Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Do We Control the Weapons or Do the Weapons Control Us?

Thinking about one place where cognitive work in psychology overlaps with social psychology, the weapons effect. In the late 60s, psychologists Berkowitz and LePage showed that just seeing a weapon causes people to act more aggressively. Contemporary researchers Bartholow, Anderson, and Benjamin have furthered the work by showing that seeing a weapon primes the brain for aggressive thoughts and makes aggressive actions more likely.

We're told by the National Rifle Association and other gun advocates that guns don't kill people, people kill people, but the fact is that the presence of a weapon does create a mindset in which we are more likely to inhabit a mental space where we will think about killing someone and have more of a predilection than normal towards doing so. The idea that we are neutral, rational agents and that weapons are mere tools is false, the weapons alter our psychology itself.

But the laws governing the possession of weapons is based largely on the Enlightenment concepts of rights and freedom which presuppose the naive view that we are purely rational beings. Given that we can scientifically show that we are not, how should law change? Should the results of psychology alter the way we structure society or are general notions like rights something that are extra-scientific, not open to challenge by the way the world happens to be?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Little League World Series

The shorter of the short people has been fascinated for the last couple years by the coverage of the little league world series on tv and to be honest, we've gotten into it, too. Indeed, I've been to gatherings recently where everyone knows the teams, mentions specific players,... Seeing kids close to his age, playing seriously good baseball and getting to do it on tv clearly resonates with the shorter of the short people and seeing the game played by someone other than super-rich spoiled professional athletes seems refreshing to us. But it worries me on some levels. On the one hand, in this era of the child obesity epidemic, anything the encourages exercise for kids seems a good thing. At the same time, we hardly need to elevate the status of jocks further in our culture. On the one hand, there seems something pure about kids playing the game. But, on the other, does this elevation only mean that little league, which is already often disgustingly political, is going to become even more infected? Is the attention to the little league world series overall a good thing?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Deception from the Land of Nod

Today is the first day of classes and every fall, I teach logic at 8:00 in the morning on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Living an hour from campus and realizing that in order to get anything done during the day, the only way to secure a block of uninterrupted time is to arrive before the campus rouses, I get up early. I mean early. I'm an atheist, but have no problem describing the hour I awake as ungodly.

So, I was horrified when this morning I looked at the alarm clock to see it read 7:15. Two words go through your mind. One of them is "holy" and the other one decidedly isn't. Like grieving, there is a process in cases like this and the stages are fixed. First there is panic. The heart thumps, the stomach falls, the back of the neck get s hot. Late on the first day of classes. A big no-no. Then there is denial. "Maybe I can make it if I..." Next comes the blame. "Who messed with the clock? Was it TheWife, the short people?" Then doubt. "Did I set it for p.m, not a.m.?" We move to the consideration of alibis, "how can I squirm out of this?" and then finally onto acceptance.

Having gone through all of the stressful stages, it was with complete acceptance that I walked to my car in the morning sunlight -- something I usually do not see -- when unexpectedly, the real alarm went off. It had all been a dream. My mind was messing with me. At times like this, one word goes through your mind and it isn't "holy." Yes, I would not have to deal with being late, but there is still a deep sense of annoyance at having to have gone through what I did for no good reason.

It is hard not to play the Freudian game of trying to create just-so stories to explain the meaning of such dreams. But even if we do not attribute subconscious meaning to these events, is there some way in which they serve us?

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Next Ten Plagues

My Fellow Comedists,

Lest any of the faithful lose power this weekend, we're moving the comedist post up a day because of the storm. It has indeed been quite a run for us lately: earthquakes, hurricanes, the candidacy of Rick Perry. It seems like we may be looking at the next ten plagues. So, if these are the first three, what should we expect as the following seven? Replacing Jim Lehrer with Octomom? Others that bring should bring shudders to our collective spine?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Ritual and Meaning

Yesterday was opening convocation here at Gettysburg. A ceremony that is designed to mark the opening of the academic year and to bring the incoming class of first year students (we do NOT call them freshmen, by "we" I mean administrators) into the college community. To make the ceremony more ceremonial, to bring greater relief to the delineation between being outside of and inside of the institution, every year a new tradition is added, a twist designed to make the ritual more ritualistic.

The problem is that trying to create a meaningful ritual is like trying to throw a great party. The epic parties are unpredictable, they just happen. The more you try to control the factors and create the vibe, the more contrived it feels and the less likely the authentic spirit needed will arise. And so it is with ritual.

So, what is it that makes a ritual meaningful? Is it history? There is certainly something that is amazing every year when Jews gather at passover to do the same thing that ancestors have done for thousands of years. Like looking over a temporal version of the Grand Canyon, that you can see so far back from your vantage point is inspiring in certain ways. But new rituals can't have that.

Is it that the symbolism is particularly poignant, that the act is so strikingly representative of some value? But the symbolism has to walk a fine line between representation and being too literal.

Is it that it gives a sense of something greater than the individual? When you do something with many people who are also doing the same exact thing, it can give you a sense of transcendence, of moving beyond the self. But everyone needs to be doing it with a certain spirit, a certain authenticity and earnestness.

Are there other factors? What can be done to create new rituals that are meaningful and not contrived?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why Did We Ignore the Miliraty-Industrial Canaries?

We took the kids to see the revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying last weekend. A light, funny comedy, I could not help but think about the connection between our current economic crisis and Eisenhower's farewell address that was written two years before the book on which the play was based. We are where we are now because we handed our economy over to corporate interests. What is good for General Motors is good for the country, we were told by Charlie Wilson, the head of GM, and we reflexively bought it.

The large scale social and economic changes that accompany industrialization usually brings about deep consideration and serious social strife. In England, the Luddites led a movement. In France, the running battle between romanticism and modernism was a constant conversation. In Germany, Ferdinand Toennies' book Community and Society was the pinnacle of a strand of thought that tried to make sense of the new industrial order that so radically changed the culture in a way that made sense -- how ought we think of people now that we no longer live primarily in communities based on similarity, but in society which is thoroughly heterogeneous?

But for us, the suburbanization of America after the war, the corporate control of our economy, our food supply, our work and leisure, our entire lives went largely unchallenged. Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman was there. Eisenhower's famous speech, How to Succeed, The Sid Caesar Your Show of Shows, a few canaries were there in the coal mine, but anyone who made the case was marginalized as anti-American in post-war, McCarthyist America. Was it the threat of world-wide annihilation that led us to unreflexively hand the chicken coop to the foxes? Was it the sense of progress that accompanied the simultaneous end of the Depression and rise of technology, that is, since there did seem to be better living through chemistry and no soup lines, don't rock the boat? Why were there precious few works that truly led us to question the way we were reorganizing our society, giving rise to a new set of robber-barons? Was it that we believed after the GI bill that with a degree and a house in Levittown we were fooled into thinking that we were being made part of the haves? Why did we ignore the military-industrial canaries?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Does the Social Contract Have a Dotted Line?

Today is the 706th anniversary of the death of William Wallace, a Scottish knight who led the revolt against Edward I who claimed rule over Scotland. When tried for treason, his defense was that he could not be guilty of treason against a government to which he never swore allegiance. The defense failed in practice, but raises an interesting question -- if the basis for civil society is, as Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau and others have argued, a social contract, then can you be made a party to this contract against your will? In general, for a contract to be valid, one has to enter into it freely, but is this also so with the social contract that distributes rights and responsibilities within the community into which you are born? Is mere presence the equivalence of informed consent? Does the social contract have a dotted line?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Why Do You Know That?

Been a while since we've had one of these. It's the converse of "Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics" where you provide everyone with those tidbits of useless knowledge you have stored away for no good reason.

My contribution:

King Kong is of indeterminate height. He is of completely different scale in different scenes in the film.
Why do you know?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Shades of Blue

My Fellow Comedists,

To listen to the curmudgeons, the culture is getting cruder. Reality television and other garbage is taking all of the culture out of our entertainment. But we were watching an old episode of Get Smart with the kids, it's the one where Max has to convince a children's author to pose as someone else for a dangerous mission. When discussing the case with the Chief, he says that she the author of several children's books including The Camel that Couldn't, The Puppy That Wouldn't, and The Pussy That Wanted To. TheWife and I looked at each other stunned. You could not get away with that joke today. Even on South Park.

One of my favorite episodes of Rocky and Bullwinkle has the Fractured Fairytale version of four and twenty blackbirds which ends with the sentence, "I always enjoy giving the bird to a king." Watch reruns of the Match Game -- there's NOTHING like that today. Or Paul Lynde's responses on Hollywood Squares.

Peter Marshall: If the right part comes along, will George C. Scott do a nude scene?
Paul Lynde: You mean he doesn't have the right part?

Peter Marshall: It is considered in bad taste to discuss two subjects at nudist camps. One is politics. What is the other?
Paul Lynde: Tape measures.

Peter Marshall: Burt Reynolds is quoted as saying, "Dinah (Shore)'s in top form. I've never known anyone to be so completely able to throw herself into a..." A what?
Paul Lynde: A headboard.

Peter Marshall: It is the most abused and neglected part of your body-- what is it?
Paul Lynde: Mine may be abused but it certainly isn't neglected!
Has tv comedy become cleaner? Could you get away with this sort of thing because of innocence or are now more prudish? Is there as much risque humor? If so, where?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, August 19, 2011

Types of Atheism, Religion in History, and Philosophy Today

J.T. asks,

"Should atheism be defined as an absence of belief in God (or gods)? Or should it be defined as as an explicit affirmation that gods do no exist? Is there a true distinction between these two definitions? And finally, should agnosticism be truly considered distinct from atheism"
From a post a good while back distinguishing between four different types of atheism.

Negative inductive atheism, we can call the first stance, is exactly the sort of inference you describe here. Are the respondents on this blog aliens from another planet? There is no evidence in favor of this hypothesis (well, little evidence) and since there is no good reason to believe it, I don't. In the same way, one could argue as you do that there is someone making a claim of the existence of a being and therefore assumes the burden of proof for it and if they have not met that burden then rationally, one ought not believe in the existence claim.

Positive inductive atheism would be what we could term the position in which one argues that there is evidence to believe in the falsity of the magical, invisible man in the sky hypothesis. Folks with this view often point to the incredible successes of purely naturalistic explanations for phenomena that were thought at earlier times to be entirely unassailable by scientific methods. With all the things that had been thought to be the result of magic, spirits or supernatural causes that we now understand and can control by the use of science, there seems to be reason to be suspicious of claims that any part of the universe is beyond scientific understanding. This is an inductive argument based on the historical relation between science and religion, and judging that the successes that science has had in the past in realms like astronomy, biology, geology, and psychology will thus probably go all the way down to eliminating non-naturalistic elements in all our beliefs.

Deductive atheism would then be the name for those who claim to be able to show that the notion of an all-being is self-contradictory, that the Judeo-Christian God or any supernatural being could not exist. Those who champion arguments like the problem of evil are taking this line. A world which contains terrible suffering by innocent children, the argument goes, could not have been created by a being who is all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful because if He knew about it and could stop it, but didn't, then he would not be all-loving. This is a deductive argument to show that it is impossible for a particular type of god hypothesis to be true.

Linguistic atheism would be a name we could apply to those folks like the Logical Positivists of the first half of the 20th century who were atheists, not because of deductive arguments or the lack of evidence, but because, they contended, God talk -- indeed metaphysical talk of any sort -- was simply meaningless. It isn't, as Saint Anselm argued, that the atheist and the theist both agree on what is meant by God, they just disagree on whether one exists. According to Carnap and company, the whole question is really a pseudo-question. It looks like a question, it sounds like a question, but it really isn't. A question is a request for information, if there is no such information to be had, then the string of words is not a real question even if it is grammatically proper. If you and a friend were to get into a huge screaming battle over what color my sister's car is, you would be debating forever, not because it is a deep mystery of the cosmos, but because I don't have a sister. In the same way, the Logical Positivists argued that questions like the existence or non-existence of god were simply meaningless squabble, linguistic muddles that were the result of taking anything that looks like a question seriously.

Matt asks,
"Has there been a time where there was no religion in the world? If not, where do you think the need for believing into something super natural comes from?"
The word "religion" has a number of meanings and those meanings a number of aspects. We could mean belief in a supernatural deity. We could mean a set of cultural practices and rituals. We could mean organized social institutions of a certain sort. We could mean an approach to living. We could mean a set of myths and explanations about the nature and origin of the universe. I think elements of all of these have always been a part of the life of rational social beings and likely always will. That does not mean that the place of social power they now occupy has always been theirs, nor will it always be. Religion is a reflection of cultural elements -- wealth, threats, power distribution -- and religious beliefs and religious institutions will change as culture changes. As such, I do not think that humans a couple centuries from now will be responding to the same sort of questions or religious structures, but it is not something that will cease to be a part of the human community in some way either. It will just look very different.

Jynx asks,
"What do you perceive to be the most interesting question debated within the purview of philosophy today and what is your position on the question?"
The philosophical world has been split for the last hundred or so years into two camps -- the analytic and the continental -- which differ on the basic methodology of philosophy. I think that in recent decades there have been moves to bridge the gap and I think that reconciliation or synthesis of the approaches -- something of a social epistemology -- provides what I myself find to be the most interesting project around. What would a foundation for philosophy look like that is in some ways a hybrid?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ethical/Moral, Corporate Personhood, and Same-Sex Muppet Nuptuals

C. Ewing asks,

"Is there a difference between moral and ethical? If so, what is it? Why do we make the distinction? Should we? Is it helpful?"
I've always found it odd when people say that something has "moral AND ethical ramifications" since I always use the two interchangeably. It's like saying that something has both empirical AND observable consequences. I think the reason why folks do believe there is a distinction, though, is important. Our moral notions are umbrella concepts. When we think about justifications for actions in ethically complex situations, we do think about the nature of the act itself as Kant would have us do, but also think about the consequences of the act as Mill or Bentham prescribe. In real-life moral deliberation, a plurality of ethical theories are in play and this makes it seem as if there is more than one thing going on, so we try to artificially create a non-existent distinction between the ethical and the moral.

Philo asks,
"Scalia wrote (in Citizens United, concurring) that corporations "cannot be denied the right to speak on the simplistic ground that it is not 'an individual American'." Romney said (at the Iowa State Fair) "corporations are people." Is either right? In what sense is a corporation is a person?"
The notion of corporate personhood is a major issue in business ethics and has fascinated me for years. What Romney said was that corporations were "people" which is beautifully ambiguous as it could point to either side of the debate. It could mean (a) that corporations are not things-in-themselves, but are the people who comprise them, or it could mean (b) that the corporation is a thing-in-itself, distinct from the humans that are a part of it, and that the thing should be considered a person.

The argument for (a) (which I think was what Romney was trying to say) is that all decisions made by the corporation are made by people. All actions by the corporation are carried out by humans. Profits from the corporation go to humans. Therefore, the corporation reduces to people.

The argument for (b) is that corporations are not just people, they have an internal structure that makes them more than the sum of their parts. Boards make decisions that might be compromises and therefore not identical to the decision of any human being on the board. As such, the corporation decided something that no person did. Corporations have policies and means of acting such that the action cannot be traced back to any human being's own volition. Corporate culture is quite real and people employed by the corporation will behave at work quite differently than they would do otherwise because of it. Indeed, you could remove lots of the people, but because of the corporate culture, replacing them with new human components will usually do little in changing the organization. As such, we cannot reduce the corporation to its people, but is its own thing.

I think (b) is correct, but then there is an additional step to determine whether that sort of thing we take the corporation to be ought to be considered a person. In may ways it is person-like -- it can deliberate, it can act, it has interests and projects, it has assets, and therefore I have argued in academic journals, it also has moral responsibilities. Should it have all of the legal rights of human beings? No. but it does need to be treated, it seems, as some sort of person-like entity.

Philo also asks,
"Should Bert and Ernie get married?"
This could be two different questions.

(1) Given their long-term stable relationship, is it a good idea for Bert and Ernie to tie the knot? This would give Bert half ownership of the drum set which might give rise to more tension in what has always been a fraught relationship, so to be honest it worries me. Yes, they deserve visitation and survivorship rights, but somehow the unlikely pair has been so stable with the current relationship, I'm not sure if messing with it is a good thing.

(2) Should Sesame Street portray a same-sex married couple? While I think it would be good to have a normalized picture of of gay married couple for kids, I think that it would unnecessarily intensify the right-wing attacks on public broadcasting. I think that the risk far outweighs the gain.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Scientific Truths, Quantum Mechanics, and Quantum Mechanics to Auto Mechanics

C. Ewings asks,

"Are "scientific truths" actually true?"
By true, I'll take it you mean "can be known with certainty." In that case, it depends upon which scientific truths you are speaking of. There are statements of observable behaviors of parts of the universe, say, water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level. These are testable true or false. Yes, as Pierre Duhem a Willard Van Orman Quine pointed out, they also require certain other propositions to be true and you are testing not just that claim, but an entire web of claims, but even so we can say that there are facts about the universe that can be known.

There are theoretical propositions, parts of theories that are used to explain how the universe works, that are then tested by these observation statements, that is, for which these observation statements are used as evidence. These more interesting claims are never known to be true with absolute certainty, but in light of evidence and the results of novel predictions are inductively supported and thereby given a weaker or stronger degree of rational belief.

That is a quick sketch of the standard view, but if anyone is interested in the details of the contrasting positions on this question...have I got a book for you -- available in both paperback and hardback.

Jynx asks,
"With regards to Quantum Physics, do you see a problem with the position of most scientists that certain particles exist in an intrinsically indefinite state, as opposed to the much more defensible position that certain particles' positions/velocities are simply unknown. Another way to phrase the second question would be: Are most physicists guilty of mistaking the epistemological with the metaphysical as it pertains to the position and velocity of particles?"
Actually, the more defensible position is the other way around, but the way it is usually taught to undergrads is unfortunately backwards.

In quantum mechanics, when particles are unobserved, they are found in what is called "superposed states," that is, for a given observable property, say position, they simultaneously occupy every possible value, that is, are to a degree in every possible place in the universe they could possibly be found. Observable properties come in pairs, we call them "non-commuting observables," such that when you observe one property of the pairs, the particle will acquire a single value for that property. When I look to see where a particle is, it will be in a single place. But the act of measuring that property, of seeing where it is, causes the value of the other member of the pair, in this case velocity (position and velocity are the most famous pair of non-commuting observables) to go into a superposed state, that is to not have a single value, but to be a mathematical combination of every possible value.

Einstein held the view that this superposition is not an actual state, that there was a single value for both position and velocity simultaneously at all times, we just don't know it. It is not that superposition is real, it is just that the theory of relativity is incomplete, it is missing some "hidden variables," and when we figure out what these variables are and figure out how to determine them, we'll be able to fully assign values to all observables in a system. We should take these superposed states not to be a reflection of a strange reality at the micro-level, but rather as an indication that it provides an incomplete description of reality which must be well-behaved even at the very smallest sizes.

Unfortunately, every result indicates that there are no hidden variables, that the theory is, in fact, complete. Bell's theorem and the Kochen-Specker theorem all but make impossible the idea that the position or velocity is simply unknown when we measure the other. It is metaphysical and not epistemological. (David Z. Albert's book Quantum Mechanics and Experience is an excellent one for anyone interested in working through this material). Oddly, though, when the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is taught, it is usually portrayed as being merely epistemological and not metaphysical, that is undergrads are told that the process of measuring the position alters the velocity in a way that our former measurement of it no longer is correct, implying that it still has a value, we just don't know it. But, in fact, what happens is that the act of measuring the position actually causes the velocity to return to a superposed state where it ceases to have a single value for that observable property. Quantum theory shows us that the world just is that weird.

71 asks,
"When did you start doing AM to QM and where did the idea come from?"
I took my first philosophy class as an undergraduate with Bruce Goldberg in a lecture hall filled with a couple hundred people. He would lecture from a stage and towards the end of the semester was clearly annoyed with the lack of interaction that was possible in the arrangement. So, one day, he did something he had never done. He asked if there were any questions. But he did it at a point in the class when there was really nothing philosophically contentious on the table, a point when there would be no natural questions or objections to be put forward. There was complete silence. He asked again. Again, nothing. He asked a third time saying, "Guteral noises, belch, anything, I'll make something of it." From the back row, someone yelled out, "Who won the 1926 World Series?" It was clearly an attempt by a smart ass to disrupt. Goldberg, without missing a beat, said the Cardinals over the Yankees in seven. He walked to the chalkboard and described how the series ended with Hornsby tagging out Ruth and related it seamlessly back to free will and determinism which had been the topic of the day. I thought to myself, "Man, you're good." After that day, I noticed that there was a different dynamic in the lecture hall and thought that if I ever taught, I'd try to disrupt the distance between teacher and the class in the same way. So, I did and it worked like a charm. Auto mechanics to quantum mechanics has been with me since the beginning.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Kindles, Smart Phones, and Mechagodzilla

Let's discuss the tech questions today. PeterLC asks,

"Is Kindle and the like a good thing or a bad thing? Do these computer options promote reading or do these detract from the written word?"
Every new advance brings fevered cries that what was good in the old ways is under threat. Is it true? Like always, yes and no. The VCR did not spell the end of movie theaters, but reinvigorated them, so too I think, the ability to one click buy books from your computer or mobile device will actually lead to a more robust book market. I think more people will buy more books. Does that mean people will read more books? To some degree, I do.

At the same time, what it will also mean is that research will become more and more an on-line affair and people will no longer find themselves lost in the stacks. If you can get right to the book you think you'll need, there will be less of a chance to find what you really need, but didn't realize you did. Being in a physical location surrounded by related books leads to chains of thought that may not occur otherwise and subtle, accidentally discovered links may be less likely to be made. Then again, it also means that authors do not have to spend day after day working on an index, so a mixed bag, indeed.

71 asks,
"Has the ubiquity of smart phones, tablets and laptops in the classroom changed the dynamic of it? I recall that when questions arose that you didn't immediately have some thoughts on (or an answer to), you would jot them down (in your state of the art PDA) and come back the next class with an answer. I imagine that something approximating an answer to (or at least pointing one toward an answer to) many of those stumpers is readily available via Google. Do students get more involved in answering questions with these resources glued to their palms? Do they call you out more often for passing on dubious information (not that you'd ever do that!). This post related to the recent Fish-Boghossian hoopla got me thinking about this: As the author of the post puts it: 'The issue I want to raise is: what becomes of “general knowledge”, or rather the social value of having lots of it, now that anyone with a phone or tablet can simulate the possession of a well-furnished mind?'"
Actually, the classroom and the Q&A has changed very little. The instant availability of facts is a good thing, but my job is not to provide facts, but to help the student create a framework in which the facts have some sort of meaning. We now have more paints on the pallet, but we still need to make a picture out of them. Everyone now may have a lot of knowledge since we all possess various forms of external brains, but using that knowledge for wisdom and understanding still requires work. What I love about the Q&A is not just the novel facts, but the way they inevitably lead to a wonderful narrative (or many) that lets you take that fact and use it to generate more questions or a deeper appreciation of the subject.

C. Ewing asks,
"Godzilla or Mechagodzilla? Which one is more frightening? Which one is cooler? And why do bad things always seem to happen to Tokyo?"
Japan, as we all now realize, lives in a very precarious spot on the globe because of the location of the edges of the tectonic plates. Earthquakes and tsunamis can be devastating for them. So, you'd think their fictional monster which embody their existential fears would arise from nature.

But no, both Godzilla and Mechagodzilla are the result of human technology. Godzilla from radioactive fallout -- a fear whose source is easily identifiable -- but the result of unforeseen consequences of the human war machine. Just like the Frankenstein of Hollywood (though, not of Mary Shelly), Godzilla is meant to show us that we can never be sure of the ultimate results of our tinkering with nature. We may think we control the universe, but really we are just playing with forces we cannot completely have a handle on. As a result, we may end up facing something terrifying and huge that we never envisioned.

Mechagodzilla, on the other hand, is a direct created result of human aggression. When we seek only power, we create weapons that are incredibly deadly, but as a result they may move beyond our ability to control them. Our technology may come to control us and the results may not be pretty. Both monsters are the result of hubris and unforeseen consequences, but it is the latter that scares me more.

I know the last question was meant to be funny, but I think there is an interesting conversation to be had there. I think that the Cold War marked a major change in the Japanese psyche and by embracing a pacifist constitution after a war-filled history, the idea of Japan -- even artistically -- destroying someone else's cities was really out of bounds. As a result, it's always Tokyo that gets it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Sports, College Sports, and College

Some great questions everyone. FBC asks,

"In baseball, is there a difference between a 'hit and run' and a 'run and hit'? If so, how would each fit into a coach's strategy or philosophy of the game? (Just had our family reunion and this topic came up......again. I need a new argument to make)."
The idea is that because getting a hit in baseball is so difficult, if you have a runner on first and fewer than two outs, a double play is always a possibility. If you start the runner from first on the pitcher's movement, it does two things: (a) gives the runner a head start making it less likely he'll be doubled up at second, thereby giving you a runner in scoring position, and (b) on seeing the steal attempt, it pulls one of the middle infielders to second base, creating a hole for the batter to hit into, so what would have otherwise would have been an out or double play ball, becomes a single.

This has been known for over a hundred years as the "hit and run," but inevitably someone who wants to be seen as too smart for his garters will inevitably say, "Why do they call it a 'hit and run' when you run first then hit? It should be the 'run and hit.'" To shut this person up, as often as not, we now call it the "run and hit." But it's the same play. There are some who claim the difference is that in the run and hit, the batter is given the autonomy to take a bad pitch, making it into a straight steal, whereas in the hit and run the batter needs to make contact to foul off bad pitches to shield (usually a slower) runner. But I don't think that usage is primary in the linguistic community.

JB asks,
"College sports: Pay for play or not?"
It's an interesting question, because in a couple of senses we already have pay for play college athletics. Believe it or not, I was a division I scholarship athlete. I was a lacrosse player -- I know, I know, it seems strange because I give the appearance of being able to read. My room and board (or, in some cases, room and bored) were paid for me as an enticement to attend my university and play on their team. Division I scholarships are a form of payment. But then there is also the under the table "gifts" that are given to some athletes -- usually football or basketball players. We have a scandal like clockwork every two years where some major program gets busted. Why not just bring the black market into the light and allow pay for play?

College athletics began as an extra-curricular activity for students, something to do in the afternoons as a diversion. the health benefits, camaraderie, and school unity is generates is a good thing. But it has become something completely different. College athletics now play three functions. First, they are cash cows. For major division I programs, they lead to lucrative tv contracts and ticket and merchandise sales. Second, and this is the more important one, they are advertising. High school students selecting a college are perhaps the world's worst consumers. They know nothing about the academics at an institution. A store I've heard of will generally be a better store, so it must also be true that school I've heard of is probably better than one I haven't heard of. But what's the only way most non-academics hear of colleges or universities? Sports. Having a notable sports team will increase out of state applicants significantly -- the ones who pay more in tuition. Finally, college sports are the farm systems for professional sports. They develop the talent pool and given them their training in fundamentals of the game at a high level.

So, given that you now have college athletics playing a significant non-academic role, why maintain the facade that these are scholar-athletes in the mold of the 19th century? Why not just pay them for their services and not have to have them fake their way through special classes designed just to nurse athletes through college? I think there are two reasons.

First, while many of them have no business in a college classroom, for others it is their only chance to get a college education. It would seem unfair to the athletes to take it away from them. The argument is that it would open up seats to those who would have otherwise have been admitted. Of course, these would be students at the lower end who were on the bubble and, let's be honest, these are often those who are not the most academically inclined and do not contribute much to the intellectual climate of a campus.

Second, it would draw even more money away from the true mission of the institutions. It puts them explicitly in the business of producing an entertainment product and as it gets more lucrative, more resources go to it. It splits the institution in a way that would likely damage its educational work even more deeply. Forcing the athletics to remain in a number two position, whether it is real or not, I think is better for the academics.

SteveD asks,
"Do all Americans have the right to a college education? Has the goal of college for everyone played a role in the decline of elementary through high school education?"
To the first, all other things being equal, the answer would be no. It ought to be a right that the community prepare you to be a contributing member and this traditionally did not require a college degree. But the place of college has certainly changed in the last century. I think a combination of the GI bill making college more common for those in the workplace and the shift to a service and technology-based economy has made college into the final four years of high school. No longer is it a place to become an intellectual, but rather it provides necessary training for becoming a part of the middle-class and for making significant advances that help drive our national economy. As such, if we have the right to the education needed to benefit from and benefit the society, it does seem that with the permanent loss of so many blue-collar jobs -- and with the remaining ones becoming more technical -- that some sort of post-secondary education does fall into the right to education.

But this transformation of higher learning into vo-tech training has certainly had negative consequences for education writ large -- in part that many people no longer say things like "writ large." We see primary and secondary ed as preparation for college which is, in turn, nothing but preparation for a job. It is entirely utilitarian and we have replaced the search for wisdom with skill acquisition which impoverishes our students and our society.

But I don't think it is the "college for all" proposition that is operative here. Given the way the world has changed, it seems that more education will be necessary. I think we do need, however, a movement away from the sort of anti-intellectualism that poisons our culture and that this would change how we view education. when "elite" is a dirty word, it means that the educated are actually the uneducated, that those who think carefully and have a historical and philosophical sense should be disregarded. That reason and thoughtfulness are vices, not virtues. Yes, schooling is one place that this is instantiated, but I think that it is as a result of larger social forces and not merely something in our educational system. How do we change that? Oooh. That's another question.

More tomorrow.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics: Any Questions?

With this coming semester looming or, perhaps, here, it's a good time to do this one again. I have a schtick that I do before every class where I let students ask any question at all, auto mechanics to quantum mechanics. When I started the Playground years ago, some former students asked if I'd bring the exercise on-line, so here it is. If there is a question you've always wanted to ask, here's your chance. We'll discuss as many as possible next week. Fire away.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What's the Difference: Antique, Classic, Historic

I was driving the other day behind an old rusty Subaru from the 80s and noticed it had historic plates. We then went into an antique store and saw things that I remember as new as the store radio played classic rock. So, what is the difference between historic, antique, and classic?

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Social Meaning of the Mohawk

The area I call home has a curious mix of folks. Traditionally a blue-collar rural area, it lies in the overlap of the McMansion belt of the suburban sprawls of both D.C. and Baltimore. As a result, there is an interesting socio-economic stew. In the last couple of years, there has been a marked increase in the number of mohawks on younger children. These kids are predominantly of the working-class families or those who make middle-class incomes, but who still identify with a working class way of being.

This is peculiar, because for years this group saw the mohawk as offensive. I remember well a conversation with an older guy at the beach years ago who recounted how his mohawk resulted in any number of violent encounters with exactly the parents of those whose children now wear the haircut. The hippies rebelled by making hair length political. Think of the musical hair or the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song "Almost Cut My Hair." It was combined with a vague back to nature element in 60s utopianism. The American punk movement of the 80s was a dystopian reaction to what they saw as the arrogant naivite of the boomers and if the older generation rebelled by growing their hair long, the punks would revolt and be revolting by shaving theirs off completely or almost. But this was a, intra-class rivalry. The hippies and the punks were both from the comfortable, complacent middle and upper-middle classes. This is why the mohawk-guy I was conversing with was found so offensive. He was calling attention to himself as a rebel, and thereby a tough guy, when he wasn't actually tough. He had nothing to rebel against in the eyes of the working class drunks who pummeled him, since he had everything, so how dare he make himself appear so different. For his intransigence, he deserved what people who actually are different receive, a good beating.

But as I have said before, when revolutionaries get old and cease to be dangerous, they get cute. Punk rock is no longer a social force, no longer a rebellion. And so, the mohawk is now cute. It has replaced the rat-tail as the go to hair style for those boys trying to be different and masculine in a working-class way. Those who used to beat the snot out of my mohawk-guy are now giving them to their sons.

What is wonderfully ironic about it is that it is the same demographic who originally had it in Britain where the punk rock movement was not a bourgeois phenomenon, a revolt against corporate homogenization of American culture, but a good, old fashion class revolt by the children of the workers. The accent is different, but the worldview of the mohawk has come back around full circle. As London burns from their own class issues, our economy collapses n part because working-class folks have been swept up in conservative/tea party rhetoric in which everything that serves their economic interests is unamerican. But, at least we have the mohawk. Maybe it is a first step in changing how upside-down our policy discussions are.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Lucy's Cultural Legacy

This weekend was Lucille Ball's centenary. There was a big celebration up in Jamestown, New York, Lucy's hometown. Included a series of performances by prominent female stand-up comics, including Joan Rivers and Paula Poundstone. Lucy was a ground-breaker for women in show business in many ways. She and Desi formed Desilu Studios and after the divorce it became her ship to run, making her the first female head of a studio in Hollywood. She may have been wacky and impulsive on tv, but she was smart, tough, and insightful in real life. Her show was in many ways the illustration of the Feminine Mystique. Lucy was the prototypical housewife of the post-war era, trapped in a middle-class life that left her unfulfilled. She was always trying to get a job, to reach beyond herself, to fill the void that our culture left in the lives of women at the time.

Who are the Lucy's after Lucy portraying in different ways the plights of those who are stuck in the culture, trying to give voice in funny or poignant ways to those we usually do not hear from? Rosanne Barr in the late 80s did this for blue collar families. Others?

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Cultural Characters

My Fellow Comedists,

I got this joke in the e-mail this week:

The Louisiana State Police had received numerous reports of illegal cockfights being held in the area around Abbeville and had sent their famous Detective Boudreaux from Thibodeaux to investigate.

Boudreaux promptly began his investigation and then reported to his Commander the next morning.

"Dey is tree main groups involve in dis rooster Fightin", he began.

"Good work! Who are they?" the Commander asked.

Boudreaux replied confidently, "De Texas Aggies, de local Cajuns, and de Mafia from N'awlins".

Puzzled, the Commander asked, "Now Boudreaux, how did you find all that out in one night?"

"Well," he replied, "I went down and done seen dat rooster fight in person. And I knowed immedjiately dat dem Aggies was involved when a Duck was entered in the fight."

The Commander nodded, "I'll buy that. But what about the others?"

Boudreaux nodded knowingly, "Well, I knowed de Cajuns was involved when sum_body bet on de duck!"

"Ah, I see, I see....." sighed the sergeant, "And how did you figure the Mafia was involved?"

"De duck won."
One of the joys of my frequent visits to southern Louisiana is hearing all the Boudreux and Thibodeux jokes. They are two buddies who get themselves into situations and try to solve them in, shall we say, creative ways. These are not jokes by non-Cajuns about the Cajuns, the way that blonde or Polish jokes are told to diminish a group. They are in-house jokes of, by, and for the community.

They are, in deep ways, similar to the Ole and Sven or Ole and Lena jokes you hear in the north country.
On their honeymoon trip, they were approaching Minneapolis when Ole put his hand on Lena's knee. Lena giggled and said: "Ole, You can go furder den dat, don't cha know?" So Ole put the pedal to the metal and drove to Duluth.

Eastern European Jews have a similar line of jokes connected with the rabbis of a small Polish (and actual) town called Chelm. While the rabbis are not named, and thereby personalized, in the same way, they are well-known characters.
In the town of Chelm, the Council of Sages entered a heated debate over whether the sun or the moon was more important. The dispute spread until the whole city was split into the “suns” and the “moons”.

Finally, they brought the question to their rabbi. He thought and pondered for days before declaring his answer to the town:

“The moon is obviously more important. The sun shines in the day, when it’s already bright and we don’t need it.”
Are there other cultures with similar sorts of jokes about their own? Do you have any favorites?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, August 05, 2011

Harry Potter and the Chambers of Congress: Are Michelle Bachmann and the Debt Ceiling Debacle Ushering In a New Generation of Irony?

The ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles argued that the universe was forever oscillating between chaos and order. The early 20th century sociologist Pitrim Sorokin contended that society bounced back and forth between worldviews governed by empirical, scientific leanings and romantic, religious aspirations. The release of the final Harry Potter film during the fight over the raising of the nation’s debt ceiling makes me wonder whether the real cultural poles are actually irony and authenticity, that we live in a world in which forever alternates between eras of seinfeldian nihilism and rowlandian earnestness.

The generation leaving college today and trying to enter the work force is the Harry Potter generation. If I were to refer to someone in my classroom as “puckish” or “pickwickian,” I’d most likely receive blank stares. But if instead, I used the adjectives “snape-ish” or “flitwickian,” head nods would result. These stories and characters populate their collective cultural consciousness. The conclusion of the film version of the epic is, for them, a major occurrence.

For me, a philosophy professor of generation X who suddenly finds his beard more salt than pepper, it exposes the meaning of “out of it” – when a significant social event possesses no personal significance. For me, the allusion connected with the surname Potter is colonel Sherman T., not wizard Harry. But as I engaged the books with my own children, I noticed a peculiar similarity with a series of texts that were just as formative for readers of my time – Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. Both featured protagonists who found themselves alienated from British middle class life, only to be thrust against their wills into bizarre realities that existed alongside their more mundane lives, but which remained invisible to everyone else around them. They explored these new realms with a female companion who was also human and possessed superior intelligence, and a goofy male friend who could serve as a guide as he hailed from this strange new world. And in both cases, unbeknownst to most people, the Earth was in mortal danger.

While the parallel structure of the two is striking, it is the differences that are telling. Where Harry Potter’s Voldemort was the embodiment of evil bent on destruction of the world for power and ego, the Hitchhiker’s Guide’s Arthur Dent’s earth would be destroyed by Zaphod Beeblebrox, the President of the Galaxy, out of sheer incompetence. He didn’t bother to read what was put in front of him assuming it was yet another request for an autograph and this sent the Vogons – a race of aliens that combine Dr. Who and Hannah Arendt – to simply do their jobs in making way for a hyper-space bypass. Bad things in this universe were not the result of ill-intent, but rather of a system that could not be trusted to be rational.

This made perfect sense to the Watergate babies. Of course, the authorities were lying to us about everything. That’s what authorities do. “The truth is,” we were told in All the President’s Men, “these are not very bright guys and things got out of hand.” We saw the Berlin wall come down and Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” exposed as a fraud. We were worried about mutually assured destruction with THEM? Is THAT really what everyone got so worked up over during the McCarthy period? When you pulled back the curtains on the great and magnificent Oz, there was nothing there to be afraid of. The response to the times was one of hip skepticism.

It also helped that it was the polar opposite of the baby boomers’ strident sixties and sensitive seventies. No, they didn’t levitate the Pentagon and no, all you need is not love…unless it’s the love of supply side tax cuts and BMWs. After enduring thousands of air raid drills cowering beneath their school desks to shield them from global nuclear destruction, they tried to change the world. Well, at least until they controlled it. And so, generation X, living forever in their shadow, turned our collective back on their claimed genuine connection with the world and opted instead for cool cynicism.

But the Harry Potter generation are the children of Columbine, Oklahoma City, 9/11, and Virginia Tech. Unexpected violence could erupt spontaneously taking the lives of innocent people anytime, anywhere. Not just in the dangerous parts of town, but even where the well-off folks stay. Nowhere is safe and this lack of security is not only cached out in terms of life and limb, but also class. There is no guarantee that they will end up where their parents are, living the comfortable lives they have been born into. Theirs is not an ironic existence.

They have heard the rhetoric of black and white, good and evil their entire lives, so it comes as no surprise that they would be attracted to stories in which threats come from malevolent forces that seek to undermine all that is good in the world. We see it not only in Harry Potter, but also in the revival of the thinly-veiled Christian fables of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring books, both of which received multi-million dollar cinematic treatments during this period. It was widely announced that after 9/11, the era of irony was over, but truth be told this generation had begun rejecting it already. You see this re-engagement in the commitment to public service in terms of local projects and their ability during the last election to vote in record numbers swayed by a message of hope.

But when you look at the news today, that hope has been dashed. Our crisis is not a hurricane or tornado, but an artificial calamity of our own making. And those leading the charge, the tea party, deny the existence of global warming, deny the basis of macro-economic theory, and have a leader in Michelle Bachmann whose husband holds that homosexuality is a malady curable by a modern brand of Christian faith healing. This is the world molding those who will be the post-Harry Potter generation. They hear black and white rhetoric from those whose worldview is cleaner than the world itself. Things are more complicated, and yet that intricacy is not allowed to be addressed in trying to solve problems we create for no good reason other than to have crises for which we can then pretend to be the white knights riding in to save the day. This generation has seen wars that were cheered on by those who had no intent to put themselves in danger to fight them, but who consider themselves patriots for having merely voiced support for them. With years of families losing their homes, with these children’s families fearing for the jobs of their bread-winners, to see the silliness of the response from the system, the end of Harry Potter may well be the end of our respite from irony. Sarcasm and cynicism may be the order of the day for the new generation. And if it comes to be, I’ll be waiting with my old Hitchhiker’s Guide books and DVDs of Seinfeld we could enjoy together.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Norway, Atheism, and the Nature of Morality

One of the odd side stories around the tragic mass murder in Norway has been the lack of coverage in the American media given to the actions of Hege Dalen and Toril Hansen who heard the shooting, saw children trying to swim away from their attacker, and made ten trips in their boat, saving forty children while taking fire themselves. Why is this story not being heralded throughout our news channels? Perhaps because Hege Dalen and Toril Hansen are a married lesbian couple and the murderer, Anders Behring Breivik, was a right-wing Christian.

The narrative we're fed is created by folks whose rhetoric, if not their politics, are similar to Behring Breivik and according to them -- and our media who accept their framing of the world -- it is the right-wing Christians who are out to protect morality, family values that will be lost if we let those horrible sinful gay people get married. When suddenly we see the gun-loving, nationalistic, fundamentalists with their eliminationist talk as dangerous and the married gay people as not only human, but virtuous and heroic, it upsets the story, the frame no longer fits. And that's because the frame is nonsense.

Morality needs a god. Without God all is allowed. Why would an atheist bother to be good? These questions are based upon a presupposition about the nature of ethics, a flawed presupposition that ethics is a set of laws to be followed. Laws need a law-giver and an enforcement mechanism that provides punishments and rewards to make sure they are followed. Atheists, by eliminating God, can no longer account for the source of moral authority behind the laws and have no reason to follow them. Hence, we are told, atheism is a threat to morality.

But the fact is, that if you do believe in heaven and hell that it is you who cannot act morally. Suppose you see someone helping out at a soup kitchen feeding the hungry. You might think, "hey, what a nice thing he is doing." But if you then found out that it was court mandated public service and that he's doing it to avoid going to prison or if you learned that really he's only doing it to impress a girl who also works there whom he has a crush on, then you would surely revise your view of the moral worth of the act. As Immanuel Kant (the most vociferous advocate of the law-based view of ethics) notes, we cannot call an act good if it is done for reward or to avoid punishment. The person who helps the old lady across the street with her bags at gunpoint is not the one deserving praise. Yet, this is exactly what we are told morality is by the standard conservative Christian frame. If you believe in the Santa God who is keeping tabs and determining whether you get an everlasting pony or sent to your room without dinner for all of eternity, you cannot be said to be acting morally. THAT is not morality.

So, why would an atheist act morally? The question makes no sense to atheists, frankly, because ethics is not a set of laws to be followed. Ethics, in the classical Greek sense, is about how to live your life. Everyone has to figure out how to live his or her life in a world full of other beings who are affected by the choices we each make. Why does the existence or non-existence of an invisible, magical man in the sky make a difference in that? It doesn't. Whether we consider others in determining what to do and how to live is a function of empathy, being able to see see others as intrinsically valuable, having concerns, projects, and being that we and others can improve through our care.

Empathy is entirely independent of metaphysical belief. There are religious people who are incredibly empathetic and do wonderful things. Some of the greatest names in history -- Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day -- fall in this camp. There are atheists who care only about themselves (see libertarians, also listed under rich white people who read Ayn Rand). But then, there are many, many deeply religious people like Anders Behring Breivik who are dangerous and evil. It does no good as some on the right have tried to do and deny that he is really a Christian. It is to beg the question to count out the evil Christians as Christian just because they are evil. And similarly, there are many, many folks who are as empathetic as Hege Dalen and Toril Hansen, who act to make the world better for others without a belief in supernatural beings.

We need to hear the story of the bravery and heroism of Hege Dalen and Toril Hansen precisely because it upsets the dominant narrative about ethics. We need for this to be an after-school special or a Hallmark original because it is only by undermining the frame of morality as religious law that we as a culture will ask the deeper questions and begin to have authentic discussions about how we ought to live.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! God damn you all to hell!

TheWife decided to show Planet of the Apes to the short people. A hokey retelling of the Galileo story for the most part, the most interesting line is at the end.

Dr. Zaius -- an incredibly powerful orangutan in the society's religious hierarchy -- is well aware that intelligent humans had roamed the planet in the past, something that he is charging two chimp scientists with heresy for daring to say in public. When the nephew of one of these scientists witnesses the hypocrisy and stifling of science, he asks him "What about the future?" To which Dr. Zaius responds "I may have just saved it for you." Dr. Zaius knew, but the nephew did not, that humans had destroyed themselves and most life on earth in a nuclear war and that allowing them to evolve and co-mingle with the intelligent chimps, orangutans, and gorillas who now populate the planet could lead to their destruction as well given the human track record. He clearly believed that he was acting in the society's best interest.

And so he lied. What was Galileo is now Plato. We have the myth of the metals from the Republic, an argument that says that the people in power need to tell certain lies to the population because the truth will lead to a disruption of the preconditions for human flourishing.

Is this true? Are there some cases in which the authorities are justified in misleading the public? If so, does this make democracy impossible, a well-informed electorate seeming to be a necessary condition for democracy? If not, what if the truth undermines the stability that is also necessary for a functional democracy?

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The Choice of Companions

I've been reading the book Einstein and the Generations of Science, an older work by sociologist of science Lewis Feuer who argues that amongst all the other factors in creating scientific revolutions, a major aspect that is overlooked is the choice of companions. Revolutionaries are not lone rangers, but rather emerge from groups of really smart, interesting, revolution-minded friends. He quotes Ignazio Silone:

"The revolt of a young man against tradition is a frequent occurrence in all times and all countries, and it rarely happens without at least some ambiguity. Depending on circumstances, the revolt may lead into the Foreign Legion, gangsterism, the film world or political extremism. What defined my revolt was the choice of companions."
Is he right? Is the choice of companions that important?

If so, do electronic companions count? Do on-line companions generate sufficient community to serve this purpose? Would be loners, alienated from those around them can now seek like-minded folks in various forums on the web. Should we expect more and more rapid revolutions in science, the arts, and thought in the coming generations as a result?

Monday, August 01, 2011

Are Physics and Mathematics Singular or Plural?

Are the words "physics" and "mathematics" singular or plural? If plural, what is a physic or mathematic? Is is a single theory? A single result? A single axiomatic system?