Saturday, April 30, 2011

Passing the Plate: Wedding Edition

My Fellow Comedists,

It's time to solicit donations again. Other churches ask for money, but Comedists tithe jokes.

We had the royal wedding this week, but this weekend, one of our own -- Jeff Maynes -- is tying the knot. So in his honor, let's do wedding or marriage jokes.

My favorites:

From Rita Rudner, "Men who wear earrings are particularly well suited to marriage, they've experienced pain and bought jewelery."

From Groucho: "Marriage is a fine institution, but who wants to live in an institution?"

From Rodney Dangerfield, "My wife and i were happy for twenty years. Then we met."
Give generously.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, April 29, 2011

Justin Beiber, U.S. Senator

Now that the President has released his birth certificate, perhaps the next move for Donald Trump and the birthers is to contend that he forged the date. Maybe he was born in the U.S., maybe not; but is he really old enough to be President? The Constitution places an age limit on the Presidency, at least 35 years old, on the Senate, at least 30, and on the House of Representatives, at least 25. Grey hair can be faked, Trump will scream. After all who knows more about misleading with hair than Trump?

Are these age limits necessary or fair? Is it to save us from even the possibility of hearing the phrase "Senator Beiber"? If someone is a citizen in an open representative democracy, shouldn't the possibility to serve as one of the representatives be an open option for all? Shouldn't it be up to the electorate to decide if the person is too young and inexperienced? We trust the people to decide if he or she is smart enough, honest enough, and insightful enough, why take this out of our hands?

Is there a good argument for limiting the group of people we can vote for based on age? Limiting it to the voting age may make some sense, but limiting it beyond? What would be the grounds on which to justify it?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Generation seX

Been thinking of an off-hand joke Kerry made yesterday that implied that his generation, the Baby Boomers, had more sex in college than my generation, Generation X. The cultural narrative is that the Boomers were the generation of free love, while we were the generation AIDS. Sex for them was a political act, a subversion of the Ward and June Clever image of the world that the 50s forced on them, whereas for us, sex became the infectious disease version of Russian roulette. The accepted wisdom is that because of this difference, we had less sex. Is this story true? I was a physics major at the time, so anecdotal evidence I could provide would be flawed.

What of the current generation of college students. If Tom Wolfe is to be believed, free love is back. Is this all nonsense? Is the rate constant across generations or does it change significantly with other sociological factors?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Non-American Neologisms

The shorter of the short people told us the other day while we were out driving that the British term for a speed bump is a "sleeping policeman," something we all found funny.

The Russian term for a black hole is "frozen star," which comes comes the fact that space and time are so warped around it that objects entering into the event horizon appear to move slower and slower as they approach it. So much so, in fact, that at the event horizon time becomes frozen to observers outside.

Know any other cool neologisms from non-American, or at least non-mainstream American, linguistic communities?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What If Mom and Pop Are Jerks?

The kids had outgrown their bikes and TheWife was determined that we would get bikes as well so that we could have regular family rides, so we're in the process of buying new bikes. We went to our local bike shop and bought models that we could have gotten a bit cheaper on-line. We did this because we believe in supporting small local business and because we really like our local bike shop (if you are in Maryland, Mount Airy Bicycles is a wonderful place with very well-informed, very nice staff).

In the same way, when TheWife and I go into Frederick for a nice meal and take a walk afterward, there is a small sweets shop that we would occasionally visit for an after-meal treat. It is just a few blocks from a national chain that I also enjoy (opened by two Jews in Vermont...), but we prefer to support the little guy instead of Unilever who bought them out years ago and so we went in. The owner hires local teens to work behind the counter, a classic first job. When the teenager who was waiting on us asked us if we wanted nuts on a sundae that did not come with nuts, she was severely and publicly berated, treated in a fashion that was nasty and utterly uncalled for as a result of a completely minor offense. The owner, it turns out, is a real jerk. We now cannot bring ourselves to go back in.

The question, then, is whether supporting local business is inherently a good thing. Should we find out who owns the business first, or is there value in having a variety of local businesses regardless of who owns them?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Cirque du Soleil, Video Games, and Imperfect Duties

Took the kids to see Cirque du Soleil this weekend. Truly amazing. Convinced that they should change the name to "Cirque du No Way." You spend two hours watching the most amazing feats you can imagine by incredibly fit performers from Asia and Central and Eastern Europe, only to have the lights come up and see yourself very conscious of the fact that you are surrounded by obese Americans. It really makes you realize what the public health people have been telling us for a couple of decades now.

We're not only overweight as a culture, but while we love to crow that the U.S.A. is #1 at everything, you realize that you've just been entranced by a whole bunch of stuff that Americans can't do. If there was a show where you watched people ate potato chips while watching tv, we'd be right there, but actual, instead of virtual, work...not so much. We play Wii these days, not catch. We play Guitar Hero, not guitar. We have been so lulled into the commercialization of play that we buy games to play on expensive consoles instead of actually playing them and as a result, we become our avatars and not our real bodies. We are less and less living inside of ourselves.

As a result, we are becoming less talented. We are not developing our potentials. Is this a moral problem? Kant argues that there are perfect duties, things that we are required to do at all times. Never steal, never kill. Imperfect duties, on the other hand, are the sorts of things that we admire, but don't need to be done all the time. Learn a foreign language, learn to play piano, help out at the soup kitchen or your child's school. The corporatization of leisure -- television, video games,... -- has made sure that the time we could be using for imperfect duties is instead filled with opportunities for advertising and activities that bring in revenue. This means more profits for corporations, but less talented Americans. Or is getting to the next level on a video game itself a talent? Is it just a different form of imperfect duty? Is there a problem with relaxing in front of the tube instead of reading a classic or taking up woodworking? Do we really have a duty to develop our talents or do we have the right to do with our free time as we see fit...even if it means not being fit?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Happy Keister

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend as our Christian friends celebrate their holy day of Easter, we Comedists celebrate our holy day of Keister, a day dedicated to that part of the human anatomy that not only sounds funny, it looks funny. The displaying of one's backside, mooning, is generally greeted with laughter. We call someone the "butt" of a joke. We snap towels or goose someone from behind. When something is comically wrong it is said to be "ass-backwards." What is it about the very appearance of the derriere that makes it humorous?

A few classic rump jokes:

Did you hear about the woman who backed into an airplane propeller? Disaster.

What do you get if you sit on a waffle iron? Hot crossed buns.

Your momma's butt is so big that she gets taller when she sits down.

Other offerings?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day

Happy Earth Day everyone. With the price of gas nearing an average of $4/gallon and the one year anniversary of the nation's worst oil spill in the news, one would think we would be having serious discussions of alternative energy and weening ourselves and the planet from its petroleum addiction. Yet, we're not.

What would be necessary for this? It seemed that the popularization of the science behind global warming was starting to give rise to the discussion -- the notion of carbon footprint, at least, became part of the cultural consciousness. But even here, the conversation seems to have faded.

What do we need to get the ball rolling once more? Or is it something that we need to have a Manhattan Project type push on? Is it something that will slowly seep its way into culture one small step at a time?

Thursday, April 21, 2011


With yesterday being 4/20, it is appropriate to start a conversation about the social construction of weed. The weed I want to talk about, however, is the dandelion. Adults put it in the category "weed," where children put it under the heading "wildflower." Thus, we have the same drama unfolding repeatedly..."Thank you so much. Let me find a vase for this beautiful bouquet of flowers you've picked me," and under the breath "Shame you didn't get the roots."

The switch is no doubt connected to the social meaning of lawns. With the tide of suburbanization, the notion of a lawn became a matter of social status and having complete control over unruly nature so that your little patch of it looks like a thick green rug became an issue so central to establishing one's bona fides in the suburban mindset that anything that encroaches upon your wall-to-wall exterior carpeting should be seen as a personal character flaw. Even if it is pretty. We'll pay lots of money and spray chemicals on our lawns whose long-term safety we really are not sure of, just so our neighbors will not think us insufficiently suburban with the presence of dandelions.

But kids love them. I have to admit, I still do, too. A field of yellow and green under a blue sky with fluffy clouds, there's just something wonderful about it. Yes, they are a pain in the garden, but not insurmountable.

At what point do we make the switch? When does dandelion go from nature's gift that we want to give to our most precious loved ones to curse? Is it a matter of being adult? Does it happen before we get a house and lawn? If they we the shape of buttercups with larger petals, would we even think them weeds at all? They are edible, what if they became more popular, say, in salads, would that utility take them from the list of weeds?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Cultural Meaning of Hitler

Today would be Adolf Hitler's 122nd birthday. Author of Mein Kampf and architect of genocide, his name is used to imply extreme evil, but all too often that is equivalent to "someone who doesn't agree with me." It seems as if the power is diminished by overuse.

Additionally, comics, especially Jewish comedians have made Hitler the butt of jokes. Lenny Bruce had his classic "Adolph Hitler and the M.C.A." bit, while Mel Brooks has made a career of it from The Producers, to his remake of To Be or Not To Be, a quick shot in Blazing Saddles, to "Hitler on Ice" in History of the World, Part I. Do these treatments, which are reasonable coping mechanisms for a generation still haunted by the Holocaust, have the unintended effect of minimizing the cultural meaning of Hitler?

Has Hitler become a cartoon character? Has he been made into an icon without the connotative power?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

RIP William Donald Shaefer

Baltimore lost its patron saint yesterday. The 60s, with its white flight, drugs, and crime took a toll on America's cities and Baltimore was as bad if not worse than most. But William Donald Shaefer put urban renewal into the popular lexicon. He was a tireless advocate for Baltimore and transformed it into a different city. He was a mixture of pit bull and clown, but always, always, always with the city in mind. He could be nasty and abrasive, he could be goofy and charming. Living as a row house with his mother, ever the bachelor -- even with his friend Hilda Mae Snoops -- Shaefer was unlike any other politician you would ever meet. He played the eccentric, the droopy-eyed loser, but nobody ever doubted that he was as skilled a political player behind the scenes as you will ever find. He got things done and he got people to do them. He made government work and the city of Baltimore is forever changed for it.

Rest in peace Willy Don.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Butterfly Effect

We had "Get Acquainted Day" last weekend, a day where we meet with accepted students -- some coming to Gettysburg, others undecided -- and we give our pitch explaining what we're all about. It's pretty much the same every year and you're tempted, especially at this time of the semester, to phone it in. But we always make sure to have some of our majors there to provide students' perspectives on the college and department and inevitably you realize that some of them are here because of earlier Get Acquainted Days, that what seems to you banal, yet another thing, can actually be life changing.

We like to point to rituals as the pivotal events -- weddings, graduations, getting the driver's license, turning 21, 30, 65 -- but really, the places and times that change our futures are buried among the mundane and would never be spotted, but for their consequences.

The most important thing I've ever done in my life was playing in my grandparents' backyard when I was 8. I found a pole and a small empty box, put the box on the pole and pretended it was a lacrosse stick. On seeing what I was doing, my mother suggested I try out lacrosse. I did and it changed where I went to college, what I studied, the people I met. I likely would not be a philosophy professor, certainly would not be married to my wife, my children would not be, were it not for that Sunday at my grandparents that was, in all other respects, like countless other Sundays.

As parents, we try to foster those moments for our own kids, trying to control and direct their effects. But it never works. It like throwing a party -- the great ones are never planned, they just happen.

It tempting to prescribe that we ought to live life knowing that anything we do could have this effect, to become hyper-aware of the results of our actions and to make sure we always act in a way that could have the best possible effects. But one could never live that way and, besides, sometimes the best consequences arise from the worst circumstances.

What were the mundane events that changed your life?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Feast of Saint Martin

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend, we celebrate the feast of Saint Martin. Martin Lawrence turns 45 today.

There is a long tradition of African-American stand-up comics who were major players in every generation, from Moms Mabley to Redd Foxx, Dick Gregory to Richard Pryor, and of course, Eddie Murphy. But these were outstanding singular voices. Martin Lawrence's material was there at the front end of the wave of contemporary black comedians. Coming out of the D.C. stand-up scene that gave us produced so much great talent like Dave Chappelle and Wanda Sykes, Lawrence developed one of the best ears in comedy with an amazing ability to work to any audience and know exactly where to pitch his material. The result was a run on Star Search and becoming the host of Def Comedy Jams. Martin Lawrence rightly became the face of black stand-up in the 90s.

This success led to an on-going successful career in television and movies, but his heart is clearly in making sure that the edgy urban comedy scene remains healthy. Turning from performer and host to producer, Martin Lawrence Presents: 1st Amendment Stand-up brings an outlet for comics whose material is rougher than standard Comedy Central fare. Appearing only seated, waving like royalty from his privileged place, Lawrence no longer dominates the stage, but he still very much present in keeping comedy fresh and alive.

Happy birthday, Martin Lawrence.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, April 15, 2011


April 15th, tax day...well, tax day for those who procrastinate anyway. We've had a senior writing a thesis on procrastination this semester, so we've all been thinking a fair bit about the topic, or at least we've been meaning to.

Procrastinating, to a first order approximation, means not doing something you are supposed to be doing. But, of course, we all have lots of different things we should be doing, some more important, others more pressing. If you set aside one thing you need to do for something else you need to do, you may not be procrastinating, you may be reasonably prioritizing your activities. Procrastination seems to have implicit within it, the notion of irresponsibility or irrationality.

Clearly, it presupposes that it makes sense to say that something needs to be done at a certain time, that is, there is some meaningful sense in which we can say "I should be doing this now." The procrastinator must agree that this is important and it should be done now, even if he or she has chosen not to do it now.

And it has to be a choice. If one is kept from doing something, one is not procrastinating. But the choice has to be one that -- despite having made it -- you think should be made otherwise.

Your projects and responsibilities give you a framework that constrains your choices, but does so willingly, that is, you accept the value of it. This framework will, at times, require certain tasks to be time-sensitive. Procrastination occurs when you try to subvert the structure that takes your freedom, even though, you yourself accept the value of that framework. Procrastination is a matter of perspective shift, of taking the minute and eliminating the larger context. You undermine the limitation, ignoring the fact that you agree with that which limits you. that is why it is simultaneously attractive and guilt-inducing.

That done, I better get to work.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

How Do We Change Normal?

We obey two masters. There is what is right and what is normal and the two are often different. When this happens, the pull of the normal usually wins out. This is true whether by "right" we mean factual, as in the Asche conformity experiment:

or if we mean "right" in terms of moral, or even "right" in terms of healthy as a new study shows.

"Eighty-two percent of the obese women underestimated their weight, compared with 43% of overweight and 13% of normal-weight women. Likewise, 86% of overweight or obese children failed to correctly estimate their weight, compared with just 15% of normal-weight children...Moreover, when the children were presented with a series of cards bearing silhouette images of body types and were asked to select the "ideal" or "healthy" size for their mother, they tended to pick body types that were, in fact, unhealthily large."

What we see influences what we think we should see. Normal is the most powerful social force out there, but normal is sometimes harmful. If normal just runs roughshod over rational, moral, healthy, even empirically obvious, then appeals to these will be ineffective. How then do we change normal where it is dangerous or wrong and replace it with a new more helpful normal?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Case Against Manned Spaceflight

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's historic orbiting of the Earth, initiating the era of manned spaceflight. Humans were no longer limited to our home planet, we were now citizens of the universe in a way we had never been before. In the history of humanity, it was one of the big steps.

We still hear cries to continue with manned spaceflights, calls I believe are misplaced. The arguments in favor of it tend to come in three kinds: (1) putting humans in space is for the good of science in that it gives us data we could never have otherwise, (2) manned spaceflight is a technological seed, producing practical engineering marvels that we would not have otherwise had and which enrich human life on Earth, and (3) nothing excites the cultural imagination more than manned spaceflight which raises the profile of science generally and results in more young scientists and more support for the funding of science. None of these arguments, I claim, still work.

(1) Human beings evolved to live in certain kinds of conditions -- specifically, those with a certain amount of gravitational pull. We are clunky beings with lots of bodily needs, needs that take a lot of space and energy when we are trying to go somewhere. Anyone with a toddler, trying to drive to see family an hour away knows how much stuff you need to move a human, space that you wish you had for other things you wish you could have brought. Spaceflight is no different. Room is at a premium and when you are taking people instead instruments, you can take a lot fewer instruments, do a lot less science, and spend a whole lot more money. The simple fact is that when you look at amount of science done per dollar, manned spaceflight is absurdly expensive and keeps you from being able to send up instruments that could have otherwise gone, that if our true interest was in making measurements, we would never take the idea seriously.

(2) The standard line is one left over from the 60s that the requirements of manned spaceflight lead to new discoveries that can be fitted for applications on Earth. This was certainly true in the 60s when we had little in terms of technological research and development infrastructure and we were just beginning the computer age. We did get technologies from the space race. But the fact is that things are radically different now. The technological challenges of making materials light enough and strong enough to build rockets, of coming up with electronics capable of controlling the mission and allowing sufficient communications, of meeting the survival needs of the astronauts have already been met or could be with what we have already developed. Not much new would come from it and we have a technologically-based economy that is filling the niches we find in contemporary society on its own.

(3) When John F. Kennedy announced that we would put a man on the moon, the idea seemed as absurd as Dick Tracy's two-way wrist tv. But to this generation of young people, it is a mundane fact that we can travel in space. Indeed, the two-way wrist tv is nothing compared to the iphone. The cultural imagination is not engaged by manned spaceflight because we do not have to imagine it. It is not seen as the impossible task it was once thought to be and it no longer challenges our view of ourselves as earthly beings. I do think that we need to get children excited about science. I do think that major undertakings can have this effect. I also think that the days of manned spaceflight being able to do this are gone.

With none of the three standard arguments for manned spaceflight being sound, the question is how we should spend our scientific dollars. We need to spend most of it doing science, but some of it in ways that are more directed towards public relations because we need to keep the public profile of science prominent. We need to put instruments in space and manned spaceflight keeps us from doing lots of good science. We also need new Mr. Wizards, new Carl Sagans, new Bill Nyes. We need an army of them. Have you ever watched the NASA channel? Of course not. It is awful. Why don't we have a weekly Brian Greene show? Why don't we have charismatic scientists having really fun and interesting conversations with amazing graphics? My philosophy of science class was excited by even the mention of Mythbusters. Why aren't we doing more of that? Making science accessible, exciting, and interesting. Yes, putting a man on the moon did in the 60s, but times have changed and the face of science -- the marquee project -- needs to change with it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

How Different Is It?

It was 150 years ago today that Fort Sumter was attacked starting the Civil War. The war over slavery was indicative of a problematic view of race that we have had in this nation since it began. We hold up the first African-American President as evidence that things have changed.

But in a poll published just last week by Public Policy Polling, a widely respected polling organization, when they asked a representative sample of 400 likely Republican voters in Mississippi whether interracial marriage should be legal or illegal, a 46% plurality answered illegal.

I remember being an adjunct at Towson University (back when it was Towson State University) and having a cubicle across from an English prof who had an African-American student in her cubicle during "office" hours who was loudly railing that nothing had changed in terms of race in America. She emerged after the conversation shaking her head. She looked at me and said that this kid could have no idea what it was like to be in an interracial marriage in the 50s. Things, she said, had changed.

The question is how much and in what way? We love to point to our first African-American President and say that things are different. But are they? On the 150th anniversary of the start of the war to protect slave owners' rights, do we still have the same sorts of racist views, only we deny them in public because they have become unfashionable outside of Mississippi Republican circles? Do we have better code words for the same ideas or have the biases themselves changed? Are they decreased or more subtle? Has racism become institutional instead of individual? Have the biases turned more towards class, than race or is race still the issue? how different are things?

Monday, April 11, 2011

"No Ray, It Was You"

Watched Field of Dreams with TheWife over the weekend, and had a discussion about a part of the last scene. After Ray realizes that the catcher is his father, he turns to Shoeless Joe and says "It was you." To which Shoeless Joe replies, "No Ray, it was you."

To what does the "it" refer? We had three distinct possibilities we were trying to sort through.

(1) It was you who brought the father back.
(2) It was your pain that was to be eased.
(3) The voice is yours.

Is it one of these three interpretations? If do, which one? If not, what were they talking about?

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Passing the Plate: Birthday Edition

My Fellow Comedists,

Today is my birthday, so let's pass the plate. Other religions asks for monetary donations, but Comedists tithe jokes. This time around, let's do birthday jokes.

My offering:

It was Sol Rosenberg's 94th birthday and his friends at the nursing home thought it would be funny to send a call girl to his room. Sol hears a knock at his door and a beautiful woman walks in and tells him, "I'm here to give you super sex." Sol looks up and says, "Thank you very much, I'll take the soup."
Yours? Be generous, dig deep.

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, April 08, 2011

Sorokin's Cycle of Cultural Belief

I've been thinking about Pitrim Sorokin's argument that societies go through a cycle where the dominant approach to the world cycles between what he calls the sensate -- a worldview that prizes on observation and reason as primary and sees the world in terms of matter -- and the ideational -- a stance towards the world that is mystical and places the spiritual in the forefront. He contended that you find cultures moving through these phases into the other, back and forth, that the dominance of one creates the conditions for the arising of the other. No value is placed on one over the other, but rather the two are inextricably linked in a continuing dance.

Is there a broad brush sense in which this is correct and, if so, what does each stance contribute to the culture. What do we get from the sensate that we can't get from the ideational and what do we get from the ideational that we can't get from the sensate?

Thursday, April 07, 2011

What's the Difference: Nerd, Geek, and Dork

So what is the difference between a nerd, a geek, and a dork? Are they different species? Are they mutually exclusive? In having to ask, which one am I?

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

How Do you Keep Non-Violence Non-Violent?

81 years ago today, Mahatma Gandhi started his salt march to Dandi by holding up a handful of mud and salt and declaring that "With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire." He was right. The non-violent opposition to the British salt tax was a major step in the story of Indian independence, one that is infused with Gandhi's non-violence. Non-violence is extremely difficult to maintain when the group is large, emotions are running high, and the threat of violence is immanent. It was certainly very helpful to have a figure like Gandhi who was thoughtful about non-violence, could speak of it in clear and powerful ways, and was very charismatic.

But we've seen other cases, the Velvet Revolution and what has transpired in Egypt recently in which non-violence works without a single charismatic leader. Yet, there are any number of cases in which non-violent protests turned violent...often with tragic results. When you do not have a leader extolling the importance of non-violence, it is easy for elements -- sometimes from the other side -- to infiltrate and start the move to violence.

What, then, is necessary to keep a non-violent movement non-violent? Does it take appeals to reason? Is it a function of the opposition, will it only be effective against certain sorts of adversaries? Is it a matter of time, that things must end quickly because non-violent tactics have a limited life? Does it take groundwork laid before the action? Is it a function of infrastructure, that there must be a vibrant free press, international presence, or decent roads?

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Sexual Orientation as Counterfactual

I sat in on our Gender and Identity class the other day and have been pondering this question: is sexual orientation a behaviorist notion (based on what you've done) or is it counterfactual (based on what you would do)?

Determining what it means for a counterfactual to be true is a philosophical conundrum all its own, but in this case the behaviorist approach seems to have some problems of its own. There is a poem in Allen Ginsberg's later writings in which he describes a sexual encounter with a male student who was clearly trophy hunting -- the young man was clearly excited to be able to say that he had sex with Allen Ginsberg, but was noticeably not excited while actually having sex with Allen Ginsberg. The student was straight. If it wasn't for the counter-cultural credentials, he would never have wanted to engage in this activity. But he did, even though he is very unlikely to do so, or even to desire to do so, again. Does this encounter make him bisexual?

If sexual orientation a matter of what you've done, we run into cases like this. If it is what you would do, how can we determine anything since it seems not possible to know what one would do given that you haven't done it. What would count as evidence? Is it what you've had a desire to do? In this case, our desires would have to be transparent to us. Are they? Does self-reporting become perfect? Or is it a counterfactual here, what you would have a desire to do? I have no idea how we would make determinations like this. How do we determine sexual orientation? It seems an important question to be able to answer if we want it to afford legal protection (although most cases would revolve around perpetrator's belief about the sexual orientation of the victim -- right or wrong, one could easily see cases where the question becomes relevant).

Monday, April 04, 2011

Favorite Colors

A student asked last week why we have favorite colors. Psychologists disagree. Some, like Anya Hurlbert and Yazhu Ling argue that color preference is biological. This explains why there are differences, for example, across sexes. Independent of culture, they contend, girls tend towards pinks and purples, red-based shades, whereas boys tend towards blue-based colors. Others like Ou, Luo, Woodcock, and Wright argue that colors are intertwined with emotions and that favorite colors come from emotional connections. Still others, like Palmer and Schloss, give a more evolutionary take claiming that certain colors are naturally associated with that which is healthful -- blues for sky and clean water, green for edible plants -- and those are frequently cited favorite colors; whereas other colors, like brown are associated with that which is harmful (feces, rotting food) and thereby we have developed a natural disinclination towards them.

The effects of culture seem to be ignored. Surely, the meaning of color is in part an artifact of our experiences -- our college colors, favorite sports team, or political party will all have an effect. Surely, sociology has some effect -- or does it? In cultures where individuality is stressed, do we see a trend towards bolder shades, whereas in cultures where the whole is more important, say more muted hues?

Interestingly, when we went around the room, every person except one said blue or green, the one exception, a young woman, said violet.

TheWife contends that we need to differentiate between favorite color, color I would most like to be surrounded by, and color I would most likely wear (what looks best on me). If we stick to the first, why do we have favorite colors?

Informal poll -- in the comments leave your favorite color. (Mine is green.)

Saturday, April 02, 2011

The Feast Day of Saint Demento

My Fellow Comedists,

Today is the 70th birthday of Barry Hansen, better known as Dr. Demento. Long before we had YouTube and e-mail to help comedy go viral, Dr. Demento and his syndicated radio program were our primary vector for infectious laughter.

The son of a classical pianist, he is also a trained musician, but turned his interest towards popular music writing a master's thesis on the development of R&B in the 40s and early 50s at UCLA. Turning his back on the traditional life of an ethnomusicologist, he became a roadie for Canned Heat and eventually worked his way into the record industry as a talent scout. He picked up a gig on a Pasadena radio station playing new and undiscovered artists, but started mixing in classic novelty tunes like "Monster Mash," "Alley Oop," and "One Eyed, One Horned, Flying Purple People Eater" which listeners went nuts for. And so Dr. Demento became the place where Spike Jones and Tom Lehrer could be heard next to new and emerging comic and off-beat voices. It was one of the few places on the radio you could hear Frank Zappa.

It was Dr. Demento's background as a scout that led him to lean as much on unproven figures as he did on well-established folks and as a result became a launching pad for many, most notably Weird Al Yankovic. His annual collections were a place comedy fans could go for access to tunes you could not find at the local record stores...back when we had record stores...back when we had records...

Happy bithday, Dr. Demento. Thank you for all the opportunities you've given to comics and for all the laughs for all the years.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, April 01, 2011

Happy Saint Shecky's Day!

My Fellow Comedists,

On this, the holiest day of the year for us, Saint Shecky's Day, I bring you greetings and inspiration.

Comedism began when the great Cosmic Comic taught the teacher. I was a younger instructor, teaching just my third class, a night course in ethics, when I was trying to draw a distinction between moral precepts and cultural mores. A student in the front row raised his hand and asked, "Steve, what are mores?" Looking him straight in the eye, I said, "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's a more." I knew instantly that set-ups that perfect don't just happen randomly, that was divine comedic intervention. I was in the presence of something bigger, funnier than all of us.

A few years later, I was teaching a class in philosophy of religion at the United States Naval Academy and the topic was Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God which claims that an all-perfect being necessarily exists. By an all-perfect being, he meant all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful. But missing from the Judeo-Christian God was the property of being all-funny. Surely, being funny is a virtue, yet nowhere in the Abrahamic holy texts are there any good punchlines, no one-liners, not even a thy-mama joke.

And so I realized that I was being called to start a new religion -- Comedism -- in which that which is holy is that which is funny. Our central tenet is that the universe is a joke and only the righteous shall get it. Jokes have two parts, a set-up and a punchline. The set-up leads you to think of something in one way, but the punchline makes you realize that there was another interpretation, an entirely different way of seeing the situation and the humor is in the mind's futile attempt to rectify these distinct ways of understanding. Our belief that the universe is a joke means that there is ALWAYS more than one way to understand things, there are always different perspectives. Comedism, therefore, can have no fundamentalists who think they have the one and only truth as there is no one and only truth. Wisdom is being able to see things simultaneously in multiple ways, with multiple meanings. That is how to live the good life, the holy life.

And when that life is over, your soul ascends to the pearly gates and there behind them stands Saint Shecky with the great book of judgment. Throughout your life, you are provided with a number of set-ups. Those, like "that's a more" that you make into jokes count in your favor. But those you miss... A time later, I was out taking a walk and was working my way up a big hill when a couple passed me in the other direction. They both looked at me funny and when we were within speaking distance, the man said to me, "Didn't we just see you with a dog?" I said no, that he must have me mistaken for someone else, but as they continued on past me, I realized that the correct answer was "Excuse me, THAT was my wife." I had missed it. The universe gave me the chance, and I blew it. That counts as one against. Saint Shecky has the tally and if you've made more jokes than you missed, you are welcomed in to sit at Groucho's right hand. If you've missed more than you made, you are sent to comedy hell where it is hot and all water is in dribble glasses, all chairs have whoopie cushions, and you are forced to watch reruns of Three's Company for all of eternity.

Our holy book, of course, is the Comedist Manifesto. You may read excerpts here and here. Unlike other religions, we believe in gay marriage because we don't think it's prpoer to deprive our gay and lesbian members of mother-in-law jokes and because "Take my civilly united, legally recognized, domestic partner, please" just really destroys the timing.

People ask me whether I'm serious about Comedism being a religion. I tell them, of course not, if I was serious, it wouldn't be holy. So, for those who are already practicing Comedists, happy Saint Shecky's Day. For those who would wish to join us, everyone is welcome, just be funny.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve