Saturday, October 30, 2010

Happy Halloween

My Fellow Comedists,

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

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

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

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

Best Halloween costume you've ever worn or seen?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irrevend Steve

Friday, October 29, 2010

Novel Graphics and Graphic Novels

Gwydion asks,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever?

PeterLC asks,

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Understanding Unacceptable Utterances

Kerry asks,

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Evolution and Humor

Kerry asks,

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 25, 2010

Tea for Two?

Philo asks,

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics

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

Friday, October 22, 2010

Ghost in the Machine?

When TheWife's grandfather passed away a number of years ago, her sister broke the news to her daughter who was about five at the time. Looking thoughtful, she asked her mom where Greatgrandpa is now, to which my sister-in-law responded that his body is still at Greatgrandpa and Greatgrandma's house. Looking a bit confused, she asked, "But where is his head?"

The word body is oddly ambiguous. We do distinguish between head and body, on one hand, and body and mind/soul/spirit, on the other. Surely, these stem from the same notion, the sort of dualism that comes to us from the Greeks and has become part of the Western religious worldview. It is also something that was challenged in the 20th century by Continental thinkers.

So, let's ask their question: Do you have a body or are you your body?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Irony Awards

Today is the birthday of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish chemist who invented dynamite and owned a major arms manufacturer before establishing the Peace Prize with his name. What other awards could you come up with the would rival it in irony? The Louie Anderson Iron Man Triathelete of the Year, perhaps, or the Dick Cheney Award for Government Transparency? Others?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Fantasy Philosophy

At the Lighthearted Philosophers' Society meeting last weekend, I came up with my next great idea. Fantasy football has completely transformed the way football is watched and followed, so why not expand upon the idea and transform the way we read philosophy with a fantasy philosophy league. We'll need to fill in the details a bit to get it off the ground, but here's the general idea:

Every participant has to come up with a name for his or her own "university" and each university will have a philosophy department consisting of twelve positions:

- Ethics
- Epistemology
- Continental
- American
- Social/Political Philosophy
- Philosophy of Language
- Philosophy of Mind
- Philosophy of Science
- Aesthetics
- Ancient
- Modern
- Emeritus (Open AOS)

We'll have a draft to determine each participants' department, such that each department will fill each position, plus have three additional faculty members "on leave". You can move your sabbatical faculty in and out once a month. If your emeritus member passes away during your semester, you must wait one month to fill the position. For every book published by one of your philosophers during the year, you get twenty points.* For every journal article, you get five points, with certain journals (to be determined) earning seven points. Articles that are direct responses by other philosophers or book reviews in a journal get you three points. Posts on the Leiter Reports dedicated to one of your philosophers gets you one point. If your figure is department chair of their actual department, all direct publication values are increased by 50%.

If we have enough people express an interest, we can work out the details and schedule a draft.

So, what do you think? Other AOSs, rules, or point values needed?

*If you have Nicholas Rescher in your department, the point value for any new book will be that of an article for any other philosopher just to keep it fair.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Vodka Ad and the Ethics of Endorsement

I was listening to Woody Allen's bit "The Vodka Ad" the other day and wondered about the veracity of the hook he uses in that bit. Is it immoral to endorse a product you do not use?

Of course, there is the question of what constitutes endorsement. The obvious case is someone saying I use it and you should too. Should you say those words if you don't use it? Ads for exercise equipment always feature people who are professional trainers and that contraption for three payments of $39.95 are not the reason s/he has those abs. But is there something wrong with that person saying how great of a workout it gives you and leaving the impression that it was? Is it buyer beware -- anyone fooled by such an ad deserves to be scalped?

When a celebrity allows his or her image to be used to market the product as a spokesperson, does that constitute endorsement and do we have the right to infer that the person really does believe in the product and isn't just collecting a paycheck? Surely, just allowing your work to appear in an ad does not constitute endorsement, so we don't think that when MicroSoft used "Start Me Up" in Windows ads that it meant Mick and the boys are pro-P.C., they just licensed use of the song. But how far do you have to go to have some responsibility to believe in the product? Or is there such a line at all?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Is Bullfighting Art?

Spain has moved the responsibility for overseeing bullfighting from its ministry of the interior to the ministry of culture. The idea is the activity ought to be considered art rather than sport. I am not interested here in ethical questions of the legitimacy and cruelty of the activity, but rather how we ought to think of it.

On one hand, hunting, fishing, and rodeo activities are sports. Isn't bullfighting just an exotic cousin? The goal is similar in that if done well, an animal is conquered.

But, of course, the means are clearly different in that one does not camouflage oneself -- quite the opposite -- and the goal of bullfighting is not merely the death of the animal, but to be maximally graceful in all aspects of the ritual. It is the grace, not the death that is the criteria of judgment of success or failure. Does that make the activity art or just a different kind of sport, like figure skating to speed skating?

Or is it something completely different? The word ritual does seem to apply, is it a religious ritual for a civil religion? Or is it something else?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Joke Theft

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend, I am giving a paper at the 4th annual conference of the Lighthearted Philosophers Society. My topic is joke theft. The cardinal sin amongst stand-up comics is stealing someone else's material. But to define joke theft, you need (1) a notion of joke ownership and (2) a notion of joke identity. When I write and perform a joke, what is it I have claim to and when is your joke the same as my joke?

I want to pump some intuitions from the congregation on this topic (easy, Jeff). Tell me if you think the following two jokes are examples of the same joke. The first was written by Will Carey, for my money the best joke writer on the Baltimore/DC circuit -- go see him if you get a chance. The second is mine. Are they the same joke or not? If I performed the second joke on stage (I never have), would Will be justified in accusing me of joke theft?

Will's joke*: I walked into an optimist club it was half empty, but when I left it was half full. They do amazing work.

My joke: They have an Optimists Club, so shouldn't also have a Pessimists Club? I was going to start one, but, nah, it would never work.

His is better, but is it a better joke or a better variant of the same joke?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

* This joke was used with express permission of Will Carey and let it be duly noted that he was incredibly cool about it, is in no way hypersensitive about joke theft, and has been very thoughtful in correspondence about the topic.

Friday, October 15, 2010

When Two Letters Go Walking and They Both Do the Talking

Trying to think of words with double letters in which the letters make different sounds. It's pretty easy for vowels -- reentry, skiing, cooperate -- but I've only been able to think of one with double consonents -- accent. If one letter is part of a dipthong, as in threshhold, it doesn't count. Can you think of others?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Middle Class

I've been listening to an interesting series of stories on NPR this week about the notion "middle class." Turns out that if you ask almost anyone where they fall on the socio-economic ladder, the answer will almost universally come back "middle class." But if you ask "Are you lower class, working class, middle class, or upper class," the answers will split evenly between working class and middle class.

So the question they asked, which I'd like to play with here, is what does the phrase "middle class" mean? Are middle class and working class mutually exclusive or is working class a subset of middle class, or do they intersect in part? Is it purely defined by income or is it lifestyle?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dehumanizing Science

In a faculty development seminar on Science, Technology, and Society that I'm leading, a couple of the participants commented on a feature of new science textbooks that is being pitched as a selling point -- names are being stripped from laws, theories, and bodily organs. So, the islets of Langerhans are now being called pancreatic islets. This is billed as a pedagogical advance because the name is now reflective of the placement or function and thus the language is more useful to the practitioner and easier to remember.\

But, of course, what it also does is strip the last element of history from the teaching of the science. Thomas Kuhn pointed this out in the 50s when he first called our attention to the use of textbooks in science education. We already lose the narrative, the context, the elements that led some incredibly smart and clever person to ask a question in a new way or approach it in a fashion no one else had considered and as a result advanced human understanding of the natural world. Now we want to make it seem completely non-human, something that comes down complete without a biography, without a history, without a backstory.

Now, this whitewashing is being held as the cutting edge of science pedagogy. I'm hoping someday someone tells its story.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Symbolic Incest

I want to officially retract a claim I made last week about the moral blandness of questions around IVF. No sooner had I made the claim than a senior thesis writer had us considering what one philosopher calls "symbolic incest." In Britain, cases of IVF must pass an ethics board. There have been cases in which a single woman with certain types of fertility issues wants to become pregnant through in vitro means and wants the child to be genetically related to her. So, she enlists a brother to provide the sperm while an unrelated donor provides the egg. The zygote would then be implanted and she would give birth. Apparently, in deciding whether to approve the procedure, the board considers the role of the sperm donor in the child's life -- but not in the way you'd expect. If the sperm donor wants to be involved in the child's life as a father, the procedure is not allowed. But if the sperm donor wants merely to be an uncle figure, then it is fine. To have a brother and sister act as mother and father is tantamount to incest, they argue, "symbolic incest" one philosopher labeled it, even if there is no intercourse and even if the implantation would be acceptable under other circumstances. Granted, the arrangement is odd, but is it problematic?

Monday, October 11, 2010


We always tell students that the purpose of citation is to make sure that those whose ideas we are using get the appropriate credit. But what really is the real reason we cite? Is it credit where credit is due? Or is it to make arguments by authority? See, someone else important says this, so it must be right. Or is it to show how well-read we are? What I'm saying must be true because I can quote a wide variety of experts on a wide range of topics and someone this smart must make sense. Or is it to enlist those whom we quote to our side since we think they are our friends, they should think of us as their friends? Or is it to make other people think that these important thinkers are in fact our friends and since we run in such smart circles, we must be smart and our thesis must be well-grounded? What is the real motivation to cite?

Saturday, October 09, 2010

God Hates Fred Phelps

My Fellow Comedists,

Following up on yesterday's post, it is well worth posting some photos of the counter-protesters who have begun showing up alongside Reverend Fred Phelp's travelling circus.

Others you've found?

Live, love (everyone), and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, October 08, 2010

Political Correctness Goes Invisible

Nietzsche said that when a political movement triumphs completely, it becomes invisible. Having power, he argues, allows you to shape the lens through which we understand the world and we see through the lens, we don't see the lens.

I was listening to the arguments offered in the case heard by the Supreme Court the other day in Snyder v. Phelps, the case in which the father of a dead soldier sued the Reverend Fred Phelps and his band of merry bigots for protesting his son's funeral. Phelps contends that because he cleared the protest with the authorities and obeyed their demands to the letter, that their actions were legal and their speech protected by the First Amendment. (And they're right). The father claims that because it was a private service, the protest and accompanying comments amount to "intentional infliction of emotional distress." He was harmed psychologically and this is equivalent to being harmed physically and for that, the perpetrator must be held to account. A jury in Baltimore held that the Westboro thugs were such jerks that they should pay Snyder $11 million dollars, but an appeals court unanimously overturned that ruling and the case is now being heard before the High Court.

what struck me the most about this discussion was the fact that the father's claim was being supported by groups across the political spectrum. This is, of course, for pragmatic political reasons -- no one wants to be associated with Phelps and even more so, no one wants to be seen as not supporting the troops who died in the line of battle. But at the same time, and this is what gets me, the central claim is the move that is at the heart of the universally disparaged political correctness movement -- speech is an act and hurtful speech inflicts real harm.

The argument against political correctness is always something akin to "sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me." Just suck it up. Life is offensive, deal with it. Everyone gets insulted. And this is the case especially when it is a minority whose place is being diminished and words are being used to entrench certain biased presuppositions into our worldview. But when it is a socially privileged group, a white soldier's family, suddenly the pain they feel from speech acts is considered without question to be authentic pain that needs to be stopped and retribution enacted. When political correctness benefits those in the in group, it's basic tenet is accepted without question. When it benefits those in the out group, it is ridiculed.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Other Temrinal of the Battery

I only saw the 9th inning of Roy Halladay's no hitter last night, only the second ever in a playoff game. But when it happened, you got the standard shot -- the catcher jumping on and embracing the pitcher, the two of them sharing a brief moment before being mobbed by the rest of the team. And it is appropriate, the catcher has a special role, one that interestingly is diminished in the record book.

It is always the pitcher who gets credit for the no-hitter. In Cooperstown there is a display case with a photograph of every pitcher who has thrown a no-no and a ball from the game immediately beneath. Nowhere is the catcher listed. In the interview last night, you got the standard complement of a pitcher who has just thrown a great game -- "He mixed his pitches well, kept our hitters off-balance." But, of course, it wasn't the pitcher who mixed the pitches, it was the catcher.

The two parts of the battery are truly a team. The catcher is the brains of the outfit, deciding what to throw, when, and where. It is the catcher who is playing chess, getting inside the batters' heads, figuring out what the pitcher is doing well, what the batter is expecting, chatting to the batter to throw him off and set him up, and making the calculation as to what would most likely do the trick each and every pitch. The pitcher executes the plan, but it is the catcher's plan that works or doesn't.

Yet, the catcher receives none of the credit. Jason Varitek has called the most no-hitters of any catcher, four of them -- the same number thrown by Sandy Koufax (only Nolan Ryan threw more, seven). Why isn't Varitek universally lauded for this feat to anything approximating that of Koufax? Why do we not applaud the intellectual work behind the deed, only the physical?

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

In Praise of Community Colleges

I taught for years at a community college in Maryland and it was a wonderful experience. Older students, students with children, younger students who had experience in the real world -- it made discussions of theoretical issues much more prescient, more meaningful and their anecdotes so much more powerful.

But now, there is a challenge to this educational niche from for-profit colleges (not to be confused with private non-profit colleges). They have a more corporate look, effective advertising, and the sheen of being cutting edge. you've probably seen them advertised in a sidebar on line recently. But they also have a purpose other than education -- profit.

And as a result, their students have incredibly high student loan debts and low employment rates which when coupled mean high loan default rates. Some of these loans are through banks, but many of them are federal grants. An educated workforce is essential in these times where manufacturing jobs are leaving or becoming increasingly technological and the idea that the government would step in to do what they can to help with creating a more educated society is a fine idea. But here, we are being hung out to dry by a scam when there is a better and more economical option available.

Democrats have been holding hearings on this in Congress, but Republicans have been objecting because ideologically, they hold that it must be the case on principle alone that the private sector can do it better and cheaper -- whether they do or not in the real world. We shouldn't hold these institutions to account because they are free market profit driven entities and the market will decide whether they are doing the job or not. Uh huh, right.

What we see here is the higher ed version of the school voucher fight that the conservatives have been waging for decades. For-profit schools will deliver the educational product to clients more effectively and efficiently, they argue, because the profit motive always leads to better means and therefore better ends. But students are not clients and as a teacher I am not a service provider. I'm an educator and that involves a certain sort of human relationship, one that is not reflected in the relationships among those in the marketplace. And as we have seen with health care, when you try to take institutions that are not about fee for service, but about something more humane, reducing them to service transaction sites robs them of their ability to do well what we expect of them. It takes the soul from them and it is within the soul of that institution that its mission and its ability to connect and help reside. Community colleges are part of the soul of our economy and their competitors need to be shown for what they really are.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010


I always wanted to open a Jewish deli called "Yavantah Sendvich." Every Jewish deli needs to serve soup, so please tell me do you eat soup or drink soup?

Monday, October 04, 2010

Was IVF Really Ever a Moral Issue?

Robert Edwards (no, not the NPR host) won the Nobel Prize this year for medicine for his work developing the procedures for in vitro fertilization. I remember back when the first "test tube baby" caused an uproar. Huge scare headlines on prominent news weeklies asked about the morality of it in large part because the Catholic Church denounced it for theological reasons. But theology is not the same as morality. Today couples who have medical reasons why they cannot conceive the usual way go to IVF with the only second thought being financial. There are not any moral issues there. The question is whether there ever were or whether it was just the shock of a new technology allowing us to do something we had never considered being able to do. That, of course, ought to always give us pause in considering whether there are any moral issues we need to think carefully about, but does not in itself mean there are such issues. Are there any here?

Saturday, October 02, 2010

RIP Greg Giraldo

My Fellow Comedists,

This week we sadly lost Greg Giraldo. A New York lawyer turned stand-up, he was one of the few who managed to take a really, really hard life dedicated to an art and turn it into a straight job. A very smart writer with a rock solid delivery, he became the epitome of post-Seinfeld stand-up comedy; never a household name, but the go-to guy when a tv show needed a scruffy-looking stand-up comedian. Whether it was his gig as a judge on Last Comic Standing or any of the dozen or so spots he held on shows for Comedy Central, he always worked as the quintessential professional comedian of the early 2000s.

He died this week after an overdose of prescription medication left him in a persistent vegetative state and his family took him off of life support. Good-bye Greg, and thanks for all the laughs.

Here's a routine of his from Montreal:

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, October 01, 2010

Einstein's Jewish Science and Contemporary Science and Society

First, good news. Einstein's Jewish Science, the book project I have been working on with my colleague Stephen Stern has been picked up by the Johns Hopkins University Press. It should make it to bookstore shelves by March 2012.

The project examines ways in which Einstein's science fits (or doesn't) into the politics of the time and the community he came out of. We often hold to a naive view of science in which practitioners are a combination of Joe Friday asking for "just the facts, ma'am" and Mister Spock using nothing but cold logic on those facts. But the fact is that the scientific project is undertaken by people and embedded in a larger context and that context does play some role in what science gets done and how it gets done. We are not making the absurd move that the theory of relativity is Talmudic in origin (it isn't), but asking the more intricate question about where the cultural residue that covers all human activities might be located with Einstein.

Where is it with current science? A federal court is right now reviewing whether embryonic stem cell research on new lines can move forward with government funding. Here's a place where contemporary politics and religion are affecting research. Are there others?