Saturday, November 29, 2008

Tying the Knot

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This weekend our Playground playfriends Gwydion and Maura will be getting married. This week's Comedist post will thus be devoted to marriage. Please feel free to leave good wishes and marriage related jokes in the comments.

We wish the two so-to-be newly-weds all the best in health, joy, and timing and leave with a warning to our dear Gwydion, as Alan King explains, he may have just sealed his fate...

Best of luck Gwydion and Maura, we love you both very, very much. To you and everyone else,

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, November 28, 2008

Does Age Really Bring Wisdom?

Does age really bring wisdom or is it more likely that young fools end up as old fools...those who survive, at least?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Power (or Lack Thereof) of Symbolic Acts

Been thinking about symbolic acts lately and on Thanksgiving it seems appropriate to discuss. TheWife was reading an article that urged the President-Elect to take a large swath of the White House lawn and make it into an organic orchard as a symbol of commitment to sustainability. A number of my students have been fasting to bring attention to world hunger and injustice. I'm wondering about the function of such acts. The fact that I slept on and off in a cardboard box at the University of Maryland for a week most likely is not to be listed anywhere among the active factors that brought down the Apartheid government of South Africa. So, what, if anything, do such acts do? Are they for those acting, to give a sense of solidarity? Is it to make us think we are doing something to help alleviate our feelings of powerlessness in the face of deep, on-going injustice, the real causes of which are political and sociological and so much bigger than anything a well-intentioned individual can help overturn? Is it part of a PR campaign, that we are trying to get a movement started because while a few folks cannot do anything substantive, a large public outcry could?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

From the "Irony Can Be So Ironic" File

Ann Coulter's Jaw Wired Shut. We wish a speedy recovery, of course, but couple this with the fact that Rahm Emmanuel lost part of his middle finger in an accident and you've got yet more evidence of the existence of the Cosmic Comic. Irony this ironic doesn't just happen people.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Big Three in Big Trouble

The American car makers are in BIG TROUBLE. I used to drive a Ford. I loved my Festiva. It had 305k miles on it when I traded it in. I'm the sort of person that ought to be the target for the American car makers. I drive a Honda and will not drive anything else. They lost me and a whole lot of folks like me by making cars that were not as good as the Japanese imports and were not as appropriate for the times.

Now the Republicans are barking mad about bailing out the auto companies that are in trouble for having produced nothing but massive SUVs as gas went up to $4/gallon. Of course, not everyone wanted them to make those cars. Some folks were trying to raise the mileage requirement, trying to get Detroit to produce gas/electric hybrids, and smaller vehicles in general. But they refused and at every turn, who was supporting them legislatively in this arguing that it was American to drive a big truck, that we don't punish the successful, that it is virtuous, but not the government's business to conserve energy? The very same people who are now blaming the car companies for mismanagement and refusing to give them help are the ones who were enabling them. Of course, there were Democrats on board too, Rep. Dingell for example.

Now, we've got calls from the Democrats to help bail them out because if they go under, along go LOTS of jobs directly and indirectly, like parts manufacturers, and with things already teetering will take a major shock. What's good for General Motors, it used to be said, was good for America. But there are strings attached. You don't give the junkie money to pay off his debts without sending him for treatment at the same time. There are calls for accountability and federal oversight. The government wants to be able to look over the shoulders of major corporations while they make decisions. The conservative fears are being realized, it is creeping socialism. In fact, the new GM models are going to be marketed as CHE-vrolets.

Are the bailouts really necessary? Is government oversight and conditions on what they choose to bring to market acceptable? necessary?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Is Campaign Finance Reform Dead? Should It Be?

Getting elected means getting your message out and that means advertising. Advertising means money and that means donations. In the decision Buckley v. Valeo, the Court asserted that money was speech, political speech is protected by the First Amendment and therefore, so are campaign contributions.

But, the line for campaign finance reform goes, money is not speech, but the ability to drown out other voices. If you have enough, you keep those who have less from being heard. Money is not the speech itself, it is the access to a bigger megaphone and that works fundamentally against the reason we have free speech, that in a free marketplace of ideas the best idea tends to win. Campaign finance reform is needed to level the playing field and let a wider variety of voices be heard to serve democracy.

But, in the last election, Barack Obama raised a half a billion dollars online from small donors. Suddenly, the small fish have banded together giving them the monetary pull of the bigger fish. Does this eliminate the need for campaign finance reform? Was this last election singular or is there something systemic that has been challenged? Do the central premises of the argument still hold up?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Feast of Saint Voltaire

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week saw the 314th birthday of Fran├žois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire. Voltaire is the Comedist John the Baptist, he was a Comedist before there was Comedism. It was Voltaire after all who said,

"God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh."
"If God did not exist, it would necessary to invent Him."
And so, inspired by Voltaire, we Comedists created this religion in order to gain the the inner-strength needed to squirt milk through our collective nose at the great punchlines of the Cosmic Comic.

And so this week, we ask for a partial accounting of God's great jokes. There is, of course, Robin Williams' nomination of the platypus.What other jokes has the Divine Comedian left for us to laugh at?

live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, November 21, 2008

Politics and the History of 20th Century Philosophy

Last week's post about the interest in existentialism led to a discussion in comments about politics and the analytic/continental split in philosophy. It is probably worth discussing the political nature of that split.

For those who are not philosophers, the roughest version of the split is that analytics are the logic nerds and the continentals are the ones wearing black and getting dates. The details of the split and how the traditions came to be manifested in American universities is a bit more complex.

The early years of the 20th century in Europe were a time of great upheaval, politically and intellectually. With the end of World War I, the old structures lay in ruins. What had been the distribution of power for as long as anyone remembered was destroyed. What had been the undeniable mathematical and scientific beliefs for as long as anyone could remember were destroyed. What had been thought of as art, music, and architecture had been destroyed. In addition, the war itself, with its incredible brutality shocked the sensibilities of those who considered themselves the end of history, the pinnacle of existence. Trench warfare, chemical weapons, mass death, how could we have done that?

In Germany, which was on the cultural ascendant, the failure of the Wiemar government was widely taken as a sign that liberal, free market approach was bankrupt. Something new needed to take its place to prevent what just happened.

The analytic side took its clue from the non-Euclidean geometry and Einstein's theory of relativity. From these advances, they saw not only the need to radically revise all of our basic concepts, but to seek a way of justifying them that was science-like in not needing to appeal to the human intuition which could be so easily corrupted by politics and self-interest. We would try to ground all beliefs on that for which we could have evidence which could be observed by anyone. Further, the scientific community would serve as the basis for our view of the world. It was the scientists and mathematicians who collaborated across boundaries, who ignored artificial borders for the advancement of all humanity. The horrors of the period were due to nationalism and superstition, the sorts of falsehoods that prey on human frailty and need to be guarded against with scientific rigor.

The Continental side followed the lead of Edmund Husserl, a mathematician who saw the failure as one based upon the alienation of human experience from the conceptual basis used in our intellectual pursuits. Husserl's protege was Martin Heidegger who followed Husserl's approach called "phenomenology" and argued that the lived experience was no longer the foundation of our understanding of the world and this led to technologies and social systems that valued theory and ideology over human welfare.

This philosophical divide needs to be superimposed upon the political divisions of the time. Science was as political then as now. To be pro-scientific was generally to be left-leaning. And so the early analytics were largely socialists. Because of Cold War sloppiness, we often now conflate socialism with Communism, but the divide was something real and deep in interwar Germany and Austria where the socialists and the Communists were all but warring factions. There were a few notable exceptions. Karl Popper and Ludwig von Mises, for example, were champions of the free market and Otto Neurath leaned towards Marxism, but by in large, the bulk of the early analytic thinkers were socialists.

Heidegger's view was that the foundations of phenomenology were rooted in the individuality of the being and this led him to so oppose Communism that he became a member of the Nazi party, eventually turning his back on his own mentor Husserl because he was Jewish. Indeed, Heidegger removed the dedication to his masterwork Being and Time which had thanked Husserl for his influence.

But not all of those influenced by Heidegger shared his despicable politics. Hannah Arendt and the existentialists like Sartre, de Beauvior, and Camus took up the phenomenological approach, but were opposed to Nazism.

At the same time, in Frankfurt there arose a group of intellectuals who were explicitly neo-Marxist. Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse were amongst the leading lights of this group. They joined the phenomenologists in arguing that the analytic approach, specifically positivism, was deeply flawed.

When Hitler came to power and purged the universities, all of these groups had to flee -- with the exception of Heidegger who became rector of the university in Freiburg, a very prestigious position. Others -- those who managed to escape, and not all of them did -- took positions in Britain and the US. Many of the neo-Marxists of Frankfurt found a home in New York at Columbia University and the New School where they influenced the American "New Left."

The analytics, on the other hand, settled across the country taking positions in Los Angeles, Chicago, Princeton, Minnesota, Iowa. The positivists were less strident politically when they emigrated here. The end of the war had brought McCarthyism and it struck the analytics as worrisome to see the beginning of what they had just left. As guests who were under suspicion for having German accents, they toned down the political end of the project and focused on the technical. Indeed, some of the analytics became the first hires at the Rand Corporation. But this must be understood in its context. Rand was formed by the Air Force to be a think tank focusing on basic research without concern for particular military use, but whose work could then be used as the military saw useful. As such, it was a chance to develop things like game theory whose foundations von Neumann and Helmer developed at Rand. In this way, analytic philosophy in the 50's became apolitical while the continental side maintained its overt political sensibility.

This may be why it appears to some that Continental thought is to be aligned with our political left while analytic is to be aligned therefore with the right. But this is not at all true. While Quine was politically conservative, he was unusual in that sense. Indeed, as Aspazia points out the work of Francis Fukuyama is part of the basis of neo-conservativism and pulls from contemporary continental thought. There simply is no neat mapping of the analytic/continental divide onto the contemporary American political split.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Deal Lieberman Couldn't Refuse?

Seems to me that there are four possible explanations for the Lieberman fiasco:

(1) The caucus believes that they are at 60 with Begich and Franken and the super-majority was more important than Lieberman's behavior.

(2) Obama is serious about ending partisanship as we know it and used this as a symbol of that change.

(3) The weak-kneed, spineless DC Dems collapsed yet again because that's just what they do.

(4) Obama reached into his bag of Chicago and had a conversation that went something like this:

Obama: (sitting behind his desk, petting a cat)Why did you go to McCain? Why didn't you come to me first?

Lieberman: What do you want of me? Tell me anything. But do what I beg you to do.

Obama: What is that?

Lieberman: The chairmanship of Homeland Security.

Obama: That I cannot do.

Lieberman: I'll give you anything you ask.

Obama: We've known each other many years, but this is the first time you ever came to me for counsel, for help. I can't remember the last time that you invited me to your office for a cup of coffee, even though I supported you in your primary run against Lamont. But let's be frank here, you never wanted my friendship and you were afraid to be in my debt.

Lieberman: I didn't want to get into trouble.

Obama: I understand. You found paradise in the Senate, had a good committee assignment, made a good living. Fox News protected you; and there was David Broder. And you didn't need a friend like me. But now you come to me and you say -- "Barack Obama, give me Homeland Security." -- But you don't ask with respect. You don't offer friendship. You don't even think to call me President-Elect. Instead, you come into my house after I win the election, and you ask me for justice.

Lieberman: Not justice, I ask you for Homeland Security.

Obama: That is not justice; you still have your seat even after losing the primary...Lieberman, Lieberman, what have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? Had you endorsed me, then this chairmanship would be yours, even if you supported the war. And that by chance if an honest man such as yourself should make enemies, then they would become my enemies. And then they would fear you.

Lieberman: Be my friend -- President-Elect? (Lieberman kisses Obama's ring)

Obama: Good. Some day, and that day may never come, I'll call upon you for a vote. But, until that day -- accept Homeland Security as a gift on my election day.

Lieberman (as he leaves the room): Grazie, President-Elect.

Obama: Prego.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Gettysburg Address and Proposition to Which We Must Now Be Dedicated

It was 145 years ago today that Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at a ceremony dedicating the cemetery to hold those slain in the battle. It is a spot I pass every morning. While the old part of the cemetery has small markers arranged in a circle, the fallen grouped by state, the headstones in the newer section holding the remains of those who fought in later wars glow white with an eerie symmetry in the morning sun. The pattern -- straight, offset lines of smooth regular beveled rectangles -- stands out against the trees and rolling hills of the battlefield on which it is set. This artificiality, the unmistakable touch of man, contrasts with the beauty of Nature and gives a stark sense of the difference between the world we live in and that which we choose to do to it and to each other.

But Lincoln's words, which one cannot help but think of in passing this place, appeal to the other side of our nature, to that which creates worlds of insight, justice, and wisdom. Lincoln spoke of being "dedicated to the unfinished work," pointing to our "poor power to add or subtract" in the face of the struggles of those living and dead who gave their lives to advance freedom. We are part of an ongoing process, a path that we must approach thoughtfully, dedicated to propositions, among them that all people are created equal.

It is not accidental that he stresses the place of this proposition, as he knew well that propositions matter. Lincoln was a man of both words and deeds, a thoughtful actor. At this propitious moment in time, his words are as prescient as ever.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Let's hope that we too are on the verge of a new birth of freedom and let me ask you what are other propositions to which we must now be dedicated in order to bring it about.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Ghost of Jackie Mitchell Smiles

Eri Yoshida has been drafted to play professional baseball.

A 16-year-old schoolgirl with a mean knuckleball has been selected as the first woman ever to play alongside the men in Japanese professional baseball.

Eri Yoshida was drafted for a new independent league that will launch in April, drawing attention for a side-armed knuckler that her future manager Yoshihiro Nakata said was a marvel.
This could not happen here because there is a rule banning women from American professional baseball.

The rule followed the success of Jackie Mitchell. Mitchell grew up in Memphis where she lived next to future Hall of Fame pitcher Dazzy Vance who noticed the young girl's talent. At five years old, he taught her mechanics and how to throw a breaking ball. She grew up playing in women's leagues, but at 16 her talent earned her an offer from the AA Chattenooga Lookouts. She played for them during the 1931 season.

It was the preseason, however, that carved Jackie's name in baseball history. On their way back north from spring training, the New York Yankees scheduled a tune up scrimage game against the Lookouts. The Lookout's starting pitcher came in and quickly gave up two hits and a run, so the manager yanked him and put in Mitchell. The number three slot in the 1931 Yankees' line-up, of course, belonged to Babe Ruth. Mitchell's first pitch was high, well out of the strike zone, but the next two were both called strikes. For her fourth pitch, she threw Vance's drop pitch and struck out the Sultan of Swat.

As he threw down his bat amidst ribbing from his teammates for being struck out by a girl, the number four batter stepped up, Lou Gehrig. On three pitches, she sent the Iron horse back to the dugout. Back to back, Mitchell struck out two of the greatest hitters to ever hold a bat.

Days later, the league made it an official policy that women could not play professional baseball and Mitchell's contract was nullfied. This discriminatory rule remains in american baseball to this day. But now, Japan has put Jackie Mitchell's dream back into the realm of the possible.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Is the Protestant Work Ethic Ethical?

Been thinking about Max Weber's work lately and in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he considers the fact that Catholics at the time held significantly less power and wealth throughout Europe than their Protestant counterparts. One of the factors he examines is cultural difference in terms of attitudes towards work.

Is hard work intrinsically virtuous? There is no doubt that it can be taken to an extreme and, sure, that is problematic. But take two co-workers, one who takes initiative and plugs away and gets everything done as efficiently as possible, while the other does only what is asked and not a lick more and who takes his time getting done what he does. Or, alternatively, one student who studies hard, outlines the text, works sample problems and gets good grades while another with all the same aptitude, skates through with C's. We can call the one a better employee and one the better student, but is this a reflection of character, does this make either one a better person than their colleague? Is our inclination towards the hard worker something ingrained in us because of its benefits for the big boss man or is it an indication of something deeper?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Humor and Power

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This weekend I want to discuss a wonderful essay by Bernard Chazelle entitled The Humorology of Power, over at a Tiny Revolution which was pointed out to me by good brother Ron. It is thoughtful, well argued, and well-stocked with plenty of good jokes. Well worth the read.

His argument proceeds in three steps. First, humor is a manifestation of power. The act of joking is an act that declares the joker's superiority. Even self-deprecating humor is a play on irony because by putting oneself down, one is really saying, Chazelle's line goes, that I am so far superior that I can pretend to be inferior without insecurity.

The second point, playing off of this, is that humor cannot be a force for liberation. "If humor could have a driving political purpose (and I doubt that it can), it would have to reflect a certain totalitarian temptation. Laughter is a reactionary impulse and humor is, at its root, a call for order. Crudely put, the humorist is a nag—or, to be technical about it, a law enforcement officer." Humor cannot liberate because "humor must knock down empathy in order to kill fantasy."

His final point is that humor often uses reflexivity, self-reference to create absurdities. These absurdities then play upon distribution of power.

Chazelle provides some provocative theses here, but there seem to be some places where it could use some tightening. First of all, surely the general claim that joking is a declaration of superiority is far too broad, even if we consider humor about power. Consider, for example, Colin Quinn's bit on why the Irish were the only country in Europe not to have colonies, a bit that I seem not to be able to find (free entrance into Comedy heaven if anyone can find it and provide a link) in which he portrays the last minutes preparations before the Irish army is about to board the boats and a voice from the back asks "So when we get there, will we be bringin' the beer or will they be providing it?... Oh. Well, you can count me out, I'll tell you that right now." This is reflection on a lack of political power through imploring negative stereotypes of ones own group, not sure this one can be spun to back up the thesis. In the case of the Holocaust jokes, one could always make the move that being able to laugh at it showed that it failed, but here you cannot make that move because it is not, say, playing off the British.

I'd also take issue with the second claim that humor cannot be liberating. I think this is utterly false because it misses the power inherent in the very structure of the act of joking. A joke has two parts, a set-up and a punchline. The set up leads the listener to create a possible world through interpreting the words in the natural way. The punchline is funny because it forces us to realize that we need to radically reinterpret what we understood in the set-up in a very different fashion. The humor resides in the space in between when our mind is trying its hardest to square these incommensurable interpretations and failing every way it twists them. That's what "getting the joke" is, that's why someone who telegraphs a joke is not funny.

In other words, the entire structure of a joke relies on being able to see the world in two ways, one primary and one secondary. The primary interpretation is the one we naturally leap to and that is why we need it in the set-up for the joke to work. but the power of the secondary interpretation is that we now see the butt of the joke in a way we had not before, there has been a shifting of the categories we use to make sense of the world and we now have an enlarged perspective. This enlarging is the key to humor's ability to liberate.

Groups are placed into cultural bondage largely by being pigeon-holed,by being shrunk down to caricatures which are then reinforced by carefully selected examples that we are able to find. But when we joke about these groups, especially when those groups joke about themselves, they are able to rehumanize themselves in the eyes of those outside the group, they are able to reinflate their image making them as a group multi-dimensional. Think of the social power of television shows like "Good Times" or "The Jeffersons" in creating complex images of the African American family in the 1970's. The jokes were indeed vehicles of liberation.

A few other categories of power humor that Chazell did not mention that is worth considering:

The political pun -- Anyone who supported the Khmer Rouge must have been smoking Pol Pot.

The false analogy absurdism -- If Obama wants to be President of all Americans, he'd have to be President of first graders, too. "O.k. kids, can you spell 'Arugala'?"

The false history that embeds with a tragic reality -- I don't know if you know this, but originally Hitler didn't exclude the Jews and homosexuals. It's just that they kept making trouble at the early National Socialist meetings.

"Excuse me, but vat's vit the brown shoyts? Ve vear black pents and the black and the brown don't vork so vell together."

"You know, I've just got to say my two cents here also, because while I'm not put off by earth tones, especially in Autumn, the brown shirts definitely need a collar and maybe a pair of khakis, something with a pleat. It is looking so "thug" right now and that went out with the Kaiser."

"Hey, what's this about a Beer Hall putsch...more like a Beer Hall putz if you ask me."

"Instead of a beer hall, there's this other bar down the street..."

"Hey, hey, hey, what's with the hate here calling us 'sheckel grabbers' and 'schmeckle grabbers', that's pretty funny coming from a Schickelgruber!"

"Well, maybe we don't want to be part of your group!"


It seems to me that humor is a multifaceted thing, something that forces us to see the world in many different ways and anything that stretches us can be a force for good.

Favorite political jokes?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Red King's Dream

In Through the Looking Glass, Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee show Alice the sleeping Red King and tell her that she is merely a part of his dream.

`It's only the Red King snoring,' said Tweedledee.

`Come and look at him!' the brothers cried, and they each took one of Alice's hands, and led her up to where the King was sleeping.

`Isn't he a LOVELY sight?" said Tweedledum.

Alice couldn't say honestly that he was. He had a tall red night-cap on, with a tassel, and he was lying crumpled up into a sort of untidy heap, and snoring loud -- `fit to snore his head off!' as Tweedledum remarked.

`I'm afraid he'll catch cold with lying on the damp grass,' said Alice, who was a very thoughtful little girl.

`He's dreaming now,' said Tweedledee: `and what do you think he's dreaming about?'

Alice said `Nobody can guess that.'

`Why, about YOU!' Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. `And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you'd be?'

`Where I am now, of course,' said Alice.

`Not you!' Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. `You'd be nowhere. Why, you're only a sort of thing in his dream!'

`If that there King was to wake,' added Tweedledum, `you'd go out -- bang! -- just like a candle!'

`I shouldn't!' Alice exclaimed indignantly. `Besides, if I'M only a sort of thing in his dream, what are YOU, I should like to know?'

`Ditto' said Tweedledum.

`Ditto, ditto' cried Tweedledee.

He shouted this so loud that Alice couldn't help saying, `Hush!

You'll be waking him, I'm afraid, if you make so much noise.'

`Well, it no use YOUR talking about waking him,' said Tweedledum, `when you're only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you're not real.'

`I AM real!' said Alice and began to cry.

`You won't make yourself a bit realler by crying,' Tweedledee remarked: `there's nothing to cry about.'

`If I wasn't real,' Alice said -- half-laughing though her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous -- `I shouldn't be able to cry.'

`I hope you don't suppose those are real tears?' Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.

`I know they're talking nonsense,' Alice thought to herself: `and it's foolish to cry about it.'
Is it nonsense?

The dream argument plays prominntly in Descartes' version of skepticism where he argues that every thought could be false because it could all be the result of a dream. Every thought, that is, except that the self exists because there must be a self to have the dream.

But this is what Carroll is questioning here. Does the ability to think guarantee independent existence? Could your thoughts be a part of the dream of someone else? Is "I think, therefore I am" invalid? Should it read "I think, therefore someone -- maybe me, maybe not -- is"? Could parts of your dreams have thoughts or do they just appear to have thoughts in the dream? Could they think if they were your thoughts is it inconsistent to think of such things as capable of thought?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Existenitalism and Young Intellectuals

Why is existentialism so popular among young intellectuals? Is it that the angst and freedom appeal to people at the phase of life when they are typically angst-ridden and on their own, just starting the project of creating their adult selves? Or does it have nothing to do with the doctrine itself and is merely the result of good PR in which the term "existenitalism" has become a stand in for "philosophical" in the parlance of smart kids of approximately that age? If we taught philosophy in the high schools would the attraction to existentialism wane?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Student Entitlement or the Usual Whining?

Interesting article in the National Post, "'Entitled' Students Expect Better Grades". The thesis of the piece is that students today widely believe that in college moderate effort ought to necessarily translate into good grades:

Most university students believe that if they're "trying hard," a professor should reconsider their grade.

One-third say that if they attend most of the classes for a course, they deserve at least a B, while almost one-quarter "think poorly" of professors who don't reply to e-mails the same day they're sent.

Those are among the revelations in a newly published study examining students' sense of academic entitlement, or the mentality that enrolling in post-secondary education is akin to shopping in a store where the customer is always right.

The paper describes academic entitlement as "expectations of high marks for modest effort and demanding attitudes toward teachers."
It is, of course, the birthright of every generation to complain that kids these days are a bunch of lazy slobs who don't work as hard as I did when I was their age and had to (fill in the blank with absurd task happily engaged in under great duress). The right to whine, however, does not mean that the whine is legitimate.

But, is it?

I'm not sure I would say that this generation is any different from mine, but then maybe we were entitled in the same way. At the same time, taking up the crotchety side of the argument, there is no doubt that many students expect to be spoon-fed and not have to work much outside of the classroom. They think that explicitly assigned readings and homework are all they are expected to do on their own. Further, lectures are not only expected to be miraculous in conveying the information, but also edutainment as lively and engaging as a live theatrical performance.

I've taught at nine different schools including community college, state universities, a Catholic college, private liberal arts schools, and a military academy, so I've seen a wide sample of students from any number of demographic categories and pretty much across the board study skills, by in large, seem not to be terribly good anywhere. Students where I am now, for example, complain bitterly about having to take foreign language classes, something that is purely a matter of putting in the time and slogging through the hard process of rewiring part of your brain. "I'm not good at languages," I hear more times than I can count. Of course, pretty much no one is good at them; it just takes the discipline to put in the time, practice, and drilling. Perhaps that is anecdotal evidence for the claim? Of course, it is not terribly good evidence and I'm not convinced that the sense of entitlement is as drastic as portrayed in the article. The phrase "gentleman's C" goes back a long way before this current crop of students.

so, is this a caricature of this generation, just the newest instantiation of "those whippersnappers", "those kids with their rock and roll music", "those dirty hippies with their drugs and free love" or is this inflated sense of entitlement real and unique to this generation? Is it new? Is it a result of the institutionalization of grade inflation? of an unreasonable tenuring process? of high school preparation? Or is it all just the curmudgeonly kvetching of bitter old people?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Meaing of Bachelor Parties

Thinking about wedding rituals today becasue (1) it is LilBro's anniversary (LilBro -- don't forget, man, it's your anniversary), and (2) one of us here at the Playground is getting married very soon and I am playing a role in the ceremony.

TheWife and I have a longstanding argument about rituals in general. She loves them because they bring certain practices into the regular routine of life and those practices can be attached to that which is meaningful, therefore making routine life more meaningful. I argue that the rutualizalation itself strips the meaning away by making it mere motions that are gone thorugh instead of an authentic spontenaous act of appreciation of that which is meaningful.

Weddings, it seems can go either way. LilBro and our friend are going the non-standard wedding route in which they create their own ritual, personalized to express what they and their partners find meaningful. But then there are standard parts before the ritual, specifically, the bachelor party.

The bachelor party was oringinally a celebration of the last night of freedom, but marriage nowadays begins well before the wedding. No one about to get married, in a sense is free the night before the wedding. Certainly, there are those who celebrate with the traditional sorts of debauchery. But for those of us for whom that would not even be considered an option for ethical and social/politcal reasons, what remains of the meaning of the bachelor party?

Sure, it is a celebration of oneself, but is it different from a birthday party? Mine was a poker game with dear friends, one of whom hit me with a coconut cream pie -- for Comedists, this is a deeply meaningful event and I will be ever-grateful to my firends for having colluded to this end. But in general, for enlightened men, what is the meaning of the bachelor party?

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Problem of Non-Evil

Is the standard notion of heaven self-consistent? Can you have both the necessary freedom from suffering and freedom of the will for those in heaven? If you say that there is no suffering in heaven because the only people allowed in are those who would never choose to inflict it, then it is not necessary, but contingent. There could be suffering in heaven, but there just happens not to be because of the choices. On the other hand, if God can guarantee it, say, by over-ruling or correcting for free choices that would inflict suffering on others in heaven, then it surely is a much less robust notion of free will than we would want. There is no corresponding problem with the concept of hell, because we could strip away free will or not and still have plenty of suffering, but with heaven we seem to have a concern. So, can the freedom of the will and freedom from suffering be reconciled in a way that saves necessity?

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Passing the Plate

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

I will be at a conference all weekend without a chance to give a proper homily. I do humbly apologize. But, as with any church, there is always time to pass the plate. Others ask for money, but we ask that you tithe jokes. So, dig deep, my friends.

I was asked by a student in class Friday what my favorite joke is. Turns out it is here (the last one). But it seems a good question to throw out to the congregation. What is your favorite joke?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

(Good brother RonZ, next weekend will be the post I promised...I promise)

Friday, November 07, 2008

Why Do You Know That?

Here's a new something that is probably worth trying and if it goes well, maybe we'll make it an irregular. It's the converse of "any questions." The idea is to contribute those bits of knowledge that seem really cool even if they are not directly applicable to anything.

-- The letters YKK that you find on many zippers stands for the initials of Yoshida Company Limited transliterated from Japanese.

-- Hamsters can run up to seven miles a night on their little exercise wheels.

-- Charles Darwin's grandfather was Josiah Wedgwood of Wedgwood china, the father of English potters.

-- We can dream at any point during the sleep cycle, not just during REM sleep.

-- Original title of the Beatles' song "Yesterday" was "Scrambled Eggs."

What some some interesting factoids that you know for no good reason?

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Not So Black and White

When Branch Rickey gave Jackie Robinson the chance to play on the Brooklyn Dodgers, it was historic. It was an important point in the narrative of race that is an essential thread for anyone who wants to understand our national story. But, be clear, it was not evidence that we were not a racist society. Indeed, it provided a context to demonstrate exactly how racist we, in fact, were.

There has been a tidal wave of American self-congratulations in the last day on how wonderful we are to have elected an African-American, how we are the only country in the world in which this sort of thing could happen, and how we stand apart from all other nations morally because it. I am in no way saying it is not a fantastic result. "Content of his character" is sadly becoming a cliche, but Obama's brains, rock-steady temperament, and care for people combine to truly make him what I believe will be a once in a lifetime leader at a time when we really, really, really need one. Like Jackie Robinson, no doubt it took someone so disciplined and talented to make it to the office. A black George W. Bush could never have made it.

But this election is not black and white. It was not a demonstration of having gone quite so far in terms of our embrace of difference and an end to bigotry. Yes, it was a tremendous step forward, but just as with the Jackie Robinson case, that step afforded the opportunity to avoid the Disneyesque approach we seem to be caught up in and to take an honest appraisal of what just happened in this election.

We saw both Democratic and Republicans race-baiting. The Clintons and their surrogates like Geraldine Ferrarro and many on the right did not make overtly racist attacks, but did clearly use dog-whistle means of invoking race to try to gain a political advantage. They used racists as tools, as convenient idiots. Should we be proud of the facts that they kept this to a significantly lower degree than they could have and that it did not ultimately work? Sure. But let's not kid ourselves, and no one with an e-mail address and conservative family members surely can.

But the real intolerance and bigotry came out in other ways. It took Colin Powell to say, and so what if we was a Muslim. Anti-Islamic bigotry was rampant. "He's an Arab." "No, ma'am. He's a decent family man. A citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign's all about. He's not." A decent family man, as opposed to an Arab...

Then there was the Liddy Dole ad that accused Senator-elect Kay Hagen of being, gasp, an atheist. No, no, no, people rushed to her aid, she's a Sunday school teacher and an elder in her Presbyterian church. Dole got slammed for the ad and it may have been one of the things that ultimately cost her her seat. but was it because it was false or was it because we still see "atheist" as a hit below the belt. Godless clearly means immoral, right?

But perhaps the most disgusting result of the night were the ballot initiatives in California, Arizona, and Florida that wrote into law provisions stripping rights from our fellow citizens who happen to be gay and lesbian. Jim Crow is back, or at least Jim Crow's gay child. The law has been changed to enforce bigotry and hatred. This is horrific, but that it happened while we are all so busy back-slapping ourselves about how open-minded we are puts it clearly in the "irony can be so ironic" file.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

It Wasn't An Election, It Was An Intervention

Rest of the world, it's o.k., we're back on our meds. The prodigal nation has returned.

Random thoughts about the election:

Obama won in large part because he ran a different sort of campaign in so many ways:

(1) No drama. Discipline. The focus was always on Obama and never on the inside of the organization. Additionally, he was never dramatic in the debates, but rather cool and steady and that gave him his teflon against the "he's so scary" and "he's naive" attacks because he seemed incredibly in control and reasonable.

(2) His people included precious few of the standard issue D.C. insider consultants who only know how to effectively lose to Republicans. The Democratic party has been the Washington Generals of American politics for the last two decades. He used his own people and brought in a new mindset.

(3) He played smarter, not just harder. He beat McCain the same way he beat Clinton -- he figured out how to play the game according to the rules. His team figured out that if he did well in caucus states during the primaries, he could get an insurmountable lead. Similarly, that he could lock up a number of votes by working states the have early voting. These are people who are strategic.

But there are others who played a huge role. Obama could not have done what he did if it was not for Howard Dean. In his own run in 2004, Dean's supporters created the web infrastructure that Obama's people stepped in and supercharged. His run also galvanized the anti-institutional wing of the Democratic party which turned en masse against Hilary who represented the old (loser) guard of the Democratic party. Once he was made head of the Democratic National Committee, he turned the party from a 17 state party that only focused on safe very blue regions and sucked money from state parties into D.C. to only focus on top of the ticket national races into a 50 state party that send money from D.C. into places Democrats had never been seen in order to run for everything from dog catcher on up.

Hilary Clinton was another whose contributions can't be overlooked. Her campaigning may have done a little, but it is nothing compared to what her kitchen sink, refuse to die primary run did. It gave Obama all the calluses, used up all the negative attacks the GOP could have thrown, making them all old news. It allowed him to set up and test his ground game in all 50 states and gave him early databases full of ardent supporters who could then be tapped in the general to lead the get out the vote efforts. Hilary's never ending campaign worked as a tough practice scrimmage for the Obama organization, who could then look at all the parts and see what needed tweaking and what ran smoothly.

The contribution of Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, George W., and the religious right in general cannot be overlooked. Dover, Katrina, and the lack of WMDs in Iraq undd everything Rove worked so hard to do. Reagan and Clinton won by winning both their respective bases and the middle. Gore and Kerry tried to do the same, but Rove decided to simply eliminate the middle, forcing a complete split in the electorate with the idea that their half is more likely to vote. The country was intentionally and incredibly divided for the purpose of electing Republicans. The utter failure of Bush's reign which was predicated upon Rove's notion that you don't have to govern if you just continually campaign (and campaign negatively) undid the divide by making the center so disgusted by both the tone of the campaigning and the incompetence of the administration that they reappeared in a way that left them open to a great Democratic candidate.

Finally, there was also Steve Schmidt and John McCain who ran an incoherent campaign based on tricks and tactics. They did virtually nothing with the five weeks after his nomination while Obama and Clinton battled it out. That's not to mention the Palin selection. Aside from that, they ran the same exact campaign as Clinton did: experience, then experience to bring change, then I'm a fighter, then kitchen sink. It didn't work the first time and it didn't work the second time.

Other election issues:

Abortion ballot initiative aborted in South Dakota, but damned homophobic ballot measures pass, even in California. Culture War not pulling the troops out all together, but apparently putting reinforcements on bringing out Jim Crow's gay child, Jamie Crow.

Tim Mahoney, the adulterous lying scumbag that took Tom Foley's seat in Florida, lost big. That's a good thing.

Liddy Dole goes down. Thank God for Godless Americans.

Chris Shays, the last Republican representative in New England, is gone. Maybe now the GOP will see the wisdom of the Endangered Species Act.

Neo-McCarthyist Michelle Bachman looks to have destroyed El Tinklinberg's bid to become the first member of Congress to have a name that sounds like a Jewish-Mexican character from Peter Pan.

Got phone polled by one of the big pollsters last night during the returns. All the usual questions, except one: "How often do you shop at WalMart?" Very interesting.

Looking like Ted Stevens was re-elected AFTER his seven count felony conviction for corruption. Apparently salmon is not the only thing that gets smoked up there.

Bullshit or Not: Plato the Elitist Edition

There's an old sketch film called Amazon Women on the Moon and one of the bits is a parody of the old Leonard Nimoy show, "In Search Of..." called, "Bullshit or Not?" with the tagline "Bullshit or not? You decide." It's a line I like so much that I've stolen it for an irregular series of posts.

It seems only appropriate today to focus on democracy. Plato, of course, was an opponent of democracy and it would be interesting to kick around his reasoning to see what folks think. The gist is that democracy is an inferior brand of government because it puts the power in the hands of the unwashed masses who are insufficiently thoughtful to handle it well.

Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarrelling with one another about the steering --every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary. They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain's senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores; thus, eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such a manner as might be expected of them. Him who is their partisan and cleverly aids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain's hands into their own whether by force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not-the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer's art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling. Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?
So, bullshit or not? You decide. As usual, feel free to leave anything from a one word comment to a dissertation.

Monday, November 03, 2008


YKW throws down the gauntlet:

Predict the time at which any of the major TV and/or cable news networks calls the election Tuesday night. Price is Right rules (closest prediction without going over – i.e., if you guess 11:08 and the event happens at 11:09, you lose to the person who picked 11:30). We avoid the Price is Right underbidding problem (one dollar!) since no one on the blog responses would know if they were the last bidder when making a submission.

The Normativity of Handwriting

So, the bigger of the short people is learning cursive and has that chart we've all seen countless times displaying the right way to write the letters. But is there a right way to write? Sure, we all have our own handwriting, but on what basis should we judge handwriting? It does seem a bit strange to say, "This is the right way" when I make mine differently and don't feel as if I'm not actually writing, say, a capital G or writing it wrong.

There seems to be three options:

(1) Handwriting Platonism: these folks see the chart as positing the Form of cursive, that is, that perfect, unchanging nature of cursive handwriting and each person's own script partakes of the Form, but is an imperfect representation. Better handwriting is handwriting that is more like the ideal.

(2) Handwriting Subjectivism: there is no such thing as right and wrong, there is simply the way each of us writes. Better or worse is just I like it better or I don't, or it is functionally more useful, easier to read or not. It is your handwriting, write as you will, who is to tell you how to make a lower case q.

(3) Handwriting Pluralism: A middle path in which there are multiple ways to acceptably right a cursive S, but not all ways are allowable. There is a range that you need to fall in, but outside that range is unacceptable.

So, which one is right or have I missed the real answer?

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Halloween and the World's Scariest Candy

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

For those who will be in the Baltimore area, I'll be appearing at T.Brad Hudson's "Drink 'til We're Funny" at Damon's in Hunt Valley Sunday night. The show runs 9-11. Love to see those who can make it.

Halloween came and went. It's always a tough time for us because TheWife and I are those parents everyone is glad they don't have. You know, those vegetarian organic tofu for dinner parents. The "we keep our kids away from candy" parents. So, Halloween is a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, you want them to have the experience of trick or treating, but on the other hand, for kids who can't eat candy, it is kind of like taking a eunuch to a brothel on customer appreciation night.

So, we take them trick or treating. My son had an eye patch and a bandana, a fake parrot and a sword. He went as an investment bank CEO. Unfortunately, all the homes we visited were soon foreclosed upon afterwards because only one person in the neighborhood actually bought candy, all the others just bought insurance against running out of treats before the end of the trick or treaters, the unregulated so-called candy default swaps. If you buy one from your next door neighbor, they call you an across the hedge fund. Everything was going fine until Mr. Lehman ran out of M&M's, and then the whole house of cards came down. All the kids started calling in candy iou's for the next few Halloweens and it got ugly. On the upside, our last stop was the Paulson's and the kids came home with 780 billion fun-sized Milky Way bars.

Gotta love candy. "Almond Joy's got nuts, Mounds don't." I always wondered what this chick Joy was doing was nuts. Shouldn't she be the one with the mounds? Candy jokes never get big laughs, but good ones get a few snickers.

Have you heard about the newest candy on the market? From the Vosges' Chocolate Company, there's Mo's Bacon Bar. Yup, three ounces of milk chocolate with crispy pieces of Applewood smoked bacon inside.

I don't blame Mo for this. We all have ideas that seemed good at the time. I blame the second person. We all have a second person, someone we excitedly take those ideas that seemed good at the time, the person whose job it is to say, "Ummmm, no." The person who keeps us off the Darwin Award list, who keeps us from ending up like Wile E. Coyote. This was a failure of the second person. I would love to have been in that corporate meeting room:

"O.k., Mo. What do you folks in R&D got for us this time?"

"Follow me, Mr. Vosges. The key to success in the food industry today? Synergy. Think fast-food. Bacon. Chesseburger. Bacon-cheeseburger. Think ice cream and Pop Tarts. Graham crackers. Chocolate. Marshmallow. Synergistic smory goodness. So, what can we do to move ahead in this market? We need to outsynergize the synergizers. Take the bacon-cheeseburger and the smore and synergize.

Stay with me. Graham crackers. Chocolate. Two slices of bacon. Instead of a marshmallow, a big piece of fat back. What do you think, Mr. Vosges?"

"Mo, I like the concept. But my father, the old man Vosges, didn't build this company up from nothing without knowing something about the business and he always said to me, 'Simplify, son, simplify.' So, Mo, can you simplify?"

"O.k., Mr. Vosgas. Simplify. Let's take away the graham crackers and the fat back. Just chocolate covered bacon!"

"Mo, you're a genius. Now, how are we going to market it? What can we call it?"

"O.k., we have bacon from a BLT and chocolate from an M&M, we'll call it BM. No, no, no. We have crunchy chocolate and pork, like a Crackle and Scrapple. We'll call it Crapple, no, Scrackle."

"Simplify, Mo, simplify."

"O.k., we have a chocolate bar and bacon, we'll call it a Bacon Bar!"

"Mo, you're a genius. This'll sell better than our fried shrimp candy canes! In fact, we'll make our big push around Valentine's Day. Sell them in a heart shaped box for lovers. We can write on the box, "Want to pork something sweet? Put a little oink in your boink."

"Mr. Vosges. That's why you're the boss."

"Thanks, Mo."

Happy Halloween everyone!

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve