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?

Thursday, July 05, 2012

The More Things Change...

When Borders went out of business a few months back, we thought about bookstores, record stores, and recognizable other parts of modern life that would be going away in the course of things. But last night, sitting in a field with hundreds of other families watching fireworks, it became clear that there are certain experiences that computer graphics and virtual reality could never recreate. There are some things that require good old fashion being there in real life. A hundred years from now a good fireworks display will still get the oohs and ahhs. What else will stand the test of time? Like fresh squeezed lemonade, what cannot be technologically replaced or simulated?

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

What's the Difference: July 4th Edition

For an Independence Day edition of "What's the Difference?", what's the difference between national pride, patriotism, and nationalism?

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Philosophy and Political Persuasion: Causation or Correlation?

It is very tempting to draw a causal connection between these two stories. First, the Texas GOP declared in their party platform, a formal opposition to teaching critical thinking.

"We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning), which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority."
Schools are not places where students go to have their beliefs challenged and to be given the tools to critically evaluate the validity of the arguments presented by the authorities who rightly tell them what they have to believe.

Second, there was this one about Jonathan Krohn whose fifteen minutes of fame came at the 2009 Conservative Political Action Conference when he gave before the nation a speech outlining the essential nature of American political conservatism and led many to label him a star in waiting who would someday be a major player in Republican politics. Well, it turns out that now that he's a few years older, he's no longer conservative. Gay marriage and Obamacare? Fine by him. What caused this radical change in view?
“I started reflecting on a lot of what I wrote, just thinking about what I had said and what I had done and started reading a lot of other stuff, and not just political stuff,” Krohn said. “I started getting into philosophy — Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Kant and lots of other German philosophers. And then into present philosophers — Saul Kripke, David Chalmers. It was really reading philosophy that didn’t have anything to do with politics that gave me a breather and made me realize that a lot of what I said was ideological blather that really wasn’t meaningful. It wasn’t me thinking. It was just me saying things I had heard so long from people I thought were interesting and just came to believe for some reason, without really understanding it. I understood it enough to talk about it but not really enough to have a conversation about it. I think I’ve just matured overall.”
Hmmmm, there's philosophy again seemingly playing the role the Texas Republicans feared.

We know that there is a correlation between level of education and likelihood of being liberal, but could it be a common cause or an accidental correlation? There is a lot of work out showing neural or psychological factors that tend to lead to political party affiliation, could those factors also lead to the seeking of advanced educational opportunities or to a propensity to enjoy philosophy? Could it be a socio-economic difference, that in some segments of our culture education, especially in philosophy, is valued, but very much not so in other parts? Socrates was killed for corrupting the youth of Athens, are philosophy professors still doing it?

Monday, July 02, 2012

Are Celebrity Adventurers a Sign of Cultural Immaturity?

Today is the 75th anniversary of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart.  Trying to become the first woman to pilot a plane around the world, she disappeared.  She was already a significant cultural figure for her feats of daring and her gender.  She wrote books, received awards, gave lectures, appeared on magazine covers, and endorsed products.  But when she vanished without a trace, she became an enduring phenomenon, a lasting part of our collective cultural consciousness.

She was part of a generation that prized explorers and adventurers, people who took risks to do something or go somewhere no one had before.  And these risk-takers often ended up on the wrong side of the odds.  Many lost their lives seeking glory and novelty.

Such behavior seems odd today.  Our heroes fight computer-generated graphics in simulated contexts of danger.  Or they play sports with new and stronger pads to assure that the investments of team owners are as little likely to be injured as possible.  This is not to say that these folks don't train and work very hard; they do, but we are much less enthralled with people putting themselves in places of actual potentially lethal peril.

Is this a sign of cultural maturity?  Or is it, as Fight Club enthusiasts might claim, a sign of cultural decay?  Do we expect less of ourselves, are we too mild in seeking new limits to challenge or are we smarter in being able to push limits in ways that do not threaten lives of those pushing the envelope?  Does our collective fascination with reality television's Lord of the Flies plot-lines, mean that we've just shifted from physical to psychological harm?  Or is it that we've explored everything there is to explore?  Why do we not have celebrity adventurers putting themselves in harm's way?