Friday, September 14, 2012

The Playground Is Closed

This is my 2,000th and final post at the Philosophers' Playground.  It's been six and a half years of almost daily entertainment posing questions and provocative theses for you folks to bat around. 

It was during a sabbatical when my former colleague who went by the blog name Aspazia convinced me to give the whole blog thing a go.  It was still a new hot edgy thing in those pre-Facebook years. The sense was still there that blogs could be a place where voices could make themselves heard without corporate support.  It was the heart of the post-9/11 George W. Bush years and politics were intense.  I was working on a popular book on ethical reasoning to be called Was It Morally Good For You, Too: A How-To Guide to Ethics in Sex, Politics, and Other Dirty Words and thought that this might be a good way to test-drive some sections of the manuscript, a good way to find some clever language, and maybe gain a sense of what was interesting and engaging for non-academic readers.  That work never found a publisher, but more than a half decade later, the blog persisted.

I have loved the way it took people from every facet and period of my life and brought them together in one continuous dinner party where I never had to wash a single dish.  I also love that I met so many new folks who happened across the Playground from another blog and came to make it a regular hangout.  Over the years we have had many, many friends stop through, most constructive in their time with us, some not so much.  But no matter how passionate this community got over issues, the discourse was almost always respectful.  Ad hominem attacks were shut down without my having to be a police officer for the place.  It had a playful spirit, but a mature sensibility.

It has been a challenge to keep it fresh and lively, but it was really a joy for me to be a part of this open group.  Thank you all for your energy, your presence, and your time whether you were a regular in the comments, wrote guest posts, or just lurked.  It has been a lot of fun, good times filled with camaraderie -- everything you want a playground to be.

Thanks again everyone.


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Famous Last Words

What are the greatest last words in history?  My favorites are Hegel who just before dying said, "Only one person ever understood me...and he got it wrong." and Pope Alexander VI who, just before dying said, "Wait a minute..." 

Other great parting words?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Greatest Movie Endings

What is the greatest last line/scene of a film?  For my money, the best ever will always be Casablanca.The runner-up, Life of Brian.  Monty Python was notorious for not being able to end sketches, but this ending is nothing short of classic.Other great endings?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Bullshit or Not: Beatles Edition

There's an old sketch film called "Amazon Women on the Moon" which contained a spoof of Leonard Nemoy's old program "In Search Of" that had the tagline, "Bullshit or not, you decide." We use it as a basis for an occasional series of posts where we consider a passage or quotation from someone notable.  Today, let's consider the final lyrics of the last song recorded together by the Beatles, "The End":

"And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make." 
Romanticized poppycock or legitimately true?  Bullshit or not?  You decide.  As usual, responses may range from a single word to a dissertation.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Ending Strasburg

The Washington Nationals have a good shot at playing some serious post-season baseball.  A team that has spent several years rebuilding itself, now has a chance to make a run at the World Series.  And just as this happens, they shut down one of, if not their absolutely best pitcher, Stephen Strasburg.  Strasburg had surgery last year and before the season began -- when no one thought the Nats would be in such a strong position -- the management announced it would have their fireballer on a strict inning count for the year.  He has reached it and they have removed him from the mound.  But in doing so, they have harmed their chances to take the championship.

It makes sense why they did it.  It is long-term thinking.  If we push his arm too hard this close to surgery, it could take years off of his career and they want him to be strong, healthy, and productive as long as possible.  But is it sporting?  If there is a requirement that one always try one's best to win, is there a problem with this move (admittedly one that may be trumped by the larger moral concern, but is it even there)?

On the one hand, the argument can be made that it is a move designed with competitiveness in mind.  Just as starting catchers are given regular days off and less capable back-ups given games to save the catchers for the length of the season, we are seeing the same sort of calculation over several seasons and not just one.

But, on the other hand, isn't competitiveness limited to only the season at hand?  You only play one season at a time and the injunction to be maximally competitive is limited to a single year's play.  If a football team has been doing poorly in the first half of the year and starts intentionally losing games in order to secure a better draft pick to get a superior player to improve next year's team, there is a big problem.  You have to play to win, even if winning would be a disadvantage later on -- think Olympic badminton.  Couldn't the move to shut down Strasburg seen as an example of this?

If we take trying your best to win to be a duty of professional athletic organizations, is the shutting down of Stephen Strasburg a violation of the ethos of sport?

Friday, September 07, 2012

Modern Mencken

Tomorrow is Mencken day at the Enoch Pratt Library, honoring one of the great intellects of Baltimore.  Who would be the modern day version of H.L. Mencken?  Is there a writer who is smart, ascerbic, conservative, and wry?  P.J. O'Rourke?  Too flat.  Jonah Goldberg?  Not smart or clever enough.  Ann Coulter?  Too...well, Ann Coulter.  Who would be the contemporary version of Mencken?

Thursday, September 06, 2012

The Party of Hard Work and Personal Responsibility: An Athropologist from Mars Looks at the Election

Sometimes it's good to step back and take a broad look at things and see if they make sense. O.k, so let me see if I understand what is happening here with the Presidential campaign.

Take the two presidential candidates and the last two Presidents. The Republicans gave us Mitt Romney and George W. Bush, both of whom were born into families of immense wealth and political power -- one having a father who was a Congressman and then President and the other a Governor and then candidate for President. Both were launched into business with the contacts and money from their "it's who you know" families and went on to parlay these insider connections into large fortunes.

The Democrats gave us Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, the children of divorced mothers of moderate means who worked their butts off to get scholarships through hard work and merit -- in Clinton's case a Rhodes and in Obama's case to the Ivy League Columbia University.

The Republicans, after making lots of money in the private sector, entered public service with an eye towards giving large tax cuts to the very wealthy, thereby giving themselves and other rich people more money despite doing no more work for it. Take those who already got a head start they in no way earned and give them even more of an advantage. The Democrats entered public life with the mission to give those who have been left behind an opportunity they otherwise wouldn't have to work their way up the social ladder in the same way they did -- through grit and determination -- a chance they would not have with the leveling of the playing field that is stacked against them through no error of their own.

With all of this being the case, the privileged Republican candidates tell us that they are representatives of the party of hard work and personal responsibility where the Democrats represent the party of laziness and entitlement.

Why do I expect to see George Orwell pop out from around a corner with a smug look on his face saying "I told you so"?

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Why Not? to Huh?

I am a lifelong fan of the Baltimore Orioles. This is a fact that has been the source of pain and frustration for many years. Usually, a team's fortunes go in cycles. You have a playoff level team full of quality players to which the organization commits during their heyday and then they get old or seek bigger contracts elsewhere, leaving the team in a less competitive place.T he team enters a rebuilding phase where it nurtures the next generation and in a few seasons' time returns to playoff form.  But this is not how the Orioles have proceeded, languishing in last place year after year since the last set of glory days in the early 1980s.

In 1988, the Orioles started the year by losing 21 games in a row and ended up losing 107 of 162 games coming in last.  They were awful.  It would be a rebuilding process that would take the team a few years to remake itself, everyone figured.  And then in 1989, the unthinkable happened, they started winning and then kept winning occupying first place and leading the jubilant city to ask "Why not?"  It was a magical year and the crowds responded with great fervor.  Memorial Stadium rocked as the Birds won and won and won.

This year is similar in some respects.  The Orioles are coming off of over a dozen straight years in which they have lost more games than they've won.  The playoffs haven't even been a daydream.  "Maybe this will be the year they come in second to last," we thought hopefully.  But then, something strange happened...again, the Orioles started winning and today they are in a tie with Satan himself (also known as the New York Yankees) for first place in the American League's eastern division...and it is September.  We are just weeks away from the post season and it seems likely that the Orioles will be there.

After so many years of futility, you would think that there would be this incredible pent up energy that would be exploding in support of the team.  In the past few years, Red Sox and Yankee fans have outnumbered us in our own stadium when their team came to town.  But now, the pride should be back.  There should be huge numbers of hyped up fans, excited for something they haven't seen in so long that fans who can drive themselves to the stadium have only heard from older generations -- playoff baseball in Baltimore.  Camden Yards should be absolutely electric.

But it isn't.  We've gone to a number of games this season with the short people and the place is as dead as usual.  Lots of empty seats, no raucous cheering, a very sedate place despite the success.  I'll be honest, for most of the season, I, like many others, would not let myself get excited.  The minute I started believing, I knew the downturn would come and they would revert to their old losing ways and break my heart and crush my spirit yet again.  But it hasn't happened.  They just keep winning.

And yet, while I see lots of jubilant posts on Facebook from my fellow Baltimorons, it isn't there in the Park.  As we asked in 1989 -- why not?  Is the energy not pent up?  Has it been so long that we don't trust it?  Is it that the fan base has been lost with another team in the neighborhood -- the Nationals with their young stars -- and with a perennially competitive football team next door in the Ravens?  Is it that there isn't star power on the Orioles -- no Cal or Eddie or Frank or Brooks to idolize as the personification of the greatness of the team?  We love rags to riches stories in this culture and we have a real life example here.  Why is this not another why not? 

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Outsiders and Double Vision

Today would be Richard Wright's 104th birthday. Here is a passage from The Outsider that ties in directly with the claim I make about Einstein.

Negroes, as they enter our culture, are going to inherit the problems we have, but with a difference. They are outsiders and they are going to know that they have these problems. They are going to be self-conscious; they are going to be gifted with a double vision, for, being Negroes, they are going to be both inside and outside of our culture at the same time. Every emotional and cultural convulsion that ever shook the heart and soul of Western man will shake them. Negroes will develop unique and specially defined psychological types. They will become psychological men, like the Jews . . . They will not only be Americans or Negroes; they will be centers of knowing, so to speak . . . The political, social, and psychological consequences of this will be enormous.
Is he correct? Do outsiders necessarily become psychological types?

Monday, September 03, 2012

Work and Thought

Today is Labor Day, so I'm thinking about work. But I am also thinking about Ed Johnson, a Gettysburg College alum who just passed away. Ed was a wonderful person for so many reasons, but one of the things I admired so much about him was his commitment to the value of ideas. He ran an insurance company and would occasionally have days where the firm took a break from business and gathered for discussions about great books. He would bring people out from the college to help facilitate conversation and in small groups, the employees would spend the day discussing the perennial questions of meaning, ethics, and being. It is sadly a peculiar view that work is a place for personal and only professional growth, that a better environment is created when room is made for thoughtfulness and the usual hierarchical arrangements are forsaken. It is wonderful to have gyms and yoga classes, on-site childcare and other conveniences as part of the workplace, but what Ed did was wholly other. He created a place where work was done by those who could engage each other at deeper levels. Ethics is not just a code that you better follow at risk of termination, but something living and humane, something that the company in each others company thought about honestly and openly. We live in a world that separates ideas from work, an assembly line mentality where efficiency demands people be made into cogs. Humanizing work has the effect of humanizing workers. Maybe that is why so many don't do it, but why it was so wonderful of Ed Johnson that he did.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Wealth, Hard Work, and Virtue

Listening to Mitt Romney's speech from last night, a constant strain in conservative rhetoric really stood out, the conflation of wealth, success, and virtue. The idea is that if you have a lot of money, it means that you worked harder than those who did not and thereby you deserve it because you have chosen to make yourself a better person than those others. Part of the move assuages the conscience of those who do not want to help the less fortunate -- they are that way not because of larger social forces that can be changed, but because they are inferior human beings who need to learn their lesson. Part of the move is to make one feel better about oneself. You have something others don't, it isn't because of larger social forces that you were given this fortunate accident, it is because of your hard work and proper decisions. If you have it, you deserve it, after all if you didn't deserve it you wouldn't have it -- after all you built it.

This line of reasoning has always rubbed me the wrong way because I find myself much less sympathetic towards the wealthy than others, probably for biographical reasons. I grew up surrounded by rich people. Some of them are among the people I most admire in the world -- good, caring folks who are smart and work incredibly hard, people to whom I would trust my life. But others, many others, a whole lot of others, were lazy, stupid, arrogant jerks whose money insulated them from the real world, the actual suffering in it, any sense of empathetic connectedness to others, and any sense of responsibility for making the world a better place for anyone other than themselves. These obnoxious and nasty people knew that they would maintain their status, they would need only to be who they are and do what was expected of them to maintain their undeserved privileged place. They knew they would be -- and I have no doubt that they are now -- rich. This expectation leads to a sense of entitlement. They have always had it, so they should always have it because that is just the way things are. It means that the rules that apply to the rest of us, don't apply to them. It is their birthright to get what they want when they want it.

This, of course, is the opposite of virtue. The worldview of many wealthy folks is not that of a healthy adult who will leave the world a better place than they found it and create themselves in a fashion that actualized their potential for a well-lived life.

There are lots of hard working people who are not rich. There are a lot of hard working people who are not good. There are a lot of rich people who do not work hard. There are a lot of good people who are not rich. And believe it or not, there are a lot of good people who do not work hard. The three are completely independent of each other. I know it politically expedient to conflate these ideas, but they really have nothing to do with each other.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Is Language a Technology?

Came across this sentence in Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: "Language itself is not a technology." his argument is that because it is "native to our species" that it is not an artifact and anything that is not an artifact cannot be a technology. Is this correct?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What's the Difference: Eat, Dine, and Sup

A little food for thought today with another edition of "What's the Difference?" What is the difference between eat, dine, and sup?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Admitting and Guilt

I've been interested in the claim widely made during the last week that by failing to fight the doping allegations against him, Lance Armstrong is implicitly admitting to cheating. There are two questions that are raised here. The first is whether you can implicitly admit something. Admitting is what philosophers of language call a speech act -- it is something you do by saying something. We often distinguish between saying and doing. We say things like "walk it like you talk it" or "actions speak louder than words." These cliches imply that there is a difference here. But there are some cases in which saying is doing. If you promise something or enter into a bet, it is the saying that is the doing. Marrying someone is another example -- recall the scene in The Princess Bride, "If you didn't say it, you didn't do it." Admitting something seems to be such an act, to admit to doing something seems to require a positive act, saying words like "I did it." Is the lack of a vigorous defense logically equivalent to such a statement? It does seem that we can make some sort of inference. Knowing how the person generally reacts to similar charges -- which is the case with Armstrong, a change in behavior is an interesting fact of the world and it does seem a legitimate basis for wondering why things are different this time. But it is weaker evidence than the explicit statement. And it is this notion of evidence that gives us our second question. Can you admit to something everyone already knows you've done? Peter Achinstein argues that proof of x is not evidence of x. He contends that evidence is an inductive notion that is connected with good reason to believe. Proof is something deductive and stronger. If you have proof, you don't need evidence. Similarly, an admission is evidence. It is someone making a statement that is designed to be very strong evidence that the person did indeed do it. It is not proof, since the admission could be false or coerced, but it is strong reason to believe the person did in fact do it. But suppose we already have extremely strong reason or even proof that he did. If we already have a rational belief in the person's guilt, then is there room for the admission to do what admissions are supposed to do? Is there a point to admitting to having done what we already know you did?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Has Digital Photography Removed the Art?

A local paper is doing a piece on Einstein's Jewish Science and they sent a photographer to my office yesterday. Nice guy, I'm sure he's good at what he does. Put me in a few places in different settings and poses and laid on the shutter taking what seemed like thousands of pictures. TheWife was a photojournalist back in the days of film (look it up on Wikipedia kids if you don't know what film is) and thinks of folks like that as hacks. The art of photography, she argues, is in setting up and getting the shot. Timing is part of the art. This guy is using an automatic weapon in a skeet shooting contest. There's no skill, just luck. The art of being a photographer has been removed from photography, she claims. There is no doubt that photoshop and such have allowed photography to grow in ways that were inconceivable when you had to develop in darkrooms, but has the growth from the back end removed the artistry on the front end? Is photography still the same art form? Is it a different art form? Has it ceased to be an art form because of the technological changes?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Pit Bulls and Landlords

Maryland has declared pit bulls to be inherently dangerous and places liability for damages from pit bull attacks not only on the dogs' owners, but also on landlords. It is this last claim that I find interesting. Set aside the question of pit bull as a natural kind term (whether there is a well-defined type of dog picked out by the term "pit bull") and set aside whether there is, in fact, an inherent danger posed by all members of the group if well-defined. For the sake of argument, let's grant these points. Surely, the owner should be responsible. But why the landlord? On the one hand, it is the responsibility of the landlord to maintain a safe space in public areas that s/he owns. If pit bulls are inherently dangerous, then allowing them in their properties is creating a public hazard and for that we should hold the landlord responsible for any mishaps that could have been foreseen and prevented. On the other hand, it is not the possession of the landlord, but of the tenant that is at fault. If the landlord does not choose to own the dog, why should s/he be held responsible for the ramifications of something that s/he does not possess? If a tenant's child attacks someone, we would not hold the landlord responsible, even if there was reason to consider the child an inherent threat. Is there really a difference here? So, should landlords be party to this responsibility?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

RIP Phyllis Diller

We lost a giant yesterday. Phyllis Diller passed away at 95. She was the Moms Mabley of the post-Borsht Belt set. Where the standard role for women in comedy was the blonde ditsy wife, Phyllis Diller didn't need a male partner to play off of. She was so big a presence that she didn't need anything. The wig, the outfits, the gravelly voice, all of it part of a comic who was always in control and always seeming to have a good time. Her jokes were self-deprecating, but unlike Woody Allen or Richard Lewis, she was always the first person to laugh at them. There was a cheerful, devil may care attitude to her stand-up that was trademark. She consciously played away from type, mocking fashion and everything a woman in the 50s and 60s was supposed to be. But the rejection was not one of bitterness and anger, just straight up don't give a damn. She was her own person at a time when women weren't supposed to be. What Sid Caesar did to lampoon the post-World War II suburban man, Diller did for the women of that time being very, very funny illustrating her own failures as a housewife, but shedding light on the failures of life for the mid-20th century housewife in general. Betty Friedan may have spoken to the intellectual set, but Phyllis Diller said it better for everyone else.Rest in peace, Phyllis Diller and thank you for all the laughs.

Monday, August 20, 2012

A Reprise for Ryan and Rand

With all the talk about Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand over the last week, it seems a good time to repost this -- the post that has received more comments than any other post ever at the Playground.

Last week's Chronicle of Higher Ed featured a trio of articles on followers of Ayn Rand. In one of them, an organization fronted by the bank BB&T's CEO is bribing philosophy departments with large barrels of cash if they will add a position for a pro-Rand member. It has set me to thinking.

You see, when you get on an airplane for a cross-country flight as a philosopher, you would much rather be seated next to the person who suffers from intense airsickness the entire way than the white guy who turns and says, "Oh, I'm kind of a philosopher, too. I LOVE Ayn Rand." Turns out that those little headphones they sell to listen to the in-flight movie are insufficient to strangle such an individual and the airline magazines do not produce papercuts deep enough to slice your wrists.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. If you take the writings of Nietzsche and remove everything insightful, interesting, and funny, what's left are the writings of Ayn Rand. These works are a narcotic to the upper-middle class white male of above average means and intelligence because it simultaneously meets two needs:

(1) Ego-stroking

Your comfortable place in society is a result of your being a more fit human who is the model of what the species should look like. You can sublimate the insecurity you feel about whether you will remain in your little bubble of contentment because the mere fact that you are there now is (unfalsifiable and tautological) proof that you are a superior human specimen who is realizing the excellence that the rest could achieve if they were not dragged down by those inferior welfare cases. You are where others want to be because you are who they strive to be...even if you can't get laid.

(2) Rationalization for Not Being an Empathetic Individual

Not caring about the less-fortunate when you have so much more than you need might be thought to be morally problematic. Those gosh darn bleeding hearts are always prattling on about how we should consider the needy and help those who are less fortunate. But I don't want to. Yet, holding my hands over my ears and loudly proclaiming, "LALALALALALALA," somehow seems insufficiently intellectual. I don't just want "I can't hear you," I need "I shouldn't hear you." But if I mix two parts social Darwinism with one part attacks on strawmen of Communism, I have the solution. I'm left with the idea that caring about others is actually going to harm others. If only I think about nothing but myself, I'm doing the best for everyone else because the rest will become better. My selfishness is the tide that raises all boats, so it would be immoral of me to be moral. Hence, I can relax and be a jerk who never helps anyone because only jerks never help anyone truly help anyone.

But while this may be a psychological explanation for the appeal, there is still the central doctrine itself which stands apart from its proponents. The view contends that human society ought to be oriented in such a way as to maximize the production of great individuals and that concern for all only causes, in a zero-sum game, the weak to be elevated at the expense of the great, an effect that evolutionarily has disastrous consequences for the species as a whole. The pivot of this view, of course, is this notion of great individuals of human excellence.

The notion is reminiscent of Aristotle who held that within each member of a species is a potentiality, the ultimate figure of that species, and through its lifespan each individual is acting to actualize that potential. The great ones are those who come closest to full actualization, who come closest to becoming the embodiment of the perfect being. Excellence, the line goes, is a mark of attaining a higher level of human perfection and the more people we have of higher levels of perfection, the more they will serve as models for even higher perfection to follow.

But the fly in the ointment here is whether it actually is true that excellent people are, in fact, better people. Let me put forward the possibility that those who achieve excellence are the last ones we would want to serve as models of lives well-lived.

Let me posit that humans are multi-faceted and that all people will have a range of projects and relationships. We are all being pulled in many directions at the same time. Excellence in any of these areas requires focus that will necessarily detract from our excellence in other areas. There is example after example of great political leaders who are terrible parents, great athletes who are horrible spouses, great academics who are pathetic teachers, great figure skaters and tennis players who are sorry excuses for teenagers. Excellence, rising above the crowd, requires a mixture of talent and determination. The determination means that there will be other parts of life that fail to receive the attention they need to help the individual flourish. Excellence in one area seems to have deleterious effects in others, meaning that this naive picture of human excellence that the Randians hold is worrisome. Indeed, it seems not to be evolutionary at all, but rather harken back to the old religious pre-Darwinian notion of the Great Chain of Being. Could it be that these objectivists are much more religious than they let on?

This leads to the next question, which is where this single-minded drive to excel in an area of life comes from. What would lead you to neglect central parts of your life in the name of excellence? I wonder how much of this disregard on the part of those we consider truly great is actually the result of mental illness or at least extremely deep-seated insecurity. I remember an interview with Lance Alworth, the hall of fame wide receiver for the San Diego Chargers, who said that the thing that always drove him was a memory of his father advising him with the old chestnut, "No matter how good you are, there's always someone better." Apparently missing the point that the lesson to be learned from the aphorism is to always be humble, Alworth was so irritated by his father's insistence that he would never be the absolute best that he was constantly driven to make sure he was. At all times, it was of paramount importance to him that he prove his father wrong. Maybe it's me, but this seems more than a little pathological...and, I would contend, not particularly unusual. Those who are so driven often have something that is driving them.

To be more than good, but truly great requires sacrifice that would make most normal (and I would argue, rational) people say, "No, thank you." I posit that "love of the game," whether the game is football, academic scholarship, attaining political power, seeking social change, or whatever else one might engage in, will only get you to really good. To become great requires more and that more requires the willingness to step away from that which would make your life, writ large, well lived.

Am I glad that there are those who have made such irrational choices -- doctors who work all night and day to develop life-saving measures, civil rights activists who gave their bodies and lives in leading the charge for equality, artists who suffered to create great beauty? Yeah, I am. But while I am glad there are such people, I am also glad I am not one. Their works should be admired, but I am not sure they should be. Let me argue from a cliche...I'll assert as a premise, "jack of all trades, master of none," and conclude that the masters don't know jack.

If these Rand lovers want idols, they should not look at excellence, but at well-rounded competence. Of course, that would mean their heroes would not be heroic and so they couldn't set themselves up as superior, and that they would have to care about folks other than themselves since success in inter-personal relationships would become one measure of human achievement. But then, what do I know? I'm just a bleeding heart, mediocre philosopher who will never achieve greatness because he has too much fun playing around.

Friday, August 17, 2012

What's the Difference: Singer, Vocalist, and Song Stylist

Another edition of "What's the difference." What is the difference between a singer, a vocalist, and a song stylist?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Race and Ethnicity

I am reading a fascinating manuscript tracing the science and politics behind the concept of race. The typological approach to biology that gave us the notion of race was shown to be deeply flawed by genetics research that clearly demonstrated that if you pick any given heritable trait such as skin color, the genetic variability within the group is at least as great if not greater than genetic variability across groups so defined. The result in science (evolutionary biology and anthropology) was to move from a typological approach that created groups based on essential properties to a statistical approach in which you can talk about distributions of traits across populations, but you cannot reasonably speak of races as entities unto themselves. Anthropologist Theodosius Dobzhansky (aside from having one of the coolest names in the entire history of science) proposed that the term "race" be removed from scientific discourse and be replaced with ethic group or ethnicity. The notion of race, he argued, was contaminated with the sort of biological essentialism that would only feed racism and seem to provide it with a scientific foundation it does not have. Ethnicity implies belonging to a group that is defined in terms of culture and not genes and thus allows anthropologists to do what they do without the false biological connotations. Is there the distinction between race and ethnicity that Dobzhansky contends? Is there reason to keep the term race around? Does it have the effect of necessarily bringing racist categories to the conversation intentionally or unintentionally?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Superluminal Neutrinos and Observable Quantum Effects

Koukouji asks,

"Can apparent superluminal neutrino speeds be explained as a quantum weak measurement?"
This is, in fact, the title of a recent article by Berry, Brunner, Popescu, and Shukla and has the world's greatest abstract, two words -- Probably not.

Here's why it seemed like it might be:
"The idea, following analogous theory and experiment involving light in a birefringent optical fibre, is based on the fact that the vacuum is birefringent for neutrinos. We consider the initial choice of neutrino flavour as a preselected polarization state, together with a spatially localized initial wavepacket. Since a given flavour is a superposition of mass eigenstates, which travel at different speeds, the polarization state will change during propagation, evolving into a superposition of flavours. The detection procedure postselects a polarization state, and this distorts the wavepacket and can shift its centre of mass from that expected from the mean of the neutrino velocities corresponding to the different masses. This shift can be large enough to correspond to an apparent superluminal velocity (though not one that violates relativistic causality: it cannot be employed to send signals)."
The idea is that when you measure something, you are selecting a particular property state to measure, but if the system itself is in a superposed state which evolves into that particular property state, you are going to induce an error with the assumption that it maintained the property state throughout the time period. A promising explanatory candidate. But, they argue, that when you run the numbers, it doesn't work out.

Gwydion asks,
"Quantum entanglement in bird navigation: amazing, huh? Any other examples of macro-level effects of quantum mechanics?"
Well, radioactivity, I suppose, would be number one. Lasers in everything from our dvd players to supermarkets also rely on quantized energy for their extremely coherent light.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Fricking Fracking Fixtures

Two questions from Michael Schmidt.  First,

"Frack" a suitable substitute for the expletive "fuck," and "frickin'" (or "frikkin'") is a suitable substitute for the participle "fuckin'". Why, then, is "frick" rarely used as a substitute for "fuck" and "frackin'" hardly ever heard in place of "fuckin'"?
"Frack" is not merely a non-offensive version of the f-word, but historically was derived from the irregular German verb "fricken" which means to benefit (as with a friend).  It is conjugated:

ich frack             wir fricken
du fracksts          ihr fricket
er/sie/es frack     sie fricken
            Sie fricken

The "frack"/"frikken" distinction thus traces back to the first person singular/third person plural difference in the present tense of the etymologically prior formulation.  The past participle, of course, is "gefruckt" which coincidentally was Herman Goering's dying word.

Why are all the so-called "bathroom vanity light fixtures" offered for sale, both at the local home center and online, so frickin' ugly?
They are not only ugly but ugly in the same way -- bulbous and clunky.  Fashion trends in clothing change very quickly, architectural fashion not so much.  In the great McMansion build-up of the 1990s, mass produced status homes were pressed out of cookie cutters quickly and cheaply (in terms of quality, not price) and the standard builders grade fixtures became the standard image of what a bathroom would look like.  As such, it is what people expect and thus all we get to "choose" from.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Revisions and Performance

 Two questions from JB. First,

"Since your Einstein book was published, what would you go back and change/update?"
I would add a chapter concerned with the relation between politics in the 20s-30s, the history of anthropology, and eugenics.  There was a split between the genetics community and the eugenics community and the relation between the biologists, the anthropologists, and the policy makers seems a very interesting story that is connected to the one I told.  It seems an important part of the history to see how science influenced the politics of race and the politics of race influenced science in that context.  There is a short discussion of eugenics, embryology, and serology before and under the Nazis, but there is more to be said there.

 "Why do colleges allow performers of the fine arts variety to hold majors specifically devoted to performance, such as "Vocal Performance," but not have similar options for athletes? Is there something purely non-academic in sports? or is there something more there?"
There seems to be three similarities here between sport and art: (1) both sorts of performance are bodily and not mental.  Dancers, actors, and musicians use their bodies as the basis of their work, just as athletes do.  (2) While writing papers and solving problems are actions that we associate with disciplines in the academy, it is the product of the action and not the act itself that gets judged, whereas in sport and the arts, we judge the doing, not what has been done.(3) Sport and the arts are performed for audiences, they are acts in themselves, but they are also acts for the sake of viewers who are not necessarily themselves artists or athletes.  Based on these congruent elements, one might think that athletics therefore belongs in the curriculum and not beside it as co-curricular.

The distinction in part comes from our elevation of the mind above the body according to the classical dualism we inherited from the Greeks and the arts are thought to be both physical and mental whereas sport is merely physical.  The performance of music, dance, or drama requires developed intellectual capacities in addition to the physical whereas sport requires only the physical.  Of course, this is not true.  Strategy and rule-following in sport can be incredibly complex and can create beauty on different levels just as much as art -- I would contend that the extra-man offense that Dartmouth ran against us when I was a lacrosse player in college was a thing of beauty, and I do not mean that metaphorically. 

But the decisive difference, I believe, is that art points beyond itself where sport does not.  The purpose of sport is contained within the sport itself.  It posits an artificial goal that achieves nothing but itself (when you score a goal or a run or a touchdown, that is all you have done) and artificial rules to make the accomplishing of the goal more difficult for no reason other than to create a challenging game (why should you have to dribble the ball in basketball, no reason except that that is how the game is played).  Art, on the other hand, aims -- or at least can aim -- at more than itself.  The audience for an artistic performance can be engaged on issues of the day, timeless questions of beauty and justice, or have their central concepts challenged.  Sport occurs between the lines in an artificial world of its creation that is purely self-referring, but art creates an artificial world that can say something about the world beyond itself.  And for that reason, we privilege it in the academy above sport.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics: Any Question

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 09, 2012

What Is Classic Rock?

I was flipping around the radio channel and when I got to the classic rock station, they were playing some late 90s hair band and it immediately made me think "hey, that's not classic rock." But then I started thinking about the referent of that vague term. Oldies is fairly well-defined -- from doo-wop up to but not including the Beatles. After oldies is classic rock which then would be Beatles and Stones up to...?

It could be like "oldies" a definite transition. Punk and grunge were reactions to the corporatized nature of rock and roll that came out of the baby boom generation, so we could draw the line at anything released post-Sex Pistols. But a new album by Tom Petty, Van Morrison, or Bruce Springsteen still seems to be classic rock even though it is contemporary. We could say, anyone who started making music before the Pistols.

It could be a portable line like the way we determine when a car is an antique. Any rock older than 25 years is deemed classic. In this way, we constantly accumulate music in the category. The problem here seems to be that it would mean that there would be no identifiable essential properties that makes something classic rock. Would They Might Be Giants or XTC be classic rock? Would we then include punk? That doesn't seem right either.

So, what do we mean by classic rock and how do we determine what belongs in and what belongs out of the category?

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

The Edge of Identity

Today is the birthday of David Howell Evans, the guitarist of the band U2 better known simply as "The Edge." I've been thinking about pseudonyms lately because it was noted in a conversation recently how many fewer actors are taking stage names. It was a much more common practice in the 30s and 40s when performers with immigrant backgrounds wanted to hide them in order to seem more accessible to mainstream American audiences who would have negative associations with Jewish, Italian, Eastern European, or any other sort of name that seemed "hard to pronounce." But we've become much more accepting of celebrities from a wide range of backgrounds and so the use of a pseudonym to deceive audiences about cultural heritage or for privacy reasons has faded to almost nothing.

Since the 80s, we've seen it more prevalent in popular music -- The Edge, Sting, Flea, Prince, and Madonna are examples from rock music and the practice is almost ubiquitous in hip hop. Here, though, it is a nickname and not a pseudonym. No one thinks Mr. and Mrs. D decided to name their bouncing baby boy "Heavy." The name used is not meant to be thought of as an actual name. "Lady Gaga" is not the name of a person, but of a persona.

We use names to refer. The move from stage names to nicknames seems to indicate that we are not even supposed to think of the performer as a full person in any way. We are not naming the individual, but the stage role the individual plays.

But unlike actors who are explicitly portraying a fictional character, musicians try to lay claim in their art to a sense of authenticity. The music is supposed to come from someplace real and lived. Does the use of the nickname then undermine this or is it a further statement that the culture in some way has robbed the artist of his given identity and replaced it with a new one. It is our friends who usually call us by our nickname. It is only the people who really know us well that know how to refer to us informally. By using the nickname as a stage name is the artist trying to lay claim to an honesty usually only reserved for those intimately associated with us? Has the pseudonym therefore become its opposite, moving from a false image to hide one's actual identity behind to a door to the actual identity?

Monday, August 06, 2012

Nerd Heroes

I love science, but I am not a knee-jerk defender of the space program. In some cases, we overspend for the public relations of space-based research that takes away real resources from working scientists who could have done more science with it. But then there are times when the pr is worth it. At the exact midpoint of the Olympics, when we worship the feats of the body, here suddenly we are celebrating a tremendous accomplishment of the human mind. We have been lauding Michael Phelps and Gabby Douglas, watching them cry joyfully at their achievements, but it was just as moving to see the NASA engineers in triumphant ecstasy as Curiosity landed safely. They did it, they really did it. We have for a brief moment new nerd heroes. It is always cool to be a jock, but we need to step back and truly appreciate these moments when we rally around our geeks. Well done, NASA folks, well done.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Einstein's Jewish Science in The New York Times

Einstein's Jewish Science got a very nice review by George Johnson in The New York Times.

Gimbel is an engaging writer. In demonstrating the obvious, he takes readers on enlightening excursions through the nature of Judaism, Hegelian philosophy, wherever his curiosity leads.
It is a thoughtful piece by someone who writes very thoughtful books. I am thrilled and humbled to have such an accomplished science writer reading and commenting on EJS, even more so to have him saying nice things. Wish I had something deep to say about it, but right now I'm just too busy doing the happy dance.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Cheating and Elections

If you cheat in a game and are caught, you lose.  In forfeiting, your opponent wins.  But in elections, it is different.  If you break election laws, even ones that would have had a decisive effect on the election results, you pay a fine, go to jail, have to resign your post, or suffer some other penalty, but the candidate who suffered the harm as a result of the cheating is left out in the cold.  If it is, say, a governor who is removed, it is his personally selected lieutenant governor who takes over.  It may be a penalty for the person himself, but not for his agenda.  The crime was a person and a political one, but there is only a personal and not necessarily a political price to be paid.

One possible solution is to appoint the loser from the last election if the office holder is removed for election fraud, but what if it is somewhere like the district of Columbia where the general election is a foregone conclusion, but the primary is the big fight?  Do you go back and hold a new general election with the candidate who was cheated in the primaries getting his turn?

Can this be done fairly?

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Without Comment

Losing to Win and the Ethics of Competition

Four teams have been disqualified from the women's badminton competition in London for throwing matches. The teams had looked at the seeding and realized that by winning the matches, they would face a tougher road to the finals than offered by the pairs they would face if they lost the matches. So, in order to win the war, they forfeited the battle. On the one hand, the social contract in sport requires both sides to try to win. It was the violation of this that led to the disqualification. But unlike cases of point shaving or a boxer taking a dive in order to get a big payoff from gamblers, in this case the lack of effort was in the service of winning, just in the larger context. Marathon runners do not sprint the entire race. There will be long stretches where they pull back to save energy for the final sprint. Bike racers let someone else lead so they can use the aerodynamic advantage of being pulled along by the leader's effort to lessen their own thereby giving them an advantage at the end. Is the throwing of badminton matches in order to get a more favorable match-up the same sort of thing? Is it a difference of degree or of kind? If they did it with the goal of winning, did they indeed violate the spirit of sport?

Monday, July 30, 2012

A Modest Proposal Concerning College Athletics

The discussion about the influence of collegiate sports in the wake of the Penn State scandal has me thinking back to my time as a college student-athlete and I think it leads to a solution to the structural problem.  People interviewed repeatedly said that they were reticent to come forward because the football program was too powerful.  The institutional capital was disproportionately held by the program, leading to a situation that kept the right thing from being done.  This is not an isolated situation.  Even in places you would not expect it, sports teams have undue influence.

It surprises people to know that I was a scholarship case, a division I athlete with an athletic scholarship.  Coming out of high school, I was a lacrosse goalie courted by over sixty different colleges and universities.  Cornell University was one of the schools and I was interested in part because it is a wonderful school, the coach was someone I knew and respected, and they promised to get me in to meet Carl Sagan, my hero. 

The Cornell application had two parts, the first was just basic information -- name and such.  The second part required the transcript, college essay, and all the rest of the meatier elements.  I sent in the first part only in order to show interest before my campus visit arranged by the coach.  I never sent in the second part, but a couple of weeks later I was informed that I had been admitted to the university, but in a clerical mix-up the second part of my application had been lost.  No need to rewrite the essay, I was told, just please send up the transcript.

Same sort of thing when I visited University of Pennsylvania.  The Penn coach handed me an application with a red star stamped in a box in the upper right-hand corner of the front of the application.  I was explicitly told that if I lost the application to contact him and not admissions for a special application.  It was clear that the star meant that my app would get "special consideration." 

These were Ivy League schools.  If the influence is there, imagine what it is at serious programs.  My suggestion is that there be an absolute wall between admissions and athletics.  Colleges can only pull its athletes from those who were admitted through the regular process.  College teams must be created from the actual student body.  If you cannot get into the school without your athletics considered, you cannot play for the school.  Promised scholarships would be contingent upon legitimate admission.

Would this limit the quality of play in college sports?  Probably.  But it would help clean it up and restore the institutions to a sense of balance and focus on the real mission of colleges and universities.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Daniel Tosh and the Limits of Dealing with Hecklers

Putting up this weekend's Comedist post early. Been thinking about the Daniel Tosh situation and thought I'd add my two cents:

Controversy engulfs comedian Daniel Tosh supposedly for telling a rape joke. The moral limits of comedy and whether there can be funny jokes about horrible events like rape have been thoughtfully and passionately debated by commentators and comics, but the conversation misses the point. It was not Tosh’s rape jokes that are at issue. He was making rape jokes when an audience member called out that such jokes are never funny and it was Tosh’s comeback to the heckler, that it would be funny if she herself were raped, that is at issue. Of course, it would not be funny for anyone to be raped and one cannot fault the woman who spoke out against treating rape casually, but an interesting question is how far a comedian can go in dealing with a heckler. Like Michael Richards, who likewise found himself the center of negative attention for using racial slurs in addressing hecklers, Tosh stepped over the murky line that comes with the tough neighborhood that is stand-up comedy.

Comedians are unique amongst performing artists in having to arm themselves against their own audience. Yo Yo Ma never fears that someone will suddenly carry a cello into the spotlight and try to upstage him by playing the piece louder. Comics, on the other hand, have to do their jobs while defending the turf on which they do it.

My first heckler was a harmless drunk enjoying the show so much she thought she ought to become part of it. She wasn’t malicious, but was keeping me from doing what I had come to do – trying out new jokes, reworking old bits, honing my delivery. I needed to establish the flow of my set and she was keeping me from using my few short minutes of stage time as I needed. So, fancying myself quicker and cleverer, I tried to silence her with a cute response to one of her slurred offerings. It didn’t work. I had only succeeded in establishing a relationship between us and this meant that now she felt comfortable further embedding herself in my set.

A better approach generates negative attention from fellow audience members who are generally also annoyed by the disturbance. The sense of isolation sometimes ends it, but not always. If a comedian is doing shock material or adopting a persona that causes discomfort, the heckler may engender sympathy and turn the audience against the performer. This is where Tosh found himself.

So a different tack is to go nuclear, to bring down a verbal smack so big that there is no response. Performers justify this by appeal to their own vulnerability. Command is usually accompanied by control, but not for stand-ups. With mic in hand we have command, but the audience is in control – that sense of being exposed is what makes being a comic truly terrifying. When a comedian is heckled, it is the strong attacking the weak and the comedian is tempted to throw his strongest punch to try to fight back from this vulnerable position.

We usually give the little guy a degree of latitude in facing down a bully. Comedians are at the mercy of their audience, mercy that is betrayed by hecklers. But that does not mean that the comics are not also wielding the social power of the groups from which they come. When that power has traditionally been used to oppress others, using it to protect yourself from hecklers makes you a party to the historical abuse. Appeals to self-defense, that it is only a joke, or that they don’t really believe it fall flat. The nuclear option blows away the artifice of the stage and brings the real world into the club, inverting the power relation so that the comedian is transformed into the bully.

The problem is not that Tosh and Richards were offensive. As Steve Martin told us, comedy is not pretty. Comedians are offensive, saying things on stage the rest of us don’t and shouldn’t. That is where the power of comedy – constructive and destructive – resides and it must be protected. When dealing with hecklers, comedians ought to receive even more leeway. But that does not mean there isn’t a line to be crossed. You don’t bring a gun to the playground, even if you are being taunted and have no intention of using it. Tosh and Richards were reacting in self-defense, regardless of whether they brought the attack on themselves, but they went too far in using words associated with historical and ongoing injustice. The mic and stool bring the freedom to offend that may not stop at our neighbor’s nose, but there are still some places that even we comedians cannot put our fists.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Grokinator 5000

So, I was interviewed by Dr. Charles Lee at Grok's Science radio show and podcast yesterday about Einstein's Jewish Science. (The interview can be streamed from their site or downloaded at either iTunes or At the end of the interview, they play a game that is supposed to be generated by their supercomputer, the Grokinator 5000. In this case, it was a set of questions where you have to determine particle or wave and why. Here were my five prompts:

1. Howard Stern
2. Tiger Woods
3. Stephen Hawking
4. Donald Trump
5. Barack Obama

So, what is your answer for each -- particle or wave? You can hear my responses at the end of the interview.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Penn State and Corporate Personhood

In response to my post last week on the NCAA's decision to sanction the Penn Sate football program, Gwydion complained that the term "death penalty" ought to be reserved for the real death penalty.  Similarly is the compliant I have heard that the punishment of the Penn State football program is unjust because it only punishes the current players and not the actual wrong-doers who are retired, dead, or in prison.  The connection between these concerns derives from the topic of yesterday's post on corporate personhood.  While the argument presented in the Wall Street Journal by the Welches is horribly flawed, the ultimate conclusion may not be.  There is some sense in which corporations and like organizations (including Penn State football or at least Pennsylvania State University) is like a person.  This does not mean that they should be given all of the rights and protections under the law of actual citizens, but it does mean that they have certain moral responsibilities and should be punished for violations of them.

Not all people are persons.  Minors, for example, are human but are not afforded all of the rights and privileges of adults.  They may not vote or drink alcohol. Yet, while they are not fully incorporated into our system governed by laws, we do hold them to be moral agents for the most part.  They act based on intent and we praise or condemn them for those actions.  We may not hold them fully legally responsible, but we do hold them to certain ethical standards (even if they are a bit lower than that for adults).  The reason for this is that they are capable of deciding how to act and then carrying out those actions.  Their deliberations are colored by their immaturity and lack of experience and so we cut them some slack, but by in large we still find them to be responsible for what they choose to do.

Organized groups are different from mobs.  There may be causes for what mobs do, but that is different from a structured organization with a clearly defined means of making decisions.  A corporation, for example, has explicit policies about what bodies or individuals make what decisions for the organization and how those bodies or individuals are selected.  Likewise, they have clear structures for determining how those decisions are put into place.  Organized groups decide how to act and then act accordingly. 

Those decisions are based upon the work of the minds within the organization, but as we sketched out yesterday, the decisions arrived at by a group are not necessarily those of any particular mind.  The example was that we may have a board deadlocked on a necessary decision between three options.  Half the board prefers option A and thinks that B would be a disaster.  The other half thinks A is a non-started and that B is the best way to go.  If some decisive choice is required, the board may unanimously select C even though no single member of the board prefers it.  Thus the decision of a group may not be the same as the decision of the members.  It, in a sense, has its own mind.  If C ends up doing wonderful things for the community, the board deserves to be lauded for its decision; if it causes harm, the board deserves condemnation and maybe even worse.  It made a choice with consequences and it is responsible for those consequences.

Similarly, the corporation or organization is capable of acting on decisions.  Some of those acts will be carried out by individuals and while the individual certainly assumes some moral responsibility for acting on the organization's behalf, the organization itself also bears some of the moral weight as well.  It is the organization who intended for the act to be carried out and part of it that did the work.

To see that the organization is more than the sum of the parts, look at organizations whose parts all change.  The 1932 New York Yankees and the 1977 New York Yankees are both the New York Yankees.  No member of the organization was the same between the two, but because there is a continuous causal history of which the two are a part, the New York Yankees as an organization is more than those who are in it at the time.  Indeed, we see that the organization is not just the people in it when we look at the way the people in the organization are shaped by its corporate culture.  Philosopher Peter French wrote in an article on the subject that in a survey of Fortune 500 CEOs, he asked how different their company would be if someone else headed it up.  the overwhelming majority said little or not at all.  Organizations have a culture that creates expectations and those in it act as they think they are supposed to.  You can have the same people in the same hierarchy, but put them in a different culture and they act differently. It is the organization, then, that is a part of the cause of the actions and decisions.

This is why we speak of the "death penalty" and choose to punish the organization in cases like that of Penn State.  The failures were certainly those of individuals and those individuals should be condemned and punished.  But they are also in part due to the culture of the organization which has a life of its own.  Penn State football lived on past Joe Paterno.  He may have been synonymous with the program in many people's minds, but it was an organization not a person or set of people.  As such, moral failings may belong to both the individuals in the organization and to the organization itself.  Sometimes those failings may be so egregious that they expose a corporate culture so flawed that it needs to be dissolved, to just go away.  In this sense, we are destroying a thinking, acting entity, something that did have, in some sense -- possibly metaphorical, possibly not -- a life of its own and thus we use the phrase "death penalty."

I think the phrase is appropriate because I do think that corporations and other organized groups are person-like enough to be treated as persons.  Speech about corporate responsibility is meaningful.  Corporations and organized groups possess the necessary attributes for being morally important entities.  But, like minors, I do not think they deserve the same rights as adult citizens.  they should not be allowed to contribute to campaigns and they should not have speech protections of the same sort.  But, when they contribute to horrible crimes, they should be sanctioned appropriately and that will mean that those who are associated with them but are innocent of the particular wrong-doings will suffer.  But just as they benefit from the well-doings of others in the organization, that is part of being a part of the corporation, that is part of the moral luck to which one submits by being a part of that institution.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Corporations as People: Is Jack and Suzy Welch's WSJ Op/Ed Malicious or Ignorant?

Sometimes you really wonder whether an article is satire or serious and just that bad. Jack and Suzy Welch have an op/ed in the Wall Street Journal trying to defend the position that corporations are people that is among the worst published arguments I have ever read. It is not only riddled with obvious fallacies, but it misses the entire point of the issue in an incredibly naive way.

Of course corporations are people. What else would they be? Buildings don't hire people. Buildings don't design cars that run on electricity or discover DNA-based drug therapies that target cancer cells in ways our parents could never imagine.

Buildings don't show up at a customer's factory and say, "We won't leave until we solve your inventory problem." Buildings don't encourage their employees to mentor inner-city kids in math and science. Buildings don't fund homeless shelters in Boston or health clinics in Rwanda. People do.

Corporations are people working together toward a shared goal, just as hospitals, schools, farms, restaurants, ballparks and museums are. Yes, the people who invest in, manage and work for corporations are there to make a profit. And yes, corporations may employ some bureaucrats, jerks, cheapskates and even nefarious criminals.

But most individuals working in corporations are regular people, people just like you and your friends and neighbors. People who want to make a living and want to make a difference.

They begin with a false dichotomy -- corporations could only be one of two things, buildings or people. The argument that corporations are people then follows two distinct paths. First, corporations do things buildings don't and that people do, therefore, since they could only be buildings or people, they must be people. But, of course, lots of things act more like people than buildings, and it doesn't make them all people. The flaw is in the false dichotomy. Corporations could be something else still, and that is exactly the position of those who say they are not people.

But it is the second argument in this passage that is the most problematic because it misses exactly the point of the philosophical debate. The Welches commit the fallacy of composition. The fallacy of composition is the error wherein you assert that because the parts have a property, the whole has the property as well. Just because every member of my critical thinking class is sitting in a chair, does not mean that the critical thinking class itself is sitting in a chair. Yes, the corporation is made up of people, but that does not mean it is a person.

But notice what the Welches do after committing the fallacy of composition, they then subtly alter the conclusion to make it into a completely different claim -- the one that philosophers actually argue about. The Welches go from "a corporation is a person" to "a corporation is people." These are VERY different claims and sit on the opposite side of the issue the Welches claim to have a conclusive argument about. No one argues that corporations do not contain people, of course they do. But the real question at issue is whether the corporation itself is a person distinct from the people within it. What the Supreme Court has asserted is not that the people in corporations have particular rights -- yes, they do -- but in addition to those people and their rights, the corporation itself is recognized as an artificial person with rights as well. It has rights, privileges, and legal protections like real, live people.

Some philosophers argue that corporations are groups and therefore all moral and legal obligations fall on the members of the group. We cannot talk about corporate responsibility without it really meaning the responsibility of those within the corporation. Only people are people and we cannot meaningfully speak of collective responsibility except as the sum of the individual responsibilities of those in the group. Other philosophers argue that groups are more than the sum of the parts and become things in and of themselves. Corporate boards, for example, can reach compromise conclusions that no one individual member thinks is the best option. Suppose there are three possible decisions, A, B, and C. Half the board thinks A is right and B is absolutely wrong, while the other half thinks that A is the worst idea ever and that B must be the answer. Since some decision must be made and unanimity would hide the conflict, something good for the stock price. they may go universally with option C even though no member of the board believes that C is best. Thus the board's decision is not identical to that of the members, yet it is a decision and causes consequences for which there is responsibility. Hence the collective mind differs from the sum of the individual minds. In this way, we look at the corporation as an artificial individual, as a sort of person distinct from the people within it. It is a hard philosophical question: are corporations persons (a group) or people (individuals unto themselves)? The Welches have put forward an argument for one position in the debate and then think that its is also the opposing position. It is as if they have no clue what the real issue is.

It seems that there are two possibilities here. Either (1) they do understand the philosophical question and have chosen to obfuscate it so as to confuse the population in order to gain influence for a view they support, or (2) they really don't understand the issue and just want to make those who claim that corporations are not persons seem like idiots through the use of a strawman argument. Neither is a desirable position, but it is an interesting question -- what are we seeing here malice or ignorance?

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Meaning of Honor

Took the short people to see a production of Romeo and Juliet last night and they were both disturbed by it. Part of it was the tragedy -- nowadays we see nothing but happy endings -- but part of it was the violence. It was clear in the three big altercations that Benvolio once and Romeo twice tried to stop the fight before it started, but got lured into it saying, basically, don't make me have to do this...or more like abstain thee from compelling my blade from having to do this to thine torso which shall be pierceth in undesirable places. If they didn't want to fight, they asked, why did they?

Part of it is the nature of youth; fiery and uncontrollable although quite predictable. But part of it is the notion of honor. If you insult me to a certain degree, I have no choice but to face you, consequences be damned. It is that last clause that we have lost as a culture. The consequences are now always a part of the calculation and that has meant a loss of the notion of honor which is to be esteemed above consequences. To consider a cost/benefit analysis before defending your honor would make you a coward or greedy, both marks of an unclean character. But now such considerations makes you prudent and reasonable.

Has this change been realized by a maturing in the culture, a sense that we need to see the larger picture, or is it that we have become so materialistic that such considerations seem moral and we have lost something higher in the pursuit of comforts? Is it that we have moved away from machismo as a defining characteristic to something more thoughtful or is it that we have sold ourselves to industrialization? Is the loss of the traditional notion of honor a positive thing?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Tom Davis Joins the Grateful Dead

Tom Davis, the unelected half of the comedy-writing duo Franken and Davis, has passed away from cancer.  Quirky, gentle, and very, very quick and very, very funny, Tom Davis was one of the first writers hired for "Saturday Night Live."  One of his classics:

He claims that he and Franken have written a piece to be delivered after his "de-animation."  So typical that the thought at the time of his illness, he works for the art form and for the joy of his audience. Some of his last published words

"As an old-school Malthusian liberal, I've always believed that the source of all mankind's problems is overpopulation.  I'm finally going to do something about it."
RIP, Tom Davis.  Thanks for all the laughs.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


The BBC report of the bombing that killed three members of the Syrian inner-circle referred to the victims as "Assad's henchmen." What a great word. It comes from the term horseman, or nobleman's aid who would help with the horses, but it has come to have a completely negative connotation. For Assad to even have henchmen instead of, say, aids, underlings, or associates, means he must be evil. Good people or those who are morally neutral are not said to have henchmen. Henchmen help carry out nefarious plots. But how bad does one have to be to have henchmen? If I assign two friends to look out for the authorities whilest I intentionally jaywalk, are my compatriots henchmen? Does it have to be an organized group of wrong-doers with an intent to maintain the structure? Is it a matter of the degree of harm intended to be caused? If I really wanted some henchmen for my birthday, what would I have to do to get them?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Wonks and the Nerd Taxonomy

Heard the word "wonk" used on the radio this morning and it started me thinking.  "Wonk" is used to refer to policy nerds.  But, of course, there are quite distinct nerd populations, some of which are even in perpetual conflict (Hat tip to Nick for this one)  Do we have other terms that are discipline-specific nerd markers?  If not, for what groups ought we have them and what would be possible options?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Penn State Football Death Penalty?

The question in the wake of the Freeh Report on the tragedy at Penn State is whether the university should be allowed to field a football team going forward in the next few years. The argument on one side is that the lack of oversight and turning a blind eye at best, the cover-up at worst, shows that the entire structure is corrupt and needs to be dissolved. The NCAA should shut down Penn State football for at least a period of time and force it to recreate itself from square one. The offense on the part of the institution is so egregious that the team needs to be held responsible in the harshest possible way. The argument on the other side is that this is different from, say, recruiting violations which are connected to the game. What happened at Penn State is horrific and did involve people in the football program, but it was not a football offense. The courts are the place where we try criminal activity, it is not the NCAA's job to police its programs beyond the scope of sports. So, should Penn State be allowed to keep its football program?

Monday, July 16, 2012

When Are You Owed an Apology?

I find it fascinating that in the light of the political dust-up about Mitt Romney's work and filed forms about Bain Capital that Romney has demanded an apology from the President.  It leads to the general question about the grounds that would qualify one for an apology. 

In this case, you have a presidential candidate having his record challenged.  That seems par for the course.  If you are running for President of the United States, you know -- or should know -- that this sort of scrutiny of your history and its comparison to your claims on the campaign trail will be made and portrayed by your opponent in a light that favors him./her and not you.  That is what happens in campaigns.  If one of my kids were to punch the other in the nose, before the talk of consequences began, the one who threw the punch would make an apology.  But for a professional boxer to demand one from his opponent for punching him in the face seems absurd.  A legitimate demand by person A for an apology from person B therefore seems to require not only that person A was harmed by person B's actions or words, but that person A did not willingly put him/herself in a position where the harm was to be expected.

This seems to be a sort of social contract-based justification.  Apologies are required when a well-understood line is crossed.  But does there have to be such an understanding on the part of both people?  Suppose they have different senses of where the line between acceptable behavior and unwarranted attack lays.  Could one demand an apology for not only the behavior, but for not being thoughtful enough about what makes an act allowable in the context?

What are the grounds for legitimately demanding an apology?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Has Woody's Ameirca Been Homogenized?

On Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday, let's think about the country he loved so much. He was born in Oklahoma, driven to Texas by the dust bowl, ended up in California, New York, the Pacific Northwest, and here and there all over the country. He was so moved by the lives and plight of the working and out of work folks he found that he wrote song after song after song. So many of them were about rambling, seeing the country, going to places. Are there still really places in the country? Have we become a single culture rather than the patchwork of Woody's time. Is there that much difference between Seattle and Tulsa? Between small towns in the midwest and New York City? We use red and blue as if there were different Americas in America, but how full of distinct places are we anymore? Would rambling have the same meaning now that it did for Woody Guthrie? Would it really have any meaning?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Putnam, Semantics, and Fake Pot

As I listened to this story on Morning Edition on the way in to the office about the dangers associated with synthetic marijuana, I couldn't help but think of one of Hilary Putnam's classic articles. The story concerns legislative reactions to deaths from inhaling synthetic compounds designed to have marijuana-like effects. According to the packaging, they are carefully sold as potpourri and labeled as not for smoking, but, of course, the manufacturers know full well to whom they are marketing and what they have to say and do to protect themselves from lawsuits. In light of the deaths, legislators have tried to ban them. But here's the problem -- what are they?

Legislators can prohibit possession and sale of marijuana because it has an identity in terms of a plant species. But these chemicals are different. Every time one is banned, the manufacturers subtly change the molecule. Now it is a different substance. Or is it?

In his paper "The Meaning of 'Meaning,'" Putnam creates one of the lasting thought-experiments in the history of philosophy. He invites us to consider Twin Earth, a place exactly like Earth, and I mean exactly. We all have doubles there who are living the same lives, having the same thoughts and experiences, everything. The only difference is on Twin Earth, the substance in the sea, that comes out of the faucet, that they wash their cars with is not H2O, but a substance with a different chemical make-up XYZ. XYZ has the same freezing point, the same boiling point, cleans dishes the same way, quenches thirst the same way, in other words is to all human experience exactly like Earth water. Of course, the people on Twin Earth cal XYZ "water." If we were to visit Twin Earth and send back a report, we'd say something like, "On Twin Earth, what speakers of Twin English call 'water' is not water, but XYZ." They mean something different by water. This is not unusual. If someone is speaking German and offers you a "Gift," don't take it. "Gift" does not mean present in German, it means poison. The symbol refers to a different referent.

But what if instead of contemporary visitors, somehow we sent people from the 1750s before there was an atomic notion of the identity of substances. For us, what we mean by water is defined by chemical composition. But for English speakers in the 18th century, there was no such sense. They would argue that they knew full well what they meant when they used the term "water," and used it properly. If take to Twin Earth, they would report that in Twin English, "water" means water. Would they be wrong since what they meant by water and what the Twin Earth speakers meant by water were, in fact the same since their notion referred to experienced properties and not chemical composition? Putnam argues that they would be wrong. We think that definitions are beyond challenge since I can define a word to mean whatever I want -- see Humpty Dumpty.

But, Putnam contends, if you are talking about a natural kind, then the world has something to say about your definition and what it says may not be so nice. The legislators find themselves in a Putnamesque world in which they are the 18th century visitors. They think they know what they mean when they say "synthetic pot," but the manufacturers are the 21st century observers who can manipulate the underlying substance. The problem is that the consumer is in the 18th century as well, so the manufacturers are playing both sides of the semantic coin.

Perhaps what we need to do is think of the term in the way that Putnam points out we treat the word "jade." Jade is not one thing, but two -- we call something made of jadite or nephrite by the word "jade." Can we do this for the sake of legislation and if so, would such ambiguity cause more legal problems than it solves?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Importance of Ceremony

Guest post today from C. Ewing:

Since gay marriage became a national issue, same-sex couples have faced mixed reactions, to say the least. Among the most adamant opposition has been the religious community. I won't bother citing such directly. If you want venomous hatemongering, you are welcome to look that up on your own. However, I was pleasantly surprised to come across this article:

I'm left wondering just how significant such a decision is. There has been limited acceptance of homosexuality in the Christian community. And it has become a dividing issue between the younger church members and the older generations. While the younger groups tend to be more accommodating (as a rule), the elders tend to be far more readily opposed. But the issue isn't just one of acceptance. While, yes, part of progressing gay rights is acceptance, there is a sharper divide here. Churches are part of a community and part of the larger social circle as a whole. By excluding people from mass (feel free to google "lesbian denied Eucharist") or other services, the people in question are making a clear declaration: you are not welcome here. You are not one of us.

This, however, seems to be heading us sharply in the other (and methinks, far more positive) direction. This seems to touch on the more significant issue of inclusion versus exclusion. By including same-sex couples in the religious rituals themselves, they are being brought into the broader churchgoing community by extension. This doesn't seem like a wholly lip-service gesture, but a genuine olive branch being extended in the direction of same-sex couples, and the gay community at large. The church is explicitly stating: you're one of us. This is a formal ritual that indicates not only an acceptance of, but a formalized acknowledgment of the union. Same-sex couples are getting a blessing too. A liturgy is explicitly a public ritual. So this is a public statement.

That seems like a big deal. And I'm reservedly excited about it. But there is the addendum that "conscientious objection" is not to be punished. If the church--as a whole--were oh-so-agreeable, that surely would not be unnecessary. So there's that. But there's also the question raised that this may create a sort of separate LGBT subclass. In other words: there's the concern that this may simply become a case of "separate but equal". After all, this is the creation of a specific liturgy that will specifically be used for same-sex couples. And maybe that should throw up a reg flag for us. But it's hard for me to not be optimistic about this one. It seems like a tentative, but decisive step in the right direction.

Is this as significant as I would like to think or are we just being placated? Is this segregation or integration? I'm not entirely sure myself, but I'd like to think that this is yet another step on a slowly shortening road.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Cancer, Dignity, and Health Care

I've been featuring pieces by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Gary Cohn over at the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance Blog as they come out and he's got a new piece up about cancer and the Affordable Care Act.

The interesting notion in Cohn's discussion is the way he has framed the entire issue in terms of dignity. Note the contrast with the conservative opponents who always set out the issue in terms of purchasing a product. Their line is that the government should not tel us we have to buy a product, making health insurance equivalent to toothpaste. On this view, dignity is autonomy. A member of the marketplace is dignified if allowed to pursue his or her own enlightened self-interest without constraint.

Cohn's argument is that when you look at those who have pre-existing conditions, like cancer survivors, or who have long-term health care expenses that would exceed the lifetime limits in previously allowed plans, the way that the system as it was allowed to develop by the marketplace deprives those who are forced by bad luck of being treated in a dignified manner, that they are reduced to risks and figures on a spreadsheet to be minimized. Dignity is in being treated like a person, having your life and your projects respected as if they were one's own and that is exactly what the health insurance companies do not do, but which under the Affordable Care Act, they would be required to approach.

So, which notion of dignity ought to be in play here?

Monday, July 09, 2012

Cheating and the Commodification of Education

If you haven't read this article from the Chronicle yet about a paid ghost writer of term papers, please do. It is unbelievable.

I've written toward a master's degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I've worked on bachelor's degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I've written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I've attended three dozen online universities. I've completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else.

You've never heard of me, but there's a good chance that you've read some of my work. I'm a hired gun, a doctor of everything, an academic mercenary. My customers are your students. I promise you that. Somebody in your classroom uses a service that you can't detect, that you can't defend against, that you may not even know exists.

The claim -- and we don't know how much is true, but it seems real -- is that the old days of bought stock term papers has been customized. I always thought that my assignments were idiosyncratic enough that they were cheat-proof, but even that approach seems to have been compromised.

What is interesting about the piece is one short section where he talks about those who use his services:
From my experience, three demographic groups seek out my services: the English-as-second-language student; the hopelessly deficient student; and the lazy rich kid.

For the last, colleges are a perfect launching ground—they are built to reward the rich and to forgive them their laziness. Let's be honest: The successful among us are not always the best and the brightest, and certainly not the most ethical. My favorite customers are those with an unlimited supply of money and no shortage of instructions on how they would like to see their work executed. While the deficient student will generally not know how to ask for what he wants until he doesn't get it, the lazy rich student will know exactly what he wants. He is poised for a life of paying others and telling them what to do. Indeed, he is acquiring all the skills he needs to stay on top.

As for the first two types of students—the ESL and the hopelessly deficient—colleges are utterly failing them. Students who come to American universities from other countries find that their efforts to learn a new language are confounded not only by cultural difficulties but also by the pressures of grading. The focus on evaluation rather than education means that those who haven't mastered English must do so quickly or suffer the consequences. My service provides a particularly quick way to "master" English. And those who are hopelessly deficient—a euphemism, I admit—struggle with communication in general.
What are they buying? They are not buying papers, they are buying grades. Rich kids think they deserve the grades because they are rich enough to pay for them and they've been able to buy everything else, so why not grades? The others also see grades and classes as tools, they are means. It is not about learning it is about collecting and if you can't find the seashells on the shore, why not go to the shop and purchase them? In a culture where we value possessions and not being thoughtful and well-read, where we teach to No Child Left Behind exams and not to young minds, how is this not a necessary end?

So, given that we cannot change the culture first, what can we do about this?

Friday, July 06, 2012

The Most Classic Jokes in History

My Fellow Comedists,

I am working on my contribution to this year's Lighthearted Philosophers' Society gathering. Part of my argument involves distinguishing between those jokes that are merely funny and those that are truly sublime. So, please help me find examples. I am looking for the greatest jokes ever. Not your favorite jokes, but the most important ones, the ones that transcend joking and reach a whole new level. The jokes that are so classic they define genres.

Consider what is probably the tightest joke ever written, Henny Youngman's famous one liner, "Take my wife...please."
The set up of a given joke generally sets a scene involving a concept or narrative that is familiar to the audience. He told many jokes about marriage:

"My wife dresses to kill. Unfortunately, she cooks that way, too."

"My wife and I have the secret to making a marriage last. Two times a week, we go to a nice restaurant, a little wine, good food...She goes Tuesdays, I go Fridays."
So, when he invites the audience to "take his wife," everyone thinks this is the preamble to a set-up of a marriage joke, a sort of lead-in that was common amongst Borscht Belt comics.But no, it IS the set up, a three word set-up. And the punchline? A single word that takes you from "here comes a marriage joke" to "he's a Jewish man with an overbearing Jewish wife who is making his life a living hell" in one syllable. You get complete incongruity, two distinct interpretations, one explicit and one hidden until the punchline, all packed into in four monosyllabic words. That is why this is the Mona Lisa of jokes; a joke that is universally revered, despite most people having no idea why. The other jokes are funny, but "take my wife...please" is sublime.

I'm looking for those jokes. Some are the jokes that made careers -- Gallagher's "Why do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway?" Others are common property, the chicken crossing the road, "Yo mamma's so fat that when sits around the house, she sits around the house." I am looking for the jokes that are so classic they embody types of jokes.

Any ideas?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Is It Rational To Believe that Global Capitalism Isn't Completely Corrupt?

I know a lot of folks think that free markets are the key to social, political, and economic structural stability, growth, and fairness.  But in light of so many recent revelations about how things really work at the institutions in the marketplace, can that view be rationally supported anymore?

I am not one for conspiracy theories.  Occam's razor generally leads one to prefer explanations involving incompetence or individual malfeasance over larger, complex, well-orchestrated wrong-doing.  But there does seem to be some significant differences in the case of contemporary, global, corporate capitalism.  First, you have a small number of central institutions and functions that require the working of a small number of major actors.  Second, there is an almost complete lack of transparency in these dealings that arise both from secrecy and from technical complexity.  Third, the players in the game are there with the sole aim of maximizing their own profits, that is, they have incentive to cheat from their very reason for being.  Finally, the rules that are supposed to keep them in line and the referees who are supposed to enforce them are controlled by politicians who have a stake in not seeing the rules enforced.

The Libor scandal that is just breaking will be huge.  We have seen Barclay's nailed, but for any real interest rate fixing to have occurred, it would have taken collusion with several other banks -- a number of which we know are currently under investigation.  As I've been following this, it reminded me of a recent Matt Taibbi piece, The Scam Wall Street Learned from the Mafia, chronicling the case of United States of America v. Carollo, Goldberg and Grimm.

In most cases, towns and cities, called issuers, are legally required to submit their bonds to a competitive auction of at least three banks, called providers. The scam Wall Street cooked up to beat this fair-market system was to devise phony auctions. Instead of submitting competitive bids and letting the highest rate win, providers like Chase, Bank of America and GE secretly divvied up the business of all the different cities and towns that came to Wall Street to borrow money. One company would be allowed to "win" the bid on an elementary school, the second would be handed a hospital, the third a hockey rink, and so on.
How did they rig the auctions? Simple: By bribing the auctioneers, those middlemen brokers hired to ensure the town got the best possible interest rate the market could offer. Instead of holding honest auctions in which none of the parties knew the size of one another's bids, the broker would tell the pre­arranged "winner" what the other two bids were, allowing the bank to lower its offer and come in with an interest rate just high enough to "beat" its supposed competitors. This simple but effective cheat – telling the winner what its rivals had bid – was called giving them a "last look." The winning bank would then reward the broker by providing it with kickbacks disguised as "fees" for swap deals that the brokers weren't even involved in.
The end result of this (at least) decade-long conspiracy was that towns and cities systematically lost, while banks and brokers won big. By shaving tiny fractions of a percent off their winning bids, the banks pocketed fantastic sums over the life of these multimillion-dollar bond deals. Lowering a bid by just one-100th of a percent, called a basis point, could cheat a town out of tens of thousands of dollars it would otherwise have earned on its bond deposits.
We have a financial structure in which big money transactions have to go through a set of fixed convoluted routes shepherded by financial overseers whose only interest is making as much as possible. If honest competition among the players is supposed to be what keeps them legitimate and protects us and our money from them, then they have every reason in the world to try to undermine that competition when we aren't looking and the system is created so we can't see much.

Is it the view that the central institutions and functions underlying our financial system are rigged in favor of big banks and investors like believing that the Jews and the Masons control the world or is it more rational than that? Do the continuous scandals make it rational or would it have been justified to believe before they broke?