Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Drinking Games

I had lunch yesterday with a Playground regular and had an interesting discussion about an element of college policy. Underage students are not allowed to possess alcohol, those of age are, but even those who may legally purchase and imbibe are not allowed to play drinking games. The rationale is that the games lead to unhealthy binge drinking which is the cause of a number of problems on campuses across the country including alcohol poisoning and in some cases death. The question was whether the college should be able to restrict how one drinks or what one does while drinking and not just the act of drinking itself. Does the prohibition of games keep students from learning the necessary lessons needed to control their own drinking? Is it justified on utilitarian grounds?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Mental Health Parity and Identity

One of most celebrated questions in philosophy is the mind/body problem, that is, are the mind and the brain the same thing or different things. If they are different, how, if at all, are they interconnected? Let's take an oblique approach to this in terms of treating mental dysfunction. One often hears arguments for "mental health parity" (as opposed to "mental health parody" which involves humorous sketches including Sigmund Freud) according to which health insurance ought to cover treatment for psychiatric and psychological issues in the same way that it does bodily concerns. The question immediately raised is whether psychological issues are, in fact, simply a subset of physical issues. There is no doubt that mental health overlaps with physical health, that neurotransmitter issues, for example, have behavioral effects, but is mental health completely subsumed under physical health in the same way that, say, cardiology would be or do parts of mental health treatment lay outside of the realm of medical treatment for physical well-being?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Felon Suffrage

Every once in a while you hear about reconsideration of restoring felons' right to vote after they've been released from prison. But I want to take the question back a step. Should felons lose their voting rights at all? Incarceration can be justified in terms of punishment, but more pressingly in terms of the need to separate certain people from the society for safety reasons. But do I really need to be protected from their votes? Have they shown themselves so irresponsible in the use of their freedoms in trampling the rights of others that they should be stripped of one of the most important elements of citizenship?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Novel Statements

One of the most amazing aspects of our linguistic faculties (and I don't mean Spanish professors) is our ability to create and understand entirely novel statements. It is one thing to be conditioned to respond to certain stimuli in linguistic ways. Someone hands you something, you say "Thank you." someone says "Thank you" to you, you say "You're welcome." But it is something else entirely to utter and comprehend sentences that have never been said before.

Teaching is interesting in this way, because if you speak enough, try to come up with enough new and useful metaphors, you will find yourself saying something every once in a while that you are sure has never been said before in the entire history of language, a completely new sentence.

And that's today's challenge. Come up with a sentence that you think has never been spoken or written. My offering:

I like my drill sergeants like I like my tofu, extra firm.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Today is opening convocation. The school year is starting. I meet my freshman advisees today -- and what a bunch they are. Looking over their SAT scores and transcripts, they are incredible. Overachievers doesn't begin to reach it and to top it off, they will be in my First Year Seminar class, Einstein in Wonderland: Physics, Philosophy, and Other Nonsense. It's going to be a good semester.

But today, a full four years before graduation, I begin to see their concern about finding a job, a good job, and it makes you sad.

A couple days ago, I was in Dancing Bear, our favorite toy store, picking something up for the shorter of the short people's birthday and got to talking to the owner who used to be a research biologist before starting a business selling cool toys -- virtually no plastic and very few battery operated gadgets, about half of them are the ones you and your parents and grandparents remember from childhood and half are new really neat, interesting games. He was telling me that he worked for years in a lab where no one was happy and as a result he was miserable. But now he hangs out and plays all day. Everyone who leaves his stores is smiling. It's just a fun place with a joyful atmosphere. You could see someone who found his niche. It isn't what he studied in college. But it is what gives him a happy life.

And that is something that I worry that we lose sight of in this culture. You are what you do. You can't leave work at work. If your job is unfulfilling or overly stressful, it will impact your relationships, everything else. But with the economy like it is, folks are thrilled to have any job. The "American Dream" deals with what you have not what you do.

How do I communicate this to students who are worried about student loan debt? Who are concerned about marketability? Who see college as vo-tech training? Who have parents who are stoking these fears?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

D.U.C.K.: Tastes Like Chicken Edition

"Seemingly Trivial Unanswered Problems In Discourse," which goes by the acronym D.U.C.K., is an exercise in which we take a question that should not be asked, a question that seems to have no answer or a perfectly trivial answer and actually have a discussion about it for no good reason.

which did come first, the chicken or the egg?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Can You Understand Any Philosophy Without Understanding All Philosophy?

A very funny cartoon:

One of the things I tell every one of my classes is that philosophy must be understood as a conversation. If you want to understand what a philosopher is really saying, you read his or her words closely, but you also need to know whom s/he is talking to. When you overhear a cell phone conversation in a restaurant, you can make sense of much of what is said, but some of the utterances are meaningless without knowing what the person on the other end of the discussion just said.

At the same time, arguments are sound or not because of their structure and the truth or falsity of their premises. Should it really make a difference what the argument is a response to? Every grad student gets sucked into this trap wherein one cannot begin philosophy anywhere past Thales.

But can you? Can you understand any philosophy without understanding all philosophy?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Moral Barometer

Here's a question I like to ask from time to time both because it is an interesting question, but also because it is interesting to see how the answers change over time.

What is the most pressing moral issue of the day? If there was one topic that we need to address as a society right now, what is it?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Just Asking

The second most horrendous act of terrorism in the United States was committed by Christian nationalists who intentionally planted their bomb at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City knowing full well that the facility had a daycare center. And yet despite the religious beliefs of these terrorists who intentionally murdered innocent Americans, including young children, there are two Christian churches -- the City Church of Oklahoma City and the First Baptist Church -- within blocks of the site. Why aren't we hearing the wringing of hands about that from those who are opposing the Muslim community center in Manhattan?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What's The Difference: Juicebox Edition

What is the difference between a juice, a punch, and an ade?

(I always hoped there would be a rock concert benefit for victims of tick-borne illnesses called Lyme Aid.)

Monday, August 16, 2010

What Is a Vegetarian?

Despite the fact that we keep a meat-free home, the shorter of the short people will occasionally say that he is the only vegetarian in the household because he has never had meat in his life. He worries that if he ever accidentally ingests something that has meat in it, he will no longer be a vegetarian. This, of course, is far too strong a definition. One can become a vegetarian and legitimately be one.

But it does raise an interesting question about the definition. What is it that makes one a vegetarian?

Is it the result of what you eat? If someone thinks he is eating meat, intends to eat meat, tries to eat meat, but is fooled by someone substituting non-meat alternatives so that he is, in fact, not eating meat, would that make him a vegetarian?

If it is solely what you eat, how long before it counts as vegetarianism? Surely someone sitting at McDonald's is not a vegetarian in the moments he drinks his large Coke in between bites of his Big Mac. In the same way, it seems absurd to say that that I'll be a vegetarian on Wednesdays. But it does not seem meaningless to say that I'm going to become a vegetarian for a year. What's the difference?

Is it a matter of intent? At what used to be our favorite Korean restaurant, we would order these delicious mung bean and scallion pancakes as an appetizer. It was only years later, just before the place closed down, that we learned they had always had pork in them. TheWife during that period had been a vegetarian and was selecting her foods with the intention of avoiding meat. She failed through no deliberate act of her own. Was she wrong in thinking herself a vegetarian at that point?

Suppose someone fully intends to be a vegetarian, but slips occasionally, say, once a month or every other month into old habits and has shrimp in a Chinese restaurant or a piece of fried chicken. Is this person a vegetarian?

Does it matter if there is a reason for the decision? Whether it is for health or ethical reasons, does a person have to have a purpose or explicitly make the decision? Does it have to be explicitly stated to oneself. Is it something you have to declare yourself or can you unwittingly wake up one day and realize that you have been a vegetarian for the last six months?

What makes someone a vegetarian?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Feast of Saint Gary

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend is the feast of Saint Gary. Gary Larson turns 60. Creator of The Far Side, the most consistently clever comic strip ever. A couple classics:

Your favorite?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, August 13, 2010

Philosophy (huh) What Is It Good For?

Yesterday was George Soros' 80th birthday. One of the world's wealthiest men, he made a fortune investing. Before that, he was a student of Karl Popper at the London School of Economics and claimed that his application of Popper's falsificationism to the market was one of the reasons he was so successful.

This is one of those stories we pull out when asked by students or parents, "Sure it seems interesting, but what is philosophy good for?" Pointing out that Aristotle showed us that something can be good without being good for anything, or that Kant distinguished between categorical and hypothetical imperatives, never satisfies these folks.

The professor of my very first undergraduate philosophy class, Bruce Goldberg, was asked and, being a good Wittgensteinian, responded that it wasn't good for anything but that there were a bunch of people who were obsessed with these questions and it was safer than having them out in public. A funny line, but surely wrong.

So, what is philosophy good for?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Unfortunate Acronyms

TheWife used to work for a recycling facility run by the state department of the environment and so we've been doing all of our banking for years with the State Employees Credit Union, SECU. The acronym has a vaguely unsavory sound to it and it was remarked that it is a good thing that we don't belong to the Fordham University Credit Union whose acronym more properly belongs to Bank of America.

Thoughts immediately turned to the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, whose acronym CoNDoM would be funny in any case, but for a Catholic women's college is magnificent in its irony.

Other examples of funny/inappropriate acronyms?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Do We Need to Get Away?

Vacation is surely a modern construct, but is it a necessity of contemporary life? Do we need vacation time? We call taking the occasional day off a "mental health day" but is this a metaphor or meant to be understood literally? Is getting away from it all in the sense of going somewhere else important? Are "stay-cations" able to serve all the same functions or does a change of scenes do something itself?

Monday, August 09, 2010

Wave That Flag

The following question was asked by a fellow Playground friend,

I currently live in a theme house belonging to Gettysburg College. This house operates on a Civil War theme, and--coincidentally or not--usually houses quite a few very conservative people. I'm your basic liberal philosophy major, but I'm happy to adopt a political live-and-let-live policy most of the time. But now, somebody has decided to fly the flag co-opted by the Tea Party on the front of the house, thus seemingly indicating to passersby that the Tea Party is somehow endorsed or supported by the entire house, myself included. Of course, I am repulsed by the Tea Party.

So what do I do? Do I let it fly (the easiest course of action), and just stew quietly to myself, continuing to inhabit a house marked by the emblem of the Tea Party? Do I decide my moral responsibility to my own conscience and to tolerant people everywhere trumps legal concerns and take the flag down, thus potentially risking a spat over someone's property rights? Do I, on the contrary, turn this into a legal matter, and argue that the individual right of whatever student put up the flag to fly it is negated by the College's policies of non-discrimination? Do I take it down and abscond with it, avenging the theft of the Peace House rainbow flag of two years ago, which was, let's face it, probably perpetrated by this house (they also made off with one of the Peace House's rainbow-painted chairs, but luckily that was recovered in a later under-cover raid).

What do I do?
There's the active route of calling a house meeting and making it an issue. There's the passive-aggressive route and using one's own window to send a message in the other direction. There's the sneaky route in removing the flag. There's the defiant route in placing a symbol to the contrary next to the flag or on the other side of the entryway and letting everyone know you expect it not to be messed with. Others? What approach is the best idea?

Saturday, August 07, 2010

I Am Serious, and Don't Call Me Shirley

My Fellow Comedists,

We have a wonderful video store, a dying breed, the sort where you can still rent video tapes and can find movies you haven't seen in twenty years that you loved back when. Looking through the stacks, I came across the DVD of the six episodes of "Police Squad." It seemed like the perfect time to introduce the short people to the work of my heroes Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker.

They launched their career with the cult classic, "Kentucky Fried Movie," a series of odd little sketches that spoofed everything from Japanese kung fu films to high school science films and was a bit more risque than the material to come.

It set up their second film, "Airplane!" With a relentless style, ZAZ showed themselves to be the WalMart of comedy, quantity, quantity, quantity: no joke too cheap, no pun too bad, and no sight gag too cheesy. They get you going and never let you stop.

"Airplane!" led to "Top Secret!" ("Airplane 2" was not written by ZAZ, but by Ken Finkleman, who also wrote that great work of American cinema, "Grease 2.") a spoof of Elvis and James Bond films starring Val Kilmer and including the line "Sunday? That's Simchas Torah!" I believe which ought to be more widely quoted.

They took their work to the small screen with "Police Squad," but only six episodes were shot and only three aired. ZAZ had a feud with the networks demanding that they not use a laugh track because it threw off the timing and their ability to do rapid fire jokes. But the networks believed the American public too stupid to be able to figure out for themselves when to laugh and the show was canned. It did give rise to a series of three films, all good, but not as good as the show.

Their last work together was "Ruthless People" a more mainstream sort of comedy in which a nice middle class couple in trouble kidnaps a the wife of a wealthy businessman who unbeknownst to them hates her. Best line of the film is when the husband played by Danny DeVito refuses to pay the ransom in order to get his wife killed and the kidnappers, played by Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater send back a demand for less money. The wife, played by Bette midler, goes bananas screaming, "I'm being marked down?! Who was I kidnapped by? KMart?"

Great stuff top to bottom. This weekend's question -- favorite ZAZ scene?

I've got to go with this one (start at 5:30):

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, August 06, 2010

Viagra as the Ultimate Baby Boomer Irony

When the baby boomers arrived, their sheer size allowed them to dominate the nation's demographic. In overthrowing the World War II generation's hold on popular culture, they idealized youth. "Hope I die before I get old," was more than a random lyric. Because they were young and wanted social power, they shaped the social picture of happiness around themselves exulting youth above all else.

But then they got old. Although they aged, the image of perfect humanity remained vibrant and youthful -- gray haired couples rising motorcycles and dancing late into the evening. But living up to that image is not entirely possible. Age is not just a state of mind, it is also a state of body. There is a reason why "Cocoon" came out when it did, but it is a fantasy. To help make that fantasy reality, baby boomers turned to pharmaceuticals. Viagra is the band-aid on the baby boomers' self-inflicted injury. To take power, they created an image that they cannot live up to and now have to consult a physician if they do live up to it for more than four hours at a time.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

When Can Bigots Be Called Bigots?

Political correctness was designed to allow voices than had been oppressed to have a seat at the table. But the real effect has been exactly the opposite. It has created a bizarre equivalence of all viewpoints that does not allow us to call things what they, in fact, are. A movement intended to allow for intellectual tolerance has been used by those who are intolerant as a weapon to protect them from being called intolerant.

Federal judge Vaughn Walker overturned California's Prop 8 banning gay marriage, a law designed to do nothing other than deny honest, hard-working, tax-paying citizens rights and protections under the law. The factual basis on which they made their case was, he ruled, top to bottom faulty, completely flawed. His ruling was not a matter of interpreting the law, but a finding of fact, that the claimed evidence they cited as support was untrue. The only real argument was one based on "unfounded stereotypes and prejudices." From the ruling:

Proponents purported rationales are nothing more than post-hoc justifications. While the Equal Protection Clause does not prohibit post-hoc rationales, they must connect to the
classification drawn. Here, the purported state interests fit so poorly with Proposition 8 that they are irrational, as explained above. What is left is evidence that Proposition 8 enacts a moral view that there is something “wrong” with same-sex couples. See FF 78-80. The evidence at trial regarding the campaign to pass Proposition 8 uncloaks the most likely explanation for its passage: a desire to advance the belief that opposite-sex couples are morally superior to same-sex couples. FF 79-80. The campaign relied heavily on negative stereotypes about gays and lesbians and focused on protecting children from inchoate threats vaguely associated with gays and lesbians. FF 79-80; See PX0016Video, Have You Thought About It? (video of a young girl asking whether
the viewer has considered the consequences to her of Proposition 8 but not explaining what those consequences might be)...

Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights to gay men and lesbians. The evidence shows conclusively that Proposition 8 enacts, without reason, a private moral view that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite-sex couples. FF 76, 79-80; Romer, 517 US at 634 (“[L]aws of the kind now before us raise the inevitable inference that the disadvantage imposed is born of animosity toward the class of persons
affected.”). Because Proposition 8 disadvantages gays and lesbians without any rational justification, Proposition 8 violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.


Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license. Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples. Because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis, the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.
So, if the judge's argument is that the entire foundation of the case for Prop 8 is the use of biased stereotypes designed to create fear and hatred of a minority, then surely the bigoted nature would be pointed out in media outlets, right?

Of course, wrong. The utmost deference is given to the bigots and all we hear about is the political horse race, how this is BAD NEWS FOR DEMOCRATS. We can't call bigots what they are and that spells disaster for those politicians like our president who walk a tightrope trying not to call bigots what they are, knowing what they should do but lacking the ethical fortitude to actually do it. A victory against bigotry spun into a victory for bigotry. Sigh.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Cultural Meaning of Physics

I was talking with an administrator the other day who was commenting that incoming students who tend to be more intellectual tend to put down physics as a potential major more than other natural sciences. I know it attracted me as well, even when I couldn't exactly say why. What is it about physics that has become iconic for smart? Is it that it was the field of study of Einstein who is our personification of smart? Is it that it asks the big questions, fundamental questions that seem as much philosophy as science? Is it that we use "rocket science" as the epitome? Is it that we brought in physicists for the atomic bomb and moon shot? Is it that physics classes in high school or college are harder than other classes? Ia it the role it has played historically in defining our place in the universe? Is it the way relativity and quantum theory are so tantalizingly absurd, yet universally successful? Why physics of all fields of study?

Tuesday, August 03, 2010


Amazon has announced that its sales of e-books has surpassed its sales of hard cover books. The idea is to settle (in their interest) whether the e-book is for real or just the latest new Coke. I'm not a luddite, but I am a late adopter. I'm not going to spend the money until I'm absolutely sure I need to spend the money. As someone who writes a blog, I surely buy into the idea that people will read what one would write on a screen. But there is a difference between the shorter posts and and the longer books. So, those of you who have a Kindle or other e-book supporting device, worth it? Pros? Cons? Have lots and lots of the paper ones, what would I gain by starting to switch over?

Monday, August 02, 2010

Sporting Scoring

In tennis, the reason a score of zero is called "love" is because it is a transliteration of the French word "l'eouf" -- the egg. It's just a version of the term "goose egg" we use in English as a result of the shape of the zero. The other scores come from the way score was kept in early matches. Because you have points, games and matches to keep track of, score would be kept on two clocks instead of a scoreboard since each clock had three hands -- a second hand, a minute hand, and an hour hand whose positions could tell you the complete score second hand = point, minute hand = games, and hour hand = sets. On the first point, the second hand would be moved a quarter the way around, or to the 3 which for seconds is 15. On the second point to the six, or to 30 seconds... When on player wins his clock is wound forward, making the minute hand move to 1, showing the number of games won in the set. The losing player's clock is wound backward to the starting point.

In baseball, the reason that k is used to denote a strikeout comes from the original system developed by Henry Chadwick, the man credited with popularizing the sport. He was a Brit moved to America who was a sportswriter in New York reporting on cricket when he discovered baseball and decided to report on it as well. He would write up articles on the first professional games and in an effort to convey more information created the box score and the symbols needed for it. Since S was needed for a number of other terms, he used the last letter in "struck" to abbreviate struck out. He also introduced the batting average for hitters and the earned run average for pitchers.

In bowling, the reason three consecutive strikes is called a turkey comes from a marketing ploy from a New England bowling alley at the turn of the last century. Around the holidays, if anyone threw three strikes in a row, he would be awarded a live turkey. The name stuck.