Friday, August 31, 2007

Why the Ocean Is Blue, Multiculturalism, and the Backwards S

Soul searcher asks,

"Why is my glass of water clear and colorless but the ocean is clear and blue?"
The commonsense response is that the surface of the water acts as a mirror, and what is this aqua reflector pointing at? The big blue sky. Reflected sunlight by the water, especially water that is high in minerals and other impurities that help reflect, is part of the answer. That's why the water looks blue when viewed from a distance, at an angle, but is clear when you are close and looking straight down into it. But think of cases where you have water that is not reflective, say, ice caves, they also give off a blue glow in the sun. Turns out it's much more wonderfully interesting than that. In fact, you tend to see more blue where the impurity levels are lower and therefore the water should be less reflective.

I know, you're now saying to yourself, "But wait a minute Steve," (which is a strange thing to be saying to yourself), "water is a liquid and ice is a solid with a crystal-like structure that affects refraction, surely that makes them apples and oranges with respect to their optical properties."

That would be true unless it was a chemical reason for the blueness. Turns out that it is a strange property of the chemical bonds between oxygen and hydrogen that they have a natural vibrational frequency that happens to be equivalent to the wavelength of red light. Huh?

Think of a piano, find someone with a good strong voice and have them sing a middle C into the piano. the vibration from their voice will hit all of the strings, but the C strings will be affected by this vibration in a special way. Because it is their natural frequency, the vibration will resonate in them and the strings will absorb the energy and vibrate significantly, where the other notes won't

Same is true here. When sunlight, comprised of all the colors hits the molecules of water, the OH bonds work like the piano strings and suck up the energy of the red part of the light leaving the blue part of the sunlight to bounce around and ultimately get reflected out to you making the water looks blue. Charles Braun and Sergei Smirnov, a couple chemists from Dartmouth have a paper on the question here.

Your glass of water simply has too little water and too little light indoors to reflect enough light back to look blue, but the ocean...

C. Ewing asks,
"Should we err towards or away from multiculturalism?

Some people tend to think it's actually detrimental to a given culture. The idea seems to be that instead of keeping a culture alive and flourishing, it actually lets it get "watered down", and it starts to be subsumed by, and play second fiddle to the predominant culture, thereby actually losing some of what made it distinct in the first place. It's a false salvation, that while placating a people, actually serves to just prolong the process of their culture being homogenized.

The other "bad" associated with this is the idea of the "China Town" phenomenon. Multiculturalism, one might say, just allows us to segment ourselves, and maintain divisions, while placating the liberals and PCers.

Can a person be both say, American and Chinese, or must they eventually choose which identity to embrace, and let go of the other? Are they mutually exclusive, at least in practice?"
On the one hand, there is no doubt that every culture has something interesting and enriching to offer and that being open to seeing the world through the perspectives of others' eyes is itself valuable in addition to what those other eyes show you.

At the same time, it seems like you are then faced with two options: assimilation or segregation. Assimilating into the larger society allows the wonderful aspects of the newcomers to enrich the broader culture. This is good, but comes at the cost of losing the sub-culture as a distinctive sub-culture. On the other hand, living in enclaves may maintain customs, tradition, and language, but also minimizes the larger impact and causes friction around the edges as a result of competing demands and misunderstandings. It is a difficult dance to do well, but when caringly and thoughtfully done, can yield a more interesting, open-minded and vibrantly dynamic community.

But an interesting slant on this question comes from Bruce Bawer here in this interview with Bill Moyers. Bawer, a gay man from the American South, moved to Europe in order to live in a more welcoming, open-minded society. He argues that the multi-culturalism of Europe, specifically Holland, may be self-defeating in being open to anyone with any cultural beliefs. He specifically points to the vicious murder of film maker Theo Van Gogh at the hands of a Muslim man angry because Van Gogh had made a film critical of the treatment of women in Muslim culture. Bawer argues that by being tolerant and welcoming of people who hate tolerance, you are setting yourself up to have all of the good that multi-culturalism could bring entirely undermined. Holland could be, he warns, setting up a situation similar to Algeria where democracy was democratically voted out in favor of a radical interpretation of Islamic law. He left the homophobic American South for someplace that was more welcoming, only to see people also coming in who think gay men should be executed. This worries him greatly.

It seems that Bawer's point can be put this way: multi-culturalism is a wonderful thing and important to having a dynamic living community enriched by and celebrating all of its members. But for it to work, everyone needs to buy in. No one can come in with the attitude that our way is the be all and end all and we have nothing to learn from anyone else, especially if that supposedly be all and end all culture is intolerant of others. To be celebrated yourself, you need to celebrate others and this starts by recognizing the mutual humanity of those in other cultures, women, and those of different sexual orientations. Being tolerant of intolerance in the name of tolerance, may end up causing more harm to tolerance than good. It's an interesting view.

I asked (that's I as in SteveG, not I as in I -- our friendly playground regular),
"if we all agreed tomorrow to change the way we write the letters "S" and "E" and all started writing them backwards, would that make it easier for children to learn how to write or would they suddenly all start writing it our current way and still get it backwards? If it would be an easier path to writing the Latin alphabet, doesn't that mean in some sense that we currently have it backwards, that we're the ones who have it wrong?"
I think S and E are backwards. When you print these (and a few other letters), you have to pick up your pen, move it out beyond where the letter goes, and write the letter in opposite direction from the flow of the word. We read and write in English from left to right, but you begin to print S, E, F, and C from right to left. When you are done one letter, you ought to be able to begin the next very close to where your pen is, yet with these letters you cannot. If they were printed in a form that is the reflection of their current form, this problem would disappear.

Of course, it would also not be a problem if there had not been a compromise in the late 19th century between the print and cursive crowds. The question was which to teach children in school. The cursive folks said that no one prints, it's more time consuming and sloppier. People who write, write in cursive, so just teach the kids to write. The print people argued that students read books which are not printed in cursive, so teaching them print would help in reading and enable written communication. And besides, they don't have the full manual dexterity yet to write cursive. The compromise was to teach printing first in the earliest grades and then cursive later. As a result, just when we figure out how to write our S's and E's, bam, we have to learn to write all over again.

Of course, that was before computers...

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Generosity, Art, and Conventions

Jeff Maynes has a couple of questions. First,

Can babies be generous?
No. Generosity requires recognizing a need in others, an understanding of what one could do to help satisfy that need, and acting on that understanding. Babies do not have any of those capacities. Very young children do develop it, and while their attempts are often off the mark, it is really cute and touching to watch little ones when it is clear they are led by the purest of empathy to try to help someone.

Next question:
Aesthetic value is clearly not the only value we use when evaluating media forms. We also are interested in simple entertainment, etc. What role ought these other considerations have when considering the general direction of contemporary media?

That isn't really clear, because I'm having a hard time getting clear on it myself; so I'll use an anecdote that will hopefully help. I enjoy all manners of film, from thought provoking and evocative works of art to standard blockbuster cinema. Rather frequently, after a long day of thinking over complex issues I actually prefer a movie that is straightforward, mass media entertainment. At the same time, I lament that other types of film don't get a chance since they aren't going to make money. How do you balance these two competing forces, since I think simply demeaning the non-artistic media is to mistake aesthetic value as the only merit for media?
It's a very good question and a slant on something that was discussed a bit in the Harry Potter thread a week or so ago. Kerry and Gwydion were contending that there is no line (or at least not a clear one) to be drawn between art, on the one hand, and mere entertainment, on the other. Even if we begin by granting that, it is certainly true that art can entertain and that entertainment value has some bearing on our artistic judgments. The greatest of musical compositions tend to be those we can hum.

But, of course, there's more to being a great composition than "it has a good beat and I can dance to it." Most people use entertainment as Jeff does, as a break from their daily labor while engaging good art is often work.

Great art does something better or something new. Art occurs in a context, a social historical context and an art historical context. Great works may find a prescient means of expressing some aspect of the spirit of the times -- op art, for example, in addition to being cool, weird eye dazzlers, also clearly said something about the hypnotic state of post-war American society induced by technology. Alternatively, a great work may challenge the times and the social norms -- think Moliere or the Vagina Monologues. But art also is created in its own community and often the great works are ones that show a mastery of technique -- Rembrandt or Vermeer -- or that develop a new technique -- Georges Seurat pointillism -- or that challenge long-standing axioms of how art is to be produced at all -- think Schoenberg, Cage, Duchamp. This last category is often the sort of thing held up as examples of the excesses of modern art, but this is only because it takes acquaintance with the context to figure out who is saying what to whom with that piece.

Great art does something and that something may make us uncomfortable, and the appreciation of what it is doing may take work. There was a thread over at Gwydion's a little while ago talking about Moby Dick and how much work it is to get through, but how revolutionary it was once you can get through it (it's in the comments). We have the advantage in philosophy that there have been so many incredibly deep thinkers who have been terrible writers that we are free to concentrate solely upon content in our work. Artists, on the other hand, labor under the weight of so many who have produced works that both challenge and entertain that they are always expected to entertain whether they challenge or not.

I suppose the real problem would be that our culture is so inherently anti-intellectual that we generally don't take challenging to be entertaining, we construct a dicthotomy where one shouldn't be. That's not to say, there's anything wrong with enjoying something light, but generally we don't as a society appreciate "that artsy crap" the way we should.

C. Ewing asks,
Can you give me an example of one convention being better than another? And, to follow that up, please expound on what way the one is better than the other.
Utitlity is generally the criterion we use to assess the successfulness of a convention, although ethical or political reasons could be operative as well. We could choose any of a large array of units of measurement for our speed limit signs. We choose miles per hour or kilometers per hour, but could, if we so decided, write them in light years per fortnight. Ours is better because we don't need scientific notion or really, really, really long speed limit signs. It is a convention because either way would convey the same information, but one conveys it in a more easily digestible way, especially when driving past at .00000000343 light years per fortnight.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Iraq, Tinkerbell, Leo Strauss, and Nuclear Energy

Hanno asks,

If, as Bush argued, our leaving Vietnam lead to such harmful consequences, and if that is being used as a reason to stay in Iraq, doesn't the analogy only hold if Bush also thinks we should have stayed in Vietnam? If so, then by the argument, even though we had been there 20 years, lost 50,000 soldiers, destroyed the fighting capacity of our army, ripped the country in two, it would have been worth the cost... are we supposed to be willing to pay that price this time, too?
Are "we" supposed to be willing to pay that price? Whom do you mean by "we"? Bush paid little price for Vietnam, except for having to have his father call in a favor from the Texas governor to pull some strings for him and to make sure that the noble sacrifice would be made by others. So, yes, I think Bush is more than willing to pay the same price.

But what we are seeing here is a classic appeal to the "Tinkerbell strategy" -- in Peter Pan, we were told, "if you really believe in fairies, clap your hands and bring Tinkerbell back to life." Reality is not a Disney movie, so when Tinkerbell is not brought back, it would seem to make the most sense to argue that it's because fairies aren't real. But there's another approach: you could point to those who say fairies aren't real and contend that it is exactly your lack of support for Tinkerbell that kept her from coming back.

This invocation is beautiful because it is unfalsifiable. As long as you believe in your side's indomitable power, the only explanation for failure is lack of will on the part of your political enemies. My policy wasn't flawed, it was your opposition that doomed it. If only you would not oppose my ideas, they would all work. And even if you do go along, if my policies fail, it's not my fault, it's your fault because you were insufficiently enthusiastic about giving me more power. Works everytime.

It's the same line that German conservatives took after WWI and its the same line that American conservatives have spun since Vietnam. We lost because of those DFHs (dirty fucking hippies). The enemy is emboldened by your rational objections and lack of blind faith. Hemorrhaging American lives on the battlefield is like bloodletting with leeches, it actually makes you healthier. If we lose in Iraq, it is not because it was a bad idea from the start to invade a country that had not attacked us, dragging us into the very quagmire that the very people who were the architects of this war predicted when they didn't go into Iraq in the first Gulf War. It won't be because the combination of ideology, incompetence, and crony capitalism caused every single move in the country to be blundered. It won't be because the neo-conservative strategy is based upon a fairy story. Nope, it's those damn peace-loving DFHs again. If only they had been real men (who dodged the draft in Vietnam) and had the iron will (to let other people die), victory would have been ours.

Speaking of neo-conservative fairy stories, pm asks,
This article: appeared in this week's edition of the Reader. Apparently there is a movement among political theorists to revise the "popular" conception of Strauss' belief in the necessity of the "noble lie." I'm wondering what your take on this particular stripe of Straussian apologetics, centered as it is on Strauss' interpretation of Plato...
Great question. In my on-going project conducting oral histories with people connected to early logical empiricism, I had the pleasure of interviewing Franz Alt, who studied at the University of Vienna with Hans Hahn, Rudolf Carnap, and was a friend and classmate of Kurt Godel. His wife had studied political science at Chicago with Strauss and she, a liberal New Yorker, expressed the same sort of sentiment that's in the article, outrage at the neo-cons, but not seeing what they did in what she learned from the man himself.

Strauss was, in a term coined by our own Confused, Maybe Not, a philosopher of catastrophe. He was a Jewish intellectual fleeing the Holocaust and trying to make sense of what just happened. How did a society of high culture and science turn into hell on earth and how can we keep it from ever happening again?

Strauss saw the common person as being complicit in what happened in Germany, Austria, Poland, and so many other places and thought that his beloved Plato had it exactly right when he argued against Democracy. The people are not wise enough for the power. So, then, how does one rule them and keep their support while keeping their worst appetites at bay? This was the question he was left with in exile. His answer involved, amongst other things, controlling the masses, something his experience seemed to require.

While Strauss himself was never politically active, he happened to be at the right place (University of Chicago) at the right time to be an influence on a group that would form the forefathers and core of the neo-conservative movement: Irving Kristol, Allan Bloom, Paul Wolfowitz, and Abram Shulsky. Through them, a particular interpretation of Strauss emphasizing the themes that would become the intellectual heart of neo-conservative doctrine (when coupled with Francis Fukuyama's neo-Hegelian doctrine set out in The End of History) became dogma in the contemporary right as propelled and enforced by the American Enterprise Institute, Project for the New American Century, and other well-funded, highly influential institutions of the right.

Can we trace all of neo-conservativism's policy decisions and failures to Strauss himself? No. Are his writings an inextricable part of the story of today's world and the mess it is in? Yes.

BKriplur asks,
1. Are you for Nuclear energy? I took a tour of Limerick last year with my school's environmental law society. Looked OK to me...

2. Why didn't we read Wittgenstein in Language, Truth, and Reality? Not that I think we should have, but I am just curious.
Let's take them in order. Nuclear energy is a fantastic idea if you take it indirectly. Our sun is a star that maintains itself through nuclear fusion. That energy should be used to help free us from our dependence on fossil fuels. Nuclear fission, on the other hand, what happens with nuclear generating facilities is a different matter.

It turns out that Aristotle's claim that the moderate path is the best is true for atomic nuclei. Iron, right in the middle of the periodic table, has the nucleus which takes the least amount of energy to maintain making it very stable. If you are lighter or heavier than iron, then it is energy advantageous for you to move towards being iron. In other words, if you are a light atom, by taking in other light atoms as roommates, you save energy which can be given off when you move in together and turned into electricity. This is how the sun works, turning hydrogen into helium and sending the extra energy out as light and heat which we then turn into electricity using solar panels. Or, if you are a heavier element, you could break up your nucleus creating two smaller atoms, each of which takes less energy to maintain than the atomic behemoth it was previously. The extra energy is given off as kinetic energy -- very fast moving neutrons are shot out in the break up. These neutrons then ping off of other molecules, say water, causing them to heat up, causing steam. We can them use the steam to turn a turbine and give us electricity. This is how a nuclear power plant works.

The claim that nuclear energy is zero emissions is correct in that there is no pollution put into the air as a result. But, that does not mean there is no pollution from the process. The fuel used in nuclear power is a particular isotope of Uranium (U-235). It is not the isotope of Uranium most often found in nature (U-238) which is less desirable because it has a longer half-life. So, step one of the process is to separate off the usable 235 from the 238. This causes there to be large amounts of radioactive U-238 to be left around to be disposed at the end of the enrichment process. This is the "depleted Uranium" we hear about which is then used in armaments and left to contaminate war zones.

Then there is the spent fuel rods. the Uranium gives us electricity by giving off electrons and heating up water, but eventually, enough of the fuel will have broken down from Uranium into Plutonium to not be useful anymore and will need to be replaced. Of course, then we are left with radioactive Plutonium mixed in with some remaining U-235.

If we use more nuclear energy, we generate more waste which is very dangerous and difficult and expensive to dispose of well. There is no doubt that we have problems with emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and this is contributing to ecological problems. But to say that nuclear power is the solution because it gives off solid waste and not fumes is like saying that you'd prefer someone take a dump in your livingroom because you don't like the way it smells when he passes gas.

All of this, of course, does not even begin to touch on the eventuality of a Three Mile Island/Chernobyl style accident or terrorist attack on a facility. With other alternative ways of generating energy and needing to find more ways to limit our energy use, nuclear just seems like a really bad idea.

Second question: Why didn't we read Wittgenstein in Language, Truth, and Reality? Um, the rest of us did...I'll admit not a lot, though, so it would be easy to forget. I only look at the section of Philosophical Investigations that looks at names, the Moses section (sections 60-64). Wittgenstein launched much of what is argued on most sides of most debates in the field, so a philosophy of language class could be very heavy of Wittgenstein, looking at his insights and tracing out the arguments that came from them, or you could teach it as I do, looking at the debates post-Wittgenstein. So when we read Kripke, Searle, Austin, and most others, the Wittgenstein was in there, we jumped ahead to how it played out instead of tracing it from him. When you have but 13 weeks and an entire field (and a difficult one at that) to introduce, you have to make choices, and scaling back the Wittgenstein in favor of more contemporary pieces was the choice I made.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Auto Mechanics and Quantum Mechanics -- Really

This has never happened before, I actually got questions about auto mechanics and quantum mechanics. Wow.

Ben asks:

Are the rotors on your car attached at all once you remove the calipers or will they just slide off? Seriously though, the auto-mechanics thing made me think about it and I really need to do my brakes (been trying to learn how to do these things myself instead of getting robbed).
Yup, once you get the calipers and the caliper bridge off (this may have been put on with the impact gun by the mechanic who last worked on the brakes and so may be a bear to get the bolts loose), the rotor should just slide off (unless, of course, it's rusted in place).

Hanno asks:
What is the weirdest implication of Quantum Mechanics? What tortures our everyday intuitions the most?
Depends upon whose intuitions you are talking about.

For the average person, probably the strangest is what we call "quantum tunneling." The idea is that if a particle is trapped in a box, generally to get out of the box it needs enough energy to break through the wall. However, quantum mechanics shows us that there is a small, but finite possibility that, with any given interaction between the particle and the wall, the particle will simply leak through the wall. Imagine playing pool and every once in a while, you try to make a bank shot and the ball simply shoots through the rail leaving no hole in the side of the table.

If you are Albert Einstein, the strangest aspect is the spooky action at a distance. When unobserved particles will not be in particular well defined property states, but in "superposed states" that is combinations of all possible states. As soon as an observation is performed, it instantly "collapses" into one and only one of these property states. We can never observe the superposed states, but we can do experiments that prove the particle didn't have a specific value for the thing we measure until we measured it. As if this wasn't bad enough, it is impossible to predict which of values the particle will have.

To make this a little clearer consider a particle that has what we call spin. The spin could be up or down, those are the only two choices. Until we observe a particle it is in the superposed state of spin up and spin down, but the instant we look it is either up or down.

Now, let's create two particles that have to have opposite spins (it's easy enough to do). We don't look at either one, so they are both in superposed states of spin up and spin down. Now, send one through a wire to New York and the other through a wire to Los Angeles. Look at the one in New York. As soon as you look, it will collapse from its superposed state into one of its property states (up or down) randomly. But remember that the two particles have to have opposite spins, so that means the very instant the particle in New York assumed its randomly determined spin value, the particle in Los Angeles also left its superposed state and assumed the opposite value.

Here's the punchline: how did the particle in LA know? It has to assume it's value the instant that the NY particle takes the other value, but a signal from the NY to LA particle saying, "I've been measured. I'm now spin up, so you must be spin down" would have to go faster than the speed of light. That bothered Einstein to no end.

Monday, August 27, 2007

On Borat, Crushes, and the Easy Way to Look Really, Really Smart

Let's start by taking a stab at the first three questions this go 'round.

R. Porter asks,

"Why do people think Sacha Cohen is funny and/or talented?"
I think that Gwydion is exactly right in his comment that what Cohen does best is something extremely difficult. Most comedy is based around jokes. A joke works in two steps, first, there's a set-up that sets the linguistic frame around a situation, forcing your mind into a specific way of seeing the world. Then comes the punchline that utilizes a different frame that makes you realize the way you had been understanding the meaning of the set-up was wrong. The humor is in the moment when your mind is trying to reconcile the competing ways of seeing the world. Most good comedians are successful because they are good at isolating your mind so that they can lead you through the joke. A bad joke-teller telegraphs the punchline, so you see it coming and thus don't get the switch. The majority of comedy is therefore like a scientific experiment in which external factors are controlled for, screened off.

What Sacha Baron Cohen does (at his best) is something quite different. He creates comedy in an uncontrolled environment. The Ali G and Borat interviews are live, meaning that Cohen is trying to be funny without having complete command over the set up. He relies on background on his guests as Ali G and on deeply entrenched social biases as Borat, so he's not just fishing; but he is working without a net and this gives an extra sense of energy to the work, not unlike that with improv comedians.

But there's one more element there in that you get the set-up and Cohen's punchline to laugh at, but you also get to laugh at the reaction of the target, the people being punked who have no idea it is a put-on. Here you have two operative factors. One is the "Candid Camera" sense of watching people who are vulnerable and just by watching you get to be on the inside of the inside joke and see people without their facade, reacting as you ordinarily wouldn't get to see. But what adds the extra edge to Cohen's work is that he ties it up with a part of social beliefs, biases, arrogance, and hatred, that we generally keep hidden from view. That's where the shock is. He's talking about things we know better than to talk about and doing it in a way that gets people to show their real feelings, not their social face.

His standard work -- the Ali G movie, his role in Talledega Nights -- eh, whatever, passable humor, good delivery, but nothing to write home about. The live stuff, though, is fascinating work. Can some of it be not so funny? Sure, but he's working without a net and that's risky comedy.

Gwydion asks,
All of the somewhat cliched feelings we experience when we're falling in love -- the ones that are actually sort of nauseating, like the way your heart skips a beat when you see the person you're crushing on, and they way you can get dizzy with emotion when thinking about her, the way you stop eating because your stomach is full of butterflies -- why in the world were they selected for evolutionarily?

I mean, new love is almost (but not quite) like a sickness -- it takes over your body and sets all sorts of chemicals roiling in your brain, distracting you from living the basic day-to-day life that's necessary for survival. So how could that be GOOD for fitness? Is it more than just the need to encourage pair-bonding and the raising of children?
Speculation here, but my guess is that it's evolutionary leftovers. Evolution works by integrating two competing mechanisms -- natural selection (survival of the individual) and sexual selection (propagation of genetic information, survival of the line). These compete in that the things that makes one an attractive mate are not always the things that make on most likely to survive (think bright plumage on birds -- easier for predators to spot, but, boy, a hit with the lady birds).

Procreation is also expensive in terms of the amount of energy it takes away from the individual that could be dedicated to finding food or shelter ensuring individual survival. As a result, there needs to be a strong urge towards reproduction if it is going to happen for the species. That's why going into heat is an effective strategy -- the urge takes priority over other biological functions for a time, usually right after there prime feeding season and before hibernation or period of low activity.

Humans are unusual among complex sexually reproducing creatures in that we no longer have a defined reproductive cycle tied to the seasons, human females ovulate throughout the year instead of going into heat at some specified time. My guess is that what we have when we swoon for the object of our crush is the leftovers from earlier incarnations when we did have a rut. It is now contextualized instead of triggered by the calendar, but still plays the same role. It makes you ready, willing, and able to do things that may not be in your best interest in terms of individual survival in order to acquire the attention of your love interest.

Claude asks,
"When you do it in class, do you answer all the questions from the top of your head, be they about auto or quantum mechanics?"
All of them? No. I do answer a lot of them, though. Many of them are Jeopardy questions. The thing about Jeopardy is that they never ask questions that would be hard for someone familiar with the field; it just requires you to be familiar with a lot of fields. If you study a topic that is a Jeopardy category, you can generally immediately list off the five things they'll ask about. Same with these questions -- if you are well-read, you will generally be able to answer random questions from thoughtful students.

But it does three other important things for me pedagogically. First, it shows that I am open to students asking any question and it does help break the ice and get really good discussions going in class, something that can make or break a philosophy class. Second, it does the Sacha Baron Cohen thing and takes the class beyond my control which gives it an edge keeping me and them awake. Third, and most importantly, it gives students a chance to stump me. Most young teachers have the mistaken idea that you get credibility in the classroom by appearing omniscient. You need to have answers to everything or else you look untrustworthy, non-authoritative. But one of the best lessons I was ever taught about teaching came from Barbara Horan, my undergrad advisor, who once told me that nothing will gain you more credibility in the classroom than saying to a student the three little words, "I don't know." It shows the students that they are capable of asking intellectually interesting questions, that they are capable of engaging the material at a high level, and if you come back the next time with the answer (and this is crucial) you show the class that you take them seriously as co-investigators in the living field that the class is studying.

So, no, I don't have all the answers, but that is actually the point. The fun thing is finding the answers to the ones I don't know -- something facilitated by the fact that I am a college instructor which means that whatever the question, I have a friend and/or colleague who has a Ph.D. in the field and can explain it to me. Then the next time someone asks the questions (and they usually come back), I can answer it on the spot and look really, really smart.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics: Back to School Edition

Yup, it's that time again. The school year starts next week and I have a schtick I do at the beginning of every class where I invite any question: auto mechanics to quantum mechanics, if there's anything you ever wanted to know, let me have at it. As a tune up for the semester, the offer is made here on the Playground. Anything in the world you are curious about, never been able to figure out, or think would make for good conversation, let'er rip. I will try to answer as many as I can this week, so fire away.

My question to you this time: if we all agreed tomorrow to change the way we write the letters "S" and "E" and all started writing them backwards, would that make it easier for children to learn how to write or would they suddenly all start writing it our current way and still get it backwards? If it would be an easier path to writing the Latin alphabet, doesn't that mean in some sense that we currently have it backwards, that we're the ones who have it wrong? Sure, it's a mere convention, but surely some conventions are better than others. Right?

Plato, Dirty Harry, and Iraq

Reading over an old post at Mahablog, I was struck by the degree to which Plato foresaw our current quagmire. In the Ion and most famously in The Republic, Plato argues that the poets are dangerous to society. His two central arguments are (1) that the arts give the false impression of being able to convey truth, but are merely false imitations, and (2) they excite the passions which then suppress reason. An argument about the neo-conservative temperament that led us to the war in Iraq and away from sensible foreign policy and in large part caused the resulting loss of moral standing and influence around the world has been made by Barbara from Mahablog, Glenn Greenwald, and Digby from Hullabaloo, amongst others, pulls directly from Plato's discussions.

Digby starts with the gender piece:

The underlying premise of the modern conservative movement is that the entire Democratic party consists of a bunch of fags and dykes who are both too effeminate and too masculine to properly lead the nation. Coulter says it out loud. Dowd hints at it broadly. And the entire press corps giggles and swoons at this shallow, sophomoric concept like a bunch of junior high pom pom girls...Coulter stepped over the line because she used a bad word. But nobody on the right and most people in the media don't blink an eye at the implication of what she said. All this Claude Rainsing among certain rightwing bloggers and the press is just a little bit overdone, if you ask me. Being a "faggot" in common braindead GOP locker room parlance simply means being a Democrat and everybody knows it.
Glenn Greenwald then ties it into cultural gender archetypes:
That laughable absurdity really reveals the heart of this movement. It is a cult of contrived masculinity whereby people dress up as male archetypes like cowboys, ranchers, and tough guys even though they are nothing of the kind -- or prance around as Churchillian warriors because they write from a safe and protected distance about how great war is -- and in the process become triumphant heroes and masculine powerful icons and strong leaders. They and their followers triumph over the weak, effete, humiliated Enemy, and thereby become powerful and exceptional and safe.
He begins to attribute the source of this image as a political presupposition:
Just as what matters is that their leaders prance around as moral leaders (even while deviating as far as they want from those standards), what matters to them also is that their leaders play-act as strong and masculine figures, even when there is no basis, no reality, to the play-acting...Ronald Reagan never got anywhere near the war (claiming eyesight difficulties to avoid deployment in World War II), and he spent his life as a Hollywood actor, not a rancher, yet to this day, conservatives swoon over his masculine role-playing as though he is some sort of super-brave military hero.
Barbara, then closes the loop:
The faux masculinity celebrated by our culture equates violence with strength and power with potency. It is a rogue thing that does not honor the principles of civilization or the processes of governance. Like most John Wayne characters, or Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, following the rules is for girls and sissies. Why bother with a justice system when you’ve got a gun?...George W. Bush is an adolescent’s fantasy of what a president should be, just as John Wayne was an adolescent’s fantasy cowboy/lawman, and Dirty Harry an adolescent’s fantasy detective — easily bored with rules and talk, but quick on the trigger. Who needs diplomacy when you’ve got the biggest, baddest military in the world?
Does anyone seriously believe that those three little words, "Bring 'em on," were not intentionally chosen to evoke Eastwood's "Make my day"? Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who so vehemently objects to using International law as a source of legitimate premises in Constitutional interpretation, has no such reservations in citing precedent from imaginary places invoking the tv show 24 in his reasoning about torture. The entire picture laying behind the neo-conservative approach to governing is pulled lock, stock, and barrel out of the typical Charles Bronson, Bruce Willis, or Sylvester Stallone action thriller: there are good guys and evil guys, the evil guys are helped out by those smart, touchie-feelie morons who insist on following procedure, using fancy words, and being squeamish about the use of manly brute force and the only one who can save us is someone who don't speak the purty-talk, but throws out the rulebook by acting violently and decisively at the slightest provocation.

Our paper thin movie characters from poorly written plots designed to titillate the fantasies of pubescent boys have been mistaken for real life approaches to incredibly complex geo-political problems. We have been so conditioned by the standard Hollywood line that we confuse it for reality and so the media and much of country at large happily went along with a man dressed up to look like James Bond when dropped on an aircraft carrier, only to realize that the White House was actually occupied by our version of Maxwell Smart once the proverbial fan had been scatologically struck. Maybe Hollywood is as dangerous as conservatives have been telling us.

Of course, that point has been made before. Plato argued that drama is dangerous because it appears to present reality, but really is nothing but imitation. Truths come from understanding what is real; but when you watch a play (movies, even DVD rentals, were far too expensive back in Plato's time for the average Athenian to afford and so most went to plays), you are seeing reality filtered through a playwright's agenda-influenced mine, then produced in the limiting atmosphere of a stage with props, subject then to the actor's re-interpretation of it and finally your own limited perspective from the obstructed-view seats you sit in. Not exactly an optimal way to directly access the nature of the real.

Good governance requires the leaders to be as in touch with reality as possible, so having the rulers influenced by drama is incredibly dangerous.
If then we adhere to our original notion and bear in mind that our guardians, setting aside every other business, are to dedicate themselves wholly to the maintenance of freedom in the State, making this their craft, and engaging in no work which does not bear on this end, they ought not to practise or imitate anything else; if they imitate at all, they should imitate from youth upward only those characters which are suitable to their profession --the courageous, temperate, holy, free, and the like; but they should not depict or be skillful at imitating any kind of illiberality or baseness, lest from imitation they should come to be what they imitate. Did you never observe how imitations, beginning in early youth and continuing far into life, at length grow into habits and become a second nature, affecting body, voice, and mind?
But not only does drama remove you from reality, it also whips you into a frenzy, allowing emotions like anger, fear, desire for revenge, to run roughshod over the intellect.
"When even the best of us hear Homer or any other of the tragic poets imitating one of the heroes in mourning and making quite an extended speech with lamentation, or, if you like, singing and beating his breast, you know that we enjoy it and that we give ourselves over to following the imitation; suffering along with the hero in all seriousness, we praise as a good poet the man who most puts us in this state."
When the final history of the period from Reagan to the second Bush is written, it will chronicle the unsuccessful attempt to place people who believed they were real-life comic book characters into some of the most complex, life and death situations history has ever had to offer and a public whose view of the world had been so corrupted by bad cinema that they went right along with them. War in Iran? Pass the popcorn. Hey, is that Richard Perle or Lee Marvin there on CNN?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Oversimplifying Politics

Channeling Jack Handy:

Conservatives are anti-gay marriage and anti-contraception. Liberals are anti-gun and anti-SUV. Conservatives oppose people having sex and liberals oppose what guys do to compensate for not having sex.

Lake Monsters and Science Museums

When we were up in Burlington, we took the kids to ECHO, the science museum and aquarium, at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain. It's wonderful with lots of hands-on, active engagement activities for kids. There are great displays on the ecology, natural and cultural history of the area, and who knew there was a turtle called a stinkpot (the skunk of the aquatic set).

I will admit, I felt a bit uneasy, though, in the aquarium portion. Generally quite nice with interesting interactive shipwreck activities and tanks showing examples of the life in the lake that lay just outside the door of the museum, there was one large exhibit that gave me pause. It was dedicated to Champ, the resident lake monster of Lake Champlain.

Champ is much like his more famous but equally fictional cousin, the Loch Ness Monster, except without the Scottish brough and with a penchant for vegan Indian take-out. Champ is an inextricable part of local lore. The minor league baseball team is called the Lake Monsters. There are businesses throughout the area, like Champ's car wash, who trade on the story. He really is the unofficial mascot of the region.

But does he belong in a science museum in a display that clearly overstates the likelihood of his existence? In fact, in one room, they had a long roll of paper and told the children that it was Champ's birthday and they asked the kids to write birthday wishes and draw pictures to give to him at his party later on that night. The kids had fun, but is there a problem here?

To be fair, during Champ Week, the museum did sponsor a program called, "Believer or Skeptic" that was "A 20-minute family interactive program exploring the facts and legends of the Lake monster--celebrating Champ Week" and ran three nights during the week. But the Champ display is a standing exhibit, so the question remains.

The curmudgeon argument is clear. Science museums are for teaching science. By taking fictional characters and pseudo-scientific claims and create a false equivalence between them and real science, you make your otherwise wonderful facility into the equivalent of showing the Intelligent Design lobby's film "The Privileged Planet" in the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History and take yourself in a dangerous step towards the the Creation Museum. It would be like the Air and Space Museum having a display discussing the aerodynamic properties of Santa's sleigh.

On the other hand, there's the "lighten up, it's a silly pictorial of a lake monster that no one really takes seriously" defense, but there seems to be an even more interesting line on this side. Look, one might argue, the whole point of the museum is to excite children's interest and imagination around understanding the universe they live in. This exhibit, while propping up a myth that no scientist takes seriously, does excite the young minds and leads them to consider what else the world might hold, mysteries like those of quantum mechanics that are weirder by several orders of magnitude. When we teach physics, even at the collegiate level, we begin by teaching and testing students about Newtonian mechanics, a theory we know to be false. Why? Because it is pedagogically advantageous. In the case of college physics, it is to prepare students on an easier theory to be able to translate physical systems into mathematical models of second order-differential equations and to be able to solve those equations for easy cases, for the science museum it is the more modest goal of creating wonder in young minds and giving them the sense that there is a way to address the questions that wonder creates. If we can use falsehood to educate in the one case, why not in the other? It's just the scientific version of Plato's noble lie from the Republic.

So, does a fun exhibit about a mythical lake monster that does nothing to actively dispel the myth belong in a science museum?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Matters of Semantics

One of my pet peeves is the saying "it's just a matter of semantics" which is used to say that something is a completely trivial matter. Fact is, semantics is anything but trivial.

The study of language can be roughly divided into three parts: syntax looks at the formal structure of the language, things like word order, where the punctuation goes, how to put the blocks together kind of stuff. Semantics examines notions of meaning, reference, and truth. Pragmatics looks at utterances in context, how do we clearly get speaker's meanings which are nowhere contained in the spoken sentence -- if someone turns to you apropos of nothing and says, "The train is leaving the station," you do not look for railroad tracks, but know to check your fly. There are very intricate, technical, and difficult questions in all of these areas, but semantics is probably the trickiest of the lot.

And not only difficult, but important. What we mean by our words is not a matter to be taken lightly. If we define our words problematically, the results can be tragic. Two stories this week to highlight exactly this point:

The first is this article from the BBC which highlights a debate over the definition of clinical depression.

As I have learned from reading Aspazia's research over the years, the way that mental illnesses in the DSM (the psychiatrist's Chilton guide) are defined is not the clean neuro-anatomical sort of process you might think at the outset. For the most part, a group of psychiatrists chosen by a larger group of psychiatrists sit in a room and negotiate (a) whether the behavior pattern is outside the norm enough, debilitating or dangerous enough to the person or others with whom he may come in contact with, or in some other way sufficiently undesirable to warrant classification as a mental illness, (b) if so, which symptoms, thought patterns, emotions, or behaviors that tend to be associated with those diagnosed with the problem are the ones that ought to be the defining characteristics and which are mere accidental regularities. These are renegotiated every few years and change with advances in understanding of the causal mechanisms, advances in treatment, cultural norms, and "informational seminars" given by drug companies.

In this debate, one psychiatrist,

Professor Gordon Parker claims the threshold for clinical depression is too low and risks treating normal emotional states as illness.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, he calls depression a "catch-all" diagnosis driven by clever marketing.

But another psychiatrist writing in the journal contradicts his views, praising the increased diagnosis of depression.
The defining characteristics of clinical depression as we now have them set out are so broad, that people with normal blues are being categorized as suffering from a mental illness.

On the other hand,
Professor Ian Hickie writes that an increased diagnosis and treatment of depression has led to a reduction in suicides and removal of the old stigma surrounding mental illness.

Under the current diagnosis guidelines, around one in five adults is thought to suffer depression during their lifetime. This costs the UK economy billions in lost productivity and treatment.
According to this line, the essential properties of depression are set out to make sure that all depressive cases are captured and this has significant social value.

Who is right? Don't know, but this question of semantics is certain more than trivial word play. Medicating those who do not need it and preventing suicide certain do not strike me as unimportant.

The second comes from a discussion over at the Maiden's blog. We use the term "killing" to distinguish certain acts from "murder." In both cases, someone takes life, but the former term sheds the moral component that is a part of the latter. A similar move has been tried by those who have introduced the term "enhanced interrogation techniques," into our political and cultural lexicon. The idea is to differentiate it from torture by removing any ethical connotation. This, then, allows us to torture, but because we have recategorized it, it no longer should give us second thoughts.

We have had two semantic assaults upon our social vocabulary in the last couple of generations. Political correctness sought to replace terms pregnant with the biases of the past. The labels we give to people come loaded with images and stereotypes that enforced an unfair distribution of power. Naively, it was thought to be "only a matter of semantics" that could be fixed by using new terms by all "colloquial English speaking-Americans."

That turned out not to be the case, but the plot was picked up by the right and political correctness became patriotic correctness and the same game was played. "Conservative" became "pro-American." "Civilian deaths" became "collateral damage." The damndest thing, though, was that where the first pc failed, the second one has been much more successful. The results, of course, are now out there in the world for all to mourn.

If we really want to change the world, we not only have to change politics and legislative and executive power holders, we need to reclaim our language. The path to a better world is "just a matter of semantics."

And then there's this little semantic gem from LGM:

"The Anti Defamation League has fired its New England regional direction for insisting that the group recognize as genocide the circa-1915 slaughter of perhaps a million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks... A resolution pending in Congress would make it official U.S. policy to recognize that the Armenians were genocide victims. But the ADL, along with other leading Jewish-American groups, apparently considers friendly relations between Israel and Turkey--whose government takes genocide claims as a massive provocation--more important than the underlying historical question."

In other words, the Anti-Defamation League is trying to prevent recognition of the Armenian Genocide, an event that Adolf Hitler *explictly* used to justify the Holocaust.

Wow, indeed.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Authoritarianism and the Habits of Philosophers

One of the bad habits of philosophers is to try to provide argumentation from reason alone for points that need observable evidence. I call this move the "philosophers' fallacy" and even I fall prey to it. But as a wise man once said, "Baby, even the losers get lucky sometimes." (O.k., maybe not wise, but he wrote some darn good tunes.)

Such was the case with my post Conservatives Look at "Who" and Liberals Look at "What" that dates back about a year and a half or so. In it, I argued in this way:

For conservatives, the game is never in questions; it is only a matter of who is going to win. On the line is absolute power. Control is the goal and in a dog eat dog world, it is either us or them. If you are not for us having all the power, then you are for them. You are with us or with the terrorists. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. The game is invariant, it is simply a question of having the combination of the power and the will to win. We have the power, without question, and thus it simply becomes a question of will.

Liberals, on the other hand, see the game itself as that which needs changing. They see conservatives from all sides locked in the international relations equivalent of stupid frat boy games of punching each other more and more viciously to see who will flinch first and they think the whole thing stupid, childish and counterproductive to the real lives of real people, people who are needlessly suffering. It is not a question of winning or losing the game, it is a question of stopping the game and playing something else, something cooperative, a game that will not convey absolute power to any side.

Indeed, the terms conservatives and liberals are the wrong terms to use here. They indicate political left and right, but that's not what is at issue here. What we are really talking about here is authoritarianism vs. anti-authoritarianism. There have been horrible authoritarians on the left and the right. We can point to the same sort of play for absolute power by American neo-conservatives, British colonialists, Augusto Pinochet,... as by those who espouse far left ideologies like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. In the same way, you can hear anti-authoritarian views on the left and the right (Karl Popper is an example from the right). It just so happens that at this place and at this time, contemporary views line up so that nationalism and the justification of authoritarian actions by it are coming from the American political right.

The anti-authoritarian left does something that the authoritarian right cannot make sense of, they broaden the scope of discussion. The left acknowledges that the system is a human construct which we can -- by considerable political effort and at considerable financial cost -- radically overhaul. We can change the sociological factors that help create the society we live in. The right ignores sociology, instead positing only a very naive atomistic psychology of freedom to individuals. This is what is behind the conservative rhetoric of "personal responsibility," it is all about making sure that the focus remains on the individual and that consideration is never given to changing the structure within which the individuals are embedded.
The claim here is that there are different sorts of people, those who defend the foundations of the power of the authorities and those who seek to undermine it for the broader well-being of all involved. That is an empirical claim, something that is not speculative philosophy, but empirical psychology. This is the sort of thing for which one would need data from working social scientists.

Thanks to this post by Moonbat, over at Mahablog, we now know of a psychologist who has not only been doing this work, but who has written a popular account of the research on authoritarian personality types (both authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers) and has even made it available for free download.

In the first chapter, he writes:
Authoritarian followers…support the established authorities in their society, such as government officials and traditional religious leaders. Such people have historically been the “proper” authorities in life, the time-honored, entitled, customary leaders, and that means a lot to most authoritarians. Psychologically these followers have personalities featuring:

* a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society;
* high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and
* a high level of conventionalism.

Because the submission occurs to traditional authority, I call these followers rightwing authoritarians. I’m using the word “right” in one of its earliest meanings, for in Old English “riht”(pronounced “writ”) as an adjective meant lawful, proper, correct, doing what the authorities said.

In North America, people who submit to the established authorities to extraordinary degrees often turn out to be political conservatives, so you can call them “right-wingers” both in my new-fangled psychological sense and in the usual political sense. But someone who lived in a country long ruled by Communists and who ardently supported the Communist Party would also be one of my psychological right-wing authoritarians even though we would also say he was a political left-winger. So a right-wing authoritarian follower doesn’t necessarily have conservative political views. Instead he’s someone who readily submits to the established authorities in society, attacks others in their name, and is highly conventional. It’s an aspect of his personality, not a description of his politics.
Score a lucky shot for the philosophers.

The book is a wonderful read and would make a great basis for a class to be team-taught by a psychologist and either a philosopher or political scientist. Indeed, it seems to lend credence to Hanno's reading of Hobbes who argues in the Leviathan that we must have a social contract to protect us from ourselves because we are nasty, selfish, backstabbing jerks. Hanno's take is that Hobbes is not making a universal claim about all humans, but merely positing a sociological claim that there will always be some amongst us who are like that and having just a handful of such people is enough to start the political theory ball rolling. What we get from decades of research on authoritarian personality types is a modern account of Hobbes' picture.

Altmeyer recounts an his variant of the famous Zimbardo prison experiment. In the original, graduate students at Stanford were divided up into two groups, prisoners and prison guards, and put in a prison environment with the guards having complete control over the prisoners. The results were frightening. The experiment famously had to be stopped because of the increasingly sadistic behavior of the guards.

In Altmeyer's variant, he first gives a questionnaire to test the degree of one's authoritarian disposition. He then sets up a situation in which those who are on the authoritarian end of the scale are in charge and compares it to what happens when those who are on the anti-authoritarian part of the spectrum are given the chance to lead. The results are both unsurprising and incredible. Those with authoritarian tendencies destroy the whole out of selfish and vindictive aggression, whereas those with an anti-authoritarian bent are generally willing to work out creative solutions that benefit everyone. Where Zimbardo's experiment leaves us wistfully wondering if we are doomed to repeat the worst horrors of human history over and over again, Altmeyer gives us hope that if only we select the right leaders, the world can be a more peaceful place conducive to human flourishing and begins to sketch out what the qualifications look like.

Most people, of course, are somewhere in the middle of the scale and very much influenced by the world around us. We obey two masters, morality and normality, and when they disagree normality wins in the overwhelming number of cases. Consider variants the Stanley Milgram ran on his famous experiment in submission to authority. In the original, a subject is told by the experimenter when to push a button that the subject thinks applies an electrical shock of increasing intensity to a fellow subject (really a confederate). The level of intensity clearly grew as the experiment went on until the last buttons which gave what the subject believed to be lethal. In Milgram's version, the majority, 62% of the subjects followed the authority and pushed the button that they believed executed a person whose only crime was getting picked to be on the wrong side of a psychology experiment. And they only did it because an authority told them to.

In the variant, the experiment was conducted next to two confederates supposedly performing the same experiment, so as the subject was engaged in the experiment, he had a model of someone else's behavior to observe. In one set, the other "subject" would comply with the will of the authority and in the other, the he would disobey and stop the experiment. When those around them defied authority, 90% of the test subjects also did. When the "other" subject obeyed authority, 92% of the real test subjects did as well.

We are incredibly plastic beings. Alfred Adler said, "To be human is to be insecure." The pull to be normal, to fit in with the world around us is often overwhelming, even when we know we shouldn't. But when that normality contains examples of those who stand up to authority, when the norm includes rational consideration of and acting on what is right, this changes us and changes the world. Anne Herbert's sentiment "Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty" may be cheesy, sappy, and crunchy, but the research seems to support its efficacy. To quote Altmeyer,
[T]he vast majority of us have had practically no training in our lifetimes in openly defying authority. The authorities who brought us up mysteriously forgot to teach that. We may desperately want to say no, but that turns out to be a huge step that most people find impossibly huge -- even when the authority is only a psychologist you never heard of running an insane experiment, and your obedience means you probably are going to kill someone. From our earliest days, we are told disobedience is a sin, and obedience is a virtue, the "riht" thing to do.
So those of us who are authorities -- parents, professors, bosses -- can our behavior in encouraging insubordination really affect the world? That, of course, tends to be another habit of philosophers, this one seems to be a good one, though.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Comedist Festival of the Ascention: The Captain is a Very Moral Man

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week we celebrate one of the holiest days of the year, the anniversary of the day Groucho took his place at the head table in Comedy heaven. We'll have more biographical details in a few weeks on the feast day of Saint Groucho, but it is appropriate at this time to recall an episode from his last years.

As an old man, Groucho had become more and more frail and more and more isolated from the world. As often happens, he became depressed. His nurse and caretaker, a woman with whom the family would have legal squabbles over his estate, had an idea. She set up a one night engagement at Carnegie Hall called "An Evening With Groucho Marx." No script, no rehearsals, Groucho would simply tell stories to whoever would pay to listen to them. He would once again have his fans. He would feel connected. He would feel loved.

Needless to say, it sold out. Marvin Hamlisch came out and played a Beethoven piano sonata that slowly turned into "Hurray for Captain Spaulding." Dick Cavett gave a beautiful brown-nosed introduction and out came Groucho. The first joke of the night, however, was not by Groucho, but on him. Unbeknownst to the star of the show, upon entering the building, each member of the audience was supplied and encouraged to wear his or her very own Groucho nose and glasses, so upon taking the stage Groucho looked out over a sea of Grouchos. For all those assembled who loved the man and who had been given the gift of so many laughs through the years, some during the dark days of the Depression, to give one back to Groucho and help him out of his own depression was an example where turn-about was not merely fair play, but exquisite play.

The actor Frank Ferrante used this performance as a model for a one and a half-man play (he has a piano player) called "An Evening with Groucho." When it came to Frederick where I live, LilBro and I bought three tickets and took TheOldMan as a Father's Day present, a Comedist guy's night out. In deference to the original "An Evening With Groucho Marx," they decided to do the same audience gag, but since plastic Groucho nose and glasses would be cost prohibitive for a small show on the road, instead they handed out pieces of black electrical tape so everyone would at least have a Groucho Marx moustache.

Let me tell you a little about Frederick, Maryland. Equidistant from Baltimore to the east and Washington, D.C. to the south, the sprawl from both areas is overlapping at Frederick and it is now exploding with sub-development after sub-development. This is changing the character of the place a bit. When I was growing up, it was out in the sticks and nicknamed "Fredneck." The changing demographics have altered the character of the town somewhat, but there are certainly parts of the region where the old Frederick is still alive and well. Places where you go to buy sheets and don't ask for twin, full, or queen, but 42 regular. Places where the pillow cases already have the eye-holes sewn in.

So, it was a little off-putting when the people handing out the electrical tape were being a little cheap with the lengths they were distributing. Now, it was certainly an innocent mistake to hand out pieces far too small to make people look like Groucho, surely made out of concern for the amount of tape on hand and the number of people in the hall; but as we sat there, clearly the only three Jews in the joint, and the small pieces of tape were applied beneath the noses, we suddenly found ourselves in Frederick surrounded by hundreds of Adolf Hitler look-a-likes.

It was all a bit unsettling until my Dad gestured towards the man in the seat in front of LilBro, a chubby, balding man with a gray thinning comb-over (think Micheal Vale, the actor who played the "time to make the doughnuts" baker in the old Dunkin' Donuts commercials) and whispered to us, "Doesn't he look like the guy from the audition scene in 'The Producers'?" HE DID! That was it for the two of us until the show started. We were rolling. A holy man, my father.

So, in the name of my father, his son, and Groucho's holy spirit, I wish all of you a happy weekend. We'll close, today with some of Groucho's words from "An Evening With Groucho Marx."

I was in Italy, I was in Rome. Wonderful city. And I'd just lit a dollar cigar, and I was walking to the corner, and somebody bumped against me. It was a dollar cigar, I wasn't gonna let it lay there, so I reached down to pick it up, and I said "Jesus Christ!" And I turned around, and there is two priests standing next to me, and one of them had bumped against me. He reached in here and pulled out two cigars, and he said "Groucho, you've just said the secret word."

I did a bond tour during the Second World War. It was Hope and Crosby and Cagney - most of the big stars. Desi Arnaz. Yeah, he was on it. We were raising money, and we played Boston and Philadelphia and most of the big cities. And we got to Minneapolis. There wasn't any big theater to play there, so we did our show in a railroad station. Then I told the audience, that I knew a girl in Minneapolis. She was also known in St.Paul, she used to come over to visit me. She was know as the Tail Of Two Cities. I didn't sell any more bonds, but eh...they didn't allow me to appear anymore.

When we did "Animal Crackers" we needed two minutes for a change - a scenery change - so I wrote a ridiculous poem. And I always think of whether the audiences really listens to the actor on the stage. I wrote the most ridiculous poem, you could possibly write, and tried it on the audience. And the first three weeks we did the show, we used to get a sophisticated New York audience, and they used to laugh and they used to applaud at the end. Then we started to get the out-of-towners, people from the middle west, and they though I were serious. Here's the way it goes:

Did you ever sit and ponder, as you walk along the strand,
that life's a bitter battle at the best.
And if you only knew it you would lend a helping hand,
then every man could meet the final test.
The world is but a stage, my friend, and life's but a game,
and how you play is all that matters in the end.
But whether a man is right or wrong, a woman gets the blame,
and your mother is your dog's best friend.
Then up came mighty Casey, and strode up to the bat,
and Sheridan was fifty miles away.
For it takes a heap of loving to make a home like that,
on the road to where the flying fishes play.

Then I used to take a chair, which the vaudeville actors used to do in those days, and I would start walking off the stage, and the last line would be:

So be a real life Pagliac'
and laugh, Clown, laugh.

Live, love, and laugh, clown laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, August 17, 2007

Harry Potter, Ricky Gervais, Marcel Duchamp, and the Preconditions for Great Art

A comment by Gwydion in the Harry Potter thread the other day (that launched quite a discussion), touched upon the topic I had intended to bring up for discussion while writing that post: "What are the preconditions for creating great art, work that advances its artistic community or that impacts the broader society?" Gwydion expressed cynicism about the quality of art that generated tremendously high sales.

At the risk of putting words in the mouth of my dear friend, one could make the argument this way:

-- Great art is dangerous art in that it is both innovative and challenging of the status quo either in society or in the art itself.

-- Most people, being part of the status quo being challenged, at the time the great art is produced and first performed/displayed will be baffled or insulted by it.

-- People do not lend monetary support to art that baffles or insults them.

Therefore, great art will not be richly compensated early on.
The logically equivalent contrapositive of this claim then would be that if someone is made filthy rich off of their artistic endeavor, it won't be great art. It may be fine entertainment, but that it something entirely different from great art.

We have the stereotype of the starving artist and we have arts advocacy groups combing the culture for funding. The question then is whether significant funding would produce more art, but at the same time suppress the creation of great art. Is it more than a caricature to say that novel, exciting work requires artists with an edge, with an axe to grind and if we flooded the arena with funding, you'd see artists become complacent, become accustomed to comfort and therefore create only the art which would maintain their newly found lifestyle? By bringing artists inside the bubble, would they become invested in keeping it inflated instead off playing their real role of gadfly trying to burst it? Neil Young's "Sixty to Zero" includes the lines:
And he picked up the phone
And said, "Send me a songwriter
Who's drifted far from home
And make sure that he's hungry
And make sure he's alone
And send me a cheeseburger
And a new Rolling Stone."
The idea here is that even TheMan is well aware that if you want really good artistic work, you need someone hungry.

The question then can be moved from the personal to the sociological. On the BBC's program "World Update," there was an interesting meditation on Wednesday from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival concerning the fading influence of British humor. At one time, Brits were the leading edge of comedy world, but no longer. with a few notable exceptions like Ricky Gervais, the Isles are not the go-to location for innovative humor as it was for several generations.
One English comedian blamed it on New Labor. British society had lost its edge, post-Thatcher there has not been the sense of anxiety that currently exists in the States and this is why American comics were now funnier. Americans tend to be louder and more in your face and that style of stand-up is now more the rage precisely because there is more rage in America.

One could find evidence for this line by pointing to the rise of Dada and Surrealism as a direct response to the horrors of World War I. If we see art as reactive, does it follow that the figure of great art requires the ground of social or personal upheaval, oppression, or starvation? Can we say anything meaningful about the preconditions for the arising of great art? Does feeding an artist kill off the drive for artistic innovation?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Calendar Denial

It's that time of year. The fall is just about here. Don't get me wrong. I love teaching. I love my students (especially the ones who read this blog). But I hate giving up summer. In fact, at this point I'm simply retreating into denial. If only we think enough summer thoughts, and refuse to give aid and comfort to autumn by listening to the blame summer first crowd, the season will stay all year long. The planetary theory of the seasons is only a theory.

Ice cream

Hard or soft?

(We asked this last year, but it's worth revisiting.)

Jimmies or sprinkles?

Chocolate or rainbow?

Corn on the cob

Typewriter or rounder?

Salt, butter, both, or neither?

Zeitgeist, Harry Potter, and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

I tend to do little pop culture analysis and criticism here. I wish I could cite some high-minded principle for it, but the truth is, I'm simply out of touch. I'm a late adopter, generally coming to the party long after the pop buffet is closed and the cultural keg is kicked.

Case in point, we've just now started reading the first Harry Potter book to the elder shorty, the first I've read of the series at all (haven't seen the movies either). We're enjoying it.

It's well-written and entertaining enough, but the whole time I found myself distracted, unable to shake that weird nagging feeling, "I know it's not possible, but I'm sure I know you from somewhere." Then it hit me, Harry Potter is Arthur Dent. A smart, but kind-hearted and understated nebish who gets yanked from English normality (a normality that was always stacked against him because of his sensitive nature) and is forced to find his bumbling way through a new world full of what we would consider supernatural occurrences, but which are seen as the norm in the parallel world. The Harry Potter series is this generation's Hitchhikers' Guide trilogy.

While it may not have received the marketing circus hoopla surrounding Harry Potter, it is a great mistake to underestimate the influence of Douglas Adams on popular culture. The term "Trekkie" is applied now to any group obsessed with a cultural phenomenon and the media loves to trot out Star Wars folks whenever they want to have one of those "look at the weirdos, aren't we superior" moments. But Hitchhikers' has gone largely unnoticed because the influence was much more subtle, although I would argue, much more pervasive.

Those books were read by virtually everyone in two generations who become the bulk of the intellectual community. They established the internal coolness of geek society providing the nerdier amongst us with a sense of self-confidence that arose from having a common model of snark that could differentiate us in being hip enough to get the joke without emulating the nastiness of the Heathers who sneered at us and whom we had no desire to be like. Because our hero in no way fit the mold of American strong silent types who speak in bumper sticker catchphrases, but rather came in a package filled with witty, but spot on indictments of the norm, we could be proud to be who we were and have no fear about having fun being it.

There has long been a strain of comedy for the intellectual (I hesitate to call it "hip" because that in someway denotes being fashionable, but is accurate in describing the sense that you need to be hip to get it). Stan Freberg, whom I mentioned a few posts ago, was part of a similar movement in the 40s through early 60s with others like Fred Allen, Ernie Kovacs, and the horribly neglected Henry Morgan (many, many thanks Helmut for sending along that fantastic link), and Monty Python in the 60s and 70s were also there, of course, so Douglas Adams in no way invented this slot. But the Hitchhikers' books did seem to be influential in making it a stable genre in the popular arts that would be later occupied by folks like They Might Be Giants, The Kids in the Hall, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and others across the spectrum of pop media.

I can say without reservation that Douglas Adams is one of the most significant influences on my personal writing (and teaching) style and I would argue further that he is one of the primary stylistic influences of the entire blogosphere. Think about how many blog entries out there have the same tone, the same cadence, and attempt the same relative proportions of insight and snark that you find in the "entries" in the Guide. Indeed, it's not hard to see the Internet itself as an actualization of The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, which Adams described this way:

"The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy" is a wholly remarkable book. Perhaps the most remarkable, certainly the most successful book ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor. More popular than the Celestial Home Care Omnibus, better selling than Fifty-Three More Things to do in Zero Gravity, and more controversial than Oolon Colluphid's trilogy of philosophical blockbusters Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes and Who is this God Person Anyway? It's already supplanted the Encyclopedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for two important reasons. First, it's slightly cheaper; and secondly it has the words DON'T PANIC printed in large friendly letters on its cover.
Slap "DON'T PANIC" on the back of every blackberry or the top of every Wikipedia entry and tell me that isn't almost exactly what Douglas Adams had in snugly embedded in Ford Prefect's satchel.

I have no doubt that what The Hitchhikers' Guide is for my generation and the one that followed, Harry Potter will be for the next. J. K. Rowling's style will help shape the next generation of thinkers and popular writers. I don't know if the Harry Potter books, because they reach beyond geek culture to the mainstream, will have the same galvanizing effect upon the subset of youngsters taken to reading and thinking more deeply than is expected (or rewarded) by their peers. So I wonder what the ultimate effects will be.

One of the differences between the two is tone. Potter is much darker and heavier than Hitchhikers'. Is this just a temperamental difference between the authors or an indication of something deeper? Is the spirit of the times now heavier? Hitchhikers' was charming in its jolly cynicism. It was fantastic social criticism, but always effervescent, even in unmasking the horrible. Potter, on the other hand, is much more realist in its sensibilities. Nerds get picked on and they are filled with rage and ressentiment. This anger which takes forms from out-bursts to self-loathing are depicted with unsettling clarity in Harry Potter. A BBC report today discussed the waning British influence in the world of comedy (more on that tomorrow), I wonder if this is an effect of the same sociological shift that guided the move from Hitchhikers' to Potter, a sense that the times are more serious. It is a poor scientist who draws conclusions from two data points, but then I never claimed to be scientist. Does the move indicate something interesting in a shift in the larger Zeitgeist?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Karl Rove: Portrait of the Bullshit Artist as an Old Man

A colleague was discussing Karl Rove today and the word she kept using was "smug." Here's a man who is leaving in a hurry, which is generally an indication that one is either being pushed or chased, yet there remains the ubiquitous smugness.

What accounts for it, I believe, is a complete lack of seriousness. Not that Rove is not intense and driven, I mean a deeper metaphysical capriciousness. It is one thing to treat everything as if it were a game, it is another to actually believe it is all a game. Here is the kid who cheated his way to a championship trophy and who believes that all those who object are just jealous that they weren't gamesmen enough to beat him.

Does anyone have much doubt that it was Rove who Ron Suskind quoted in his New York Times Magazinearticle,

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
The postmoderninsts were seduced by the idea of deconstruction, convinced that the ultimate political act was to peel back the layers of belief to expose politics where epistemology was thought to be. But Rove realized that deconstruction was for losers, it was an autopsy. The job you want is Dr. Frankenstein, building the monster in the first place. Preconstruction is the place of postmodern winners, deconstruction is for whiners.

But this game requires rejecting truth and the notion of objective reality that accompanies it. Rove was the ultimate bullshit artist, in the technical sense of Harry Frankfurt.
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
Truth is usefulness. Reality is what you get everyone to believe. All is maleable.

Rove leaves smug because he doesn't think reality has caught up to him, after all, he hasn't let least in the reality he creates.

Merv Griffin and Prostate Cancer

Sad news today. Merv Griffin died yesterday of prostate cancer. Originally diagnosed in 1996 and treated, the cancer came back and claimed the life of the famed talk show host and brain behind Jeopardy among many other great game shows.

Prostate cancer kills more men than any other disease with the exception of lung cancer. Almost a quarter of a million men are diagnosed with the disease each year and more than 30,000 die from it.

My beach reading during last week's vacation was a wonderful book, Dr. Katz's Guide to Prostate Health: From Conventional to Holistic Therapies, by Aaron E. Katz, the director of Columbia University's "Center for Holistic Urology." I strongly recommend it for everyone, whether you have a prostate yourself or know someone who does. In fact, it would make a great present this holiday season because nothing says "Merry Christmas," quite like a book by a Jewish urologist.

The book is a study in the right way to communicate science to the public. Dr. Katz does a marvellous job clearly explaining to those of us with no medical background the processes that are supposed to be occurring when things are working properly and the mechanisms behind what goes wrong when the prostate enlarges and/or cancer develops. I'll admit that any book with the word "holistic" in the title makes me nervous because there are so many charlatans who hide snake oil behind it, but this book does a wonderful job separating "the hope from the hype," as he puts it, explaining the results of the scientific studies that have looked at the various pharmaceutical, surgical, herbal, and lifestyle approaches to dealing with cancer and with general prostate health. Here's a guy who is near the top of the ladder in mainstream medicine giving an honest appraisal of what is happening both the traditional and alternative health communities.

Good health requires active engagement. When talking of prostatitis, inflammation of the prostate, an extremely common development accounting for about a quarter of all urological visits by men, Katz writes,

Bottom line: Men who struggle with chronic prostatitis must tak their health into their own hands. They end up having to become the world's leading experts on their disease, with their doctors running a close second.

[This was actually the funniest line in the book when read in its full context, "When a man ejaculates, his genitournary tract is bathed in a substance called prostatic antibacterial factor. It does a good job killing off pathogens. In a study of men with prostatitis who abstained from sex, a prescription of twice daily masturbation for six months provided moderate to complete relief for 78 percent of the 18 subjects...Bottom line: Men who struggle with chronic prostatitis must take their health into their own hands."]

The idea here is that one cannot depend solely upon your doctor to be completely up to date on all possible effective treatments,
Men in other parts of the world, particularly Europe, commonly use natural medicines and successfully avoid prostate surgery and drugs. Even mainstream urologists are starting to hear about these therapies, because the science is sophisticated and the results are impressive.

Why haven't you heard more about these therapies, then? Because these natural medicines, which cannot be patented, simply aren't profitable enough to the large drug companies. Since drug companies can't make big profits on natural substances, they don't put the money into the research or the advertising necessary to put a natural medicine on the map.

Doctors who want to know more about natural medicines have to do their own homework -- not an easy task when added to the huge amount of allopathic (normal medical) research in which they are expected to stay current, not to mention learning how to do new procedures or finding out about new drugs.
Doctors are swamped. Few realize that they not only see patients during regular hours and off-hours on-call, but also have regular exams to test that they are up-to-date on advances in their field. Keeping current in the advances of mainstream medicine is a daunting task. Add to that, the fact that drug reps are constantly knocking on the office door to meet with them to give them free pens, memo pads, and information about the latest pharmaceuticals, and the additional fact that there is, of course, a natural bias against these hippy-dippy approaches because medicine has gotten better over time at dealing with most ailments, so why look backwards to what we did when we weren't as good at treating the problem.

Some of these remedies are old wives's tales, others aren't. Some are extremely effective, others not so much. The problem is that most of us have no way of telling one from the other and the people who can aren't paying too much attention because the system is set up so that they can't and/or won't. That's why this book is so helpful. It is very much pro-traditional medicine, but in a way that makes you realize that your health is something that you can effect by small changes in your everyday life (he types while eating his cranberries, blueberries, and pumpkin seeds). If there is a silver lining in the passing of Merv Griffin, maybe it'll be some attention paid to helping ourselves avoid this all too common disease.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Feast of Saint Stan

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week saw the 82nd birthday of one of my favorite funny men of all time, Stan Freberg. The man is a true Comedist Saint, extremely funny and extremely insightful, and a truly fine human being. Beginning his career as cartoon voiceman for Warner Brothers, he learned the subtlety of delivery and what could be done when two voices really had chemistry, something he learned from the master of comedic cartoon voice-overs, Mel Blanc (hallowed be thy name). His most famous characters were the mouse Hubie which he played opposite Blanc's Bertie and the terrier Chester which he played opposite Blanc's bulldog Spike.

He moved into radio where he was chosen by CBS to fill the biggest Comedic shoes there were, he was put in Jack Benny's slot. Unfortunately, the gig didn't last because he demanded that his sponsor not be a tobacco or alcohol company.

He made a series of fine comedy albums and ultimately ended up on television, making appearances on the Ed Sullivan show as a puppeteer. But his biggest influence on the medium came in advertising which he revolutionized by creating the first ads designed to capture the audience with their humor. Those who are reading and think they've never heard Stan Freberg, one word and you'll realize how many times you've heard him in ads.

But perhaps his greatest work was his 1961 album, Stan Freberg Presents The History of the United States of America, Part I. I've been fortunate in this life to have many delightfully enjoyable moments, but among the happiest were the many hours LilBro and I spent playing and replaying and replaying that album. I don't know the last time I heard it, but I have no doubt that the two of us could perform the whole thing straight through from "It's a round, round world" to the battle of Yorktowne without missing a beat. It is clever, sharp, and roll on the floor funny. Freberg is the absolute master of the sideways comment. His main scriptline is tight and beautifully crafted, something that would be masterful comedy by itself; but then his work is littered with pun-filled repartee that is nothing short of genius. If you've never heard History of the United States, please find a copy. It is a real treat.

The real story behind Thanksgiving:

"What do you mean you cooked the turkey?"
"I cooked the turkey."
"O.k., let me get this straight, you took our national bird and stuck it in the oven."
"Well, yeah."
"Charlie, the turkey was for the centerpiece."
"Well, I, uh,..."
"And just as everyone had their mouths set for roast eagle with all the trimmings."
"I'm sorry...well, what do we do now?"
"Well, I guess we'll have to serve it. Kind of scrawny, though, don't you think?"
"Yeah, I had an idea. I figured we could stuff it with old bread, make it look bigger."
"It might work."

"We going out on that joke?"
"No, we do reprise of song...that help."
"But, not much...."

Happy birthday Stan Freberg and many funny returns!

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

The Winner in Last Night's Debate? Frank Luntz

Last night on Logo, a gay-focused cable station, most of the Democratic candidates attended a forum to discuss GLBT issues (Biden and Dodd were no-shows as were all of the Republicans who were also invited to participate). The winner of that debate, Frank Luntz.

There was universal agreement on preventing discrimination in housing, the workplace, the military, on everything except...yup, gay marriage. The two bottom tier candidates, Gravel and Kucinich, had no problem with it; but the front-runners, Clinton, Obama, and Edwards, all said they're in favor of separate but equal civil unions. Why would that be? Why are prominent Democrats no longer afraid to stand up in front of an openly gay and lesbian crowd, face tough questions about their stances on human rights, but in the end gingerly tip-toeing around this one question about equal rights under the law?

The answer has nothing to do with the issue itself, but with the incredible success of a rhetorical strategy employed by the right that we can call "cage and frame." The move has, as the name denotes, two steps. One of them, framing, has been elucidated by Berkeley linguist George Lakoff, who correctly points out that the words we use are not mere "hello, my name is" stickers that we apply to objects in the world allowing us to refer to objects in a value-free way. Words, rather, are pregnant with worldviews, with assumptions about how things work and beliefs about their harmfulness or helpfulness. Our names for things are frames that cast the things we talk about in a certain light, a light that will highlight some aspect of the thing in a way that will lead us towards or away from certain views of it.

Notice how we call it "gay marriage" instead of "universal marriage." The name that we give the issue frames the debate around whether them, the scary other, those "weird gay people," should be given a right, and not about whether or not legal marriage with its privileges like hospital visitation, inheritance, and power of attorney should be free from bigotry should be a part of our laws. Of course, it is about that, but the name, like a magician's misdirection, leads your mind in one direction and not the other.

But that framing is not the only thing that is happening here. The second part to the rhetorical trick is caging. The idea here to take a collection of related issues that you want buried away from the public eye, concerns on which you not only don't want action, but you don't even want discussed, and you group them together. Of those, you pick one, generally the one that is easiest for you to frame in a way favorable to your cause and put it and it alone on the table. All other issues are put in a cage, safely beyond the consciousness of the general public because the one you've allowed out of the cage sucks up all the oxygen in the room. As long as you present a boisterous debate -- the more noisy, rage-filled, and contentious the better. Because of the displayed passion by those on both sides, people will be fooled into thinking that there is free and open discourse about all issues. Meanwhile, you've tied it all up and made sure that nothing would happen on any of them.

And that is precisely what we saw last night. The right has successfully caged all gay rights issues except for universal marriage. This gave the disappointingly cowardly front-runners the cover they needed to put on a strong face and say that they were more than willing to stand with those in favor of human rights...right up to the point of marriage. Why could they not go that step when there is absolutely no difference philosophically? Because we have allowed the right to cage all the other issues and frame this one.

What we saw last night was not only evidence that their strategy is successful, but also a reinforcement of the frame from our side, reinforcement in the Pavlovian sense that only makes the bigoted and morally problematic political baggage more deeply entrenched in how the issue is approached anytime, anywhere. Who won the debate? Frank Luntz, the man who masterminded the strategy, and all those who stand against full and legitimate equality under the law of all Americans. I am thrilled that the step was taken to bring GLBT issues out into an open forum widely attended by most of those vying for the Democratic nomination, but deeply disappointed at what they ended up doing with the opportunity.