Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ray Guy Belongs in Canton

The list of semi-finalists for the Professional Football Hall of Fame came out yesterday. these things always lead to conflict because of deserving players who were left off. I, on the other hand, want to protest someone who is on the list; not because he wasn't good enough, but because it is a crime he is still being considered. Ray Guy belongs in Canton. He defined the position of punter. No other punter has ever been drafted in the first round and no other punter had the effect that Ray Guy had. Despite kicking over 1,000 punts, he never had a single one run back for a touchdown. They needed a calendar to determine the hang time on his punts. In fact, I believe there was one in the Oakland/Kansas City game in 1976 that is still in the air. Let's hope that this travesty is ended this year. Ray Guy belongs in Canton.

Monday, November 29, 2010

RIP Leslie Nielson: I AM dead and Don't Call Me Shirley

It is with great sadness that we discuss Leslie Nielson's death of pneumonia. He had been in the hospital (it's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now) for two days before his condition got worse and he succumbed to it last night.

He began his career as a serious leading man, playing the character he spoofed for decades on television and in the movies. Then came Airplane! It was a limited role as the plane's doctor, but he played it so perfectly that his are the lines often remembered. And it got him the role as Frank Dreben in the short-lived television series "Police Squad (In Color)" that was much beloved in my house for all three of the weeks it ran on network tv. Transferring to the big screen, Nielson became known for his comedy acting when all along he knew how to get out of the way of the comedy. It was his ability to deadpan, to never try to be funny but let the script be funny for him that made him.

He was great at what he did and we thank you for all the laughs.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Feast of Saint Allen

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend is the feast of saint Allen. Allen Sherman would turn 86. As a child, LilBro and I came across the Old Man's copy of his classic album My Son, the Folk Singer and were so enchanted by it, that we had the entire thing memorized in no time. His gentle, clever, Jewish style of song parody was the end of the Borscht Belt era. Allen Sherman was what would have happened if Tom Lehrer had taken prozac.

Getting his start in television, Sherman, lived next door to Harpo Marx who so loved Sherman's song parodies that he had Sherman perform at one his parties. George Burns, who attended the party, was so tickled with Sherman that he got him a record contract and the result was My Son, the Folk Singer.

When President Kennedy was discovered to be a fan, Sherman's luck took off and he had a run of several successful albums. His 1963 My Son, the Nut, contained the hit that made him a household name, "Hello Mudder, Hello Fadder."

With the cultural upheaval of the late 60s, Sherman was too old fashioned. He would make several attempts to revive his career and would ultimately return to television as the voice of Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat a year and a half before his quite premature death.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The War on Christmas Continues

Our friends Scott Aikin and Bob Talisse have a post up over at 3 Quarks daily called, "The War on Christmas, To Save Thanksgiving."

Seems as good a time as any to re-run this:

'Twas the month before Christmas and all through the malls
everything was ‘bout Christmas, no escaping at all.
The songs all about yuletide, and then on FOX news,
all the nut-jobs pretending there ain’t any Jews.

This country we know it’s a really big stew
of Muslims, and pagans, and atheists too.
But O’Reilly and Rush, not to mention Sir Hannity
are all trying to deny these good folks their humanity.

If you eat latkes, and liver, and kosher dill gherkins,
You are second class citizens, not real “Amurkans.”
We’re told “shut your hole,” if your season’s not elfish,
as these kinds of “Christians” are really quite selfish.

Don’t say “Happy Holidays” if you work in a store,
it’s “Merry Christmas” alone or they’ll declare war.
“We’re under siege!” they cry through their crocodile tears
“They’re trying to outlaw our holiday cheer!”

You can spot real Christians from those in wolves’ clothing
They’re the ones preaching love, not hatred and loathing.
But the Pharisees think it's only they who should count,
Truth be told, they should read what was said on the mount.

So Buddhists and Hindus and Hopi and Sioux,
the message is clear that is sent unto you.
When the tips of the branches get covered in frost
This country is theirs, time for you to get lost.

Those who believe that to keep of our brother
means to actually love and respect one another.
So when you are asked, “What would Jesus do?”
Answer them, “Welcome ones different from you.”

In conclusion, oh gasp, we guess we should say,
that Comet and Cupid are openly gay.
In this season of peace with the ground covered white,
Happy Holidays to ALL and to ALL a good night.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

That's Not a Boardng Pass, It's Foreplay

With the more personally invasive checks by the TSA, I'm wondering how long it will take Southwest to start running ads with the tagline, "$59 one-way, it's cheaper than dinner and a movie."

I'm just glad no one has told Homeland Security about this guy yet.

Abdullah Asieri avoided detection by two sets of airport security and palace security, in his mission to eliminate prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, head of Saudi Arabia's counter terrorism operations. Taking a trick from the narcotics trade - which has long smuggled drugs in body cavities - Asieri had a pound of explosives, plus a detonator inserted in his rectum, reports CBS News.
Maybe it is finally time to bring NIH under the Homeland Security umbrella and have our airport screeners also be licensed urologists so that the prevention of terrorist attacks and the early detection of prostate cancer both become national priorities. I mean, hey, they're already wearing the latex gloves...

Monday, November 22, 2010

Happy Birthday Terry Gilliam

Today is Terry Gilliam's 70's birthday. I will admit that I saw Brazil in the theater no fewer than six times which, I believe, comes to roughly one seventh of my lifespan.

Terry Gilliam is one of the few repositories of smart that we have in contemporary popular culture and what I love most about his work is the ability to run the whole range of human emotions from smart goofy to smart strident to smart gentle to smart alienated. If you can feel it, it's somewhere in a Terry Gilliam work and it is smart.

Happy birthday, Terry Gilliam and thanks.

And now for something...

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Feast of Saint Dick

My Fellow Comedists,

This week is brings us the birthday of Dick Smothers, straight man and stand-up bass player with his brother Tommy as part, of course, of the legendary Smothers Brothers. Before there was Saturday Night Live, before there was Laugh In, there was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The country was exploding in the late 60s, yet television still looked like it did in the 50s. Anything that smacked of criticism of the government or the war in Vietnam, or that pointed to the social problems of racism or poverty were forbidden, indeed there were network censors who made sure dissent did not make it the people over their Swanson tv dinners.

The Smothers Brothers, clean cut, looking like the Kingston Trio lost someone in Kingston seemed harmless enough. Good folk music with some well-timed silliness thrown in, they were a way to attract kids away from the ratings bonanza that was, well, Bonanza.

But, of course, there was folk music and there was folk music and despite their look, the Smothers Brothers came from the tradition in which folk music was a tool of emancipation and political protest. Their show quickly turned from cutsie to a censor's nightmare. They knew exactly where the line was and intentionally put clever material right on it, material that that was smart and sharp and not obscene or over the top, just dead on point and right. But it was the sort of criticism that supported the side of the cultural divide in the late 60s that the corporate networks did not care to bolster.

Their writers were the younger version of the Sid Cesar gang, including Albert Brooks and his brother (who played Super Dave Osborne), Rob Reiner, Steve Martin, and Don Novello (who would go on to be Father Guido Sarducci). Their material intentionally ranged from the innocent to the edgy, but the edgy was always done with an incredibly smart sense of humor and timing. They were pros and darn good at what they did...and that is what got them canceled.

But their brave fights on the side of what is right and what is funny were every bit as important to the history of American comedy on television as what Lenny Bruce was doing for American stand-up in the night clubs.

Thank you, Dick Smothers and happy birthday.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Value of False Rituals

TheWife loves rituals. She finds great meaning in them, even if they are new rituals that she or we are inventing for our family as we go. I, on the other hand, have never been one for rituals. They've always seemed like inauthentic actions performed not because one was intrinsically moved to act, but awkwardly constructed sets behaviors bound by expectation and, like a joke you've heard before, missing their ability to inspire. I understand that at certain times, say at the time of marriage or immediately following the death of a loved one, rituals can be extremely helpful in bringing together community, making sure that necessary details are attended to, and helping people process life altering changes that are being experienced. But not all rituals deal with big events that change the way you are in the world.

Last night the shorter of the short people lost a tooth. He is at the age where he no longer believes in the tooth fairy, yet I know he would be extremely upset should he not awaken this morning to find something under his pillow. It's not the money. If I handed him the money before bed, it would not be the same. No, it has to be done in this particular way. He knows who puts the money there because he inevitably comes in to our room the next morning and asks for his tooth back -- he's a sentimental who finds parting with part of himself difficult, even if a new and improved "adult" component is on its way in and he is certainly not willing to give back the newly acquired funds for the old tooth which always seems to him so unbelievably small for all the pain it caused on its way out.

So, the question is what accounts for the attachment to ritual here? Is it something about the meaningfulness of ritualized action itself or is it more likely specific to this case, that it is a Christmas morning-like scenario of awakening to something pleasant, and therefore says nothing about ritual in general? If he knows it is going to happen, where does the meaningfulness come from? What, in the end, accounts for the power that many experience from ritual?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Finders Keepers?: The Ethics of Scavaging

We're in the middle of a job search and that means reading lots of letters of recommendation. Every once in a while, you get one from an extremely influential and therefore famous philosopher. So, when one of our applicants had a letter from Jurgen Habermas, I did start thinking about all the names that have passed by us in our last several searches: Derrida, Searle, Putnam, real philosophical rock stars, thinkers bound for the pantheon of greats. If we had a philosophers hall of fame, these folks would be easy first ballot shoo-ins.

Now, the procedure for handling search materials is that they need to be kept for three years in case of legal questions regarding the fairness of the search process and then they are shredded so that confidential bits of information, like letters of recommendation, cease to be.

Suppose as a hobby, I collected the autographs of famous intellectuals. Here are prime examples that are bound for the shredder. Would it be morally acceptable to save the signatures? I wouldn't be stealing them FROM anyone, they were just going to be destroyed. Why not save something of value? We could cut them off the letter so none of the information would survive, just the signature. Would that be o.k.? Suppose I then turned around and tried to sell it on eBay to other intellectual autograph seekers, would that be o.k.? Would it make a difference if I waited five years or until the person passed away?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bullshit or Not: Schopenhauer Edition

There's an old sketch film called Amazon Women on the Moon and one of the bits is a parody of the old Leonard Nimoy show, "In Search Of..." called, "Bullshit or Not?" with the tagline "Bullshit or not? You decide." It's a line I like so much that I've stolen it for an irregular series of posts.

Reading 19th century German social/political philosophy for the chapter of Einstein's Jewish Science that I'm currently working on, paying special attention to those thinkers who were railing against the Enlightenment concepts of egalitarianism. In that reading, I came upon this beauty from Schopenhauer's On Human Nature that lays out the classic case against democracy:

“A peculiar disadvantage attaching to republics—and one that might not be looked for—is that in this form of government it must be more difficult for men of ability to attain high position and exercise direct political influence than in the case of monarchies. For always and everywhere and under all circumstances there is a conspiracy, or instinctive alliance, against such men on the part of all the stupid, the weak, and the commonplace; they look upon such men as their natural enemies, and they are firmly held together by a common fear of them. There is always a numerous host of the stupid and the weak, and in a republican constitution it is easy for them to suppress and exclude the men of ability, so that they may not be outflanked by them. They are fifty to one; and here all have equal rights at the start.
In a monarchy, on the other hand, this natural and universal league of the stupid against those who are possessed of intellectual advantages is a one-sided affair; it exists only from below, for in a monarchy talent and intelligence receive a natural advocacy and support from above.”
Nothing we don't see in Plato, but well said.

If we want to defend democratic rule, we need to show why this is nonsense or, if not how it is counteracted.

So, bullshit or not? As usual, feel free to leave anything from a single word to a dissertation.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Folk Physics

Let's test the intuitions today with one I gave to my first year seminar yesterday:

You are sitting in the aisle seat of a jet awaiting take-off when the child next to you hands you his helium balloon. You hold it in your hand next to the aisle as the plane taxis down the runway. During the taxiing, before take off, does the balloon move towards the back of the airplane, the front of the airplane, or float straight up?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Colors and Numbers

Are colors and numbers things? We use them as nouns, but are they really nouns or just adjectives that function like nouns? Things are red or a group of objects has the property of having four members, but we treat red and four as if they have independent existence. Do they?

With numbers, we attribute properties and relations among them. That seems to be good reason to think them things. But what kind of things?

Is the same true of colors? We do label some primary and other secondary or tertiary. Does this bring colors on par with numbers?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Atheist Songs

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend we turn our thoughts to music. Good brother Gwydion pointed me to a recent project of a true comedist saint, Steve Martin, who while on his latest banjo tour with the Steep Canyon Rangers composed a song for atheists.
It seems only fair since he did write the Comedist hymn "Grandmother's Song." But it raises a question. Are there other atheist songs?

Here is one from the Gettysburg Pirate Orchestra (billed as central Pennsylvania's premier landlocked nautical-themed ensemble)

Do feel free to download their new album Simon von Utrecht
-- much there for a comedist to love (especially "Crazy Squirrels").

So, other good atheist tunes?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, November 11, 2010

War and the Cultural Conscience

Today is Veteran's Day, what used to be Armistice Day commemorating the end of The Great War which was reduced to World War I once another great war came along. Because of the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, we tend to forget about World War I but it was a horror of epic proportions. Trench warfare in which one side would charge only to get mowed down, then the other side would charge only to get mowed down. Lives lost by the thousands and no change. Just death for the sake of death. The use of chemical weapons causing more mass death in absolutely horrible ways.

The unfathomable reality of what they had done to themselves undermined European culture which before the war considered itself the ultimate end of cultural evolution. They were what history had always intended, the full complete actualization of humanity. And then they did this. What did it mean? What was it to be human after this? These questions were very much real to them and you see radical turns in almost every human endeavor that follows from the sciences to the arts to the human sciences. The war had triggered the cultural conscience.

We saw something similar with the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the bombing that killed the children in Omaugh in Northern Ireland, a point at which the horrible simply reaches a place where the culture demands an intellectual time-out.

Is American culture capable of this anymore? Do we even have a culture conscience anymore? We permitted torture and there was no outrage. The CIA destroyed evidence of torture and no one is even going to be charged. Is there anything anymore that will make us step back and ask what it means to be human if we allow this? On a day we set aside to think about the human cost of warfare, I worry that the answer is no.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Is There a Hippocratic Type Obligation to Write a Bad Rec Letter?

It's recommendation season and as I write a number of rec letters for former students and colleagues who are very much qualified for the graduate school and/or employment opportunities for which they are applying (don't worry A Stranger --it was a good letter), I can't help but wonder about having to write the negative rec letter.

I'm not talking about the case where the student is not qualified for the position. Of course, the proper thing to do is to politely decline to write. "Given that you received a D in my logic class, I don't think a letter from me will be very helpful in your attempt to get into law school." Those students, by in large, are not going to be admitted, so your lack of a letter is not really the operative factor.

But what of the student who is qualified in terms of the standard measures (grades, board scores,...), but just is the absolute wrong person for the job? Suppose someone has the grades for medical school, but you know they lack the compassion to be a good doctor or social worker? Or the convictions to be a good lawyer or climate scientist? Suppose you have good reason to think that he or she would use their advanced training in a way that would harm others or the planet? If you don't write the letter, someone else will and the person will become the person you are worried she or he will become. You can help stop it. Should you?

By agreeing to write the letter, aren't you implicitly agreeing to write a supportive letter? Doesn't the community ethos lead the person to expect to be told that you cannot write a letter in strong support? If you are using this as a chance to torpedo their application, isn't that misleading in some sense?

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Should There Still Be a Security Council?

Yesterday, speaking to the Indian parliament, President Obama pledged his support for expanding the security council to include India as a permanent member. It is unclear whether this would come with veto power or not, but either way it leads to a more general question, should there be a security council at all? If the nations are united in the UN, should some countries be more equal than others?

One can argue that it was necessary in the beginning to get stronger nations to agree to join, after all if might might make right, why allow any say from the weak. If the strong are guaranteed more say, then that might be alright. One can argue that it made sense in the bipolar world of the Cold War. Why bother having the fake proxy arguments when you can cut through the nonsense and just have the major actors sitting at a special table?

But does it still make sense? With a planet full of emerging nations and countries who are disproportionately affected by the actions and consumption of the larger nations, should we still give the lion's share of the power to a handful of countries? Or is it real politik, a fact on the ground that these are the power brokers, so if anything is to be done, cut out the time consuming wrangling and just put those who need to lead in a place to do so?

Monday, November 08, 2010

Movie Better Than the Book?

At dinner last night, the less short of the short people claimed that while the Percy Jackson movie was significantly worse than the book, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs was, in fact, better. The explanation, I hold, is that one is a children's book while the other aimed at pre-teens. the Percy Jackson books have much more room to develop characters and plot intricacies that do not translate well to the hour and a half film format. The former, on the other hand, needs to be filled out to be made into a movie and thus becomes more interesting.

I'm wondering if anyone thinks there are exceptions to this, movies made from books other than those geared towards young children where the film was better than the original fiction piece.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Funny Foods

My Fellow Comedists,

Between the short people discovering the Swedish chef and an in depth conversation with colleagues about garbanzo beans, it seemed as if the Cosmic Comic wanted a funny foods discussion this weekend.

My point in the latter conversation was that there seemed no reason to ever say "chick pea" and surrender a perfectly good opportunity to say "garbanzo bean" which is inherently much funnier. Indeed, I would claim that garbanzo bean is one of the funniest food names, right up there with "knish," "borscht," and "gherkin." So as not to make the list overly European, one cannot forget those fat Chinese noodle dish called "chow fun" and of course, there is the magnificently onomatopoetic "kung pao" is also wonderfully humorous.

Are there others funnier than these? What is the funniest food name?

Bork, bork, bork,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, November 05, 2010

Philosophy for Workers?

Today is the 125th anniversary of the birth of Will Durant author of The Story of Philosophy, a classic book aimed at presenting a popularly accessible account of the thought of great philosophers from Plato through John Dewey. It has been in print continuously now for 84 years and is still usable.

What may not be known is that it was not written as a book, but rather as a series of "Little Blue Books," that is cheap pamphlets that could be afforded and understood by workers in the 1920s, lower class people with little education who wanted to improve themselves and their lives. Education was the key, many including Durant thought, to helping lift people out of poverty.

We've given up on that project. Now popular philosophy is aimed at the already educated in hopes of creating a bulwark against other entertainment options which entrench thoughtless, sometimes harmful, but always commercially successful passivity.

But why not gear philosophical discussion at today's workers? Is it that education is not seen as the salvation we thought it was or are we still suffering from the picture we got from Ronald Reagan that the poor are that way because they are lazy and do not deserve our attention? We'd be wasting our time trying to better those who clearly cannot be. Is it that working and lower class people themselves do not want to be philosophically engaged? Or is it that it simply doesn't generate sufficient profit since they are not a primary book buying or philosophical media consuming demographic?

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Can There Be a Fake Religion?

Before a meeting yesterday, I was glancing around the room at some of the older books in our religion department's library. One that caught my eye was called The World's Great Religions. I proposed other volumes for the series. For those that just missed making the first volume, we'd have The World's Pretty Darn Good Religions and of course one for The World's Really Crappy Religions. My colleague suggested one for The World's Fake Religions, and talked about an interesting student presentation in her Philosophy of Law class a few years back that examined the fourteen conditions put forward by a British court that define a religion and why Scientology fails to meet them.

I'm not interested in a discussion of the details of Scientology here, but rather am fascinated by the phrase "fake religion." Could there be such a thing?

A fake religion would not be a false religion, that is, one whose foundational beliefs turn out not to be the case. That would still be a legitimate religion, just one that turned out not to preach the absolute truth it thought it had. It would have to be something else.

What about the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Again, that seems not to fit either because it is not meant to be a religion at all, but rather a set of absurd doctrines and artistic artifacts that mirror those of legitimate religions in order to create a logical equivalence between something designed to be clearly irrational to be used in a larger reduction ad absurdum. It is not a fake religion, but a religion-like non-religion.

If people at the top do not believe, but there are legitimate faithful below, is that sufficient to make a religion a real religion? Can there be a fake religion?

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Is Non-Fiction Writing Art?

As I work on tightening up chapter 3 of Einstein's Jewish Science, I can't help but think of non-fiction books that I really love, books like David Quammen's The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, or Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter, or Loius Menand's The Metaphysical Club or classic works from Tom Wolfe or Truman Capote that are so incredible fascinating or powerful. When non-fiction is done right, it is incredibly affective.

But is it art? Does the fact that the author is bound by reality limit the creativity of the act in such a way as to make it mere stylized journalism or is the process of stroy telling enough to make non-fiction writing art? Is it art in some cases and not others? If so, what are the criteria that differentiate one from the other?

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Value of Freedom

Had lunch yesterday with a political scientist and a sociologist and the following question came up: Could there be a prison in which you would be willing to voluntarily be incarcerated? Is liberty inherently so valuable that no matter the material comforts it is necessarily trumped by the freedom to come and go and do as you choose?

Monday, November 01, 2010

Trick or Treat?

Once again, we took the short people trick or treating last night. It's really not fair. They go door to door collecting attractive little packages of candy they are not allowed to have. Taking kids who can't have candy trick or treating is a little like taking Michael Vick to PetSmart. There's just something not right about it.

I still say we need a new iPhone app called "wiki treat" that takes neighborhood maps and lets people enter what each house is giving. There can be little icons for each major candy and a special flashing icon if it is a full-sized bar or they are giving the kids a handful. That way kids know to skip the ones with dum-dums and head right for the snickers. There will be a black skull for houses that have run out of candy and a marker for houses that scare little kids. Any developers out there?

One thing I do wonder about every year, what is the appropriate age to stop trick or treating? At what point are kids too old to be collecting candy? 16? 14?