Monday, January 31, 2011

Passions and Avocations

Weekends are busy. The less short of the shorties has an acting class and the shorter of the shorties is taking a clinic teaching the basic skills of playing catcher. It was exciting watching both of them find their thing, something that was not only fun for them, but that transformed them, an activity where they really transcended the little person you see in other aspects of their lives, where the hard work was not drudgery but clearly was being fueled by a fire inside, something purely internal. What worries me is that I have the same thing when I go to work in the morning -- teaching philosophy isn't just a job for me, it's an avocation, a calling. I could not imagine doing anything else and feeling whole in the same way. Odds are she won't become an actor and he won't become a catcher. But, there will be ways for it to remain a part of their lives if they are creative.

At the same time, they have had the experience of feeling that feeling, of being able to feel like they are where they belong, of being driven, of swimming with the current. My question is whether everyone has that something. Is there some activity -- whether employable or not -- to which one would gladly spend one's life and energy, that is a part of you? Does everyone have a calling, it's just that some are in more fortunate circumstances to be able to answer the call or do some people live completely take it or leave it lives where numerous acceptable options remain open, but no have to have it needs are present?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Feast of Saint W.C.

This week would see the 131st birthday of W.C. Fields, the famed alcoholic misanthrope. He had the rare ability to play a completely detestable character that you could not help but love. He is the ultimate in the role played so wonderfully these days by Bill Murray and Steve Carrell.

He left home and began performing at 18 taking a juggling act to Vaudeville. And quite the juggler he was.

But it was his appearances in film and on radio that created the character we came to love so much. The down on his luck drunk who hates kids and dogs, love wine, women, and song, well, at least wine and women. A guy who admits no flaws even when you can't help but stare right at them. A con man with a tongue as sharp as his patience is short who is always scamming for something.

It was a character that in parts resembled his real self. While he never drank in his younger days to keep his juggling abilities sharp, in his later years he did turn to the bottle enthusiastically and in the end it claimed his life. He also harbored deep bigotries, a misogynist and racist who in his will left a sum of money to start an orphanage that would be restricted to white children. A master at his craft, but a truly flawed character.

He suffered as an adult from rosacea, an illness which gave him the characteristic flush cheeks and bulbous nose that made him so recognizable.

We leave you today with some famous lines from W. C. Fields:

"How well I remember my first encounter with The Devil's Brew. I happened to stumble across a case of bourbon--and went right on stumbling for several days thereafter."

"I am free of all prejudice. I hate everyone equally."

"The movie people would have nothing to do with me until they heard me speak in a Broadway play, then they all wanted to sign me for the silent movies."

"Business is an establishment that gives you the legal, even though unethical, right to screw the naive--right, left, and in the middle."

"Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain unless you've used up all the other four-letter words."

"During one of my treks through Afghanistan, we lost our corkscrew. We were compelled to live on food and water for several days."

"Marriage is better than leprosy because it's easier to get rid of."

"Start every day off with a smile and get it over with."

"It's hard to tell where Hollywood ends and the D.T.'s begin."

"Say anything that you like about me except that I drink water."

Live, love and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Universalizing Art and Constricting Philosophy

Gwydion asks,

Are there any objective, universal assertions that can be truthfully and correctly made about the nature of creative endeavors (writing, for example, or painting) for all creative practitioners? In other words, is there anything that is universally, demonstrably, or even measurably true about writing for all writers, for example? (In the way that pi is pi for all measurers?)
If we all looking general propositions, then we can start with the trivial, definitional ones, e.g., all painters use paint, all writers write. These are universal and true because they say nothing about the process other than it is what it is.

The question, though, asks for what Kant called synthetic propositions, that is, statements that contain information. Is there any universal proposition that is true of all writers or all painters that says something about writing or painting. In the decades around the turn of the 20th century, we saw almost simultaneously in virtually all creative and intellectual fields, an attempt to ferret out such claims and violate them. Art became about what it is to be a work of art, music rejected tonal centers, geometry surrendered the intuitive axioms of Euclid. All pushed the line that distinguished art from non-art, the meaning of geometry, basic assumptions about architecture, into places we had never previously considered. Conventions were challenged. Standard definitions undermined. This question asks, a century later, despite the best efforts of the intellectual wrecking ball, is there anything left standing, are there any universals left that could not be undermined?

In the case of the creative arts, it seems that while the artist has been freed to affect the viewer in so many new and unexpected ways, the basic relationship between artist and viewer remains. The reader still reads, still approaches words from beginning to end and expects to come away with a transformed view of the world in some way. The viewer still approaches a piece of art and opens oneself up to what it does to the viewer in that moment of experience. Certainly with on-line publishing that allows through the use of links for writing that is not strictly linear and interactive works of art that put the viewer in part of the role of creator of the artistic experience, still there is always a meta-standpoint from which the individualized experience was shaped in the usual way by the artist or writer. I think that this relationship in a certain sense is based on the parent-child or teacher-student relationship, that viewers approach creative work as the apprentice who may or may not ultimately reject the master as not having truly been a master who had anything to teach, but the basic underlying relationship between creator and viewer seems to me to be unaffected by all of the revolutions in the creative world.

In the other direction, Kerry asks,
In your judgment, what big tent philosopher has done more than any other to derail future philosophers from asking good questions or following fruitful lines of investigation? (My money, for example, is on Descartes. But I don't wish to dogmatize. There are probably lots of good candidates.)
I would argue that we are still recovering from the illegitimate strictures at the beginning of the 20th century in philosophy. While every other field was expanding itself, philosophy broke into two and like a nasty divorce, each side completely alienated the insights of the other.

Carnap and the logical positivists in their radical decontextualizing of knowledge kept questions connecting the philosophical and the sociological from being meaningful. The anti-historical approach kept questions about the actual scientific practices of actual scientists from being asked for generations.

Similarly, Heidegger trapped Continental philosophy in a hermeneutic circle-jerk that gave rise to the postmodernism in which the entire world got lost in a haze of social construction. Epistemology wasn't dead, it just wasn't returning their calls because it had no desire to remain in an abusive relationship.

The second half of the 20th century was a slow shaking off of the artificiality and illegitimate constrictions of the analytic/continental split, something I think we are slowly starting to heal, the excesses of each being pared down a step at a time.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Stink Bugs and Facebook

FBC writes,

I plant a decent sized garden. I grow tomatoes, several types of squash, zucchini, pumpkins, and various peppers. I’m thinking of trying corn this coming year too. The last couple of years have been rough. Between the blight and various pests (especially stink bugs something else I couldn't identify) I’ve lost a lot of yield. What are the most effective organic methods for dealing with these?
First of all, my suggestion is to try to send it all to zucchini and save the rest of the garden...and all of your family and neighbors come zucchini picking time.

Blight effects wet leaves, so the key is to pick off leaves that show the blight as soon as possible and try to aid in drying by keeping plants staked, tied up, and lower leaves pruned back to increase the air flow letting them dry quicker. As for the stink bugs, unfortunately, I have no idea what to do other than swear. Some people suggest planting companion plants that repel them like radishes or plants like sunflowers that attract them away, but I have both in my garden and they still seem to find the tomatoes. If anyone has something that works, I'd be willing to nominate you for a Nobel.

Philo asks,
How can Facebook be worth $50 billion?
Hype and your personal information to sell.

Hanno asks,
What is tastier, crawfish etouffee or boiled crawfish?
It is an empirical question that I plan to continue studying. Steamboat Bill's tonight?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


A couple of education questions:

Thongor! asks,

What are your thoughts on K-12 math education in the United States?
This is something I think about quite a lot as I not only have children, a deep passion for science and science education, but am working with a colleague who is a science and math education researcher on a project at the moment. All of the measurable markers with respect to K-12 math education in the US indicate a system that is broken. Why is this?

I think there are three reasons. First, while there are some very talented and committed high school math teachers out there (some of my former students of whom I am the most proud of are math and science teachers), in general, education, especially secondary education, fails to attract the most qualified people in our society. We pay our teachers terribly and we give them no social status, so those who can get better paying and more prestigious jobs tend to. Those who major or minor in education often do so as a fall back choice in college. It is often people who think it is a safe choice and love children, but not necessarily those for whom mathematics is something they love and understand well. Elementary school mathematics is taught by those who do not specialize in math education and so we set our children off on the wrong foot.

In many cases, we then set up mathematics learning in large classrooms where students learn at different speeds, but are all given the same instruction on the same time line. We think that testing makes students learn better. We give them far too little in terms of resources.

And then we send them home to parents who are themselves undereducated in mathematics and are either mathphobic or care little about the field. We certainly cannot put the blame solely in the classroom. This is a larger cultural problem.

There is actually very good work going on in the study of mathematical pedagogy. The problem is that to change the system to use these new and more effective techniques, it takes money and political will. More money requires taxes to be spent and we couldn't possibly do that to improve our children and thereby our society more generally. The phrase "new math" has roughly the same meaning as "new Coke." Adjustments to math education have been poisoned in the cultural mind by perceptions of past efforts.

As many, most famously John Allen Paulos, has shown, there is large scale innumeracy in American culture and it has negative consequences. How do we change it? Heck if I know.

bonny asks,
What are the advantages and disadvantages in a liberal arts education?
The advantage of a liberal arts education is that it provides the student with a flexible mind capable of solving problems and making meaning in multiple ways. It helps facilitate the development of an intellect that finds connections. Instead of intellectual vo-tech training, the focus is on development as an intellectual, something that I believe helps round and fill out one's life as a human.

The disadvantage is that it is incredibly resource intensive and therefore inaccessible to most. As a result, those who seek out and secure a liberal arts education tend to be surrounded with like souls. It is something that entrenches certain social divisions, which is unfortunate.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Corpses, Titles, and Seniors

Three interesting semantic questions this go 'round.

jw asks,

are human corpses people?
Like so many questions about meaning, the answer is contextual. Corpses are human bodies, and so in some contexts held to be more than mere objects, better than things, but not given the full consideration of people. We do not afford most rights, say, the right to vote, that we would have granted to the formerly living occupant of the body to the lifeless body itself. (Insert joke about Chicago politics here). In certain ways, there is a dualist viewpoint that is assumed in the law. At the same time, we do grant them special status of the same sort as living beings. Just as one can no longer own other human beings with the dissolution of the institution of slavery, so too one cannot own a corpse. It still in some sense belongs to itself and cannot be bought or sold like other objects. So, the answer to your question is "it depends." Give me the context and I can tell you whether in that situation we consider a corpse a human...leaving open the zombie angle altogether.

A Stranger asks,
How does one tell when they can assume a title? A Professor could be easy, once one is hired by a school, or a Doctor as one that has received a PhD or MD. How about an actor? Can you call yourself an actor if you only do summer stock? What constitutes an artist? Can a businessman that plays guitar on weekends call himself a musician? What about philosopher? At what point could you call yourself one without guilt?
Again, meaning requires context. In the cases of degrees like an M.D. or Ph.D. there is the ambiguity of having finished all requirements for the degree and having had it conferred at commencement ceremonies. Usually the former is sufficient.

In the case of terms like artist, musician, or philosopher, there several different senses of the word, we can distinguish between five of them. One is the sense of an active practitioner -- a painter is one who paints. If there are not paintings of yours currently in the works or recently completed, then you are not a painter. It is in this way that one could say, "Well, I used to be a painter in my early days, but I haven't been one for years." A broader meaning is one whose work still exists, as in "Person X is the painter who created this mural" whether X is still painting or not. On this sense, a painter is anyone who has painted. Sense number three is that one has an innate talent for the act or an abiding passion for it. For example, consider the claims, "She has no training, but she was a born painter" or "It doesn't matter the roadblocks you put up, whether you allow me to perform publicly or not, I will always be a musician." In this sense, it is not a relation to anything external, but an element of the person's being. A fourth sense is that one engages in the activity professionally, that one one makes his or her living doing that. When one refers to oneself as a philosopher, for example, it is usually assumed not just that one spends one's time thinking about the deeper questions, but that it is the person's livelihood. This is subtly distinct from a fourth sense which is that one is a member of the community of working practitioners. One, on this view, is a philosopher if one is retired and no longer making a living as a philosopher or is an independent scholar not employed by an institution of higher learning, but is still actively engaged in the work of social institutions around the activity -- publishing in journals, attending and contributing to conferences, editing the writings of others,... This ambiguity is what often gets us in trouble. When we call ourselves "an artist" at a dinner party, the listener will usually assume that it means that one makes a living doing it, whereas if you meant just that you have an artist's soul you may get accused of fibbing when the full picture emerges.

Megan asks,
When does someone officially become the first or senior (ie John David I or John David Sr)? Does their name on legal documents actually change? Can you be a senior in the anticipation that you will have a kid who will be "junior"?
For this one, we have to distinguish between name as legal identifier and name as informal identifier. Just as a woman who takes her husband's name must fill out the appropriate forms to legally change her name, so too a father who names his son after himself must do the same. But one can do this at any time, indeed, there would not have to be a junior to make oneself a senior. It would be unusual to add Sr. to your name if you have no children, but legal names are just labels and you could choose nearly any one you'd like. Alternatively, you could also choose not to even if you do name your child after yourself. In this case, the Sr. is not a legal name, but just used informally to distinguish one from the child. In this looser sense, you become a Sr. as soon as there is a Jr., but the grandchild would be III whether or not there is IV.

More tomorrow.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics

With the start of the semester, it seems a good time for this.

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.

Let Me Be Brief

This week is the 76th anniversary of jockey shorts. It was this week in 1935 that Coopers, Inc. first introduced the legless briefs. The name "jockey" came from the fact that it was modeled on the jock strap and designed to give the same support in a non-athletic undergarment. They became so popular that the company changed its name to Jockey to capture the brand.

So, in the spirit of Bill Clinton, boxers or briefs?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ike's Farewell Address

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Eisenhower's farewell address, the speech in which he warned of the rise of the military-industrial complex. The theme of the entire address is, to borrow a phrase from another former President with a connection to this place, that we not only have a government of and by the people, but we need to have a government for the people. Government is in place to help our fellow Americans in profound ways. This is just a decade after the Great Depression and the power of the government to help the most vulnerable among us is not something that is in doubt. But the desire for power on the part of moneyed interests can get in the way of the government’s ability to help Americans and with the rising influence of the military-industrial complex, we need to look out for those we are supposed to be looking out for.

But Eisenhower saw another change that has happened with the conclusion of the Second World War. Not only is the private sector changed in ways that ought to concern us, but which cannot be reversed, science too has changed. And so he gives us a second warning:

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been over shadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.
Just as we need to watch out for the new captains of industry, so too, he worries, we may need to protect ourselves from a scientific-technological elite in order to have a government that does what it needs to do to encourage the flourishing of the American people. At a time when we are still having to fight legislatures who want to teach Creationism instead of biology, it may seem a bit quaint to look at worries of a take-over of government by a scientific elite, but there is something interesting and deep in Eisenhower’s insight.

Has the military-industrial complex usurped science in such a way that the same concern covers both? With the likes of Monsanto, Dow Chemical, the Tobacco Institute,...has the corporatization of science created a technological elite that shapes how we think? For example, one cannot speak to a group without a PowerPoint presentation meaning that one can only think in slides and bullet points.

Has this fear of a scientific-technological elite come to be in the same way that the powerful military-industrial complex concerns did?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Why Do We Enjoy Being Scared?

Today is Edgar Allen Poe's birthday. While there have been gruesome and scary tales going back to the ancients, Macabre or Gothic literature emerged as a genre unto itself with Poe and H.P. Lovecraft's writing in the 19th century. These were works of art for whom the scary was the point. It has become part of our popular art ever since.

Horror was originally invoked as a warning, as a tool to keep us from doing what we ought no. the point of the scary work was that we did not like the scary and the moral of the work was to avoid that which brought it about. But in art since Poe it has become mere entertainment.

Why do scary works, like the writings of Stephen King or the films of Wes Craven, attract us? Is the reason why it appears in the 19th century because modern life shields us from the intensity of emotion we experienced regularly before industrialization and horror takes us back to it? Is it that we have latent fears that are naturally a part of us, and the safety of modern life allows us to explore them casually? Is it like a joke where there is an incongruity between the scary world of the horror work and the more mundane one in which we live? Why do we love art that scares us?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Finding Great Teachers

We're about to have some candidates come to campus for an opening we have. Finding someone who will become a solid scholar is fairly straightforward. In conversation you can get a sense of the breadth and creativity. In writing samples, you get a sense of rigor. From the cv you get a sense of progress.

But we are hiring a teacher. What do you look for in a teaching demonstration that shows you have someone who will be wonderful in the classroom? What are the marks of a good teacher? of a great teacher? What little things show you that the person in front of you possesses pedagogical excellence?

Monday, January 17, 2011

New Holidays

The observation of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday as a national holiday is our most recent calendar addition. It was added in 1983, although it was fought for a decade to follow in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and, of course, Arizona.

It leads to further questions about the holidays we have and those we need. "Holiday" is a contraction of "holy day," in other words, they are days set aside by a culture to celebrate the values and virtues it most cherishes. On these grounds, which current holidays should go, what new holidays should be added, and which current holidays need re-interpreting?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Classroom Comebacks

My Fellow Comedists,

Every Friday, I teach philosophy at a local middle school. Yesterday, we were talking about determinism. After the explanation was over and it was clear every understood the question, I asked whether they had free will. One student looked up and said, "Not in my house." It broke everyone up.

So, with the new semester starting, this weekend's question is "what is the funniest comment you ever heard/delivered in a classroom?"

My contribution comes from one of the first classes I ever taught, an evening ethics class for Anne Arundel Community College. We were discussing the difference between ethical precepts and social mores. One of the students raised his hand and asked, "Steve, what are mores?" I looked straight at him and said, "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's a more." Greatest set up in my life.

Funniest classroom comebacks?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, January 14, 2011

Rhetorical Insanity

A second element of the right-wing commentator's element that they bear absolutely no responsibility for the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords is that Jared Loughner is CRAAAAAAZY. They are pleading innocence by reason of someone else's insanity. But what is really happening is an equivocation on the notion of insane.

Their argument is:

1. Jared Loughner is insane
2. Insane people are irrational.
3. Only rational actions have explanations in terms of the actor's reasoning.

4. Therefore, we cannot explain the shooting in terms of Loughner's reasoning, so any claim that his reasoning was influenced by right-wing invective is necessarily false.

The problem is with premise 2.

No one wants to say that Loughner was in a reasonable state of mind, but the words "crazy" and "insane" are conveniently vague for the right-wing commentators. The action was cognitively complex. It required planning. It required timing. It required knowing whom he was looking for and there were certainly reason why he was looking for her -- a Jewish Democrat. This was not a random act, this was not someone having a seizure and then throwing fish out of a window to stop rampaging flying squirrels. No, this was someone who was angry about big government taking over and who thought we should only use gold and not cash. Where did these beliefs come from? Is it then a pure coincidence that he would target a Jewish Democrat?

Let's avoid the words "insane" and "crazy" and instead use "psychopath." That seems to make some rhetorical difference, doesn't it? Psychopaths are capable of being quite rational. They have reasons for what they do, often complex arguments supporting them. Those arguments and reasons are bad ones to be sure, but they do not defy explanation the way that right-wing pundits want to claim.

Were Loughner's reasons influenced by right-wing invective. Most likely. Should those responsible for it bear any culpability here? We heard violent screams coming from the audiences of McCain/Palin rallies. we saw eliminationist sentiments coming from the Tea Partiers. We saw conservatives encouraging supporters to come to a rally on the National Mall armed in order to send a message, a threat that if their policy demands were not met, then there might be shootings. And it is in this social context that Sarah Palin puts crosshairs over a map of candidates she wants eliminated. So, now there is a shooting of one. Who possibly could see THAT coming? When you work hard to raise up an army of bullies, you lose the right to act shocked when one of them beats someone up on the playground for his milk money.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Poe's Law Nevermore?

Our friends Scott Aiken and bob Talisse have an interesting post up about the argumentative effects of Poe's law. Poe's law is:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake (it) for the genuine article.
They neither endorse nor deny Poe's law but ask what effect it truth would have on argumentation.

Their concern is that, as Cass Sunstein discusses in great detail in his wonderful book Infotopia, dismissal of one's opponents as irrational leads to group think which in turn leads to intellectual polarization, that is views becoming more and more extreme on both sides without rational checks. This is an effect that social psychologists have documented over and over again.

We've discussed before what happens when an opponent becomes the strawman, when they hold absurd views, but what is novel here is the notion of parody. It is when parody becomes impossible that Aikin and Talisse's scenario comes in to play, when one side has motive to disengage critically from the arguments of the other and the discourse community thereby falls into danger. So, what then are the preconditions for the possibility of parody?

Nathan Poe's claim about Creationism is actually not new. Spike Jones said exactly the same thing in the early 1950s as he retired. Rock and roll music, he proclaimed, could not be parodied. We might read this as sour grapes. His beloved big band swing had been replaced from the dominant position in popular music and he could not adapt his act to the changing times, so he was bitter. As Weird Al Yankovich would show decades later, Jones was wrong.

But was he? Maybe at the time Jones spoke, he was right. Maybe it was only decades later that parody was possible. Rich Little used to say that Johnny Carson was the most difficult impression to do because he had so many mannerisms that none was iconic. doing impressions is not just a matter of getting the voice and pacing correct, but also including in the act vocal regularities (word inversions, puns, sentence structures) and bodily gestures that are associated with the person. The imitation is recognized as parody precisely once the three-dimensional person is made into a two-dimensional icon which is then reproduced with varying degrees of skill, but the icon seems to have to exist before parody is possible.

Maybe Spike Jones was right because rock and roll was too new to have an icon. Thomas Kuhn argues that every scientific field goes through a period of "pre-science" in which advocates have not acquired a dominant paradigm, that is when it is still up for debate how to talk about their subject, when the linguistic rules and basic assumptions are not explicitly worked out. Without this clear linguistic substructure, those outside have nothing to hang onto when trying to make sense of the conversation within that community (Kuhn himself would argue that those outside can never make any sense of the conversation happening within, but this surely is too strong).

So, I would argue that there needs to be a linguistic structure in place which is sufficiently nailed down to turn it into an icon, an overly-simplistic representation of that discourse, to be able to allow parody. But does modern Creationism have such a unified linguistic and argumentative structure? Maybe Poe's law is really an argument that it doesn't, that it is still in the process of forming a coherent paradigm, which it may or may not ever do but has not yet. Similarly, when we move the example from Creationism to the folks at Westboro Baptist, again, maybe the inability to parody is their lack of intellectual boundaries, in their not having an icon because of their ability to flow wherever the current tragedy or crisis lays. In this case, it is not that we are dealing with strawmen as Aikin and Talisse worry, but that we no longer have well-defined views in opposition which always is a challenge for critical argumentation, but in the messiness of real life happens often. Thus they are exactly right that we might need to think about what this means in terms of argumentation because it is a different stance than we usually have to adopt.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Causes and the Gifford Assassination Attempt

The contemporary debate over whether right-wing invective caused the assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gifford brings to mind Bertrand Russell's quip that causation is like the British royal family, it is kept around only because it is wrongly assumed to do no harm. The notion of cause and effect that Russell refers to is the naive one in which A causing B is like the puppeteer moving his hand and having the marionette pick up a leg. Scientists and philosophers, those who make inferences about cause and effect relations and who think about the nature of such relations, have not used such an overly-simplistic concept for over a century. It is reserved only for political pundits...who are kept around only because they are wrongly assumed to do no harm.

It is certainly clear that one cannot trace any given utterance by a politician or pundit to the pulling of the trigger. So, the move to the naive picture of cause and effect, of course, says that there is no connection. But what happens when we think in terms of a more realistic concept?

Consider the fact that suicides increase during recessions. Now, if we try to understand why any given person tragically took his or her own life, we would have to appeal to biographical details including romantic life and professional and financial details, as well as facts about his or her physical and psychological health. Never would we say, "Oh, if only the GDP were growing at a healthy clip this could have been avoided." But if you want to tell the true story, if you want to understand completely why this sad event occurred, in many cases you cannot neglect macroeconomic factors even if none of them are the puppeteer's string. We can call a factor a "little c" cause if it is a necessary component of the story and a "big C" Cause if it is a necessary condition, if the effect could not have occurred without it. The recession is a little c cause in many of these cases, it is for many instances a crucial part of the background of the story, but the rhetorical trick used by the pundits and politicians is to restrict the conversation to only big C causes. Since we could never say that details about the larger economy directly brought about any given suicide, it would not be allowed to be considered a cause. But, of course, it is.

Jackie Robinson and Brooks Robinson were two of the greatest third basemen in the history of baseball. But there is, of course, a major difference between them. If you were to tell the Jackie Robinson story and not include details about racism in American society in the 1940s, you would not have told the Jackie Robinson story. Such details would not be needed in telling the Brooks Robinson story, but they are an essential element of what made Jackie Robinson, Jackie Robinson.

Similarly, if you were to try to explain to your grandchildren what happened when a Congresswoman was shot in Tucson, if you were to leave out the fact that she was a Jewish Democrat, you would not have told the whole story. If your grandchildren asked why that mattered, to have it make sense to them you would have to explain that Fox News' Glen Beck would hold mock assassinations of Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi, that former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin put crosshairs over a map of congressional candidates -- including Gifford, that Senatorial candidate Sharon Angle said that "Second Amendment remedies" might be needed to reverse policy defeats, and that Bill O'Reilly was leading a campaign to make sure that people said "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays" to let Jews know that they are not real Americans. Without a discussion of this, the story is incomplete.

It is in this way that right-wing invective is a "small c" cause. No one is claiming that it is a "big C" cause ala Charles Manson, but the limitation of the discussion to "big C" causes -- which, of course, do not exist -- is the rhetorical trick that keeps us from discussing what is really happening. The pundits and politicians can deny any culpability by falsely limiting the scope of discussion, by hiding contributions to and by the larger environment by putting the effects of the environment completely behind a veil. It is a trick, one that we should not keep falling for...the stakes are too high, it is, as we see, a matter of life and death.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Why Is Romance Yucky?

The shorter of the short people has reached the point where romantic scenes in movies are yucky. It's not that they are uninteresting, boring, or taking up space that could be used for something more exciting, rather they elicit a visceral and often vocal negative response. He does not have this reaction to real-life emotions, for example, when I come home from work and embrace and trade I love you's with TheWife. Indeed, he himself is quite generous with affection for those he loves. He does not see girls as yucky, quite the opposite, he gets along very well with the little girls in his class and on his teams. But when it comes to romance on the screen, it clearly elicits a negative emotional reflex -- it is coming from him, not by him. This, of course, is not unique to him. Why do children, especially boys, go through this stage? What is it about the romantic images, something that seems nice, a part of a happy, fulfilled human life, that causes this reaction?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Happy Birthday Robert Wilson

Today is the 75th birthday of Robert Wilson, an accidental Nobel laureate in physics. In 1964, Wilson and his partner Arno Allen Penzias were working at Bell labs in New Jersey developing a new ultra-sensitive antenna that could measure small amounts of radio waves that would be bounced off of satellites. As anyone with a hearing aid will tell you, the problem with listening devices is that they hear everything around you, not just what you are trying to listen to. So, Penzias and Wilson spent a lot of time figuring out the possible sources of interference and filtering them out.

But then there was one source they could not figure out. It was a low hum that came from everywhere. It was the same frequency no matter where in the sky they pointed the antenna. They had cooled the instrument down to eliminate internal effects of heat, so that couldn't be it. But the noise was still there, yet seemed to have no definite source. They checked everything they could think of, but none of it accounted for the noise. Then they thought they found it. Pigeons had set up a nest in the antenna. They shoo-ed them out and cleaned up the droppings and figured that was that.

But it was still there. They had no sense of what it could be until a friend, hearing of their issues, told them about a paper he had read from a group headed by Robert Dicke, right down the road at Princeton, who argued that if the big bang theory was true -- something up in the air at the time -- then there ought to be a cosmic background radiation, in a sense, echoes of the bang resonating through all of space. Once Dicke and his team had realized that there was this strange effect which would seemingly show the likelihood of the big bang theory one way or the other, they set out to build an instrument sensitive enough to look for it.

When Penzias and Wilson read the paper, they finally figured out what their noise was. And for it they -- but not Dicke -- won the Nobel Prize for physics for providing the first clear evidence of the big bang theory, even though they were never looking for it.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Best Spoofs

My Fellow Comedists,

Last weekend, we showed the kids Airplane!. Then, taking the kids into school on Tuesday, the classical music station played Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours, which, of course, gave rise to a rousing chorus of "Hello Mudder, Hello Fadder" throughout the car. Then the less short of the short people comes home with word of "The Potter Puppet Players," a Harry Potter spoof with videos on YouTube. Three makes a pattern, so this weekend we ask about spoofs.

In any medium, spoofing anything, what are the best spoofs in history? Blazin' Saddles has to be mentioned right up front, of course, and then there's this one:

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, January 07, 2011

Band Names

Was reading a book awhile back and came across the phrase "Empedocles' cosmic love cycle" and thought "man, that would make a great band name." Always wanted a band myself called The Synthetic A Priori Blues Band. There's a folk duo on campus here at Gettysburg that occasionally performs at lunchtime as The Sibling Brothers, a name that delights me to no end.

Other band names that should exist or good ones we might not have heard of?

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

What's the Difference: Lying, Deceiving, and Misleading

What is the difference between lying, deceiving, and misleading? Are all cases of deception lies? Do you always have to mislead when deceiving? Can you mislead but not lie?

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Those Who Can't Do Teach?

Ozzie Guillen who now manages the Chicago White Sox also played for them, having been the Rookie of the Year and named to the All Star Team three times. He bristles at the admiration given to Buck Showalter, now managing the Baltimore Orioles, who was never good enough to make the Major Leagues, something he shares with former Oriole manager and Hall of Famer Earl Weaver. It seems that to do well teaching someone to play major league baseball, and teaching is a part of coaching, one does not have to be able to have done it oneself.

How unusual is this? For most things in life do you have to be able to do something and do it well to teach others how to do it? We figure that the people to teach chemistry ought to be chemists, the people to teach anthropology ought to be anthropologists, the people to teach music ought to be musicians. Business management schools frequently crow about the way their faculty has real-life experience in he workplace. But is it any more true in these intellectual pursuits than it is in baseball? Is experience in what you are teaching necessary to be a good teacher? Is it helpful?

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Moral Barometer

Happy New Year everyone. Seems as good a time as any to break out the old moral barometer. For the upcoming year, what are the most pressing ethical issues we need to consider as a nation and as a planet?