial rewards, and working 80 hours a week digging ditches for a septic-tank company, or listening to impatient assholes scream at you at some airport ticket counter all day long, or even teaching disinterested, uncontrollable kids in some crappy school district with metal detectors on every door.
It seems to me that there is implicit in this discussion a notion of labor which is not being set out.

So, today's question is what is the difference between work, job, and labor?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Uncle Steve's Comedy Extravaganza

My Fellow Comedists,

Got a show coming up this Wednesday evening at Gettysburg College, 8-10 p.m. at the Junction. Along with Karen Land from the theater department, we've been teaching two students in an independent study course this semester on writing and performing stand-up comedy. Their final exam is in the shape of a show that I am MCing. Along with our sets will be three professional comics. Drink Till We're Funny's T. Brad Hudson will headline, and the features will be Ayanna Dookie, fresh off an appearance at the DC Improv, and the winner of the 2009 Baltimore funniest person, Dorian Gray.

The show is free and should be an absolute blast, so if you are in the area, come on out and see us.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Space, Time, and Celebration

Today is my birthday and I've been thinking about the way we celebrate people. When people are alive, we celebrate them in time -- birthdays, anniversaries, and the like. But when people die, we celebrate them in space -- grave sites, accident sites, etc. This flips, however, when the person is famous. Living famous people are celebrated in space -- celebrity homes, places where great feats were accomplished, but famous dead people are celebrated in time, e.g., Washington's birthday.

This seems to be transferring with technology to cyberspace where Facebook allows us to celebrate the birthdays of the living and creates virtual spaces to allow remembrances of those who have passed.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

No, Not Mostly Bollcks

Manolis asks,

"I just want a philosopher's opinion: are cultural studies, film studies, critical theory, social theory and whole bunch of English departments all mostly bollocks?

I have the sneaking suspicion that those fields love a theory, especially a flimsily-constructed one built on pop psychological foundations, much more than they do thinking things through, rigour, analysis etc."

The fields you list are certainly intellectually legitimate. The underlying theme in the examples you cite is what we call in philosophy the theory dependence of observation. The idea is that among Enlightenment empiricists, folks like John Locke, for example, the notion of observation was taken as basic. We receive observations, impressions the world make on our senses. Locke himself wonders which of these impressions are really in the things themselves and which only in our minds (this is what leads to his famous distinction between primary and secondary qualities), but the idea is that we receive the ideas complete from the outside impressed on the inside.

Kant argues that our observations are a combination of raw unformed data from the senses and categories or molds that the mind uses to take the mush of sensory input and construct a well-formed world out of it in our minds. He argues that all people have an innate faculty that orders our sensory input in one and the same uniform way. There are certain ways we have to see things because that's just how we're wired to make sense of the world.

Nietzsche argues that these intellectual cookie cutters that we use on the observational dough provided by our eyes, ears, etc. are influenced by our cultural background and this in turn is determined by the distribution of political power. If you control a culture, you control its language and if you control its language, you control the frames through which we understand things. He begins the project of showing how our labels for ideas, our words have histories that show a development we may not be aware of and how the words remain interestingly pregnant with their etymological baggage.

This is the basic insight behind those who objected to the modernist view with its purity of observation. Seeing may be believing, but it is believing in a way that is influenced by social power. Their task is to show where there is hidden politics in notions we thought were completely objective and world referring.

And this is an interesting and important project. This does not mean that every attempt is successful and certainly during the 80s and 90s there was an extension of this doctrine in which everything was held to be mere social constructs, a view that is certainly naive. The more sophisticated project -- showing what and how much is socially constructed -- is a worthwhile discussion, but there were those who went overboard. If you read pieces over at Butterflies and Wheels, you'll find folks trying to keep such excess in check. But I don't think some poor work condemns the project as a whole. Every field has its crap -- after all, someone published my articles.

The one I have been thinking of differently though is film studies and I've been wondering about this for a while. We have a burgeoning film studies department here and I was wondering if it really is an independent field of study or if it is just a new subfield of literature and theater. English departments cover prose, poetry, lyrical composition, and plays. What is so different about film? We have theater departments that cover the technical stagecraft angles for plays, why would film studies be a field unto itself and not be split between language departments and theater departments?

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Yale Sex Ban

Yale University has banned all romantic and sexual contact between faculty and undergraduate students. It had previously been in place that it was unacceptable between any faculty member and any student where there was “direct pedagogical or supervisory responsibilities,” but this is a ban for the entire class of undergraduate students and the entire class of faculty members, so the question is not one of harassment or trading favors. Graduate students are not affected in either direction.

Those arguing in its favor contend that even if there is no academic threat from such relationships, in an overwhelming number of cases they turn out badly for the student because of the power differential. It causes rifts in the faculty and leads to morale issues. On these utilitarian grounds, they argue the ban is appropriate.

There is also a duty-based argument against which is that the students are under the care of the institution and since they exercise in loco parentis authority in other ways, this is just a reasonable extension.

The argument against the ban is rights-based. These are adults and there is no professional relationship that is being unfairly compromised, so what gives the administration the right to tell these autonomous individuals whom they can and cannot sleep with.

Which argument seems stronger, or is there one not considered?

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Designated Hitter, Should It Stay or Should It Go?

One more. Peter LC asks,

"With the beginning of baseball season looming - what do people think about the designated hitter? Good, bad or indifferent? Is the American League a better game than the National League because of the dh or visa versa? "
I have to admit I am of two minds here. On the one hand, pure baseball without the designated hitter is a much more cerebral game. There is a great element of strategy that is not present in AL baseball. Managers do less managing. You don't see bunts, double switches, and single runs mean less. As someone who loves the game for its intricacies, I do prefer National League play for those reasons -- it puts pieces back on the chess board.

I'm not moved by the "AL ball is fun to watch from a home run derby perspective because you don't have the automatic out, but rather an additional slugger" line. But I will agree with the sentiment that it allows certain players who rightfully deserve it, a chance to continue to play. Think of someone like Harold Baines who was a master hitter and had his career lengthened by at least five years by the DH rule. He was productive as a designated hitter despite having bad knees and it does seem a shame to limit play to young guys when there are veterans like that who contribute to the team not only with their bat, but also with their leadership.

Most people are strongly pro- or anti- here, I come down as weakly anti. What do you folks think?

Monday, April 05, 2010

Other Than Grades

With the holidays last week, I wasn't able to answer several questions, so let's get to a few more of them this week.

Jeff asks,

"So the problems with the "grade model" of education are fairly obvious, and discussed before on this blog. The worry, however, is that many students enter a class without any antecedent interest in the subject - they are there to fill credits or what have you. It would be a dangerous (to the education of these students) to assume that we, as educators, can inspire an interest in learning the subject for its own sake that could operate independent of grades. We can hope to inspire that kind of interest against the backdrop of grades, but that's quite another matter all together. Grades can be a source of motivation to do the work, and thus hopefully reap some of the educational benefits.

So my question is this - what other models might we use? How deep would they have to be implemented (e.g., with students raised in an education system without grades, or could it be implemented at an upper level)?"
It is certainly true that to suddenly take students raised in the gading model and putting them in anything else would likely lead to the worst case scenario unless they were emerged in a pre-existing culture that modeled a different type of learning.

I think I've told this story before, but one of the middle schoolers to whom I taught philosophy at the Montessori school where my kids attend moved to a traditional high school. When her old school was discussed in an English class, the teacher and other students honestly did not understand why she would do any work if she wasn't being graded on it. Their question made no sense to her because learning is what school was for. You wanted to know stuff and figuring out how to figure it out is just what you did at school. To them, of course, obeying the authority so that you get the carrot of a good mark or avoid the stick of a bad one is why you do something in school. The idea of internalized motivation to learn simply made no sense to those socialized in a system in which students are treated like rats in a psychology experiment. Students are conditioned and simply removing the positive and negative stimuli is not likely to result in freed minds. There does need to be a radical shift in understanding one's place relative to the world of the classroom.

At the same time, I don't mean to say that there is no assessment of learning, but it is very different from the grading notion. It results in narratives that come from in depth discussions between learner and teacher. It requires discussions before hand, where the two discuss goals and approaches. It requires the maturity and self-discipline to work according to the plan without being shackled to a chair and force-fed material. And it requires much more time to evaluate progress in a more holistic and nuanced way. It is much more time intensive for both learner and teacher, but it holds the student to a higher standard. In essence, this is the model we use for graduate students after they pass their quals and how we evaluate colleagues in the Academy, but it is only once someone has shown they are part of the club that we allow them to be assessed in this way. The rabble surely could not be treated the way we treat each other.

How one goes about making the shift in educational contexts more broadly is a difficult question, but it is a necessary condition that you have students and teachers who buy in to the new system whole-heartedly. Anyone attend or work at a college or other educational institution where there are no grades? How does/did it work for you and what adjustment problems or hidden difficulties are there?

Friday, April 02, 2010

Pope Jokes

My Fellow Comedists,

O.k., I admit picking Christianity's holiest weekend to do pope jokes may not be the classiest thing I've ever done, but, well, I just want to make sure we can make these jokes while there still is a pope.

My favorite pope joke:

The pope and a Jewish lawyer die at precisely the same moment and arrive before the pearly gates. Looking at his book, Saint Peter welcomes them both to heaven and asks if it would alright if they shared a ride to their eternal resting places. Agreeing, they get into a golf cart with Saint Peter and drive off down the streets of heaven. Driving through a neighborhood of the most spectacular mansions, Saint Peter stops the cart in front of the largest one in the area. Massive, with guilded gold trim around the windows, a manicured lawn with gorgeous statues and a fountain, magnificent in every way. Saint Peter said to the lawyer, "This is where you will be spending eternity, welcome." He thanked Saint Peter nad walked into his home. "Oh my," thought the Pope, "If that is where a Jewish lawyer lives, imagine where I'll be." Saint Peter drives off and after a few turns, stops in front of a non-decript, little row house in the middle of a block and says to the Pope, "And this is where you will be spending the afterlife." Stunned, the Pope says, "Saint Peter, I don't mean to sound ungrateful but in my life I was Pope. I dedicated my life to serving God and leading his flock. After that, I get this house and a Jewish lawyer gets that one?" Saint Peter looks at him and says, "Up here in heaven, we've got plenty of Popes, but Jewish lawyers?"

Here are a couple of Pope-related sets:
Jim Gaffigan - The Pope
Joke of the DayStand-Up ComedyFree Online Games
John Oliver - The Pope's Astronomer
Joke of the DayStand-Up ComedyFree Online Games

Your favorite pope jokes?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Happy Saint Shecky's Day

My Fellow Comedists,

This is the holiest day of year for Comedists, the feast day of Saint Shecky. For those unschooled in the new religion, it all began when I was teaching an ethics class at a community college and was trying to explain the difference between ethical precepts and social mores. A student raised his hand and asked "what are mores?" to which I replied, "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's a more." At that moment, I knew that I was in the presence of something bigger. Set ups that perfect don't just happen randomly. no, this was evidence of comic design. It had to show the hand of the Cosmic Comic.

And so began Comedism. Others claim God to be all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful, but fail to understand that He/She/They are in fact all-funny. The universe is a joke and only the righteous are in on it.

The central theological notion of Comedism is the joke. Jokes have two parts, a set up which leads to to think of a situation in one way and a punchline which makes you realize there was a different way to see it. And that is the key to living the Comedist life, there is always another perspective, another way to understand things. There can be no Comedist fundamentalists because the foundational principles of Comedism speak against privileged, unique interpretations. Fundamentalists aren't funny, can't be funny -- well, not intentionally anyway.

So on this holiest of days, let us read from our sacred scripture, the Comedist Manifesto:

In the beginning, there was the LORD. And He was funny.

On the first day, the LORD made light. He made light of everything. And the LORD sat back and said, "This is funny."

On the second day, the LORD created the Heavens and the Earth (in a way that is completely consistent with our best current geological theories). And He created the sun, and did moon the Earth. And the LORD sat back and said, "This is funny."

On the third day, the Lord looked upon the Earth and created the land and seas. Upon the land He did create plants. And then He took the plant from the Earth and the water from the sea and created the squirting lapel flower. And the LORD sat back and said, "This is funny."

On the fourth day, the LORD created the animals. He created the chicken and its rubber facsimile. He created the elephant. And He sayeth unto the pachyderm, "Funny, you don't look Jewish." And he did elongate the trunk. The giraffe, upon seeing this, laughed and craned his short neck to gaze again upon the elephant's protruding proboscis. And the LORD sayeth unto the giraffe, "Think that was funny spot boy? Watch this." And the LORD placed the elephant and the giraffe side-by-side. And He did giggle. And the LORD did lose track of how many zebras He had created. And so He put bar codes on them. And the LORD sat back and said, "This is funny."

On the fifth day, the LORD created man in His own image, only not quite so well-endowed. And looking upon his loins, man sayeth unto the LORD, "What is this, some kind of joke?" And the LORD sat back and said, "This is funny."

On the sixth day, the LORD sayeth unto man, "No, but this is." And the LORD created woman. And woman did look at the loins of man. And she did laugh. And the LORD sayeth unto man, "Behold, your wife...please." And man did sayeth unto the LORD, "Behold her? I just met her." And the LORD sat back and said, "This is funny."

On the seventh day, the LORD did rest and sayeth unto the angels, "Watch this." And the LORD did sayeth unto man and woman that they could live in the apartment above the Garden of Eden Novelty Shop, rent-free. But that they could not partake of the fruit of the Tree of Comedy. And as a joke, the LORD had created woman a week before her period and had placed only a small amount of chocolate in the apartment. And she was pissy. And so woman did go to the Tree of Comedy. And she did take the yellow, elongated fruit. And she did cast aside its casing. And she ate of the fruit of the Tree of Comedy. Seeing this, man did comment upon the shape of the fruit of the Tree of Comedy and its similarity to the shape of his own loins. And he did quip that woman seemed to have no problem taking the fruit into her mouth. And woman did retort that the fruit was much larger, although just as hard. And man did turn to storm away. And man's foot did fall upon the peel of the fruit of the Tree of Comedy. And man did fall...down a flight of stairs...onto a skateboard...across the floor...out a window...and head first into a perfectly placed pool of jello. From the jello, the hindquarters of man did protrudeth. Looking down upon the hindquarters of man, woman did ask the serpent about the sphincter between the hindquarters. And the serpent did sayeth unto woman, "Rectum? Damn near killed him." And the LORD sat back and said, "This is fucking hilarious."


Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve