Friday, June 29, 2007

Passing the Plate/Crossing the Road

Brothers, sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere:

This week saw the 51st anniversary of the passing of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 which created the interstate highway system in the United States. To celebrate this "milestone," we will take up donations of the "crossing the road" variety.

One of those jokes everyone knows is "Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side." Well, not everyone. I gave a quiz in my critical thinking class years ago for which the fallacies of the week included "Appeal to Humor," that is making a joke instead of offering supported arguments. The example on the quiz read,

"Jane: Why do you want to go to the restaurant over there instead of this one here that looks nice?
Jim: To see how the chicken's across the road."
I had a student in the class who had recently come over from her native China and, getting the problem wrong, asked why that was supposed to be an appeal to humor when nothing in it seemed at all humorous. I gave her the points. Like knock-knock jokes, it really isn't a very funny joke despite its fame.

But it has given rise to parodies, some of which are at least a bit funnier.

Why did the rubber chicken cross the road?
She wanted to stretch her legs.

Why did the Roman chicken cross the road?
She was afraid someone would Caesar!

Then there are the famous figures versions:

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Isaac Newton: Chickens at rest tend to stay at rest. Chickens in motion tend to cross the road.

Jacques Derrida: Any number of contending discourses may be discovered within the act of the chicken crossing the road, and each interpretation is equally valid as the authorial intent can never be discerned, because structuralism is DEAD, DAMMIT, DEAD.

Louis Farrakhan: The road, you will see, represents the black
man. The chicken crossed the "black man" in order to trample him
and keep him down.

Pierre de Fermat: I have figured it out, but unfortunately I just don't have room here to give the full explanation.

John F. Kennedy: Ask not what road this chicken crossed. Ask what road you can cross for that chicken.

Werner Heisenberg: We are not sure which side of the road the chicken was
on, but it was moving very fast.

Sigmund Freud: Because it was envious of the cock.

Ronald Reagan: I don't recall.

Wolfgang Pauli: There already was a chicken on this side of the road.

Pyrrho the Skeptic: What road?
And, of course, the off-shoots,
Why did the manic-depressive cross the road? Who cares? Nothing really matters anyway.
So, any favorites out there?

Snow White and the Seven Habits of Highly Successful Dwarves

I generally don't respond to blog-memes, partly because of an anti-authoritarian streak where I hate to be told what to think and write about and partly because I like for this to be a blog about ideas, not about me. But I got tagged with this one by two people whom I both like and respect, so I'll play along if you folks will. It's the old "random facts about you" thing. So I'll list eight as requested, but you guys feel free to leave one. What is it that your playground pals would never know about you?

Here's the meme:

- Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
- People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
- At the end of your blog post, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
- Don't forget to leave them a comment telling them they're tagged, and to read your blog.

1) Between second grade and my junior year of high school, I never missed a day of school -- including Jewish holidays, and I went to school s where even the African-American kids took off Yom Kippur.

2) I play the harmonica. Not well, but I enjoy playing about as much as anything else I can think of. In fact, I used to sit in grad school with a band called Eldon Green and later a was a part of a band called Warthog in a sleezy little dive in Fells Point in Baltimore.

3) Gwydion was the first person in history to pronounce out loud my full name spelled backwards.

4) Despite the fact that I do not drink coffee, I collected coffee mugs from all 50 states with the name of the state, or of a location or major attraction in the state.

5) I have been searching for years for a copy of an out of print book entitled Scrambled Chickens which includes the following recipe for a home-made atomic bomb:

(1) Get a jar full of atoms
(2) Insert fuse
(3) Light fuse
(4) Run like hell

6) I own colored chalk holders to coordinate with whatever I wear when teaching.

7) My Erdos number is 6. Having never been in a feature film, I can only fudge a Bacon number of 5 -- I've been in home movies with my Uncle who appeared briefly in Avalon with Aidan Quinn who was in Practical Magic with Sandra Bullock who was in Loverboy with Kevin Bacon. This gives me a fudged Erdos-Bacon number of 11.

8) I am pathologically uptight about asking favors of other people if there is even the slightest possibility of it being a burden. As such, I will list a few blogs, but will not leave comments nagging them to take this up. If they come across this and think it would be fun, so be it, but I'm not going to bother them.

Here are eight sites:

Filosofia y Flores
Foreign Student
Rural Mama
Philosophical Lawyer
Oxymoronic Philosopher
The Good Word of Sprout
Snapshots From an Ordinary Life

So there. Now what is it no one in the blogosphere would know about you?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Addiction, Baldness, and Extraterrestrial Life

A few final questions today. I cannot tell you how much I love the things you folks ask. Where else can you go from psychology to humor to physics to ethics to superheroes? Good stuff.

MT asks,

"What is addiction?"
Helpful hint from your Uncle Steve, always beware seemingly simple questions from really smart people, but I'll walk into the trap.

Addiction is an odd concept. It clearly is intended to refer to an unhealthy psychological state in which a desire for the object of the addiction provides an irrational degree of attraction. We want lots of things, but in a normal state supposedly can dispassionately weigh the costs and benefits of pursuing and possibly attaining what we desire and can choose to continue or abort that pursuit based upon sound reasoning. Addiction is a state in which the desire leads us to want the thing to a degree that overrides our ability to put the benefits in perspective, where our desire outruns the actual benefit.

In the long tradition of reducing the psychological to the biological, most talk of addiction is done in terms of bodily chemistry and equilibrium. The idea being that the body works a certain way in which it produces certain amounts of certain chemicals to be used certain ways for various bodily functions. Biological addiction, on this model, is where a substance destroys the equilibrium and causes a lingering imbalance resulting in a continued desire for the substance to bring the body artificially back into something resembling the normal state. The body needs the substance and the lack of it creates a physiological state in which the body fails to function adequately, knows that more of the substance would allow it to restore normal abilities, so it creates a sense which gets experienced as a deep urge for the substance.

Of course, this hinges on a meaningful sense of "normal" for the human body and it is this slipperiness that can allow us to differentiate in usage between the caffeine junkie and heroin addict on one hand, and all of us who need oxygen and food to survive. The first two are not normal where the last two are and addiction requires the abnormal state obtained by ingesting things that are not necessary or normal.

This idea then gets extended to substances that do not cause chemical changes in the body but which are held to be "psychologically addicting." In this case, the move is to speak of chemicals in the brain, neurotransmitters, and say that the act, say gambling, shopping, or over or under eating, cause certain chemical balances in the brain to be upset, thus reducing non-addictive substances or acts to the same status as those which are bodily affective. Doing these things that are not normal cause our bodies to be abnormal and that abnormality causes us to occupy an abnormal and therefore pathological psychological state.

What makes some people, like Thomas Szasz uneasy about such talk is the central place that the notion "normal" plays in this supposedly biological and thereby objective notion. Of course, what is normal is determined by those with social power and standing and so Szasz argues that addiction does not really exist in the sense we usually think of it (indeed the sense we have been conditioned to think of it), but is politically constructed in order to demonize certain behaviors deemed offensive by those with social capital. If something is undesirable, we say those who use it are addicts, and therefore less than rational and since rationality is an essential property of humans, therefore less than human.

We certain have seen this sort of thing in terms of what drugs we keep legal and which ones we don't. Marijuana became a social evil needing to be eradicated when it became associated with jazz musicians and LSD was made illegal when it was associated with those dirty hippies. Wine, on the other hand, is the drink of the well-heeled and therefore we scoff at prohibition.

But this social/political story does not mean that there are not medical effects of certain substances and that we are not capable of habituating certain acts that will cause us to act irrationally. Of course, what we do influences how we think and sometimes this will lead us to naturally adopt behaviors that keep us from living lives that fully enrich us, sometimes creating urges and desires so strong that they undermine our projects and our ability to take care of ourselves and to care for those around us. But while there is certainly some real sense in which there are addictions and they do have a bodily component, we do need to be careful with the word which is politically loaded.

So, what was your hook here, MT? Did I take it where you expected?

AB asks a couple of questions,
What, in your opinion, has been the greatest contribution to science in the last twelve months? Why?

Question 2. Will they ever find a cure for baldness? I only ask because I recall you mentioning that the two areas of medical research which receive the most funding involve the two areas of male enhancement. That doesn’t seem right to me though. Is there some truth to that?
Let's take them in reverse order. First, the claim that I've made (not sure if I've made it on the blog, but we do talk about it in class) is not that these two medical conditions receive the most money, but that they do receive a significant amount of research, development, and marketing money from drug companies that are spending significantly less on problems that affect more people and are far more serious in terms of public health. the idea here is that if we leave medical science purely up to the marketplace, then we come out with some very odd medicine. The resulting priorities are clearly not where one would expect them to be.

The line is that with these drugs that sell well for less serious ailments, there will be more funds for research on less profitable cures, but that's an empirical claim and I'd love to see what evidence there is that the monetary success of substances to help old rich white guys get laid parlays into help for those who really need it (in a different sense of really need it, of course).

As to whether there will ever be a cure for baldness? Yes, it's called the comb-over, but it comes with certain side effects such as auditory disturbances where the user constantly hears people laughing at him.

What is the most important scientific discovery of the last twelve months? I would say, the discovery of a small rocky planet outside of our solar system. We had found large gaseous planets like Jupiter out there, but this is the first one that's like Earth. While this discovery is not shocking and does not advance science very much, it does affect our view of the cosmos as being much more likely to have other life forms in it. If the itsy-bitsy tiny slice of space that we can get anything resembling a handle on looks somewhat like home, there's a really good chance that there's more life out there and that's pretty big stuff. So while it certainly is not the scientifically most important in terms of creating a major paradigm shift in research practice or general beliefs, philosophically I would rate it as very important.

Thermodynamics, Complementarity, and the Dangers of Gay Sex

A few more questions relating to physics, well, sorta.

Barefoot Bum asks,

What are "temperature" and "pressure"?
An interesting question on a host of levels. To be a smart ass, I could pull the philosopher of language move and say that while temperature is a physical property, "temperature" is an 11 letter word starting with the letter t. It comes from the verb "to temper," that is, to mix, and was classically considered to be a result of the relative proportions of the four alchemical elements, the hot, the cold, the dry, and the moist, or in humans, of the vital humours. But I'll take it that BB is asking in a straightforward manner (not often a good bet with Barefoot).

In the modern vernacular, temperature and pressure are two of the state variables for thermodynamics. If you want a complete account of a thermodynamic system, you need to be able to specify its temperature and pressure. But what are they?

It is an interesting and tricky question to say what we mean by physical quantities. On one extreme, you find people like Percy Bridgeman, the Nobel Laureate who espoused a view we call operationalism, in which all a physical quantity means is that it is the outcome of a measurement operation. On this view, temperature is nothing more than the reading you get from a thermometer. Bridgeman was at Harvard at the same time as B. F. Skinner and you can see the same sort of refusal to go beyond the observable in Bridgeman's view as you see in Skinner's behaviorism.

There is good reason to move beyond this operational understanding, though. With the creation of atomic theory, the thought of physicists and physical chemists was that perhaps these macroscopic observable properties are really just manifestations of goings on at the microscopic level, goings on that we could describe in terms of other forces, preferably mechanical forces (things bumping into other things). This would afford a beautiful opportunity for simplifying our worldview, something physicists love to do. It is more elegant if we can describe the happenings in the world with the fewest number of concepts, so it is always a good thing to try to understand one set of concepts in terms of another.

In this way, James Clerk Maxwell proposed the kinetic theory of gasses in three famous papers in 1860, 1867, and 1879. It brought out in a comprehensive fashion something that was being developed by other important thinkers -- Daniel Bernoulli, Fourier, Helmholtz -- that thermodynamic quantities were really the result of molecules bouncing around. On this view, heat was not a separate thing as was previously thought, but just a measure of kinetic energy, the energy of motion of the molecules in the substance. In his first paper, Maxwell pictured gasses as a bunch of little billiard balls -- perfectly round, perfectly hard, and interacting only by contact -- that were all moving and bouncing off of each other and whatever container was holding the gas. Temperature would be a measure related to the average speed of the molecules and pressure would be a measure of the force that the molecules applied to the container when they bounce off of it.

The nice thing about reducing thermodynamics to mechanics is that we understand mechanics and it was governed by Newton's laws which give us complete predictability. At least for systems with two or fewer bodies interacting. Three or more objects and the equations are not exactly solvable. In normal objects, we are looking at a few more than three molecules, so this gave birth to statistical mechanics, the branch of physics dedicated to calculating the behavior of large groups of objects given statistical generalizations about their individual states.

That's the short answer, but I have the nagging sense that there was something else behind the question, Barefoot Bum, so feel free to push it.

pm asks,
over at The Non Sequitur, we discussed this silly article: ...sive_the_p.html
last week. I was particularly thrown by the author's use of the term "logical complementarity." it didn't seem right, but my background in science and the philosophy of science is woefully lacking, so I went on a little hunt. I discovered that Neils Bohr had developed a theory of complementarity, and that he, Einstein and others were in some disagreement of exactly what this term meant and whether or not it had any use outside physics (for instance, the author of the silly article uses it in a biological sense, which I think leads him to an equivocation). So, my question is, could you explain Bohr's notion of complementarity and flesh it out a bit for the scientifically impaired? also, I'm wondering about the relationship between things that are complementary and Bohr's notion of complementarity.
That article is worth a read. It posts the complete text of a paper written by James W. Hollsinger, Jr., President Bush's nominee for Surgeon General, arguing that male homosexual intercourse is medically harmful. It includes claims such as this one,
The rectum is incapable of mechanical protection against abrasion and severe damage to the colonic mucosa can result if objects that are large, sharp, or pointed are inserted into the rectum (Agnew, 1986).
My favorite part of this is that such an obvious point (would anyone seriously argue that inserting a sharp object into the rectum would not likely result in severe damage?) is accompanied by a citation. Could you imagine writing the grant proposal for that one?

In the course of the argument, Holsinger sets out as a premise,
The structure and function of the male and female human reproductive systems are fully complementary. Anatomically the vagina is designed to receive the penis.
The question here is what is meant by the notion of complementarity here.

The sense that pm asks about is the notion used by Neils Bohr in talking about quantum mechanics. As we mentioned yesterday, quantum mechanics has some very odd aspects. One of these is that entities, light first among them but also "things" like electrons and atoms, can be described as behaving as both particles and waves. This is worrisome because there are major differences in the sorts of properties that particles and waves have. Particles have a location and are things, whereas waves are spread out through space and are disturbances in things not things themselves. So, which one is it? Surely, it can't be both and a theory that says it's both must have a problem.

So thought Einstein who took aspects like this to be signs that while quantum mechanics might be a good theory in giving us successful predictions, it is not complete in that there are aspects of the real world that do not have corresponding representation in the theory.

Bohr argued that the theory is complete, but still had to make sense of the weirdness of it all. In doing so, he posited the notion of complementarity as a step towards what would be known as the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Bohr argued that the two views were not competing, but complementary, parts of the whole picture. But how could they be if they irreconcilably conflict on how we are to understand the underlying nature of atomic reality? Bohr's answer, the crux of the Copenhagen interpretation, is that were simply aren't supposed to understand the underlying nature of atomic reality, that we are stuck at the level of observation and don't try to think deeper down.

I don't think this was what Hollsinger had in mind, either literally, metaphorically, or rhetorically. I don't think he was trying to use quantum mechanical terminology to make his point seem stronger. Rather, I think he was using the term "complementarity" in something akin to its mathematical sense. Take a set, say the counting numbers -- 1, 2, 3,... -- and consider a subset, say the even numbers. The complement of that set is what is left when you take away the subset, in this case, the odd numbers. Put a subset and its complement together and you get a complete whole.

I think this is the sense that Hollsinger is employing. Take a vagina, add a penis and you have a biologically complete whole. An anus, on the other hand, may be a hole, but does not give you a whole. In certain respects, it's reminiscent of Aristophanes' speech in the Symposium where he argues that we are incomplete and look for a partner to physically and emotionally complete us. Of course, Hollsinger would prefer that we keep away from Alcibiades.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Stool Pigeons and Quantum Logic

Claude brings us a nice ethical problem,

Many are brought up being told that you should never tell on someone. At the same time, whistle blowing can bring many benefits to society. When is it unethical not to tell? Where do you draw the line between answering the questions "Who threw that spitball?" and "Who dumped that toxic waste?"
Claude frames the issue perfectly in asking where the line is to be drawn. To think about it, let's see what is behind the line in the first place.

Ethical judgments are a combination of factors. When we approach a moral situation we need to be concerned with who did it, what s/he did, to whom s/he did it, the overall effects of having done it, and the effects on those to whom s/he has special moral obligations. The first factor is what Aristotle was playing with in his virtue system, the second is the sort of duty approach to ethics we see in Kant, the third is a rights-based approach, the fourth is the ends/means reasoning of utilitarianism, and the fifth is the sort of care-based approach that we find in second-wave feminist writers on ethics. Fortunately for us, in the vast majority of cases, these all line up and point towards the same choices. In almost every case, determining the morally right thing to do is trivially easy.

In the hard cases, we have conflicting intuitions because one or more of these factors conflict and we're not sure which to grant priority to. In the sort of case you bring up, look at the sort of words we use to describe the person -- on the one hand, snitch, stool pigeon, tattle tale; on the other, whistle blower. Clearly there is a conflict in here somewhere. Let's see if we can isolate it.

On the virtue line, someone who blows the whistle has been disloyal, a vice, but also concerned, a virtue. There is conflict inherent in the virtue approach from the start.

On the duty line, it seems fairly straight forward that the operative rule is always tell the truth. This one votes for snitching.

The rights-based concerns don't really enter in here since it clearly is not a violation of your own rights to speak what you know to be true, nor is it a violation of someone else's rights to tell what they have done. This one is on the sidelines (mostly).

Utilitarian concerns, as usual are entirely case dependent. Unabomber's brother, yeah, really intense ramifications of not calling the cops. Who threw the spitball, not so much. This one will be contextual.

Care-based is the one that says, "hey, you don't rat on a pal." When you have a personal relationship, it comes with certain obligations. Caring about someone often means doing things to pull their backsides out of the fire that may be a tad unseemly, hoping that they will have learned their lesson from it and will grow into more a responsible person who will not repeat that mistake.

So what we have here is an ethical tug-of-war between duty on one side and care on the other. The winner is often determined by utility. Sometimes the person needs to learn the hard way and take their lickins. In that case, you owe it to the person to tell. In other cases, you know that the offense was minor and that the fallout will way outweigh the misdeed. In that case, there's no problem not telling and protecting your friend, as long as you also shoot a disapproving look. Then there are the cases where there is serious peril to innocents if you don't let the cat out of the bag. In that case, utility clearly dictates coming clean. Will there be cases in which it isn't clear which way utility comes down? Of course, hard ethical problems are hard for a reason, namely they're hard. But where we draw the line is usually a matter of determining whether the world will be a better place in the end as a result of telling or not.

There are, however, some cases in which rights-based concerns pop into the equations. When someone cheats on a test that will be curved, for example. Now there are not only utility concerns, but also questions of whether the rights of other students in the class have been trampled upon. In those cases, rights will often side with duty and make the bar much higher for utility.

Justin asks,
What exactly is the contradiction between logic/mathematics and quantum mechanics? Will we ever know which one is right?
The first of several quantum questions this go round. First of all, there is absolutely no conflict between mathematics and quantum theory. Quantum theory is a set of state equations meant to model physical phenomena and so is mathematical by its very nature. Classical logic, on the other hand, is a more interesting story.

I used the phrase "state equation" above, let me explain what it means. The state equations of a system are the mathematical description of the state of that physical system. It sets out the relations among the state variables -- things like pressure and temperature (which we'll discuss tomorrow, I promise BB) or mass and velocity -- the basic properties of the things in the system.

The state equation of quantum mechanics is called Schrodinger's equation and it relates potential and kinetic energy, but it does so using the state variable psi or the wave-function. The question is what this psi is. We know, or at least think we do, what temperature, pressure, mass, and velocity are. We can sense them. We can measure them. But we can't measure psi. What we can do is express it in terms of other things we can measure. This is not that weird, we do something similar with energy, for example.

Where it gets weird is that when you look at the value that psi is supposed to be according to Schrodinger's equation, it turns out to be a combination of several, even an infinite number, of values for the observable quantities. Take position, for example. We think that everything is somewhere and it is exactly where it is. But you can set up quantum mechanical systems where a single indivisible thing, say a photon, an indivisible particle of light, is in a state where it is simultaneously going through one slit on the left and one slit on the right. It's not that half of it is going through one and half of it is going through the other because it is indivisible. no, the whole thing is half going left and half going right.

Super weirdness results when we try to observe this. the instant we start checking, it will go only through the left or only through the right. We never see the combination, or superposed, state. It knows when you are looking and randomly -- completely randomly -- goes all left or all right. But when you are not looking it will be in a superposed state of going left and right and we know this to be the case because it has observable physical ramifications (for example, light patterns that disappear when we turn on sensors to see which slit the light goes through and immediately reappear when we turn the sensors off).

Here is where traditional logic has been thought by some to be insufficient. The heart of classical logic is the law of the excluded middle, the rule that says what is not true is false and what is not false is true. There are two and only two truth values and all sentences possess one or the other. The sentence, "The photon went through the left slit," according to classical logic, is either true or false. Now one could try to marry quantum mechanics to classical logic and say that if it went right it was false and if it was in a superposed state then it is false since it didn't go completely and uniquely through the left slit. But this move clearly should not completely satisfy us since it did go through the left slit, meaning the sentence isn't exactly false. But if we restrict ourselves to exactly true and exactly false, we are stuck.

The thought is that we could have a three-valued logic, which allows sentences to be true, false or some other third truth value. How do we make sense of this third value? Is it indeterminate? Is it something else? This is something a lot of very smart folks have been playing with, but the idea is that the way the sub-atomic world works may be weird enough to warrant it's own formal structure for reasoning. That doesn't mean that traditional logic is false or useless or that I have a brother and don't have a brother and therefore am currently wearing a purple dress. It just means that if quantum theory is true, we may need a more intricate language for reasoning about some things.

Tomorrow, more physics...

Monday, June 25, 2007

Dreams and Funny Stuff

Irenie asks,

What are dreams?
What a great question.

The ancients thought it messages from the Gods. Freud thought it was the unconscious seeping into the conscious. The oversimplified picture we generally get from pop science is that there are REM periods which are dream periods.

We know that the pons, a part of the middle brain that is not connected with the higher functions, is what stimulates various parts of the brain during sleep. It releases the neurotransmitter acetylcholine to parts of the brain which then become active. This activity then translates into dreams.

We dream throughout the night, not just during REM, we have dreams, but it is during REM phases that the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory, tends to be stimulated by the release of dopamine. For this reason, the dreams during REM sleep are more intense. The more dopamine, the more vivid the dreams. Dreams are one way the brain strengthens the connections. If you were working on something during the day, the pathways created will be reinforced during dreaming.

Then there's lucid dreaming, the ability to control your dreams. Some people have this ability. It occurs when you realize during the dream that you are dreaming, at which point you can determine what happens. We know that the dorsolateral prefontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls attention, which is usually not active during REM sleep becomes active, this allows for the conscious ability during sleep.

Gwydion asks,
Which is funnier: a monkey dressed as a pirate, with an eyepatch and a parrot and a fake pegleg, or a monkey dressed as an aviator, with the goggles and the hat with the earflaps and the scarf billowing in the wind?
The pirate.

Brock asks,
Who was the funniest philosopher?
I beat me to the punch on Sidney Morgenbesser, well repected wise ass of the analytic set. His most famous one occurred in an APA meeting when J.L. Austin was musing on the point that a double negative is equivalent to an affirmative, but a double affirmative is not equivalent to a negation. To which Morgenbesser replies, "Yeah, yeah."

As for other stand-up philosophers, I would second Hume, Rorty, add the obvious Nietzsche, and also include a few others. I always found Bertrand Russell particularly funny in that snarky British fashion like when he referred to causality as being like the royal family -- kept around because it's wrongly assumed to do no harm. A lot of great punsters amongst the philosophers of language. One of my favorties is Fred Dretske from Duke who replied to a piece entitled "Dretske's Dreadful Question" with the response, "Dretske's Awful Answer." Then there's Nathan Salmon's classic paper on saving Mill's view of reference called "How to be a Million Heir." Pretty clever those philolang folks.

Superheroes, Speech Acts, and Author's Intent

Man, I love the questions you folks come up with. I'll try to answer as many as I can this week.

R. Porter asks,

“Here's a question I actually ask software engineers when I interview them for a job. *I* know the answer, but the point is to see if they do, and what their thought processes are.

Who wins in a fight: Superman or The Hulk? Support your answer and show all work.”
If I were at an interview and asked this question, my answer would be this: If Superman and the Hulk were fighting, the winner would be the villains. You have two superheroes who could be making the world a better place, ignoring the plots and schemes of those who endanger innocent people in order to settle a personal grudge. In addition, one or both of them will emerge weaker and unable to fight crime as well.

Similarly, with members of this team, sniping and in-fighting takes energy away from doing what we have to do and in the end makes us less capable, no matter the ultimate outcome. Neither of the warring parties wins the argument and our customers certainly suffer, only our competition wins.

Do I get the gig?

O’Claire asks,
“When you say "thank you" to someone, you're thanking them. When you say "I apologize," you've apologized. So why is it, if I owe someone money, I can't just say "I pay you" and be done with it? What kind of thing is it you can do just by saying you're doing it?”
We often like to draw a distinction between saying and doing. Take the childhood favorite, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” The idea that words just name things and don’t make a real difference in the real world was undermined by a number of philosophers, my favorite is J. L. Austin who in his book Doing Things with Words, argued exactly that sometimes we use words to do things. Betting, promising, naming, apologizing are all things you do with words. Consider those two little words, “I do,” with those three letters, you do something rather important.

Of, course, not all things can be done with just words. In the case of payment, you’ve indebted yourself – probably with just words, “I’ll take it,” or signing your name on a credit card receipt – but that debt is a promise to do something more than speak, but to give someone else something material.

At the same time, you actually could settle the debt with just words, say by paying your bills on-line and clicking “pay it.” You can, with only words, authorize someone else to electronically settle the debt. Of course, I don’t think that’s quite what you had in mind…

Bkriplur asks,
“Is the author's intent relevant to literary interpretation? Is the author's intent relevant in philosophy?”
Author’s intent is an interesting and important question, but it is not the only question. Works of literature or philosophy are always underdetermined in terms of their meaning. They can always be interpreted in different ways. To understand why an author put something the way he or she did often illuminates the passage in ways that a superficial reading ignores. It requires biographical and historical senses that will often disambiguate works in ways you didn’t expect. “Oh, that’s what he’s responding to, that means he really meant for it to say Y, not the X that I thought it meant.” Take someone like Ludwig Wittgenstein whose work is brilliant, but cryptic. The work that, say, Toulmin and Janik in their wonderful book Wittgenstein’s Vienna was very interesting because it put his work in an Austrian context, and not the Anglo empiricist/epistemological one that we inherited from Russell’s take on Wittgenstein and which is usually the way we learn about Wittgenstein's thought. Wittgenstein's Vienna will deepen your understanding because it brings you clues about why Wittgenstein was interested in what he was writing about and what he was reading when these thoughts came to him.

At the same time, there is often deep insight that can come from taking a piece of art or reasoning and interpreting it in a different way. There’s nothing wrong with using a text and building off of it in a direction the author had not desired or envisioned. Intellectual works are part of an on-going conversation, not ends in themselves and different lines of interpretation can provide new realizations that the original, interpreted in a strict sense, would never have given rise to. Kripke’s work on Wittgenstein is a prime example. Kripke’s take is probably not what Wittgenstein himself was thinking, but there’s no doubt that you could play with it in Kripke’s way and when you do, new and interesting lines of discussion pop up.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics: Any Questions?

It's been a while, so here it is again.

For those new to the Playground, I have a schtick I do at the beginning of each class where I let the students ask absolutely any question they have, any question at all, from auto mechanics to quantum mechanics. Some former students asked me to revive it on-line, so every couple of months I trot it out here. So, if you've ever had a question you always wanted to ask or something that's just been stumping you, here's your chance. Ask away and I'll get to as many as possible in this week's posts.

Here's one for you guys: homonyms are words that are spelled differently, but pronounced the same, for example, led and lead. Is there a word for words that are spelled the same, but pronounced differently? Think polish and Polish -- there's a big difference between silver polish and Polish silver.

So, what do you have for us? Any questions?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Me and My Uncle: Justice, Irony, and Schadenfreude

One of the pieces in The Grateful Dead and Philosophy that I really love is the one written by own playground playpal Hanno. It's called "Me and My Uncle...and Thomas Hobbes" and examines a question that arises out of the Dead's most performed song, "Me and My Uncle."

In the song, the narrator recalls coming into a town with his uncle, a poker game, an altercation, and the two of them leaving town in an expedited manner with a lot of gold that used to belong to a group of cowboys. At the end of the song, the narrator says,

I love those cowboys, I love their gold
I love my uncle, God rest his soul
He taught me good, Lord, taught me all I know
taught me so well, I grabbed that gold
and left him lying there by the side of the road.
So, the uncle taught the nephew how to be a murderous criminal and that lesson ends up leading to his own murder. The question Hanno explores is whether the uncle's death is his just desert, was justice served when the fruit arising from the seeds he planted with his lessons in evil turned out to be his own demise.

I won't go into the details of Hanno's argument here, which is a lot of fun to read, but it does raise an interesting question that I do want to throw out there. We surely can say that the uncle's murder was ironic, so is the relationship between irony and justice? Indeed, we often hear such ironies referred to as "poetic justice." So is there a connection between poetic and moral justice? Further, when we see someone get their comeuppance, we are often delighted by their suffering, we experience Schadenfreude. How does that figure into the mix?

An old e-mail that went around compared the British definition of irony, "an aesthetic valuation by an audience, which relies on a sharp discordance between the real and the ideal" and the American definition of irony, "the property of being a lot like iron." When Ted Haggard gets outed for being gay after leading an explicitly homophobic congregation, there's irony. When Rush Limbaugh, after bashing so many connected with the Clinton administration for drug use and having said of the Kennedy's lawyer Roy Black that no one goes to this guy unless they are guilty, gets busted himself on drug charges and then hires Roy Black to defend him, there's irony. But is there necessarily justice along with it?

And then there's the feeling we get when we see ironic occurrences. When you see that jerk who passed you on the shoulder doing 85 get pulled over a few miles up the road, there's a guilty sort of pleasure and maybe even a saccharine wave as you pass. Schadenfreude is the pleasure we take in the suffering of others -- say, each time the Yankees lose. (I've tried to coin the phrase "Freudenschade" for the feeling of suffering for at the successes of others, although this should not be confused with "Freud und Schatze" which is an Austrian psychologist and his sweetie.) We had a student a few years back argue that Schadenfreude was a legitimate delight in justice coming to be. You see someone getting what he deserves and you think that the universe is now a better, more just place, a joy in seeing the cosmic balance restored. Kerry, on the other hand, argued that it was a negative emotion, a sense of antipathy that dehumanizes the other person. I found both arguments compelling, but at least one has to be wrong.

So, is there a relation between justice, irony, and Schadenfreude?

Choosing a College

There was an interesting discussion yesterday over at Mad Melancholic Feminista about a revolt by liberal arts colleges against U.S. News and World Reports' national rankings. This is a big deal because incoming students and their families take these ranking very seriously. Your ranking does have an effect on how many and what students apply and decide to attend. Part of the problem is that people selecting a college or university are often among the worst informed consumers anywhere. They really have no way of getting a real sense of what it is they are looking for. Maybe they've gone through a college, maybe not, but they have experience with only one or two and no sense of what differentiate them or makes them effective. Surely, some are better (in some sense of that word) than others. Anecdotally, I've spoken to several families who chose one school over another exclusively because it was a couple of ranks higher on the list.

The reasoning seems to go: higher on the list = better school = better education = better job upon graduation = more money = happier life. This, of course, does not actually work on several counts, but it is the first two links that I'd like to discuss.

Because these rankings have real-life effects on a school, schools have had a love/hate relationship with them. They grumble a lot while doing everything possible to raise their ranking. The criteria used are here. The largest component comes from a peer survey. Other factors seem relevant, class size, for example, is educationally relevant. Then there are factors that are not relevant, and indeed may be negatively correlated with getting a good education. Faculty compensation, for example, is a poor measure of quality teaching. Faculty are generally better compensated for research, not teaching and while there are some wonderful teachers who are also prolific publishers, often those two are in conflict and some of the teachers who will spend the time and give their all in the classroom are those who are not the scholarly stars. Similarly, the use of adjuncts decreases the score on which the rankings are based, but often adjuncts are as good if not better in the classroom than tenured faculty. And, of course, there are not only questions about the factors employed, but their weighting.

The question is whether this result is helpful to people who have little other information to make an important decision. There seem to be three possibilities here:

(1) The rankings are not actually informative, but are taken to be because of a lack of other information
(2) The rankings are informative, but schools don't want that information out there
(3) The rankings are informative, but not in the way that they are made use of by the families

I would argue that (3) is the case. There is no doubt that there are differences between institutions in terms of culture and expected level, say how well students are expected to be able to write when they come in the door, and these are reflected to some degree in the rankings. There is a difference between Amherst and Gettysburg as the ranking show,but the fine grained distinctions that families take away from the rankings are not valid.

Further, getting a good education does not mean being higher on the list. Indeed, "a good education" is not a single thing, but something relative to the student's goals, learning style, and personality. Finding the best college is not a matter of seeing how high up the list you can go, but finding the proper fit. The list can be one part of a larger set of criteria to find the right fit for a given student, but they should not be seen in the way that ranking sports teams lists the better ones above the worse ones.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Grateful Dead and Philosophy: Ownership, Authorship, and Intellectual Property

First, the big news -- The Grateful Dead and Philosophy is out! It's real, it's on shelves, and I could not be happier with the book or prouder of my Deadhead cohorts who contributed wonderful, engaging, insightful, and fun essays.

The book was made easier to put together by the fact that philosophy is a reactive discipline. Philosophy starts after someone else has caused a revolution that has left some part of the intellectual landscape in shambles. As much as folks like Plato and Descartes wanted to assert that philosophy is a foundation upon which to build the rest of knowledge, the fact is we're more like the architects you call in once a building has been destroyed in order to figure out how to rebuild: what parts of the old structure are still intact and strong enough to bear the load, what parts need to be slightly refashioned, and which parts should never be rebuilt in the old way. After a revolution, be it in science, politics, art, or society, we need to figure out what just happened, what we can still believe, and what we need to puzzle out. The Dead were a part of revolutions in so many ways that there is lots and lots of philosophy to be done.

One of those topics surfaced in yesterday's conversation about John Locke and property -- especially the question about the relation between authorship and ownership -- which is quite similar to a discussion between Dead guitarist Bob Weir and Dead lyricist and Weir's longtime friend (and partner in crime back in their boarding school days) John Perry Barlow. Barlow has gone on to found the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization dedicated to protecting on-line access to information. One of the revolutions fomented by the Dead was their approach to intellectual property and McDaniel College philosopher Peter Bradley has a wonderful essay in the book discussing the Dead tapers' ethic and considering whether it should be used as the basis for a new approach to intellectual property.

Bootlegging is the recording and reproduction of other people's performances without expressed consent. In much of the music industry, it is seen as piracy, theft, a sin against the performer and the industry as a whole. In accord with yesterday's passage from Locke, they created it through their own labor, they own it. How dare you take it without asking and no, you may not have it.

The Grateful Dead, on the other hand, took a slightly different attitude. After the first song of their August 6th, 1970 performance at the Hollywood Palladium, Bob Weir can be heard to say to a guy in the audience close to the stage, "You, with the microphone, if you want a good recording, you'll need to move back about forty feet." A few seconds later, Jerry Garcia pipes in, "Yeah, right about there." The Dead did not try to stop and actively prosecute bootleggers like most other groups; no, they did what they could to help them. Indeed, they would reserve the acoustically best spot in the venue specifically for the tapers.

Coming out of the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco in the mid-60s, the Dead were close with people who were deeply suspicious of property rights and ownership altogether. The Diggers a group dedicated to the notion "free," that people could not be free unless food, medical care, housing and other needs of life were free as well. They were friends of the band who shared their deep suspicion of authority, especially corporate authority and it manifested itself in a rejection of the standard approach to intellectual property rights. It was the Dead's refusal to sign off on granting exclusive intellectual property rights that kept them out of the documentary made of Woodstock.

In return, the tapers came to develop their own ethos. Tapes were to be traded or given away, not sold. Tapes could be made of the Dead's own soundboard recordings, but not if they had been mixed down by the Dead's professionals. The act of post-production mixing made the result property of the band to be held in "The Vault." Much like Locke, the idea was that the music in the air was unowned. If you added your labor by taping it, it was yours; if the band's folks lent their effort, it became property of the band.

Enter and their live music archive. In the old days of cassettes, each new tape degraded the quality of the recording slightly, but with digital reproduction this loss could be eliminated, allowing for near-perfect reproduction. When the Dead's soundboard recordings appeared on, it raised some new questions. Suddenly professional quality recordings of people's music could be found for free. This worried Bobby, not because of his own work, but because the Dead often covered tunes they loved by others. These folks had invested the labor of writing the songs and under copyright rules were entitled to royalties for reproduction that they weren't getting. Weir's attitude was that if he wanted to give away his own work, that was one thing, but he didn't have the right to give away what belonged to someone else.

Barlow argued contrarily that this was information that should remain free. A compromise was ultimately reached wherein soundboard recordings could be streamed, but not downloaded.

This, of course, raises several interesting philosophical questions. The notion of property rights is a product of Locke's time when they were thinking about things you could touch. Does it make any sense to speak in the same way of the more ephemeral "things" like information? Does/should authorship entail ownership? What can be owned? What counts as reproduction? What counts as having -- a material recording? the ability to listen at will? What was the best performance of Dark Star?

Monday, June 18, 2007

Bullshit or Not: John Locke Edition

This week's quotation for adjudication comes from the Second Treatise on Civil Government:

Thus this law of reason makes the deer that Indian's who hath killed it; it is allowed to be his goods, who hath bestowed his labour upon it, though before it was the common right of every one. And amongst those who are counted the civilized part of mankind, who have made and multiplied positive laws to determine property, this original law of nature, for the beginning of property, in what was before common, still takes place; and by virtue thereof, what fish any one catches in the ocean, that great and still remaining common of mankind; or what ambergrise any one takes up here, is by the labour that removes it out of that common state nature left it in, made his property, who takes that pains about it. And even amongst us, the hare that any one is hunting, is thought his who pursues her during the chase: for being a beast that is still looked upon as common, and no man's private possession; whoever has employed so much labour about any of that kind, as to find and pursue her, has thereby removed her from the state of nature, wherein she was common, and hath begun a property.
Does adding one's labor to something unowned convey property rights to that thing? If you make something, does that make it yours? For those who want to call "bullshit," consider the case of a work of art -- surely, the work belongs to the artist because of the artist's labor. Is it a special case? Is ownership in any way related to labor? Or indeed to labour? Is there a connexion? Can you think of other words that are much cooler when spelled in the British fashion?

So, bullshit or not? You decide. As usual, feel free to leave a comment ranging from a single word to a detailed explanation.

RIP Don Herbert

Sad, sad, sad. Last week saw the passing of Don Herbert, better known as Mr. Wizard. He was a hero to many of us across several generations. We was the Mr. Rogers of science -- kind, gentle, excited, and mesmerizing. You got drawn into his experiments and wanting to know why things happened, to understand how the world works. For young minds like mine, he brought science to life, giving you not only a concrete visual to pique your interest but the first glimmering that the way to understand this happening that you just witnessed was through universal principles. Mr. wizard let you know that the world was not only an interesting place, but also one that was well ordered and whose structure could be understood by someone like you and me.

It was a simpler show. Unlike much of the kid's science programming that followed it, it didn't have the fast-paced flash. It had a contemplative rhythm, as Jacob Freeze so elegantly describes. There was intentionally room left for young minds to engage. Science was not thrown at you, but, rather, Mr. Wizard made sure you were invited in to the scientific mindset. Mr. Wizard was more concerned with showing science to be fascinating than cool.

He was not a scientist by trade, but majored in both general sciences and English in his time at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. No one should need a better example than Don Herbert to illustrate the power and value of a well-rounded, liberal education.

In these times, when a popular understanding of science is more important than ever and under attack more than ever, we need another Don Herbert. But, sadly, we've lost the only one we had. Rest in peace, Mr. Wizard, you are loved and admired. Thank you for all the years and all the inspiration.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Comedist Wedding

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

June is the month for weddings and it just so happens that LilBro has been asked to officate the first Comedist wedding. The two of us will sit down and write the service, but we're always looking for suggestions from our Comedist brothers and sisters.

We're figuring that the service must end with "take your wife...please," although some of the other Henny Youngman lines may be a bit much.

Why are divorces so expensive? They're worth it.
Why do men die before their wives? They want to.
Likewise Rodney Dangerfield may not be in the best of taste,
I haven't spoken to my wife in years...I didn't want to interrupt her.

I told my wife the truth. I told her I was seeing a psychiatrist. Then she told me the truth: that she was seeing a psychiatrist, two plumbers, and a bartender.

My wife was afraid of the dark. Then she saw me naked and now she's afraid of the light.
Two must use lines, one from the immortal Groucho, hallowed be thy name.
Marriage is a fine institution, but who wants to live in an institution?
The other from Rita Rudner,
I think a man with an earring is better prepared for marriage...he's experienced pain and bought jewelry.
Let's end with two more:

You know it's not going to last when the groom introduces the bride at the reception as "my first wife."

A husband and wife were having breakfast when the wife asks, "If I died, would you remarry?" Looking up from the paper the husband says, "Huh?" "If I died, would you remarry?" Shrugging his shoulders, the husband replies, "Maybe, I guess," and goes back to reading. "Would you live in the house?" "I don't know, sure." "Would you sleep in our bed?" "Where would you sleep if not the bed?" "Would you let her use my golf clubs?" "No." "So you would live in our house and sleep in our bed, but you wouldn't let her use my golf clubs?!" "No, she's left handed."

What are your favorite marriage/wedding jokes? All donations appreciated.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Good Ones

A few good one's from those internets:

Found these folks today, a new motorcycle gang from the northwest side of Baltimore, Semites on Bikes, the SOB's. They come out to counter-klan protests, except, of course, for the ones held on Saturday. "Dude, don't mess with him, he's an SOB. That's Davy "the Lawyer" Goldstein. A real pair of matzo balls on that guy, if you know what I mean."

I don't know why this site always makes me laugh out loud, but, gosh "I" sure "love" the "blog" of "unnecessary" quotation marks. Maybe it's an "elitist" thing, maybe it's that we all have "pet peeves" and it's fun seeing someone do something about it, but that there blog just "cracks" me up.

Then there was the find of the week. Sorry to go complete philosophy geek on y'all here -- I generally try to keep things non-technical because the whole idea is that I can talk to philosophers anytime, here I want to play with everyone -- but as a big fan of extreme cleverness, I found this magnificent. Brock from Battle Panda (one of my regular stops) gave a link to a poem he wrote, "I Gave My Love an Emerose" I hope he doesn't mind my reproducing it, but I really love it.

I gave my love an emerose
Upon a summer day,
While all around us in the grove
The gavagai did play.
"I've never seen a hue so green,"
My love did say to me.
"My dear," I said, "it's shmolored gred,
Just green until time t."
As a fan of Nelson Goodman and W. V, O. Quine, I think it is fantastic. It led me to this far inferior sequel:

As the gavagai frolicked,
so too did our hearts,
though mine she'd later break
separating its non-detached parts

She turned and asked my intention
and I could but refer
to a singleton set
including only her

We sat and watched a bunny,
but she saw it a duck.
In language that should've been private
I look back and exclaim "darn"

Find any good ones out there lately? Favortie sites we should check out?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Pity Party: Who Do You Feel Sorry For?

I feel sorry for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Having to wait to see if the Senate passed a no confidence resolution against you. Man, that had to be torture. No one should have to go through that.

I feel sorry for the guy who (purportedly) supplied Barry Bonds with his steroids. The man is the Karl Rove of baseball, but where are his headlines?

I feel sorry for Mike Gravel. Not because he has no chance of getting the Democratic nomination for President, but because Al Sharpton is to Mike Gravel as Dick York is to Dick Sargent. It's got to be tough to be the New Coke of the 2008 Democratic Presidential contenders.

So, who do you feel sorry for today?

Thoughts on a New Poll on Evolution

When Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," I wonder what he would consider a foolish consistency. Is it the "freedom isn't free" crowd trying to undermine habeus corpus, the very foundation of our legal freedoms? Or perhaps it is this,

It might seem contradictory to believe that humans were created in their present form at one time within the past 10,000 years and at the same time believe that humans developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. But, based on an analysis of the two side-by-side questions asked this month about evolution and creationism, it appears that a substantial number of Americans hold these conflicting views.
This quotation comes from the analysis of a new Gallup poll. According to that poll, "24% of Americans believe that both the theory of evolution and the theory of creationism are probably or definitely true." A quarter of the population holds a view on the origins of humans that is not even close to consistent.

No doubt, part of this is a complete lack of understanding about both natural history and modern biology. The overwhelming majority of people do not have a sense of the fundamental facts of the world. How old is the Earth? How long ago were the dinosaurs around? When did the first humans appear? (4.55 billion years, around 245 million until around 65 million years ago, homo habilis appears around two million years ago while homo sapien comes on the scene about 250,000 years ago) these are big numbers and big numbers baffle the human mind. They all seem the same -- millions, billions, what's the difference? I understand the radical difference between a car costing $30,000 dollars and one costing $500, but one government program costing $3.4 billion and another costing $20 million both get filed under the category "a lot," even though the difference in this second case is a wee bit larger than in the first. As a result, we can easily have little sense of the history of our planet.

The contradiction, however, is not entirely traceable to a lack of scientific understanding. Does this show a need for greatly improved science education? Yeah, sure. But there's something else there as well. This inconsistency has two sides, and part of it is based upon the widespread American desire to embrace science. What you are seeing is the pluralistic desire for folks in this country to both hang onto their religious views and accept the work of science they don't fully understand. It's an attempt to have your religious cake and scientifically eat it too. Many Americans want to see the hand of God in an evolutionary process, whether it is there or not.

Where I think folks like Jim Wallis and Michael Lerner have it completely wrong is that they think that the proper route is to appeal to these people by trying to play the God side of the equation in order to compete with the Republicans (70% of whom, according to this poll, believe that human evolution never occurred). I think this is exactly the wrong tack. Democrats need to work the other part of that desire, to become the party of those who believe in science. Religious belief, it needs to be made clear, is a personal matter. Your theological leanings are your own business and as long as they do not cause physical harm or restrict the rights of any fellow citizen we think that you ought to be encouraged to believe (or disbelieve) whatever you want. However, when it comes to the way the world works, there ought be no path other than evidence-based thinking. We don't need, as Wallis and Lerner argue, to put more God in our politics, we need more science and a clear statement that our values are in concert with our reason.

We need to stress the consequences of putting desired beliefs before science -- hint, look at New Orleans or Iraq. Again, we are the fact-value voters, affirming your prerogative to hold the theology of your choice, but making decisions about how to make policy affecting the world on our knowledge of how the world really works -- whether we want it to work that way or not. We have no problem with religion per se, we have a problem with (1) demonizing anyone whose religious leanings are not identical to your own and (2) when religious convictions stand in the way of efforts to make the world a better, safer, more fair place.

The Creation museum and its overt attack on reason ought to be used as a powerful political weapon. Just as a decade ago the question "How much does a gallon of milk cost?" was the question that made candidates tremble, today, we ought to ask "Are you a proud member of the reality-based community?" whether they believe that public policy ought to be based on our best science. Once upon a time, it seemed like a good idea to have our best and brightest occupy places of great civic responsibility. We should be campaigning on a platform to restore exactly that.

People want to believe in science they don't really understand. We need both to try to improve science education so that more understand it better AND to put in places of power people who do understand it.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Bullshit or Not: Richard Rorty Edition

This week, philosophy lost a giant. Richard Rorty is dead. He was a fun character because he was explosive without being nasty. His arguments clean and tight for conclusions that HAD to be wrong. Few could get under the skins of philosophers in the way Rorty could. So it is only fitting that instead of an obit, we feature one of his quotations in our "bullshit or not" format.

[W]hat profit can we derive from a description of a part of the culture that, instead of simply explaining its social utility, or determining the degree of consensus that obtains within it, goes on to consider its relation to reality? For the "postmodern" philosophers and the pragmatists (among whom I number myself) the traditional questions of metaphysics and epistemology can be neglected because they have no social utility. It is not that they are devoid of meaning, nor that they rest on false premises; it is simply that the vocabulary of metaphysics and epistemology is of no practical use. (What's the Use of Truth? pp. 37-8)
So in the post-Dover world in which there is an institutional, politically motivated attack on science and Creation museums drawing headlines, is it really true that the vocabulary of philosophy, including the notion of capital T Truth, is of no social utility? Is analytic philosophy obsolete because it has nothing to has nothing to contribute to daily life?

Bullshit or not, you decide.

As usual, feel free to leave comments from a single word to as long as needed to explain your position.

Friday, June 08, 2007

The Feast of Saint Paul

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week brings us the feast day of Saint Paul. Paul Lynde would have been 81. A stand-up comedian before becoming a character actor and appearing in Bewitched, The Munsters, The Phil Silvers Show, I Dream of Jeannie, the Dean Martin Show, and as the voice of Templeton the rat in the animated version of Charlotte's Web, he got his first big break playing the father in the Broadway run of Bye, Bye Birdie. He is, of course, best known for being the center square on Hollywood Squares where his zingers are legendary.

He was also one of the first major figures to shape the public image of gay men. At a time when homosexuality was not a topic of public conversation, Lynde, while playing on the flamboyant stereotype, was able to humanize gay men in a way that made him beloved.

Here are some of his classics:

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

Peter Marshall: Diamonds should not be kept with your family jewels, why?
Paul Lynde: They're so cold!

Peter Marshall: What is a pullet?
Paul Lynde: A little show of affection...

Peter Marshall: What are "dual purpose" cattle good for that other cattle aren't?
Paul Lynde: They give milk and cookies...but I don't recommend the cookies!

Peter Marshall: Paul, why do Hell's Angels wear leather?
Paul Lynde: Because chiffon wrinkles too easily.

Peter Marshall: True or false...research indicates that Columbus liked to wear bloomers and long stockings.
Paul Lynde: It's not easy to sign a crew up for six months...

Peter Marshall: According to the World Book, is it okay to freeze your persimmons? Paul Lynde: No. You should dress warmly.

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

Peter Marshall: When you pat a dog on its head he will usually wag his tail. What will a goose do?
Paul Lynde: Make him bark.

Peter Marshall: Paul, in the early days of Hollywood, who was usually found atop Tony, the Wonder Horse?
Paul Lynde: My Friend Flicka.
He's in comedy heaven now.

Have a great week everyone!

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve


One of my projects for the summer is working on a philosophy of science textbook I've been developing bit by bit for a few years now.

It is one of the world's worst kept secrets that textbooks, required for virtually every course, tend not to be all that helpful to students. I can't count the number of times I've heard students tell me, "I tried to read the book, but I just don't get it" or "I only understand it when it is explained in class." I don't know how much of this is a result of (1) students lying and having not really read the textbook, hoping to be spoon fed the information instead of doing the hard work themselves (2) instead of active reading, students merely skimming the textbook and not really sitting down and reading carefully, working through problems, outlining arguments,..., or (3) textbooks not being a successful pedagogical vehicle.

My concern is the last one. Everyone who writes a textbook goes into the project thinking that this one will be different. This is going to be the textbook that succeeds in being clear, engaging, and instructive. And, of course, most fail to meet that expectation.

So what is it about textbooks that you really hate and what examples can you think of that made a textbook successful? What should I avoid and what should I try to include?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Climate Control Policy and Fairness

Been meaning to link to this for a couple of days now. Helmut, over at phronesisiacal, has a magnificent post about climate control policy. A real must read. The real power of the blogs is when someone with expertise explains things clearly so the rest of us become smarter. There's so much expertise out there that when we pull from it, we all get better informed. It's what Lindsay at Majikthise calls "the hive mind" and this post is a great example of it at its best.

Helmut does a beautiful job of laying out the different sides of the discussion, but I want to look at the two objections of the Bush folks:

The central problems for the US regarding the Kyoto Protocol, which was signed by the US in 1998 but never ratified (the latter is necessary for an international agreement to become binding, though the US has broken plenty of other binding agreements over the past six years) are:

- that the US views ratification of Kyoto as not in its national interests. This position assumes that a) national interests are synonymous with economic interests; b) that there is no technological alternative for economic growth [also a value assumption] to increasing emissions; and c) that only national interests matter when it comes to climate change.

- that developing countries excluded from the first round of Kyoto should have been included, especially China and India, along with the developed Annex I countries.
The first receives a lot of discussion, but it is the second one that interests me here. The question I'm thinking about is "Is there something wrong with leaving developing nations out of the mix?"

On the one side, the argument is one of fairness. The US and Europe was able to reap the benefits of modernizing without constraints. To now make it harder and more expensive for those currently in the process would be to punish them for the crimes committed by those who came before. Why should India and China have to suffer economic harm because of the west's screw up? Let them get up to speed and then talk about pitching in emissions-wise. It's only fair. When you watch a race, those in the outer lanes start in front of those with the inside route because closer is shorter -- it is not that they are being given an unfair advantage, the head start makes it fair. In the same way, would inclusion of China and India in climate change policy on an equal footing be like putting them in the outside lanes and making them start on the same line as the US and Europe eith the inside track?

The line on the other side is utilitarian -- "Hey, we've got a problem now. A big problem that will impact everyone and everyone needs to pitch in." If global warming is a real concern, then shouldn't we all be doing everything we can to stop it, even those nations who are now industrializing. Why repeat an error when we know how bad the error is? Yes, it is unfortunate that these folks get saddled with an extra burden, but facts is facts and the fact is our emissions are doing very bad things and we all need to pull together to solve the problem. If we are serious about solving this, how can we do anything and not do something about the second largest producer of problematic emissions?

So, if we had Kyoto to do over again, should China and India be included?

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Buffon Meets Buffoon

"Nietzsche says, 'Out of chaos comes order'" (extra credit if you name the film and give the next line). Out of denying the history of biology comes a chance to discuss the history of biology. Much has been made of Alex Beam's column in the Boston Globe about the Conservapedia entry on kangaroos (see LGM and Kos, for example -- LGM is worth it just for the picture).

"like all modern animals . . . kangaroos are the descendants of the two founding members of the modern kangaroo baramin that were taken aboard Noah's Ark prior to the Great Flood."

You may not recognize the word "baramin." It's a 20th-century creationist neologism that refers to the species God placed on earth during Creation Week. Special for kids: I wouldn't use that word on the biology final. Although maybe your parents could sue the local school board for failing to teach the Book of Genesis in science class.
While the word "baramin" may be a recent creation of Creationists, the notion they are employing comes right out of the big debate over speciation in the generation before Darwin.

Species had become a bit of a problem at the time. Originally, it was thought that all organisms fit nicely onto a linear chain of perfection that put humans near the top, just below angels and the Big Invisible Man in the Sky. But then Linnaeus came along and showed that a more complex organization made more sense. This undercut the theologically-based picture a bit, but the big problem was that it was clear that there were related organisms that clearly had adapted.

Adaptation and speciation were problematic because the universe was to be created by a perfect God. If the creation was less than perfect, the Creator thereby would be as well. If change occurred within His system, then either it was getting worse (surely a mark of poor craftsmanship) or it was getting better (but if it was moving towards a more perfect state why wouldn't a perfect God simply create it in that way?). What to do?

Two French naturalists came up with competing ideas to explain it. Jean Baptiste Lamarck argued that species split off and developed as a result of interaction with the environment. If one group in a species made more use of a particular organ, it would enlarge and subsequent generations would naturally grow even larger ones. Similarly if the environment modified animals, the off-spring would inherit this modification. Chop the tails off enough lizards and you will give rise to a species of tailless lizards.

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon argued the case differently. He took a decidedly more Platonic approach. He argued that each type of animal had been created with a perfect mold, an internal formal structure that were present in it at the center of Creation. But as the organisms of each type spread out over the planet, they would degenerate, that is, deviate from that perfect typology. Exposure to this imperfect material world added imperfections to these flawed material entities. This concept of internal mold is very much similar to the Creationists' "baramin," although Buffon does not pin the design of each internal mold to the Divine Will.

Interestingly, there was a correspondence and ultimately a meeting of Buffon with our own Thomas Jefferson. Buffon argued that, as his theory predicted, organisms in the New World that are similar to those in Europe would be degenerate forms -- smaller, weaker, inferior. Jefferson questioned whether Buffon had ever actually seen or weighed animals from America and delighted in sending and delivering to him him the antlers and skins of elk, panthers, caribou, and moose. He contended that Buffon's argument that Native Americans were a degenerate race of humans was false as they had among them those who were as skilled in oratory as Demosthenes and Cicero, while many showed the virtues of valor and bravery in war. Indeed his Notes on the State of Virginia is an entire volume dedicated to producing evidence to undermine Buffon's theory of degeneration in the New World.

So we have Creationists arguing in line with the Frenchman and opposing the American patriot. Of course, in 1800 we had an American President who understood and believed in science and who rejected the notion of baramins. And now... Well, maybe there is something to this notion of degeneration after all.

Sports, Patriarchy, and Privilege

While we're on the topic of sports and their place in our society, this story cannot go without comment. Aspazia at Mad Melancholic Feminista and Jessica at Feministing have already written about it, but the best account is at I Blame the Patriarchy.

A group of women soccer players at a party found a woman unconscious with vomit in her mouth (not her own), surrounded by players from the De Anza Community College baseball team cheering as another sexually assaulted her. The soccer players rescued the teenage girl and took her to the hospital for treatment for alcohol poisoning. One of the women who rescued is quoted in the the SF Gate,

"She was literally lifeless. Her eyes were completely shut. On the ride to the hospital, I had to keep my hand under her nose to make sure she was breathing."
The terrible conclusion of the story is that all charges were dropped against the assailants by the district attorney for insufficient evidence, despite eyewitnesses, hospital reports, and a second woman who came forward to tell of the same thing happening to her by the same team in the same house months earlier.

While legitimate ire has been expressed over claims that the sex with the unconscious minor was consensual, the line that really got me was a quotation from Steven Rabaglioti, the host of the party and member of the team. After the charges were dropped he had these sage words for his victim.
"I’d ask her why she chose to put us and herself through so much. My only thought is I hope that she learned a lot, as well as about herself, in the last two months."
It's not the complete arrogance or lack of utter human empathy for what this young woman has been through that is thoroughly stunning here (o.k., yeah, the complete arrogance and utter lack of human empathy are thoroughly stunning here), it's the sense of moral superiority in light of what really happened. What I find fascinating is that I have no doubt that Rabaglioti's statement was not posturing, but something he actually believes. He does consider himself morally superior and does sincerely hope this young woman has learned her lesson.

Friedrich Nietzsche in the Genealogy of Morals argues that
From this rule that the concept of political superiority always resolves itself into the concept of spiritual priority, it is not really an exception (although there is room for exceptions), when the highest caste is also the priest caste and consequently for its total range of meanings prefers a scale of values which recalls its priestly function.
In other words, those with the social power get to determine what is right and wrong and they do it in such a way that favors their own power and desires. While the underlying point about our moral vocabulary only having a basis in the distribution of political power is ultimately problematic, if we consider social norms and mores instead of morality itself, the point is very well taken. Those in control have the power to effectively demonize those they despise and to make them culturally culpable for actions for which they are not responsible. that is exactly what we are seeing here.

One of the differences between liberals and conservatives is a function of scope. All the conservative invocations of "personal responsibility" are part of a deliberate rhetorical trick to limit the scope of conversation. They want us to only talk in terms of personal responsibility because they want to drive attention away from questions of the role of larger institutional affects on our decisions. By making us little atoms and ignoring the larger influences, we can avoid certain questions -- the sort of questions that many on the left, feminist scholars among them, demand that we confront.

Why did this male athlete feel perfectly legitimate in wagging his finger and saying tsk,tsk to a young woman who suffered a terribly traumatic experience while in his home? Because he is put in a position of power. In the social structure of colleges, male athletes occupy a special place that instantly endows them with great social capital. They have a place of unquestioned privilege in the social order. I was a lacrosse player in college at a school that had no football team. I've seen it from the inside.

Fraternities are bad enough. If you look at college campuses, you almost universally find gender parity. Yet, if schools went to gender-blind admissions, the accepted group would be overwhelmingly female. Significantly less qualified men are admitted for gender balance because experiments showed that skewed numbers of men and women resulted in large transfer rates (something harmful to the institution). It turns out that the majority of men in my classrooms are only there to keep the smart women from transferring; yet, they, of course, are the most enraged outspoken opponents of affirmative action when the topic is raised in my ethics classes. Irony can be so ironic. Same thing when you look at actual achievement in college, women outperform men.

Young women are the heart of the intellectual life of a campus, yet the social power on campuses almost always rests squarely upon not only men, but those men who are the most active in undermining the school's true educational mission. The lion's share of the social power is given to the most offensive fraternities and to the athletes.

Certainly it is true that one can be an athlete and be intelligent, caring, and a force for good. But let's tell the truth, college athletes are not pulled from the ranks of the normal student body. I, myself, was the recipient of such special treatment. I was accepted to an extremely prestigious Ivy League university. I may have been able to get in on my own, but I was admitted, in fact, without applying. I had sent in the first part of the application, basically just name, address, and social security number, and was later informed that I had been accepted even though the admissions people had apparently "lost" my transcript, essay, letters of recommendation, and any other measure of academic ability. I was invited to attend this great university because I could stop a shot in a lacrosse game. I've known many a lacrosse player in my times and the overwhelming majority could not have gotten into, much less through, their institutions of higher learning if they had not been athletes. Yet, these were the big men on campus. Our culture of celebrity, especially sports celebrity, extends to campuses in a way that gives athletes a special standing.

The best piece of advise I ever received was to never do the same favor for someone twice in a row. After the second time, it will no longer be seen as a favor, but taken for granted. However, if you say "no" once, even if you agree every time after, it will always be remembered that it is something not deserved, but rather something you are putting yourself out for. Athletes are always given the social favors and cease to see them as favors, but entitlements. We have an entrenched culture of athlete privilege in our intuitions of higher learning and the effect is not only in undermining the intellectual life of these institutions, but comes through in statements like Rabaglioti's. He and his buddies are baseball players. Of course, every girl wants to have group sex with them. I have no doubt he thinks the young woman was not only willingly there, but at the time was happy to be so. By later filing charges, she simply doesn't realize what a place of honor she had. By alleging wrong-doing on the player's part, she is simply failing to understand who it is she is dealing with. These are athletes and she a mere adoring fan who followed through on her admiration.

It is not only the athletes who are on steroids, in college athletics at all levels patriarchy is juiced as well.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Bullshit or Not: Chomsky Edition

There's an old sketch film called Amazon Women on the Moon and one of the bits is a parody of the old Leonard Nimoy show, In Search Of... called, Bullshit or Not? with the tagline "Bullshit or not? You decide." So I've stolen it for what is seeming to be a fairly regular series of posts.

This time it is a quotation by Noam Chomsky from the film
Manufacturing Consent:

Take, say, sports -- that's another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing because it -- you know, it offers people something to pay attention to that's of no importance. That keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it's striking to see the intelligence that's used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports [as opposed to political and social issues]. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in -- they have the most exotic information and understanding about all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this.

You know, I remember in high school, already I was pretty old. I suddenly asked myself at one point, why do I care if my high school team wins the football game? I mean, I don't know anybody on the team, you know? I mean, they have nothing to do with me, I mean, why I am cheering for my team? It doesn't mean any -- it doesn't make sense. But the point is, it does make sense: it's a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership elements -- in fact, it's training in irrational jingoism. That's also a feature of competitive sports. I think if you look closely at these things, I think, typically, they do have functions, and that's why energy is devoted to supporting them and creating a basis for them and advertisers are willing to pay for them and so on.
So are sports a harmless diversion or training-grounds for robotic, pro-war nationalists and a diversion to make sure that much of the news reporting is directed at something other than news?

Bullshit or not? You decide. Feel free to leave a comment of one word or as lengthy as you need.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Feast of Saint Mel the Other

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists everywhere,

This week saw the 99th anniversary of the birth of Mel Blanc, the man of a thousand voices. He got his big break working on Jack Benny's radio show where he worked as a myriad of recurring characters. Eventually getting his own radio program, he ultimately, of course, went on to become the voices of many, many of our most beloved animated characters including:

Bugs Bunny
Porky Pig
Barney Rubble
Daffy Duck
Woody Woodpecker
Elmer Fudd
Tweety Bird
Yosemite Sam
Foghorn Leghorn
Pepé Le Pew
Marvin the Martian
Speedy Gonzales
The Tasmanian Devil
Captain Caveman

The one that apparently sounded the most like his real voice was Sylvester the cat,without the spitting, of course. Indeed, Sylvester's famous "now cut that out" was something that Blanc himself said often.

Here's Mel singing "Somebody Stole My Gal"
and Porky Pig singing "Blue Christmas"

We miss you Mel. That's all folks.