Thursday, March 31, 2011

Exploring the Scientific Method

It's out! It's real. My textbook on the history and philosophy of science has been published by the University of Chicago Press.

It has a completely different pedagogical approach from the usual in that it uses a “track-based” approach that allows the students’ own interests to help motivate their thinking and to provide more of a sense of the history of science than one usually can present in an introduction to philosophy of science course.

In the early weeks of the semester, every student selects one of the following sciences: astronomy, physics, chemistry, genetics, evolutionary biology, geology, psychology, sociology, economics. As the class works through canonical readings on scientific methodology, grouped into six sections, students are helped to develop particular case studies in their science of interest in order to see whether the picture of the scientific method coming out of, say, Mill, Kuhn, or Feyerabend is applicable to the episode they are considering. By the end of the semester, each student will have traced the historical trajectory of their science from classical roots to contemporary issues and considered not only the growth of knowledge in the field, but the way in which practitioners have come to acquire that knowledge. I’ve taught it this way several times and it worked so well, that I turned it into a textbook.

I’ve included the table of contents below and the case studies. If you are interested in an exam copy, there is a tab on the book's page at the University of Chicago Press' website.

Table of Contents

Syntactic View of Theories
Aristotle from Posterior Analytics, Physics
René Descartes from Discourse on Method

Francis Bacon from Novum Organum
Isaac Newton from Principia
John Stuart Mill from System of Logic

William Whewell from Novum Organum Renovatum
Rudolf Carnap “Theoretical Procedures in Science”
R. B. Braithwaite from Scientific Explanation

Paradoxes of Evidence

David Hume from Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
Nelson Goodman from Fact, Fiction, and Forecast
Carl Hempel from “Studies in the Logic of Confirmation”

Karl Popper from Logic of Scientific Discovery

Holistic View of Theories
Pierre Duhem from Aim and Structure of Physical Theory
Thomas Kuhn from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Imre Lakatos “Methodology of Research Programmes”

Semantic View of Theories
Marshall Spector “Models and Theories”
Max Black “Models and Archetypes”
Ronald Giere from Explaining Science

Critical Views of Scientific Theories
Paul Feyerabend from Against Method
Ruth Hubbard “Science, Facts, and Feminism”
Bruno Latour “The Science Wars”

Case Studies
Aristotle on the Motion of the Heavens
Ptolemy on the Motion of the Planets
Galileo’s Arguments for Heliocentrism
Kepler, Newton and the Shapes of Orbits
Einstein and the Perihelion of Mercury
The Demotion of Pluto

Epicurean Atomism
Maxwell’s Kinetic Theory of Heat
Rutherford and the Discovery of the Nucleus
The Bohr Model
The Standard Model and the Discovery of the Top Quark
Lee Smolin and String Theory

Paracelsus’ Alchemy
Boyles’ Law
Priestly, Phlogiston, and Oxygen
Dalton, Proportions, and Atomic Theory
Kekulé and Stereochemistry
The Discovery and Retraction of Elements 116 and 118

Aristotle’s Germ Theory
Mendel’s Peas
Morgan, Fruit Flies, and Genes
Crick, Watson, and the Discovery of the Structure of DNA
The Human Genome Project
Public and Corporate Genomic Research

Evolutionary Biology
Aristotle’s Species
Linnaeus and the Taxonomy of Life
Lamarck’s Acquired Characteristics
Darwin’s Natural Selection
Punctuated Equilibrium
Intelligent Design and Science Curricula

Woodward’s Catastrophism
Hutton’s Plutonism
Lyell’s Uniformitarianism
Wegener’s Plate Tectonics
GIS and Models
The Grand Canyon, Politics, and the Age of the Earth


Hippocrates, Humours, and Mental Illness
Weber’s Measurement of Perception
Pavlov and Conditioned Reflexes
Freud and the Rat Man
Harlow’s Maternal Bonding and Animal Models
The Changed DSM Classification of Homosexuality

Hobbes’ Laws of Nature
Durkheim, Social Facts, and Suicide
Weber, Religion, and Wealth
Sorokin, the Ideational, and the Sensate
Parson’s AGIL Model
Burawoy and Public Sociology


Aristotle and Currency
Quesnay, Famers, and Taxation
Smith and Natural Prices
Marx’s Dialectical Materialism
Keynes’ Demand-Determined Equilibrium
The World Bank, the IMF, and the Politics of Macroeconomics

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

How Much Is a Fortune?

Driving with the shorter of the short people the other day and he asks, "How much is a fortune?" I explained that some terms are vague, they don't have definite meanings, that there is not a particular amount of money that makes up a fortune.

But the more I've been thinking about it, there is some sense to the term. It doesn't just mean a lot. We use it that way metaphorically. "I bet that cost a fortune," means that you spent a lot more than one normally spends on something like that, but it doesn't literally mean that you spent a fortune.

It does have the connotation of something that could be inherited -- "he spent his family fortune on the project." And so we get the sense of more money than a single person usually has or generally needs.

Is it, perhaps, a sum that would be sufficient to live off of without having to work? That might make sense of the phrase "small fortune" which is diminutive in that it is a lot of money, but not enough to make one financially self-sufficient.

How much is a fortune?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bill Cronon, ALEC, and Undermining Democracy

In a Slate op/ed, Jack Shafer wrongly argues that there's nothing problematic with the FOIA requests filed by Republicans to examine the e-mails of Professor Bill Cronon. Shafer contends that because the Republicans are within their rights to file such a claim, that they cannot but be right in doing so. This claim, however, is wrong.

If you haven't been following the Bill Cronon case, here's the quick and dirty. Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, has been using the financial crisis as an excuse to put forward a radical conservative agenda that includes busting the state employees' union. Bill Cronon, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, found that Walker has ties to the group ALEC, a fact that is relevant to the discussion of the governor's proposals and he filed FOIA requests to document the governor's connection.

ALEC is a non-profit organization whose mission is to bring together conservative law makers and corporations in a way that allows the writing of bills not just to be influenced by corporate interests, but taken over completely. Legislators are no longer writing bills that include goodies suggested by corporations, the corporate lawyers literally meet with the conservative representatives at ALEC events and give them the bills they want passed in their jurisdictions. Law makers are relieved of having to make laws and simply become couriers and enablers. Republican elected officials at all levels, from the local to the highest national, allow themselves to become puppets of corporate interests and ALEC is the place where they can stick their hand up the backside of their puppets of choice.

This is, of course, a perversion of democracy in itself. No longer are the elected representatives acting in the public interest, or even doing their jobs writing legislation. It undermines the structure and promote plutocracy over democracy.

What Professor Cronon was doing by bringing this connection to light is to inform the electorate. This is place number two where questions of functional democracy arise in this story. For a democratic system to work, the voters must be rational and well-informed in order to make good decisions. What Professor Cronon was doing was to try to bring relevant information to the electorate, information that the secretive group ALEC and the associated politicians wanted kept from view. As such, Professor Cronon's FOIA requests were designed with the explicit intent to add facts to the debate, to better inform the popular discussion. In this way, his FOIA requests were in the interest of democracy and the attempts to keep the facts hidden, a second place where democracy was being undermined.

When these requests were made public, a group of Republicans filed FOIA requests to get access to Professor Cronon's e-mails. As a professor at a state university, he may not use his work account for anything that is not related to his work at the university, especially political activities. These Republicans were fishing for evidence that he had used his work address to contribute to the recall effort of Governor Walker. If they could find such evidence, they could cause serious professional trouble for the professor. And even if they found nothing, they would be sending a clear message that anyone who dares to bring to light information that is inconvenient for the Republican majority would be made to pay. It was an electronic brick through his window.

Shafer argues that because Bill Cronon is an employee of a state university, that the FOIA request was legal. Indeed it is. But legality is not the issue here. Lots of threats are legall. But what was the point of the threat, of the fishing expedition through his e-mails?

It was meant to silence critics. It was a classic case of bullying. Legal bullying, granted, but bullying nonetheless. It was meant to silence a voice and that is point three where we see an undermining of democracy. A functional democracy requires an open marketplace of ideas with multiple voices not afraid to clash. Where Professor Cronon's FOIA requests were designed to add facts to the larger discourse, the ones filed against Professor Cronin were done not to add anything at all the conversation -- after all, his activities or non-activities are in no way relevant to the discussion. The intention was the opposite, to subtract a voice and the facts it brings from the conversation. To keep the electorate less informed and to make sure that any other do-gooders who would want to follow in his footsteps and bring even more information would hesitate and maybe even cease their activities in contributing to the democratic discourse.

Was such bullying legal? Yes. But legal does not mean moral, and it does not mean serving the democratic process. It is here that Shafer misses the entire point. This act was despicable. It needs to be called out and those who work to inform the electorate need protection. This, I suppose, is a point one hopes that journalists, of all people, understand.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Missing Wikipedia Entries

A couple weeks ago was the birthday of Bob Speca, the world record holding domino-toppler. His name came up in my critical thinking class when I was discussing the domino fallacy and I was interested in what he had been doing since his heyday in the 70s. Naturally, I went to find his Wikipedia page and was stunned to find that deserving as he is, he has not been given the on-line recognition that such a cultural icon deserves.

So, today's question is who else is missing? Who should have a Wikipedia page, but doesn't?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Feast of Saint Carl

My Fellow Comedists,

This week saw the feast day of Saint Carl. Carl Reiner turned 89 this week. Reiner was a member of that legendary group of writers for Sid Caeser including Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, and, of course, Mel Brooks, who was to become his comic partner.

My favorite Reiner/Brroks story: Mel was always cracking Carl up and one day while the two were on the road in a hotel, Carl Reiner decided he was going to turn the tables. He called over to Mel Brooks and asked him if he'd come over to his room for a minute. Reiner strips naked, stands on the coffee table in the middle of the room with a water pitcher and a bunch of grapes posing as a Greek statue. There's a knock at the door and Reiner tells Brooks to come on in, but it wasn't him -- Mel Brooks had sent over the maid.

The two would go on to do magnificent work, most memorably the 2,000 year old man albums. Reiner thought his Sid Caesar days so funny, that he made it into a sit-com and thus The Dick Van Dyke Show was born.

In the 70s he turned to directing and gave us the classics "Where's Poppa?" and "Oh God." Then he became co-writer and director for Steve Martin's "The Jerk," "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," "The Man with Two Brains," and "All of Me."

Little known Carl Riener fact: he had a straight role in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" -- he was the air traffic controller when Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett were trying to land the plane.

Happy birthday, Carl Reiner.

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, March 25, 2011

Is Shyness a Vice?

Had a student raise this question with me the other day. In our culture, we reward the extrovert. Putting yourself out there is seen as evidence of substance of character. The great individual is the one who acts, not who watches. Be a leader, not a sheep. Being reserved and quiet is only acceptable if it is done in the Dirty Harry, strong, but silent, coiled snake, ready to strike-type way. We treat boldness as intrinsically good, but is it? Does the shy person lack a self-confidence that one should have?

While there is certainly pathological shyness that will keep one from doing what it is that needs to be done, we're talking here about being a garden-variety introvert who just avoids calling attention to him or herself, who doesn't like the limelight, who does not seek attention or leadership roles. Do people who are shy need to learn to get over it for more than pragmatic reasons? Is there something that diminishes you as a human being for being shy? Is shyness a personality flaw?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Happy Blogoversary, Everyone!

It's been half a decade at the Playground. After 1,570 posts, Philosophers' Playground turns 5 years old today. Thanks for everyone who stops by, commenters and lurkers alike.

Seems as good a time as any to check in. Are there irregular posts that have disappeared that you miss? Are there things that have popped up that annoy you and want to see less of? Are there directions that would keep the place fresh? What's still working and what needs revamping?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Plea for Charity in Understanding African-American Homophobia

A central tenet in critical thinking is the principle of charity, one should always formulate a view in the strongest possible fashion. I'm trying my best to be charitable with the anti-gay marriage arguments of the African-American lawmakers in Maryland last week.

Emmett Burns argued,

"I will argue for the position that civil rights were not the same, our civil rights, the movement was not the same. Those who juxtapose the two are gravely mistaken."
So, in both cases, you have American citizens who are denied equal treatment, rights, and protections under the law because they are a minority that the majority thinks is inferior. They are clearly arguing that bigotry enshrined in law against African-Americans was illegitimate, but that there is some essential difference between African-Americans and GLBT Americans that makes discrimination in the law, being treated as less than fully human, against this minority not only acceptable, but necessary. How can we reconstruct this reasoning in the most charitable way?

One line seems to be that the suffering of African-Americans was greater. A comment on the Washington Post story takes this line
"You can compare this to the Civil Rights movement when your homes are burned, your children are lynched, you are forced to ride in the back of the bus, can't drink from the same fountains or simply just can't eat in the same restaurants as straight people."
But the idea that civil rights are not inherently deserved, but earned through amount of suffering seems horribly weak.

Another line, that Emmett Burns also pushed is that the two are different because gay people can hide their sexual orientation and therefore could serve in the legislature when he -- or those like him -- couldn't because you cannot hide skin color. But the idea that people don't deserve equal rights because they could pretend they are who they aren't to get some, but not all rights, also seems absurdly flimsy.

A third line one often hears is that skin color is an essential part of who one is, but sexual orientation is a function of what one does and that while one could choose not to be gay by abstaining from sexual relations, one could not choose not to have one's skin color. But, of course, one does not have a sexual orientation only when one is engaged in sexual activities. The law itself recognizes that it is people, not acts, we are talking about here, so this is an incoherent line.

So, what is it? If we want to avoid simply saying this is purely ignorant bigotry and put in line some argument to take seriously, what would it be? How is denying equal rights, standing, and protection under the law for African-Americans different from denying equal rights, standing, and protection under the law for gay men, lesbians, and trans and bi-sexual Americans?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Is Nothing Sacred?

Thinking about the defeat of gay marriage in Maryland which came at the hands of Republicans and African-American Democrats(something we'll discuss later in the week). But the line from those seeking to make sure that an oppressed minority of tax-paying American citizens are denied their rights under the law argue that this injustice must stand because "marriage is sacred."

By the word sacred, they do not only mean blessed by God, they mean that which is beyond question, beyond reproach, whose contrary is not to be considered a live option. If something is sacred, it is not to be messed with or joked about, but defended and revered. Mere consideration of any other way is to be subversive.

Clearly, marriage is not sacred. We've changed its definition before for perfectly good moral reasons and we can, and will eventually, do it again for moral reasons. But is there anything -- and it need not have anything to do with religion -- that we do consider sacred? Is there any practice or institution that we put outside of the realm of critical scrutiny?

Is the two party system sacred? It is hard to start a conversation about it without getting labeled a weirdo. What about corporate capitalism? Women's rights? Is that question closed? A minimum wage? Can't include the right to vote? We have problem stripping that from felons for life.

What is it in contemporary society that is part of the paradigm, that is beyond the ability to be challenged? What do we hold sacred?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Is There a Moral Difference Between the Needs of Victims in Japan and Haiti?

Looking at the Red Cross signs for donations to help the victims of the earthquake/tsunami/potential nuclear meltdown in Japan, raises questions about the moral imperative to help. When the earthquake struck Haiti, there were horrible conditions as well. But a major difference was that it was in one of the world's poorest countries with a barely functioning government who had little in the way of resources or expertise to deal with the problems of the suffering population. In Japan, on the other hand, you have one of the world's wealthiest countries with a track record of dealing very expeditiously with disasters in a way that stands as a model to the rest of the world. This is meant in no way to downplay the very real suffering of the Japanese people, but only to draw a contrast between the contexts.

Does that context come with moral import in that if the aid is not absolutely necessary, do you still have a responsibility/the same responsibility to help? Does human suffering itself generate the need to act to help alleviate it? Is our individual obligation altered at all by considerations of the means, resources, and expertise of the sufferer or does the suffering itself trigger our obligation to help?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

How Soon Is Too Soon?

My Fellow Comedists,

This week, good brother YKW sent me a link to Gilbert Godfried's Twitter feed full of Japan earthquake/tsunami jokes.

What does Japanese Jews like to eat? Hebrew National Tsunami.

What does every Japanese person have in their apartment? Flood lights.
YKW's question was "too soon?"

On the one hand, jokes make light of a situation. Being the subject of a joke makes one often feel like you are being laughed at. In a situation in which empathy is appropriate, joking seems uncaring.

On the other hand, Gilbert Gottfried is one of the last of an old breed, joke writers. Contemporary comics tend to be more narrative, allowing their delivery to get the laughs. But Gilbert Gottfried writes jokes in the classic style. There is a technique to writing a joke, you need to find an unbalanced ambiguity, create a set-up that uses the stronger interpretation of the ambiguity and then twist it for a tightly worded punchline. For someone as experienced in the craft as Gilbert Gottfried, any event provides material and it is a simple technical exercise to write a joke about it, it has nothing to do with a lack of empathy any more than finding rhymes for "tsunami" does.

So, too soon? If you think so, please express it in a civil manner...don't have a meltdown.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, March 18, 2011

Locating Citations

Why do we include location when we cite a source? Maybe it made sense in the 18th century when there might have been a Jones & Son publishing books in London and another, different Jones & Son publishing in Surrey, but nowadays when there are so few publishers and all of them outsource the printing anyway, why do we cite location at all? Is this a tradition we can get rid of or does it actually serve some purpose?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Meaning of St. Patrick's Day

The Harrisburg Patriot-News is running my op/ed today:

With parades and parties, we take St. Patrick’s Day more lightly than other holidays. We treat it more as a celebration than a moment for solemn reflection. This is a wonderful thing, not only for the joy it brings, but because there is hope in the fact that we allow the deeper meaning of the day to pass unnoticed.

Our youngest national holiday is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, during which we not only commemorate the life of a peaceful leader who stood for justice and morality, but take time to contemplate the ways in which our culture and social structures still embody unfairness toward groups of Americans.

Though we seldom stop to think of it, St. Patrick’s Day stands for all that we wish for eight weeks earlier on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. The mass Irish migration to America occurred in the first half of the 19th century and was met with fear, hatred and bigotry.

Overt job discrimination was rampant as every Irish worker knew of the “No Irish Need Apply” signs and the same sort of vitriolic rhetoric was voiced toward them as we see now against Spanish-speaking immigrants. The Know Nothing Party was organized specifically to undermine the political power of Irish Catholics. Kids today have no sense whatsoever how momentous it was in 1960 to have John F. Kennedy, an Irish Catholic, elected president of the United States.

But the fact that anti-Irish discrimination is no longer a part of our collective consciousness is precisely what makes St. Patrick’s Day so wonderful. We do not use St. Patrick’s Day to celebrate Irish-American liberation and equality, we just use it to celebrate Irish culture.

Irish-Americans are now considered as American as anyone else, but this is not the result of complete assimilation. Irish-Americans were not made to surrender their identities. A decade and a half after Frank McCourt won the Pulitzer Prize for “Angela’s Ashes” and “Riverdance” sold out show after show, we see the Irish as contributing positively to the larger culture and on St. Patrick’s Day everyone partakes in the celebration of that contribution.

St. Patrick’s Day stands as a monument to cosmopolitanism, to the view that we are strongest not when we are homogenized, when our differences are stripped away in favor of a single way of being, but rather when we embrace differences and seek to understand how other ways of experiencing the world can be used to augment, to enrich our own limited perspective.

Ferdinand Tonnies, a founding father of sociology, argued that there is a difference between communities — groups bound together by what they have in common — and societies — which are created of distinct groups. It is human nature, he claimed, that communities would create societies, that no matter how similar the members of the group, we inevitably find ways to divide ourselves up, of creating us versus them situations.

As human beings, we naturally try to exclude, shut out and minimize others. St. Patrick’s Day gives us hope that it can be different. That we can not only peaceably coexist, but that we can cherish and benefit from our diversity.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is an important holiday because it forces us to focus on the places in our cultures where we erect boundaries, hurdles and brick walls to keep those who are different from fully realizing themselves as citizens and complete human beings in our society.

There remain major impediments to the full equality of many Americans. But while the heaviness of such a task should make us pause, the levity of St. Patrick’s Day should urge us forward, providing us with a success story that it can be done.

We can bring people into the family without forcing them to give up what makes them special. This sort of inclusion enriches us all. When it is said that on St. Patrick’s Day “everyone has a little Irish in them,” it acknowledges the ways in which we are a better culture for having added another set of experiences.

This is why, despite the fact that I am not Irish, I celebrate St. Patrick’s Day as one of the great American holidays and lift a glass of Guinness to toast the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in hope that someday we will have created a society so moral, fair and mindful that his birthday, too, can be celebrated in the same way.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

My Lai and the Nature of War

Today is the 43rd anniversary of the massacre at My Lai in which U.S. troops brutally beat, tortured, raped, and slaughtered several hundred unarmed civilians, mostly women and children, in a South Vietnamese village.

Having taught at a military academy, one of the words you hear thrown around often is "honor." It is certainly part of the mythology of the warrior that they try to build. But is it possible to create someone who can do the job one asks of the warrior and not have them become like Heracles, blinded to the consequences of your actions when you are in the middle of them? Are horrors like My Lai inevitable when war is a reality? We hear terms like "bad eggs" applied to folks at Abu Ghraib, but is it the eggs that have gone bad or does the environment spoil them? Certainly, it is true that different people react differently to the same stimulus, and that not everyone will be changed in the same way by war or any other experience; but there are sociological regularities, there are trends. If you have a war, will it not affect a significant enough number such that My Lai-type incidents are a near certainty?

Is it something that strong leadership or better training can change or is such despicable evil a nearly necessary result of war itself?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Et Tu, Brute...They're Small

Beware the ides of March...

So, was Brutus right to participate in the assassination of Caesar? Was it for the greater good or was it an act of betrayal, or both? If Caesar was trying to usurp power that was not his to take, would that have freed Brutus from the bonds of friendship and loyalty? Would it have forced him from the relationship making questions of betrayal irrelevant? When someone is your friend, does it matter, for the sake of the relationship, what they do to others?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Why Do We Love Einstein?

Today is Einstein's birthday and as I put the finishing touches on the manuscript, Einstein's Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion, I am thinking about the question in the last chapter -- why do we love Einstein?

On the one hand, it must have something to do with the theory of relativity. Even if most of us have no idea what it really says, the idea that someone smart has told us that reality is like an M.C. Escher print is appealing in a number of ways. On the other hand, it is the man -- or at least the icon we have made out of the man -- that we love. The hair, the lack of socks and belts, Einstein represents non-conformism. Everything that we are told we have to do by the society, but on some level we know is just so much fluff, Einstein is the epitome of the person who sees BS and calls it what it is.

Or maybe it is the combination of the two: he represents in the cultural mind the idea that rejecting mindless formality can lead to progress. Think of the Einstein quotations we see on bumper stickers: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” “The only thing more dangerous than ignorance is arrogance.” “Great thinkers have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” Einstein is our image of the open mind and the open mind both comes to see reality more clearly in all its bizarre beauty and it sees through that which is pointless socially-enforced silliness masquerading as moral, intellectual, or cultural necessity.

Of all the smart people who have ever lived, why is it Einstein we love like Einstein?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Origin of the Celebration of Lent

Mt Fellow Comedists,

I've been doing a lot of research into the history of religion lately as I wind up writing Einstein's Jewish Science, and this is inspired by a comment from good brother Hanno and is almost true:

Setting: meeting room in the Vatican, a good long while ago.

Pope: Thank you, Monsignor, for a very thorough report, you've given us a lot to think about and I think that you are correct that shame is certainly one important element in increasing contributions. Next on the agenda is Cardinal Roberto, to whom I have given a very special assignment. As you will remember, I am concerned that we are not sufficiently reverent during the Lenten period and I have asked the good Cardinal to research the question and propose a new ritual for the period leading up to the Holy Days of Easter. Cardinal?

Roberto: Thank you, your Eminence. I was fortunate enough to be given this assignment by His Holiness, a task that I have given great effort and consideration. As the Father has said, it would be a good idea to prepare the faithful for the holiest days of the calendar with a period of reflection and sacrifice. As Jesus, our Lord was tested in the days before He ascended, so too should we be tested.

I began by studying the rituals of our brethren Abrahamic traditions. On Yom Kippur, the holiest day for Jews, they mark the time by fasting from sundown to sundown. The Muslims, for their holy period of Ramadan, for 30 days they fast from sunrise to sundown. So, I propose that we show them who is the most observant, the most committed. For the FORTY days of Lent, we shall fast, not letting any food pass our lips from sunrise to sundown. During the Lenten period, the hunger we shall feel we will satisfy not with the food of this Earth, but with the sustenance of the Spirit. And so, henceforth, we shall fast the forty days of Lent.

Pope: Wonderful work, Cardinal. Thoughtful, insightful, decisive. I LOVE it. But...what's say we tweak it...just a bit, nothing much. What's say we...I don't know...instead of EVERYDAY for forty days, let's say we just do it, you know, once a week. Fridays. That's it. We'll do it on Fridays.

Roberto: Yes, your Holiness. During the forty days of the Lenten period, on Fridays, we shall abstain from eating. Just as Jesus suffered painfully with the crown of thorns, so we too will partake in his pain by eating nothing from sun up to sun down each Friday during Lent. We will feel the pain within the core of our being so that he may fill the void. Once a week, absolutely no food whatsoever shall we ingest in reverence to his sacrifice for us.

Pope: know...I really love this idea, Cardinal, really, really do. Fabulous, absolutely fabulous...but NO food at all? Seems a little extreme don't you think? How about if we don't give up ALL food, just certain foods. Let's say...meat. On Fridays during Lent, we'll give up meat.

Roberto: (sigh) I completely concur, Eminence. Just as Jesus, on that holiest of days, did leave behind his flesh so that He may cleanse us of the sinful ways of our flesh, on the Fridays during Lent, we too will surrender flesh from our diets. During this holy period, we shall be like our Lord and Savior by eschewing all eating of any animal of the earth, sky, or sea. We will sacrifice in this SMALL way just as He did sacrifice for us.

Pope: Cardinal, let me tell you how great I think this is. This is magnificent work on your part, really is. Just...I don't know...ALL meat? The miracle of the fish was one of Jesus' biggies, right? And even the Lord himself would have gone for the Ciopinno that they serve down at Guiseppe's every Friday. Am I right about that, guys?

All: Hurumph, harumph, harumph...

Cardinal Giovanni: Give the Pontiff, harumph!

Cardinal Frederico: Harumph!

Pope: Why don't we just touch it up a little. We'll limit ourselves to seafood on Fridays during Lent! There it is. Done.

Roberto: (rolling eyes) Yes, father, during the holy period of Lent, we shall share in the suffering of Jesus Christ our Lord, experiencing for ourselves the pain of having his body crucified, by eating only shrimp cocktail, crab dip with artichoke, grilled calamari with olives, baked anchovies with a light lemon/oil glaze, and polenta with a clam sauce.

Pope: Don't forget pecan encrusted Salmon over fetuccini...with a nice alfredo sauce, I love that. Now's there's a celebration fit for our Lord. thank you, Cardinal.

A happy and reverent holy season to all of our Christian brethren.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, March 11, 2011

Disaster Preparedness and Godzilla Movies

As I was driving in this morning, listening to an NPR reporter in Japan report on the earthquake, she said something that caught my ear. She said that if any country could be prepared for something like this it would be Japan because they spend far more money on disaster preparedness than any other nation in the world.

Of course, this immediately made me think of similar claims that are made about the U.S., except that when someone says the U.S. spends hundreds of times more on it per capita than any other nation in the world, the it they are always referring to is national defense. The Japanese spend their money protecting their people from natural disaster, whereas we spend ours on weapons to be used, by in large, overseas.

Why the difference? Japan, of course, has a pacifist constitution after WWII, but even if this wasn't the case, they would probably be on par with European nations or South Korea in terms of military spending. We, on the other hand, may not have the earthquake concern to the degree that they do -- although the west coast certainly has worries -- but we have all sorts of other natural disaster issues that we treat much less seriously (can anyone say Katrina?). from the Reagan era, FEMA was seen as nothing but a political plum, a do nothing, unimportant job to give friends for political patronage. Clinton reformed the agency under James Lee Whitt, but it obviously fell back to its old ways under Bush II.

Then I thought of 1950s and 60s adventure movies from the US and Japan. Our bad guys, the fears that most spoke to our psyches, were Indians needing to be run off by cowboys and villians, super criminals needing to be stopped by super heroes. Theirs were Godzilla and Mothra -- major threats derived from nature run amok. We need guns and powers to protect us from people and peoples who are threats to the American way. But they needed to protect themselves from natural rivals.

the claim is not that pop culture drives spending at the federal level, but rather that priorities are driven by fears which can be seen in various forms in places one might not expect. It also means that changing the collective sense of threat from one thing to another -- say, through popular culture -- could have long-term policy implications.

If that is true, who are the new movie bad guys we ought to see on the screen? More John Grisham type films in which corporate types bring about dangerous situations for the rest of us to enrich themselves? Who else should be seen as fictional threats in cartoon form?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Disgusting Colors?

The word disgusting comes from the notion of inedible. That which is disgusting turns our stomachs. While certain complex, contextual phenomena are disgusting, there are simple experiences that are disgusting in and of themselves. Certain smells or tastes, for example, are just implicitly disgusting. But is this true of other types of basic experiences? Are there certain colors or shades of color that are disgusting? Are there textures that are disgusting apart from what they are a part of?

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Something Borrowed, Something Lent

Ash Wednesday is a good time to think about cultural practices that we engage in without thinking. If we as a society decided to give up something for Lent, what would be a good thing on which to declare a 40-day moratorium? What would we as a culture be better off giving up for 40 days?

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Laissez les Bon Temps Roulet

Happy Fat Tuesday everyone. This is the one and only honest holiday we have. Longtime Playground regulars will recall my holiday theory -- "holiday" comes from "holy day" and we use our holidays to pretend that we are honoring that which is sacred, virtuous. But really, in the way we go about the festivities of our holidays, what we are actually honoring is vice, sin. This may not be a bad thing as it provides us with social safety valves, ways and places to blow off steam and have our fun that do not hurt anyone.

That said, does building in a place for engaging in behaviors we otherwise frown upon allow catharsis, for us to get it out of our system, or does it show a tacit approval and allow it to embed itself in the cultural character?

Leave comments and beads below...

Monday, March 07, 2011

Fairness and Justice in Grading

I have a policy on quizzes wherein if I make a mistake in grading that is in the student's favor and the student points it out, I do not take off the points that should have been deducted. On the one hand, this policy is not fair in that other students who made the same error, but were graded properly have lost points for something that this student did not. Both made the same error, but only one lost points. On the other hand, it seems to me that it is just in that it does not punish those who are honest. If two students both have misgraded quizzes and one points it out to me and one does not, it seems wrong to deduct points only the one who did the right thing.

Is there a problem with this policy? Should fairness or justice be the guiding principle here?

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Laughter is the Best Medicine

My Fellow Comedists,

The short people, also known as incubators with feet, have passed on a nasty bug (serves me right for teaching them to share). So, as I'm feeling lousy, it's your turn. Say something funny for me.

Live, love, and feel better,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Ontology of Accents

Last night at dinner with the department, a colleague, whose native language is not English, declared that he has an accent. Someone else said that he didn't because there was no discernible difference between the way he pronounced words and the way everyone else at the table did. He insisted that this was irrelevant and that he did, in fact, have a different accent than the rest of us because of his native language.

His claim was that an accent is a property. It is something a person has or does not have, or that everyone has an may be classified according to original dialect. The objection is that an accent is really a relation, a non-identity relation in which one's pronunciation is determined to be distinct from others, that is, you can only be said to have an accent relative to some other set of pronunciations taken as the local benchmark from which yours differs.

So, is "having an accent" a property or a relation? Can you have an accent and the people around you not notice or is the accent exactly the noticing of the difference?

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

What's the Difference?: Potter Stewart Edition

What's the difference between Potter Stewart and Clarence Thomas? Stewart knows obscenity when he sees it, but Thomas suspends judgment until at least the third time he's rented it.

So, what's the difference between crude, vulgar, and obscene?

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Traditional Definition of Marriage

With the Obama administration backing away from DOMA, it makes me wonder why we allow the right to get away with the false claim that "the traditional definition of marriage is one man and one woman" as if this has been what the institution has meant from time immemorial and they can thereby make some supposedly non-fallacious appeal to tradition in "defense" of it. The fact is, the traditional definition of marriage is when a man whose property includes a female child, decides to unload this burden by bribing some other guy to take this piece of property off his hands. The traditional definition of marriage is a contract where women are treated as mere property to be exchanged from one man's ownership to another. And like other pieces of property, there's no reason why a man should be limited in how many he owns. Polygamy is perfectly well a part of the traditional notion of marriage. So, the fact is that we've redefined marriage several times already. If that's the case, then clearly we consider the notion plastic enough to be capable of occasional updates for moral purposes. If that's the case, why not one more?