Tuesday, January 31, 2012

While Some See Philip Glass as Half Full

Today is Philip Glass' 75th birthday.  One might claim that he is the last major symphonic composer.  Provocatively, one might even claim that he could be the final great symphonic composer.  With film scores becoming more and more dominated by popular music, could we be seeing the end of an art form?  Every college and university has a music department or conservatory where composition is taught.  Every major city has at least one orchestra.  So, it is not that symphonic music is not performed. With so many teachers and students and surely advances in pedagogy and understanding of method, why aren't we seeing a string of new Copelands and Iveses?  There is some contemporary music performed, but it tends to be boutique.   It is the 17th through early 20th century stuff that brings in the crowds, well, that keeps the orchestras in business at least.  Why don't we have contemporary big names in symphonic composition?  Will Philip Glass be the last great symphonic composer?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Indexical Obsolescence?

Tightening up the index for Einstein's Jewish Science.  Last item before it goes to the printers.  It will be released in mid-April in both hardback and e-book formats.  If we are moving towards an all e-book world in the next decade or so, will indices be necessary?  With the ability to search for any term you choose, is there still a function for the list of names and terms the author thinks make up the essence of the book?  Is the index about to go the way of the 8-track or does it have some special standing?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Do We Pass the Funny Down to Our Kids?

My Fellow Comedists,

Some speculative comedist sociology this weekend. Are you more likely to be funny if you come from a funny family? Is the funny something biological that some folks have and others don't? Is it something we get from our environment? Whence comes the funny?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, January 27, 2012

Why Was the Republican Field So Weak This Time?

It has been interesting to see the Republican primary process work itself out.  The party is clearly not satisfied with Mitt Romney, for whom they have been trying repeatedly to find a substitute.  None of the other flavors of the month which came and went were terribly strong.  Newt Gingrich, seemingly the last one standing, has generated panic among party powerful.  There have been calls for a savior to enter the race since it started and they continue, albeit somewhat muted at this late point.

There are stronger candidates that could have stepped up and chose not to -- Jindal from Louisiana, Christie from New Jersey, Daniels from Indiana, even McCain with another run.  During the process, there seemed to be a weakened incumbent, so why did the field that developed turn out to be so weak?  Is the threat of an incumbent so powerful that even with a bad economy, it seems too high of a mountain to climb?  Is there something amiss in the party recruitment apparatus?  Has the tea party fractured the GOP in such a way that the usual recruitment mechanisms don't work?  How did the Republicans come to have the field they did and not a stronger one, even in their own estimation?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

I Don't Need a Pair, I'd Just Like to Buy One Jean Please

When we look at the terms we use for closed crotch garments worn below the waist, we almost always use the plural -- pants, trousers, jeans, dungarees, Bermuda shorts, cut-offs, capris, leggings, tights, a pair of underwear, panties, bloomers, jockey shorts, boxer shorts, briefs,...  Yet, when we examine the terms for clothing worn on the torso, the terms are always in the singular -- shirt, blouse, sweater, vest, jacket, coat, tank top, camisole, even brassiere (the one where it would make the most sense to use the plural).  Open bottomed clothes that cover lower half -- skirt, kilt, dress, robe -- are singular.  We generally have two arms, just like two legs, so why the syntactical difference? The only counterexample I can think of is the two piece bathing suit where the lower half is the bikini bottom (singular) or is it generally bottoms?  For men, we use the singular bathing suit, but also the plural swim trunks.  Explanations or further examples and counterexamples?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Anachronistic Literary Comparisons

Last week a friend made the claim that Stephen King will be remembered as the 20th century's Charles Dickens.  The trivial comparison, of course, would have been to say the 20th century's Poe, but when you think of commercial success and output as well as the ability to locate the deeply entrenched, but easily overlooked concerns of the times, the Dickens comparison is extremely apt.

It started me thinking about what other such comparisons could be made.  Philip Roth as the 20th century H.L. Mencken?  Norman Mailer as the 20th century Proust?  Truman Capote as the 20th century Goethe?  What apt anachronistic comparisons can you think of?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Humility as an American Virtue

Thinking about George M. Cohan's patriotic song, "You're a Grand Old flag."  The line that sticks out is:

Every heart beats true 'neath the red, white, and blue
where there's never a boast nor a brag
In a song extolling the virtues of the nation, humility is set out as key.  Nationalism seems to be antithetical to humility, and nationalism is certainly not the same as patriotism although the two are often confused for each other.  At the same time, humility seems not to be a virtue we currently celebrate.

So, when did humility cease to be an American virtue?  Was it ever?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Year of the Dragon

Today is the Chinese new year and the start of the year of the dragon.  In the set of signs of the Chinese zodiac cycle, the dragon is the only mythical member.  While imaginary, the dragon is to be found in stories from cultures across the globe.  We find dragons in Greek, Western European, Chinese, Indian, and Mesoamerican mythology.  Surely, there was some cultural cross-pollination, but it seems hard to believe that there was that much of an influence.  Why then is the dragon so ubiquitous?

There seem to be three possible explanations.  One line is that the dragon is a slight variation of animals that were observed and then made larger and scarier in legend -- say, crocodiles or snakes that get made into monsters.  This seems plausible since we see this done with griffons and the like, but it is odd that with different animals in different ecosystems, the same fictional derivative would develop spontaneously in so many places. 

A second is that the notion developed as an explanation for dinosaur fossils.  If you have the ossified remains of animals larger than we see, but whose skeletons resemble observed reptiles, then it would only be reasonable to posit the existence of these larger reptilians whose details would be filled in by story.  The problem here is that while fossils did turn up from time to time, it wasn't until we started mining for coal in the industrial age that we really started unearthing significant numbers of fossils.  At the time of origin, dinosaur fossils would not be very widely known and therefore would not need explanation.

A third explanation for the commonality is evolutionary.  If disparate cultures have the same concept, perhaps it goes back to a time before we were spread all over the globe.  In coming down from the trees and living primarily on the ground, what would be the natural predation fear we as a species would develop?  Snakes and other land-dwelling carnivores including land crocs.  Since this fear is bred into all humans because of our common origin, it could be expressed cognitively in terms of fictional beings that instantiate our basic fear along the lines of a Joseph Campbell type monomyth.  It is not clear what sort of evidence one could have for such a just so story, however.

Which of these is most likely correct or is there another option?  Why are dragons cross-cultural?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Best Typo

My Fellow Comedists,

TheWife and I went to a newly open Chinese restaurant that came recommended. Looking at the take-out menu and turning to the veggie options we found "Genetal Cho's tofu." TheWife looks up and says, "and I thought it was supposed to be vegetarian." Great hilarity ensued.

One of my favorites from a take-home exam in which the student was quoting Einstein, “The slave is doomed to worship Tim and Fate and Death.” All hail the mighty Tim.

What is the best typo you've found?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, January 20, 2012

Technology in the Classroom

Whenever we hear discussions of improving education these days, someone inevitably brings up "technology in the classroom" as if it is unquestioningly something that leads to better learning. But is it? Sure, technology improved manufacturing -- more products produced, more uniform quality, cuts and stitches made exactly straight,.. Technology in medicine, again, better diagnostics, better records, better ability to bring teams onto the same page for care,... But how does it help in learning?

One example I've seen work is the use of clickers in science classes. The professor asks a question and like asking the audience on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, there is a quantifiable measure of who thinks what. It can be used to see if the class really understands the point you've been trying to make. It can be used to expose folk misunderstandings that science corrects. It is a useful technological pedagogical advance.

But beyond that, I don't understand why we are so fascinated with technologizing learning. Good teaching is good teaching and a good teacher doesn't need anything but a class. Is there something I'm missing here? Are there other examples of technology in the classroom that are helpful in ways a good teacher alone could not be?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Necessity of Curse Words

The shorter of the short people has become fascinated with curse words. The idea that there are culturally forbidden sounds makes these sounds interesting. As a reuslt, he's invented his own, nork (the sound made by the Siamese elephants in Tim Conway's famous bit). He loves that it is functionally equivalent to words he knows he cannot say, but because it is his word, he can say it. Do we need words that perform the rhetorical functions of swear words? Do they do what no other linguistic entities are capable of doing or are they just short cuts to utterances that could be expressed otherwise?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Is Being Smart a Disability?

The courts have determined that it is perfectly o.k. to discriminate against people with high IQs. A man applying for a position with the New London police force was denied -- and his denial upheld -- on the grounds that he scored too highly on the entrance exam. Aristotle argues that moderation is the key for ethical virtues, but that with respect to intellectual virtues more is better. One can never be too smart, too wise, too knowledgeable, too good of a problem solver, too clever,... But is he or the New London police department right? Can you be too smart? Can being smart be a flaw? In general? for certain occupations?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Muhammed Ali and Tim Tebow

Today is Muhammad Ali's 70th birthday.  Ali was not only one of, possibly, the greatest to ever walk into a boxing ring, but was a major social figure who was outspoken on the issues of the day.  He spoke out against the war in Vietnam and refused to go even when drafted. 

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?
He was a prominent voice for peace and civil rights at a time when standing up was not the easy thing to do.  He was stripped of his title and not allowed to fight for four years, before the Supreme Court upheld his case as a conscientious objector.

The question that springs to mind is whether we have contemporary athletes who seek to occupy a similar space in the present moral discourse.  The name that seems unavoidable is Tim Tebow who is a champion of the other side of the political aisle.  He is held up in the media, both sports and non-sports, as the archetype of a good person, of morality.  His book is full of passages like:
People often seem to think that when you're following the Lord and trying to do His will, your path will always be clear, the decisions smooth and easy, and life will be lived happily ever after and all that. Sometimes that may be true, but I've found that more often, it's not. The muddled decisions still seem muddled, bad things still happen to believers, and great things can happen to nonbelievers. When it comes to making our decisions, the key that God is concerned with is that we are trusting and seeking Him. God's desire is for us to align our lives with His Word and His will.
We have a conflation of morality with strength of Christian belief here -- two completely different things -- and we have a diminishing of non-believers as them, but perhaps this is just nitpicking.  Is there a difference other than political persuasion between Muhammad Ali and Tim Tebow as public figures?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Martin Luther King Day and St. Patrick's Day

On Martin Luther King Day, here's a repeat of my St. Patrick's Day post:

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

Our youngest national holiday is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, during which we not only commemorate the life of a peaceful leader who stood for justice and morality, but take time to contemplate the ways in which our culture and social structures still embody unfairness toward groups of Americans.
Though we seldom stop to think of it, St. Patrick’s Day stands for all that we wish for eight weeks earlier on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. The mass Irish migration to America occurred in the first half of the 19th century and was met with fear, hatred and bigotry. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Appropriate Locations

My Fellow Comedists,

This year's meeting of the International Society for Humor Studies is being held in Poland. (The first annual meeting was so small that it happened when three humor studies scholars walked into a bar...) The appropriateness of this spot leads to the question, what other conferences should be held where? Best answer receives a free year's subscription to The Philosophers' Playground.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, January 13, 2012

Smart Blondes

The other day after school, the less short of the short people got in the car and reported that she had heard her first dumb blonde joke. She took great umbrage at it, despite being brunette, and decided that for the next time she heard such an offense, she would be prepared. She would have, ready to hand, a list of the world's smartest blondes. It was a question I thought would be great to kick around here.

First to my mind was Werner Heisenberg, the genius behind early quantum theory. So, who should make the list as the smartest blondes?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Thoughts about Time

Two astrophysicists at Johns Hopkins, Richard Conn Henry (not to be confused with the other astrophysicist named Richard Henry at University of Oklahoma) and Steve Henke, designed a new calendar. With this calendar, June, March, September, and December have 31 days while all others have 30. In this way, every year, the same date falls on the same day of the week. Christmas and New Years would always fall on Sunday. The only wrinkle is that instead of a leap year giving us a day every four years, they add a week every five years. A nifty idea.

I studied general relativity with Henry during grad school. We started the semester by working through the special theory for a couple weeks with the generalized mathematics we would need for the general theory. While playing with the basics of the metric, he pointed out that the only difference between space and time in terms of calculations in the theory was a negative sign. He then mused that if we added a second negative sign, we would have the equations governing a universe with two perpendicular times. Just as we have three spatial dimensions that are independent of each other, why couldn't we have a universe with multiple times?

But what would it look like? What would it be like to live in a universe in which you could be late in one direction and early in another? Henry sent a letter to Richard Feynman and asked him what he thought it would be like to live in such a world. Feynman wrote back that he and his son had spent a weekend playing with the question, but had no good answer. So, let's see if we can do any better. What would it be like to live in such a world?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Does Micro Experience in Business Translate into Macro Competance in Economic Policy?

On the heels of yesterday's primary in New Hampshire, I want to explore the central claim in Mitt Romney's rhetoric.  His argument is "I had a career in the business world, therefore I am better suited to fix the economy than the President who has not built a business career."  I am not interested in the particulars of Romney's career -- did Bain Capital build businesses and create jobs or did they raid companies and make their money laying off workers and selling off the pieces -- nor do I want to contrast the particular policy proposals.  I am more interested in the argument by authority that Romney is putting forward -- I am an authority because of my experience.  We heard similar arguments during Clinton's run in which he was attacked as incapable of being a competent commander-in-chief because he lacked military experience -- again, having never climbed a tree, he is not someone who can be trusted with questions about forest management.

Earl Weaver is a hall of fame manager, but was a lousy ballplayer.  His star outfielder Frank Robinson is a hall of fame player, but did not enjoy comparable success as a manager.  We cannot draw a straight line between success at the lower dirt-under-the fingernails level and then at the higher strategic level.  But, at least Earl Weaver did play the game.  On the other hand, there are businesses that are destroyed when they replace someone who came up through the ranks and understands how things run and replace him with a newly minted M.B.A. who has no experience or care with the core product of the company.  In the case of macroeconomic policy, does experience in the trenches teach you anything that cannot be learned otherwise?  How much of an advantage -- if any -- does one get in determining successful macroeconomic policy from being acquainted through experience with the workings of particular businesses?

Further, what counts as experience here?  Why does being in the business count as experience, but being a consumer, not?  Does our notion of being "in business" itself have a bias towards owners and away from the other stakeholders?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Power and Danger of Anonymity

The Leiter Reports is the central spot for inside baseball for the academic philosophical community. Brian Leiter has a strict policy there of not posting anonymous comments. If you have something to say to the community, put your name to it. Own it. It cuts down on certain sorts of comments, keeps things more civil and removes certain ethical worries. I've never had that sort of policy here. I know who some of regulars use pseudonyms are, others I don't. We've had very few instances of inappropriate comments, and I've always tried to make clear in a stern but not rude fashion when someone has crossed the civility line here -- and others on the Playground have also made clear to folks when a comment has been unacceptable. So, I don't think there is any need to change anything.

That being said, what is the point of a blog name that conceals your own? Does it make you more comfortable in commenting? Does it allow you to feel like you have a nickname when just hanging out with the gang? What is the lived experiential value of the pseudonym you use here and for those of you who do not -- Kerry, Jeff, Gwydion,... -- why did you choose not to?

Monday, January 09, 2012


Eponymy is when a word is made out of a name. Think of "champagne" which now refers to the drink more than the region from whence it comes. Science is full of eponyms from Newton's laws to Huntington's disease to units of measure like the joule or the watt to inventions like the diesel engine or Morse code. Many come from literature, for example, Achilles heel, or from properties of historical figures, consider the term sideburns. We are hearing the verb "to tebow" quite frequently in the media.

Are there new eponyms that should be added to the language? Properties or characteristics of contemporary figures that can be used to coin new terms? "Obamized" -- when you take a modern Republican position and get called a socialist for it? To "romney" -- betting on both sides of a game? Others?

Saturday, January 07, 2012

The Feast of Saint Peter

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend would have been Peter Cook's 75th birthday. One of the leaders of the new radical comedy of the 1950s and 60s in Britain. His first troupe was a four-man outfit that performed under the name "Beyond the Fringe" and included Dudley Moore who would become his comic partner for decades to come. Moore was an accomplished pianist in addition to a comedian, and so the two opened a club in which Moore's jazz trio would perform and Cook would bring in cutting edge comedy that was nowhere else to be found in early 60s England. The two started clean and absurdist, but through the late 60s they got edgier and edgier. From Beyond the Fringe.
Here they are in Bedazzled.
And a decade later:

Thank you, Peter Cook for all the laughs.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, January 06, 2012

Ownership and Access

The notion of intellectual property has never been made fully consistent.  It is an attempt to marry an Enlightenment era notion about possession of things and land to a changed notion of "the fruits of one's labor."  I remember as an undergraduate puzzling over what was the referent of the phrase "Beethoven's 9th symphony."  Was it the dots on the page?  Was it the movements of the members of the orchestra?  Was it the resulting sound waves in the air?  Was it the internal experience of the listener?  Was it the record (yes, we had records when I was in college)?  What is the symphony itself?  If it were someone's property, what was it they had rights to?  What was it he or she possessed?

The question has been made philosophically even more interesting now that the media that contained the thing is going away.  Now that we no longer need the record album, 8-track, or digital file on our computer to have unfettered access to a book, song, or graphic image, does the notion of ownership make sense anymore?  Or is ownership in the case of intellectual property simply the ability to have access at will?  If I pay a fee and can listen to Dark Side of the Moon anywhere, anytime, but do not have a CD to put in the cabinet, do I own it in the same way?  Does ownership talk make sense anymore now that access requires no physical media?

Thursday, January 05, 2012

How Long Does Adolescence Last?

Sociologist Michael Kimmel came to campus last semester and an interesting point he made was that adolescence is a modern concept. Traditionally, you hit an age where you are capable of reproduction and, boom, you move from childhood into adulthood instantly. But since Freud's time, only the last century, we've had a different view in which there is a transitional period. It reminds me of that sentence from the opening of "The Gods Must Be Crazy," "...and their children are sentenced to twelve years of scholling just to learn how to survive in this strange world."

So, how long does adolescence last? Has it been expanding? Is it cultural? When is someone an independent adult? Is that a single concept or can you be an adult, that is, be post adolescent, and not be independent?

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Presidential Age Limit

On the heels of the Iowa caucus, let's ask about the requirements to be President of the United States.  It is written into the second article of the Constitution that to be eligible for the position, one must be thirty five years old.  Is this something we think ought to be maintained or is it groundless, anti-democratic age discrimination?  If you are old enough to vote, shouldn't you be old enough to run?  I'm not saying that there is a given twenty two year old I would vote for, but why limit that person's right to seek the office?  Plato argued that we shouldn't even educate people until they reach forty, so offering such folks the most powerful position in the world may not be the best idea.  Then again, the electorate would be able to decree with their ballots that the person was too green and not yet ready.  Why shouldn't we have the option?  Is the presidential age limit legitimate or illegitimate discrimination?

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Bullshit or Not: Cicero 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 assess a passage from a prominent writer. Since today is Marcus Tullius Cicero's 1906th birthday, let's take a quotation from "On Friendship" for today's installment.

"And great and numerous as are the blessings of friendship, this certainly is the sovereign one, that it gives us bright hopes for the future and forbids weakness and despair. In the face of a true friend a man sees as it were a second self. So that where his friend is he is; if his friend be rich, he is not poor; though he be weak, his friend's strength is his; and in his friend's life he enjoys a second life after his own is finished. This last is perhaps the most difficult to conceive. But such is the effect of the respect, the loving remembrance, and the regret of friends which follow us to the grave. While they take the sting out of death, they add a glory to the life of the survivors. Nay, if you eliminate from nature the tie of affection, there will be an end of house and city, nor will so much as the cultivation of the soil be left."
So, an overly romanticized account of friendship or touching account? Bullshit or not? you decide. As usual, feel free to leave anything from a single word to a dissertation in the comments.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

New Year's Resolutions (for somebody else)

Happy New Year! A happy and healthy 2012 to everyone!

With the fresh, clean year comes a chance to start anew, to make changes, to make those improvements that bring our actual selves more in line with our potential selves. And thus we make the new year's resolution. Let's put a twist on it, though. Rather than exposing our own shortcomings by making our own resolutions public, let us gently suggest resolutions for those who might need the nudge.

What resolutions should be made by whom?