Friday, September 30, 2011

Is it Moral to Play Defense in a Democracy?

Voters in Ohio have successfully filed a petition to vote on rolling back the shrinking of the state's early voting which was an act of the Republican legislature there. It is a part of a larger movement by conservatives to play electoral defense, that is, to keep people who would vote for your opponent from voting. It is one thing to play offense, that is, to either organize strong get out the vote pushes to make sure your people arrive at the polls or to do your best to convince undecided voters that your candidate is the one to vote for, but what about defense?

The idea that offense wins games, but defense wins elections was first publicly enunciated by Paul Weyrich, a major player in the rise of modern conservatism:We DON'T want everyone to vote. Weyrich is correct, the political power of certain interest groups does increase when the number of voters decrease. This is the explicit strategy of Republicans now -- see Ari Berman's article for a thorough account. They had been using the "voter fraud" ruse as a cover in the last couple of cycles, but at this point, it simply is what it is.

The thing is that it is all perfectly legal. What is happening is well within the bounds of the law. These are democratically elected representatives using democratic means to limit access to the democratic process. Kurt Godel famously worried about taking the oath of citizenship to become an American because doing so would force him to swear to defend the Constitution which he realized could be used by a smart and unscrupulous dictator to democratically create a dictatorship. That is clearly beyond what is happening here, but the sentiment is similar -- what is being done to play electoral defense is within the rules. Does that make it ok?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Smart Puns

Posts have been a bit long this week, so thought we'd do something shorter. Yesterday was a good pun day and I figured that would be a fine excuse for a post. The first is from my first year seminar and the second from a response to a paper I'm working on:

Of course, according to Kepler, the orbits of the planets are...

The author claims that analytic philosophy is sterile, yet Russell's "On Denoting" is not only seminal, but begat Strawson's response, "On Referring."

Got other good ones?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Discovery of Penicillin and the Epidemic of Diabetes

Today is the 83rd anniversary of one of the most important holy shit moments in human history, Alexander Flemming's discovery of penicillin. As much as focused, goal-driven investigations are important, basic research, the "let's see what happens when we look at this" type of approach has opened doors we never even considered the existence of and changed the way we exist in the world.

Flemming was culturing the bacteria that causes staph infections when his samples got contaminated with mold. He noticed that at the edges of the mold, the bacteria was being dissolved. Curious, he grew the mold itself and found that it had a by-product that killed certain types of bacteria. This effect had been observed before in 1896 by Ernest Duchesne in France where he was a medical student and it would be another 13 years before the by-product could be identified and put into usable form as penicillin by other researchers, but it was the light bulb going off in Flemming's head when he saw the effect that forever altered the way humans live.

The production of penicillin was concurrent with other major scientific and technological advances. At the same time that Einstein was changing the way we see space, Freud and Piaget were changing the way we look at the mind, and genetics was emerging from Thomas Hunt Morgan's fruit flies to change how we saw the body. Air travel and long distance communication were becoming part of normal life. We could conquer gravity and distance. Humans of that generation had a life that significantly differed from the entire history of humanity before it. And here was a substance that could with a single wave of what appeared to be a magic wand eliminate any number of illnesses that had been fatal, had caused long, painful debilitating slides to a premature demise. Life had always been a cosmic lottery of death where suddenly sickness could randomly pop up and seize anyone. To live was be always aware of life's fragility, its contingency, its limitations. But suddenly humans had devised a simple way to step out of the state of nature, to rise above it, to move into the sunlight and out of the shadow of death taking what seemed like a very real step towards immortality. If we were no longer bound to the surface of the Earth, why should we be bound by death? Technology, it now seemed, was a wedge that separated us from the rest of being.

And in some way it is true. We were stunningly able to shape our environment instead of adapting to it. This meant the physical landscape, the biological landscape, the psychological landscape, and even with penicillin, our internal landscape could all be chosen as we saw fit in ways to advantage. We became intentional beings, not merely natural beings. And with this change came an arrogance and a sense of entitlement and a belief that anything manufactured would be intrinsically superior to anything natural.

This is the mindset that colored our culture in the 40s and 50s. "Futuristic" and "modern" were terms with undeniably positive connotations. Simpler and easier were the buzzwords attached to the homes of the future, with appliances that would free humans from the dull drear of normal life, leaving incredibly large stretches of time for that which makes humans exceptional. It was truly an electrical renaissance that was looming, we thought.

But it also came with television, tv dinners, and Levittown. Simpler and easier failed to create a new environment of human excellence, just one of sloth and high fructose corn syrup. Vacuous entertainment and empty calories became the national past times, but because both came to us in packages designed by modern corporations who were the way to the future, it was held that they must be devoured with gusto as they lead the way forward. Oreos and sodas aplenty, vegetables -- especially those not from the evil empire of Monsanto -- not so much.

And so we come to a society in which diabetes is not an epidemic, but a regular and expected part of the aging process. Americans will not need passports in the future, just a blood glucose reading. In our excitement to distance ourselves from the dangers of the past, we have created a more toxic environment where our bodies and our minds are controlled for profit, not for health. But we embrace it because we come from a place of optimism about the future. We have created and discovered wonderful things that make lives richer and longer. The discovery of penicillin changed not only the human lifespan, but in doing so, has changed the way we can look at life itself as an open opportunity, not a teetering, questionable maybe. But in that stance, we have also allowed ourselves to be played. The intoxication of the promise that penicillin brought has resulted in health, but also its opposite.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hans Hahn and Intuition

Today is the birthday of Hans Hahn, the Austian mathematician who, along with his brother-in-law-to-be Otto Neurath, started the Vienna Circle of Logical Positivists. He was a philosophically-minded mathematician at a time when the foundations of math seemed up in the air. Take Euclidean geometry. It is a collection of amazingly intricate theorems derived with absolute deductive rigor (mostly, anyway) from a small set of axioms that seemed beyond doubt. Given any two points, you can draw a line between them. Around any point, you can draw a circle of any radius. Equals added to equals yield equals.

But while these seem obvious, what really justifies belief in them. Kant, whose view held sway at the time, appealed to the intutiion. While Kant had a very technical sense of intuition, the notion does derive from our common usage. The human mind is naturally equipped to just know certain basic things. The foundaitons of mathematics are to be included because they are so self-evident to reason itself. They need no justificaiton, they just are true and we just know them.

In his essay, "The Crisis of Intution" and in a prescient passage in the Vienna Circle's founding manifesto, which Hahn co-wrote with Neurath and Rudolf Carnap, he points out the fallibility of the intutuion and the way we pack aculturated beliefs into it. There is no pure intution (in the common sense) and even if there were, it is not perfect. Hence, we must reject intuition as a source of knowledge.

But is this right? Is the intution trustworthy? If so, when? About factual matters? About ethical matters? In terms of self-knowledge? In artisitc matters? In terms of difficult decisions when the reason is stuck between alternatives? Is an appeal to intuition ever sufficient for belief or action?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Neutrinos and the Speed of Light

Last week saw two phenomena that seem to challenge a central postulate of the theory of relativity. First, researchers at CERN reported that a stream of neutrinos was determined to have traveled faster than the speed of light. Following that announcement, my inbox was filled at an even faster rate with messages from friends, family, colleagues, former students, and Playground readers alerting me to this fact. On both grounds, it warrants some background discussion.

The Special Theory of Relativity

First, what does Einstein's theory say? Einstein proposed two theories of relativity -- the special theory in 1905 and the general theory in 1916. This result concerns the first of them. The theory of special relativity is based on two postulates, assumptions about the nature of the world and of the laws that govern its behavior. The first is called the light postulate and states that the speed of light is constant for all observers regardless of the state of motion of the source or the observer. If you shine a flashlight in my eyes, I see the light coming at me at the speed of light. If you run towards me or away from me while keeping the light in my eyes, the speed I see the light coming at exactly the same speed no matter what. This seems peculiar and violates what Newton said about motion, but is a result of our best theory of electricity, magnetism, and optics, what are called Maxwell's equations, named after British physicist James Clerk Maxwell who discovered none of them.

By combining these two postulates, Einstein derived a number of odd results. One of them is that the speed of light becomes a limiting velocity. Objects with no mass must travel at the speed of light, whereas objects with a positive mass must travel less than the speed of light. As an object moves faster, its mass increases. More mass means you need to put in more energy to speed it up. As an object approaches the speed of light, its mass increases towards infinity in such a way that it would take an infinite amount of energy to get it across the threshold to or past the speed of light. This is why it is, according to the special theory of relativity, an impossibility for a massive object to exceed the speed of light. It is not an engineering problem -- it isn't that we just haven't figured out how to do it. Rather, it should not be able to happen. That is why this result, if correct, would be so interesting.


A fascinating little particle, "neutrino" translates to little tiny neutral thing, and so it is. We all know that atoms are made up of a heavy nucleus with positively charged protons and electrically neutral neutrons surrounded by very light, negatively charged electrons. Positive and negative charges attract, so what would happen if you put a proton and an electron close together? They would pull on each other and join into one particle, the positive and negative charges offsetting and the masses combining. What has no electrical charge and a mass equal to a proton and electron together? A neutron.

When Wolfgang Pauli, known as the most brilliant, anal retentive, conversationally abusive jerk in the history of physics, examined the situation, he realized that if neutrons were indeed a proton and an electron combined, that there would have to be a third component to guarantee that certain physical quantities are conserved -- that the entire physical balance sheet turned out just right -- and so he proposed the neutrino, a particle with no mass and no charge.

Needless to say, a particle with no mass or charge would be difficult to detect since it would not interact with most things in a normal fashion. Indeed, it wasn't until over a quarter century later that experimentalists actually found the little guys. As particle physics has progressed, we've realized that neutrinos do have a tiny bit of mass and so, by Einstein's work, should be limited by the speed of light. Additionally, we've also figured out that they should come in three different flavors and that they are capable of switching between them. Truly nifty little dudes.


So, if correct, the CERN result would mean that one of the pillars of modern physics would have a problem. Does it mean we would have to reject it wholesale? Probably not, but it would mean something revolutionary and interesting would have to happen at the conceptual heart of our physics.

But is it right? First of all, these sorts of stories do come out every year or so and usually they fade away for good reason. They were false alarms. Science is like soccer, you have long stretches of what Thomas Kuhn called "normal science" in which well-defined problems are solved using standard means, giving rise to the usual sorts of conclusions which excite only technicians. But every once in a while out of nowhere, there is a run at the goal, the ball gets in the box and a player is streaking in from the wing. But, like in soccer, usually nothing comes of it.

The reason for this is that when we talk of "observations" really what we mean is something other than what we usually think of. We picture scientists in lab coats actually observing things. We think of our own labs in high school and college where we used instruments to measure things. That's not how it works in particle physics. You have computers receiving input from a physical system and software programs doing all sorts of data manipulations based on certain parameters that are presumed. We never actually see anything.

Kent Staley has done amazing work documenting the discovery of the top quark and his discussion makes beautifully clear how complex "observations" are in science today, how many people and how many computer programs with slightly different approaches are required to create what we "see." This is not to say that we shouldn't trust the results once confirmed, but rather to say that often things seem to be swelling when ultimately, they tend to be a part of a more complex conversation that may end up going nowhere.

But, to return to the soccer metaphor, every once in a while someone does score and when it happens great fanfare is warranted. Even the most firmly entrenched theories in science are always open to disconfirmation. That is what makes science so exciting. Is this a shot that will find the top corner in the aim and goal of advancing science? Probably not. But maybe...

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Knock-Knock Jokes and Limericks

My Fellow Comedists,

More theology this weekend. I'm considering why knock-knock jokes are not funny, but limericks are. Good brother Rob, many years ago, worked on a paper with me about knock-knock jokes and whether Raskin and Attardo's script theory could account for them. I think we made some progress back then, but I now believe I have a much fuller account. But, it raises some of the questions again from last weekend.

The key to a joke is ambiguity. Jokes have two parts, a set up and a punchline. The set up provides a context in which a an ambiguous situation is presented. But this ambiguity must be hidden from the listener, one of the interpretations (what we'll call the primary interpretation) must be unthinkingly adopted and entrenched in the listener's mind. This primacy may be the result of cultural factors, common usage, or psychological priming in the wording of the set up, but the key is for the listener to cling completely to the primary interpretation. The punchline exposes the listener to a previously obscured secondary interpretation which the mind naturally tries to reconcile with the primary. But when this reconciliation process fails, the brain gets flustered using up lots of energy. Finally, when the listener "gets" the joke, the brain resigns itself to accept the secondary interpretation and completely surrender the primary one, something it is loathe to do because of the entrenchment.

Knock-knock jokes are the ones we always teach to kids because they wear their structure on the outside. The form of the knock-knock joke makes the set up and punchline form explicit. In this way, knock-knock jokes not only function as jokes, but also as tools to teach children how to tell and understand jokes. But they are not very funny. Why?

It seems that the reason is that in a knock-knock joke the set up is so brief that the entrenchment of the primary interpretation of the set up in the listener's mind is very shallow because the set up is formulaic and brief and because of familiarity with the form is expecting the switch to the secondary interpretation. Because of the expectation of the switch, the brain is less primed for the confusion surrounding the irreconciliation and so it is not seen as being as funny. Knock-knock jokes are more like puns in this way and like puns, not seen as funny.

But a limerick is funny in part because it fits a rigid form. Shouldn't knock-knock jokes also benefit from this? Is it because the form is less rigid? The punchline has no real rhythm restrictions. This openness may undercut the humorous advantage gotten from the form. Or it just may not be a funny form. The pattern of the limerick with its dissonance and resolution may have implicit humorous advantage over the staccato rhythm of the knock-knock joke.

Anyway, seems only appropriate to leave with the knock-knock joke Rob used as the central example in our paper:

Knock knock.
Who's there?
Dwayne who?
Dwayne the tub, I'm dwowning.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, September 23, 2011

All My Children: Have We Gone From Greece to Rome?

I've never been one for soap operas, but it is interesting that after 40 years the show All My Children is coming to an end. At first glance, you might be tempted to say that because of economic hardship or because we've evolved as a culture, that we're not interested in watching melodrama, tawdry human relations, and cheap hyped tragedy. But then you'd have to explain away the rest of what is still on.

We have replaced the melodrama of soaps with the melodrama of reality tv. Fictional lives being destroyed by backstabbing, cheating, lying people who call themselves friends and lovers is cheesy, we want to see real lives destroyed by backstabbing, cheating, lying people who call themselves friends and lovers. While no one would confuse Days of Our Lives with Lysistrata, it does seem a somewhat apt metaphor to say that in our cultural viewing habits, we've moved from the theaters of Athens to the Coliseum of Rome.

You see a ratcheting up effect. If this is popular, we need to create buzz by going one step further. American Gladiator leads to Fear Factor. One Life to Live leads to the Real Housewives. I have no attachment to All My Children and so don't feel one way or another about its disappearance from daytime television, but it does make me wonder "what's next?"

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Haydn Seek: Non-User Value of the Arts

As I was driving the short people into school, our classical music station was having its fundraiser. The case they were making was an interesting one combining claims about the value it has for those who listen and a claim about the value it has for the larger community, even for those who do not listen.

There are certainly clear cut cases in which such claims hold true. I may not use but a tiny bit of the physical infrastructure of the country myself, but I benefit from roads I do not drive on. The fact that we can depend on these roads' existence creates an atmosphere conducive to a larger commercial realm that allows for the manufacture of some of the items I do want and for there to be a market where i can find them. I and those I care about may not study at most universities and colleges or read the papers that come from the scholars there, but the existence of a robust intellectual, research, and educational community benefits the culture in many indirect ways we never consider.

Is the same true of the arts? Does having a vibrant artistic community engaged in creating, performing, and making available artistic endeavors provide an indirect benefit for those who do not partake in them? If so, feel free to send in a contribution to WBJC.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Does Knowing How Imply Knowing?

I was talking to a colleague in another department yesterday when someone asked him for the code to the departmental photocopier. He said that he didn't know it, but then went over and entered it. When the person said he would really like the code himself, my colleague slowly tapped out the code and recreated the string of numerals. Years ago, my colleague was told the code and no doubt had it memorized at some point. But now, all that is used is the muscle memory. He knows that he can recreate the code at anytime, if need be, but that it takes a particular sort of effort to do so. So, before he reminds himself of the numerical string, given that he can use it but not transmit it, can it be said that he knows the copier code?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Don't Ask, Do Tell

With the repeal of DADT, it seems worth considering whether it was successful or not. Clearly, it was completely incoherent. We will maintain a rule, just create a new policy for implementing it that is entirely contrary to its spirit. But, like the electoral college, it was not a principled approach to anything. It was meant as a middle ground that would make no one happy. The discontent, I've always thought, was clearly intentional. It was a half-step to an end that was not politically feasible at the time. It was a phased retirement of the discriminatory policy.

In that sense, it seems to have been rather successful. Was it fair to gays and lesbians in uniform? Of course not. But notice the lack of howling and protests today. No one is screaming that the military ceased to be prepared or effective at midnight. DADT was meant to get us here without giving conservatives a powerful political wedge for their base. Once something is seen not to be the scary bogie man that someone makes, it becomes normalized and opposition is no longer protection of the status quo, but an attack upon it. What DADT was meant to do was to create a shift in mind from "there are no gays and lesbians in the military" and therefore allowing it would change the military, to a different set of facts on the ground -- "of course there are gays and lesbians in the military" why do want to mess with the way things are? DADT created a new normal and no ethical argument will ever approach the power of normal.

In that sense, I'm glad it's gone, but it did seem to do what it was meant to do.

Monday, September 19, 2011

What's the Difference?: Parody, Spoof, and Satire

As I continue work on my paper for the Lighthearted Philosophers' Society, I've come to the section on spoofs. For stylistic reasons, I'm tempted to use the terms parody, spoof, and satire as roughly synonymous, but am deeply uncomfortable about it. Are there differences between them?

Sunday, September 18, 2011


My Fellow Comedists,

As I continue to work on my paper for the upcoming meeting of the Lighthearted Philosophers Society, the topic of limericks has come up. In working on an account for what makes limericks funny, I took out of the library G. Legman's work, The New Limerick, which collects almost 3000 limericks from various times and places, the overwhelming majority of which I cannot reproduce here. Using the most vulgar of terms to describe the most vulgar of subjects, they make the man from Nantucket seem tame. The least salty of the volume would be a British rowing limerick:

A reckless young sculler named Box
Forced the Oxford Eight onto the rocks.
The crew shouted, "Bollocks,"
You've ripped off our rowlocks,
And horribly damaged our cox.

Why are limericks a preferred formed for ribald humor? Historically, it is a British form and being able to blame the Irish as an excuse to be unBritish was quite convenient. But what is it about the meter that so encourages coarser thoughts to be so well expressed?

Have any favorite limericks?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, September 16, 2011

WikiFace Numbers

Actors have Bacon numbers, the number of steps you need to trace through fellow cast members until you get to Kevin Bacon. Kevin Bacon himself has a Bacon number of 0. Anyone who has been in a film with him has a number of 1. Anyone in a film with anyone who has a Bacon number of 1, has a Bacon number of 2. And so on.

Mathematicians have Erdos numbers, similarly, the number of co-authors you need to trace through until you get to Paul Erdos. The American Mathematical Society has anErdos calculator. It is a lot of fun to play with, although it is not entirely accurate (it gives me an Erdos number of 6 when, I will have you know, it is, in fact, 4, thank you very much).

But these measures are restricted to actors and mathematicians or intellectually promiscuous philosophers who like to write with mathematicians. There should be a similar concept that is more broadly applicable that traces the interconnectedness of us all to those whom we celebrate as being of particular cultural significance.

Our means of denoting that an individual is someone of note in our society is that he or she has a Wikipedia page dedicated to him or her. The standard of social connectedness is the "Facebook friend" relation. Hence, the expanded notion of the Bacon number, the Erdos number, or even the Bacon/Erdos number (the sum of the two), would be the WikiFace number. If you have a Wikipedia page dedicated to you, your WikiFace number is 0. If you are Facebook friends with someone who has a Wikipedia page dedicated to him/her, your WikiFace number is 1. And so on...

The questions then are (1) what is your WikiFace number? and more interestingly, (2) what do you think is the mean WikiFace number? What is the number such that if we selected a person at random, the odds would be 50/50 that s/he would be above or below the number? How connected are we to those to whom we afford special cultural status?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

What's the Difference?: Tan, Beige, and Khaki

A claim was made by a Playground regular just now that for a certain demographic, there is no difference between tan, beige, and khaki. Is there a difference? If so, what is it?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Torture, Health Care, and the Post-9/11 Corruption of the Cultural Soul

By now, many people have seen the audience members at the tea party sponsored Republican presidential candidates' debate cheering the hypothetical unnecessary death of a sick American without health insurance.Coming on the heels of the 9/11 remembrance, it made me think. And then I heard an interview with Ali Soufan, an investigator with the FBI who interrogated major figures in the aftermath of 9/11. He and his partner (a naval intelligence officer) took a traditional approach to interrogation and were responsible for determining, for example, the names of the 9/11 hijackers among other key bits of information that were crucial to national security, information that stopped flowing the minute the CIA stepped in and used torture. Waiting until the requisite documents were declassified, he recounts how torture fed us false information and how long-standing tried and true techniques succeeded until the pro-torture crowd forced them out.

It is not news to anyone who takes the torture question seriously that these techniques are ineffective. Torture is great for putting words in people's mouths, to get them to falsely swear to something they know is false. It is ineffective at getting true information out. But these are the short term effects, what of the long term? What does torture do to the culture that rationalizes its use?

I'm not claiming a direct A caused B connection between waterboarding and the response of the tea party audience, but at the same time surely the moral degradation of the culture from allowing us to consider evil to be justified would not make such hateful callousness unexpected. When you allow false arguments of expedience to overrun basic decency in a society, there will be reverberations. Yes, the dehumanizing of others -- especially the poor -- has a long history in America and accelerated under Reagan who gave it cultural legitimacy. But in the post-9/11 Bush era this dehumanizing ramped up to frightening heights in the rhetoric of commentators like Ann Coulter and politicians. It has gone one step farther with the tea party crowd. Consider the following passage from a story about Rick Perry:

Veterans of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s unsuccessful 2010 primary challenge to Perry recalled being stunned at the way attacks bounced off the governor in a strongly conservative state gripped by tea party fever. Multiple former Hutchison advisers recalled asking a focus group about the charge that Perry may have presided over the execution of an innocent man — Cameron Todd Willingham — and got this response from a primary voter: “It takes balls to execute an innocent man."
"It takes balls to execute an innocent man." If the person is innocent, that's not executing, that's murdering -- something that is supposedly so heinous that this person supports the death penalty to try to deter it. But the likely innocent victim here is incapable of being murdered because he has ceased in the eyes of this conservative to be a human being.

We just had the ten year anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11, but the question is what is it that is seen as the tragedy? Is it the unnecessary death? If so, Republicans would not object to plans that make sure that those affected are now assured health care to cope with the results so that more people don't unnecessarily die. Or is it something else other than the death? Is it the audacity of the insult? How dare you not fear us and thing you can take a swing? Is it a bruise to the country's masculine ego from the disrespect we were shown? Widows and grieving families, that's bleeding heart stuff, they insulted us and for that we need to beat the crap out of them and torture is just one way that we prove how manly we are to the rest of the world. It is not about information that saves lives -- the pro-life crowd is really not that interested in saving lives -- it's about making sure we regain our swagger.

And the price of this swagger is the health of our cultural soul. The ease with which others -- those from other countries, those who come to this country, those who hold different political views, or even those who have the misfortune to be without health insurance because they are unemployed in a terrible economy -- are stripped of their humanity is a deeply, deeply worrisome result. It is something that can lead somewhere truly awful. We can sweep it under the rug by claiming that it is just a few on the fringe, but the fact is that this fringe has tremendous influence and this influence normalizes that which is abnormal. We are in a scary place and these canaries in our cultural coalmine should be heeded lest things turn uglier.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Happy Birthday, Bill Monroe

Today would be Bill Monroe's 100th birthday. Looking back on the legacy of the man who gave us bluegrass, it makes you wonder how much things have changed in that century. Could there be another Bill Monroe, that is, could there be another person who creates a new and lasting genre of music in the same way? Twenty years ago, one might have said that corporate control of and consolidation in the music industry would leave little fertiel soil for anything experimental enough. But then one could look at hip hop as a similar creation, if not ex nihilo, at least differentiable into its own category from what had come before. Does the current landscape leave room for future Bill Monroes whose talent and dedication to something new can put a novel locale on the popular musical landscape?

Happy birthday, Bill Monroe.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Meaning of 9/11

Long-time Playground regulars may recall my thesis that while the term holiday derives from the phrase "holy day," and with each holiday comes an accompanying virtue we claim to be honoring, the way we actually celebrate our holidays is by engaging in vice. and not just any vice, but the big ones, the seven deadly sins. Valentine's Day is not about love, it's about lust. Thanksgiving is not really a time for gratitude, but gluttony. Christmas hardly a time for goodwill, but rather greed.

And so, we come to our newest national holiday, September 11th. Is there any chance to keep this occasion from falling prey to the same treatment and allowing it to cater to our baser selves and representing greed and vengeance? What could be done to reclaim it for our better selves?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Funny Songs: The Elements and I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General

My Fellow Comedists,

This week I begin work on a new theological tract. Yes, the annual meeting of the Lighthearted Philosophers' Society is almost upon us and my paper needs writing. I am looking at particular mechanisms for non-joke-based humorous utterances and that includes funny songs. I have particular interest in two. One is Tom Lehrer's "The Elements": A funny song. What makes it funny? On the one hand is the incongruity of the subject. The periodic table is an odd subject for a song. But even after the initial "how strange" wears off, it remains funny. Part is the speed. Fast is funny. But part is the skill of Lehrer at creating such intricate and tight rhymes.

Now consider Gilbert and Sullivan's "I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" (make sure you watch through until the Major General sings): Also a funny song, indeed musically the same funny song. Again, the speed and the mentions of unusual fodder for song like quadratic equations are in play. No doubt it would be even funnier to those of the time who would have found the social satire angle more apt.

But having seen that Lehrer's version plays off of Gilbert and Sullivan, does it make it more funny, less funny, or is irrelevant? Certainly, Weird Al Yankovic's spoofs are enhanced by knowing what he is spoofing. Is the same true here given that it is not a spoof in the same sort of way? It makes it more clever -- that he could take music pre-written and adapt it for such an intricate task. But does it make it funnier in the way that a good impersonation is funny? Would that be needed information before you saw it the first time, so that Lehrer's never is the canonical version in your mind?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, September 09, 2011

What's the Difference?: Athletics, Sports, and Games

What is the difference between games, sports, and athletics? While surely not all games are sports, can we say that all sports are games? Not all athletic activities sports, but are all sports athletic activities? What about competitive ballroom dancing? It is a competition and physical, but is it a sport? Is it a game? Are the dancers athletes? How about body building? Is it a sport? A game? If so, would that make beauty pageants sports? Surely, the contestants train for it in similar ways. There is strategy involved. But it doesn't seem like we should call the contestants athletes, or should we?

Thursday, September 08, 2011

The Ambiguity of Acting

Got a good one from my logic class yesterday. The word "act" is ambiguous, even as a verb. One can act on a stage -- that is represent a character distinct from the actor -- and one can simply do what one does, as in "act your age." Take the first meaning, the dramatic sense of act in which one portrays someone else. Now, if we consider a situation in which one presents a face different from what one's natural inclination would be, say, if you try to hide your fear while giving a class presentation or if you gratefully thank someone for a gift you really dislike, is that sense of acting brave and acting thankful the same or a different sense of the word "act" from what someone does on the stage?

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Procedural Justice and Fan Interference

One notion of justice is what philosophers call "procedural justice," that is, justice is playing according to the rules. On this view, process is the key to a just result. Everyone agrees to to the rules beforehand and it is the objective application of those rules that thereby defines a just act.

In a game the other night between the Phillies and Marlins, we found a case study that lets us examine intuitions about this approach. With a runner on second base, Philadelphia's Hunter Pence hit a long drive to right field. The Marlin's right fielder went to make a play on the ball and it bounced away allowing Pence to get to second base. The right fielder and bullpen pitchers all claimed it was fan interference. The Marlin's manager came out to protest and the umpires used video replay to review the play. The video showed clear fan interference and Pence was called out and Ryan Howard, the base runner was returned to second base.

It WAS clearly fan interference -- the Philly fans in Florida do reach over onto the field of play and make contact with the glove of the outfielder and the ball. The ball would most likely have been caught in a spectacular play. BUT the rules say that instant replay is only to be consulted in cases where the issue is whether a hit should rightly be considered a home run. If that is the case, then questions of fan interference would be on the table. But this was a double, not a home run, so the rule would not apply and the video evidence would not have been called for. BUT it did allow for the correct call to be made.

So, was the calling out of Pence a just decision or not?

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Bob Denver and the Cultural Caricature of the Counter-Culture

Last week was the anniversary of Bob Denver's death. Best known for his role as Gilligan, perhaps the more influential role was the one that really put him on the cultural map, Maynard G. Krebs in "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis." Maynard G. Krebs, a beatnik, was one of the first counter-culture characters to appear in mainstream entertainment. He was lazy, sloppy, and daft, but gentle and harmless. The character filled the slot of the dizzy blonde and created template for the way that the counter-culture would be henceforth portrayed. From Maynard G. Krebs you get a straight line through George Carlin's Al Sleet the hippy-dippy weatherman (with all the hippy-dippy weather, man), to Cheech and Chong, to Reverend Jim, to Dharma Finklestein. Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg were able to play off the archetype and add a hint of the Shakespearean wise jester, but not far beneath was Maynard G. Krebs. On the one hand, the picture is kind in that these characters always have a good heart and the best of intentions. At the same time, while the character wants the world to be a better place, s/he is too idealistic and naive to be taken seriously. They present no real reason to question the status quo, but in their ignorance, show that it is essential that things be as they are. The counter-culture is caricatured as being made up of folks who are harmless as long as they remain marginalized, which because of their lack of sense, need to be.

This is precisely how we saw the millions of anti-war protesters treated by CNN and the networks ten years ago. If ten tea-partiers get together, that's big news of a growing social movement; but if the streets of every major metropolitan area across the globe are filled with those who are advocating for peace, then they need to just be patted on the head and ignored. Anyone who questions the structure becomes seen as Maynard G. Krebs. Just as news has become entertainment, the narratives that the news creates to make sense of events derive from entertainment. Bob Denver may be gone, but we are all Maynard G. Krebs now.

Saturday, September 03, 2011


My Fellow Comedists,

Today the less short of the short people asked "What is an oxymoron"? Not wanting to use "jumbo shrimp" or "military intelligence," I came up with "vegetarian meatballs." I'd have said "happily married," but TheWife would have slapped me. Other than "working philosopher," what are your favorite oxymorons?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, September 02, 2011

Creating an Interesting Classroom Environment

I'm talking to new faculty about ways to make their classroom environment one in which students want to learn. Any advice? What is it that you as a student appreciated in a classroom? How did your best teachers create a feeling of interest in you?

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Most Influential Work in Intellectual History

I found myself making the claim the other day that Euclid's Elements was the most influential work in intellectual history. It provided the deductive basis for mathematics that remains today. It is the first great example of a structured axiomatic theory which is the basis for most of the natural sciences. It inspired philosophers to see the world as ordered and capable of a certain sort of reasoned explanation. Its clean proofs and intricate theorems have inspired thinkers for centuries.

Am I right? What other books rival the influence of The Elements? What would you argue is the most influential work in intellectual history?