Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Snowballs and Tuxedos

I was reminded of a time in high school when we were having a party at a friend's house in Mount Vernon, an upscale urban neighborhood in Baltimore, after a good snow. Of course, we all ended up outside having a large snowball fight when several couples were leaving the Engineers' Club, a formal establishment in the basement of a building next door.

An errant snowball hit one of the adults and there was that uneasy moment where everyone -- kids and adults -- stood frozen. The gentleman who got pegged turned around and looked at us, then bent down, scooped up snow and fired back. That, according to international snow rules, makes him a legitimate target and, of course, he received a significant volley in return. A rush of people came out of the club and suddenly we had doubled the size of the battle with men in tuxedos and women in formal gowns as part of the action.

While it is always fun to hit someone with a snowball, there was something unbelievably satisfying about hitting someone in a tuxedo with a snowball. And that extra satisfaction is today's question. What makes it so much more fulfilling?

Is it a Moliere-like belief that those in power are fools and do not deserve it and that you are symbolically knocking them down to the level where they really are?

Is it a Marxist class-based impulse where you are attacking the bourgeois, living out the revolution for the workers?

Is it a Nietzschean moment where you are asserting yourself on the universe through triumphant self-affirmation by striking targets off-limits to normal high-schoolers?

Is it a Freudian moment where the tuxedoed gentlemen represent your father and hitting him with a snowball is a momentary release of unfulfilled oedipal desires?

Is it more Adlerian, where hitting someone who has the trappings of a station you will likely never reach allows you to deal with your inherent human insecurities?

Or could it be Townshendian in nature, where you are living out a symbolic death wish in your "hope to die before I get old" while striking one for my g-g-g-generation?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Rock 101: We Do Need Some Education

TheWife is not a popular music person, so around the house we tend to play world, jazz, or classical. But as Christmas approached, she voiced the concern that the kids might be alienated from their peers because they aren't listening to anything pop. But not being a music person, she wasn't sure what to get them. And so she asked.

My attitude is that before they listen to anything alternative, they should know what it is an alternative to. So, for the bigger of the short people, the obvious answer was the red album. For the shorter or the short people, I got a Chuck Berry collection.

What would be your suggestions for first albums in a collection? What should be the first steps in the foundation of one's understanding of rock music?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Boxing Day

This weekend was Boxing Day, which of course has nothing to do with the sport. But, then, I was never one to pass up a pun no matter how lame. so, before I get accused of being cheesy, let me beat you to the pun(ch).

So, the question is whether it is morally problematic to support boxing. Here is a sport in which the object is to strike your opponent in the head with such force that it bangs against the inside of his skull hard emough to cause him to involuntarily black out. It is clearly a glorification of violence in a society that does not need violence to be glorified.

Let's set aside the question of the boxers themselves. Surely, they choose to participate in the sport and to some degree it is their body to do with as they choose. They train with incredible intensity to put themselves in amazing physical condition. It is not two people randomly throwing punches, there is an art and a science to the sport and it takes years of commitment to learn to truly box well.

But then there are the folks who pay the money, be it for live tickets or pay per view. These are folks who pay to watch someone brutalized for their amusement. And not just anyone, these are people who pay to watch poor people brutalized for their amusement. After all, who are the only people who box. You never hear someone say, "I was going to law school when I realized, I just wanted to be back in the ring." If you want to see who are the recent immigrants trying to work their way up the social/economic ladder, look at who is boxing. It seems like exploitation at its worst. But then how could the boxers be exploited if they are choosing to pursue a career in the sport. At the same time, their choices are not entirely free because of class circumstances.

So, is there anything wrong with being a boxing fan?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Awkward Christmas Moments

While putting together the pitchback he just got, "Daddy, why do they call this pipe 'male' and that pipe 'female'?" "Ummmm. I used to know. Go ask your mother."

Your favorite awkward Christmas moments?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Festivus

To all my fellow Comedists,

Happy Festivus.

Here would be the feats of strength:

Let the comments serve as the annual repository for the airing of grievances. For my part, the failing economy does not mean that deli sandwiches can be served without a pickle.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

I Want You to Want Me

I've had several friends -- not just Facebook friends, but actual real-life friends -- send me Facebook requests to become fans of theirs. Some are artists, others politicians, but the point is clearly to have a centralized place from which to organize people, to raise their platform, to mobilize folks to turn out for performances and at the polls.

Yet, it still seems awkward to me. "Friend" indicates a reciprocal relationship. If I am your friend, then you are my friend. "Fan" on the other hand, is asymmetric. I may be a fan of someone without their knowing who I am, indeed they might be entirely dismissive of or annoyed at my admiration. It is therefore peculiar, even antithetical to the entire notion of fandom to be invited to be a fan of someone.

I've therefore been put off by fan invitations, since it seems something you cannot be invited for. At the same time, the term is clearly ambiguous, fan is not the same as fan. Yet surely, the use of it is similar enough that there should be considerable overlap in meaning. Am I being too much of a philosopher here?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Cosmic Debris or Not: Frank Zappa 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.

Yesterday would have been Frank Zappa's 69th birthday and was officially proclaimed Frank Zappa day in Baltimore by the mayor, something that would have amused him on a number of levels (hat tip to YKW). Let's play today with a quotation from the most clever and cynical figure in American culture to come out of Baltimore since H. L. Mencken.

The '60s was really stupid ... It was a type of merchandising, Americans had this hideous weakness, they had this desire to be OK, fun guys and gals, and they haven't come to terms with the reality of the situation: we were not created equal. Some people can do carpentry, some people can do mathematics, some people are brain surgeons and some people are winos and that's the way it is, and we're not all the same. This concept of one world-ism, everything blended and smoothed out to this mediocre norm that everybody downgrades themselves to be is stupid. The '60s was merchandised to the public at large... My pet theory about the '60s is that there is a sinister plot behind it... The lessons learnt in the '60s about merchandising stupidity to the American public on a large scale have been used over and over again since that time.
So, bullshit or not? As usual, feel free to leave anything from a single word to a dissertation.

Of course, we couldn't leave without some Frank:

Monday, December 21, 2009

Is Grade Inflation Really a Problem?

A couple colleagues of mine were wringing their hands a little while back about grade inflation. I don't know whether it really exists or not, but let's grant that grades are higher now than they were 10, 20, 50 years ago. Is it really a problem?

The unstated cause assumed by those who are upset about it is that faculty grade too easy. But is that true? We get price inflation when people have more money. Often they have more money because they work harder, are more efficient at doing what they do, or find higher paying jobs for the same effort. Could it be that students, are more talented academically? I actually am seeing better students, so it would be weird if my given GPA wasn't going up. could it be that they are no smarter, but more attuned to the grade game, they know how to make the same effort gain more grade value? Could it be that their increased access to information has made them able to write normal papers that would have taken several times longer if restricted to the stacks and microfilm, assuming that your institutions library would even have the sources they needed?

But even if faculty do give away higher grades more cheaply now, so what? The only problem would be if the wrong people are getting into graduate school, medical school, or law school because GPA is utterly irrelevant to all else in life. Is this the case?

It is one of those dirty little secrets that we perpetuate because insecure professors think it is the only way they can get respect. Grades mean nothing for the vast majority of people who pass through our classrooms. So, given that they are meaningless outside of higher ed, is there really a problem with grade inflation, even if it is real?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Laughter and Authority

My Fellow Comedists,

A question this weekend about the power of comedy. Here's a quotation from Hannah Arendt:

"Authority:...Its hallmark is unquestioning recognition by those who are asked to obey; neither coercion nor persuasion is needed. To remain in authority requires the greatest respect for the person in office. The greatest enemy of authority, therefore, is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter."
Does this overstate the power of comedy? Are comedians the biggest threat to authority? Is Stephen Colbert more powerful than George Stephanopolis? Was the Katie Couric interview or the SNL bits with Tina Fey that most undermined Sarah Palin's authority (o.k., other than Palin herself...)?

How much power does the jester wield?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, December 18, 2009

Is Struggle Valuable?

One of my logic students asked me after taking my final, "Why do you make this so difficult?" On the one hand, I'm not the one making this difficult, it just is. It's tricky stuff by nature.

But that being said, I do give a very hard final. I have pedagogical reasons for it, but what I am wondering about is a possible response to my student -- "Making it difficult is what makes it valuable."

This seems reasonable at first glance. But is it? Is there an intrinsic value to struggle? It is cliche that nothing worth having comes easy. But is this the theological basis of the Protestant work ethic sneaking in? Is it just macho "no pain, no gain" nonsense? Is something intrinsically more valuable because it was difficult to do or achieve?

If we say that every life should have some struggle, does that mean that any given struggle is valuable?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Crisis Crisis

Crispin Sartwell over at Eye of the Storm has commented on something I've been thinking about for a while. The way we remain in a constant state of crisis:

so it's well past time we started tacking intensifiers on 'crisis,' which now refers to the normal or run-of-the-mill state of affairs in any given sphere. 'crisis,' in other words, has become synonymous with 'reality,' and just as something could be really real, a crisis could be critical. 'crisis' has lost its ability to mobilize, which was all it was ever actually used for anyway. well, i think now you're gonna need actual clubs and body armor to motivate anyone to do anything. during the next presidential campaign, for example, i think we should refer to american education as a "world-annihilating conflagration" or an "apocalypse."
I may be misplacing it, but I would argue that this started in the 80's with the rallying of attention for the famine in Ethiopia. It was the time of Reagan when greed and selfishness became social virtues and those who longed to be hippies and empathize with someone came together around hungry children in Africa...for a while.

The successful attention was then transferred to domestic homelessness, but Apartheid in South Africa and the hole in the ozone started to compete. Soon, every good cause saw the opportunity to be the next one and an empathy arms race began. You needed to be more of a problem, a bigger tragedy, a greater concern to deserve your Wembley Stadium show with a reunion of a defunct classic rock band.

And so started an endless succession of crises. Sartwell is absolutely right that it is not crying wolf, these ARE crises. The world is filled with misery and suffering that we should be doing something about. But the constant state of alarm is like the Bush administrations raising of the terrorist threat level. We ignore it. As a society, we've built up a tolerance to crisis.

This is exactly what set the groundwork for apathy and antipathy towards concerns about global warming and has forced scientists into the arms race of doom. As a result we are not worried whether the sky is falling and it makes no difference whether it is shown in the data. We have crisis fatigue.

As a result, there is only thing that could possibly bring the planet together to combat carbon-emission-based climate change...if Peter Gabriel would agree to rejoin the members of Genesis for a show the Royal Albert Hall.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Doing Biology Without Darwin

A student asked a good one as my Darwin class wrapped up last week. He asked, "Can you do biology now without Darwin?"

If the question asks whether one can be a working biologist without believing in speciation by evolution, the answer is a trivial yes. Evolutionary theory could be seen as a mere tool, as a working assumption believed to be false just as James Clerk Maxwell assumed molecules to be perfectly spherical and to interact only by contact in deriving his first version of the kinetic theory of heat, assumptions he knew to be wrong, but which he found useful in calculation.

But the real question is whether you could reject the Darwinian model altogether and still find research you could do in the field. This is similar to an episode in the history of mathematics. In the early 20th century, a group of mathematicians were worried by the strangeness that was coming out of Gregor Cantor's work on transinfinite numbers and so declared that mathematics must avoid infinities, that all meaningful mathematical entities must be "finitely constructable." This limitation posed an interesting question because so much mathematics relies -- or at least seems to -- on infinite processes. The questions was how much mathematics could these so-called intuitionists do and what parts are they placing off limits?

We could ask the same question about biology. Let's suppose we have a talented biologist working in a repressive country in which any research connected to evolution is illegal and harshly punished. What projects could our oppressed biologist still work on?

Step one is to clearly set out what is off-limits and for this we need an account of what we'll mean by "evolution." I propose these five axioms:

I. He has his grandfather's ears, poor thing (heritability of properties) -- offspring inherit bodily traits from their parents.

II. You are all different. I'm not (random variation) -- while children look more or less like their parents, each individual has certain random differences in bodily traits.

III. Survival of the just good enough (natural selection, clever phrase stolen from Hanno) -- some varieties are more likely to survive the struggle for existence than others and those will have more offspring.

IV. Hey, baby, are you a Pisces? No, I'm actually a fish, you moron. (sexual selection) -- those who get more dates have more offspring.

V. The species they are a'changin' (mutability of species) -- the effects of natural and sexual selection upon the variable organisms in a population will cause new species to emerge.

If we take accepting those five axioms together as Darwinism, what in biology stands outside of it for our hypothetical scientist?

As Joseph Graves points out, aging would be one place you could do biology without Darwin since anything that appears after one's reproductive years cannot be selected for. Our biologist could do work on older animals as long as they stay away from questions of why certain genetic elements that lead to, say, Alzheimer's, are present.

And that seems to be the key. We need to focus on biological questions that can be treated ahistorically. "How does" type-questions that examine biochemical reactions needed for bodily processes or biophysical questions about how bodily arrangements are able to do certain tasks would seemingly still be available.

Others? Cerainly, the pickings are slim, but how slim? What biology could our constrained researcher still do?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Headline of the Day

Headline of the day:

Sox convince Putz to join the bullpen

The only thing that could make this better would be for the story to have been written by Peter Schmuck.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Food for Thought

A student in my Darwin class last week asked an interesting one. Why is it that we have names for certain meats that hide their source? We use the words "beef," "veal," "pork," and "venison," for meat from animals we don't care to name, but for others, for example, chicken, turkey, fish, and shellfish, we are transparent about where the flesh comes from. The working hypothesis offered was that the linguistically obscured animals are higher mammals and we try to hide from ourselves the fact that we snack on our close relatives.

But then this is not true for other higher mammals that are eaten, e.g., buffalo, and it is true of a couple other non-mammalian meats, calamari and escargot. The explanation there seems to be that these sound more appetizing than squid and snails and that making them sound more sophisticated would be advantageous when they are actually slimy and squishy. But then we have no problems with oysters, muscles, and clams which seem similar.

We do use the term "caviar" for any fish eggs, not just the Russian sturgeon for which it is intended. But the term "roe" is out there too.

Why is it that we only do this for meats? Are there any vegetables that we rename to hide their source? It cannot be a dish that is named, but the ingredient. We do call dried grapes and plums, raisins and prunes but do not rename other dried fruits. But this seems on the recipe borderline since they are treated.

We call all edible fungi "mushrooms" when the mushroom is only the fruiting body of a fungus. But then that really is the part we primarily eat.

Are there non-meat ingredients that we linguistically shield? Why do we selectively hide the sources of certain foods?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Comedy Isn't Pretty

My Fellow Comedists,

With the arrival of the holiday season come all of the usual entertainment offerings, most of which make my stomach turn. But one that stands out is the up-dated version of A Christmas Carol with Bill Murray, "Scrooged." Murray, a long-ime stand-up and member of the Second City troupe before making it to SNL, has a rare gift. He can be funny as someone you like and don't like, he is able to be a sympathetic jerk.

It has long been a successful comic staple for the jerk to set himself up as the butt of the joke, it is the being brought down a peg that is funny. But Murray is able somehow to be both jerk and liked. A few others have been able to pull this off. Tom Lehrer in some of his songs is able to feign constructive arrogance. Lenny Bruce had it and launched several generations of rant comics, some of whom could do it -- Bill Hicks may fit in this category, whereas Lewis Black is a sympathetic ranter, but doesn't come off as a jerk.

This contrasts with others who come off as just a jerk: Sam Kinison, Andrew Dice Clay, and at times Doug Stanhope (some of his bits are great, but when he misses the mark it's because he tries to pull off the sympathetic jerk thing and comes off as just jerk). This is not to say these guys weren't funny, but they certainly are not sympathetic, they appeal to the darker side of us.

So, the question is what is it that makes us identify with someone we ordinarily would not want to identify with? What does Bill Murray do that draws us in to someone who ought to make us push him away? What is the difference between a sympathetic jerk and just a jerk?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, December 11, 2009

An Open Letter to Students Concerning Plagiarism

Dear Students,

Sorry to interrupt, I know how busy you are right now and how stressful the end of the semester is with papers and exams. I know you've been listening to me go on and on all semester, but I have one last thing I really need to say. Please do not plagiarize.

This is not some high-horse lecture about intellectual property, academic integrity, or personal growth, this is heart-to-heart advice from your Uncle Steve because I know you are in a vulnerable position. You are facing too much work, too little time, you are exhausted from a long semester and do not know how you are going to get everything done. You are nervous about your grades because you know that both the job market and grad school admission is getting more difficult, you know it is one of the first things your parents will ask about when you get home, and you are worried that your professors will think less of you if you do not work up to what you think are their expectations. Lack of sleep and not eating well have clouded your judgment and from this point of view it will seem very tempting to cut corners, especially since you see other people doing it and getting away with it. Still, please don't.

First of all, you just aren't that good at it. I've been reading your work all semester and I know what to expect from you. I know your writing style, I know the sort of things you've been thinking about from your comments in class, I generally know what sort of other classes you've been taking and how much background you have in complex topics in other fields. Yes, it would thrill me to get a really good paper from you, the sort of work that shows you were as excited about the material as I am, the sort of work that shows some kernel of insight just waiting to be unpacked through the years of experience to come, the sort of work that opens up discussions we could have next semester over a pizza because you just can't let this go.

But that paper looks a lot different from a plagiarized paper; it sounds like you, it sounds like an enthusiastic undergrad who has gotten a real glimpse of something, but is incomplete and sloppy in the ways an undergrad paper should be, ways that would allow new doors to be opened, it is not the polished work of a professional scholar whose years of training under experts and whose doctor dissertation required a collecting of evidence you would have no sense of. I know you haven't read the footnotes in Rawl's A Theory of Justice. I know that you do not understand general relativity. I know that you do not know about the non-standard interpretations of the later Plato. But I do know how to use all the same tools you would use in finding the material to cut and paste and it is actually quite easy nowadays to get right to the text you would plagiarize from. It's not that hard to detect and not that hard to gather the incriminating evidence. It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes.

Second, even if you did get away with it, it won't end up making that much of a difference in the end. By this point of the semester, so much of your grade is already determined that the difference between a B+ and a C- paper is quite small and even if it does move you a couple of +/- grades in one direction or another, that fact will most likely have no effect on who you marry, what job you get, what you name your kids, where you go for vacation when you are 48, nothing. I know grades seem a huge deal right now and professors are in part to blame because we are insecure and think that without the threat of grades hanging over your heads, you won't respect us. But in truth your college GPA means very little in the lives of most people. But getting busted for plagiarism could mean a lot. It is something that is becoming a show issue and you will be treated harshly to make a point. There is so little reward that it is absolutely not worth the risk.

Finally, your professors are not "the man," we are not looking to nail you. We like you (well, most of you anyway). We want you to succeed. We want you to keep in touch by e-mail and come back to campus ten years from now for alumni weekend and tell us funny stories about your time in college and about how you got to be wherever it is you will end up. And you know what, we won't care or remember that paper. To be honest, we will have forgotten about it long before next semester. We will not think less of you because you handed in one piece of garbage, we will think that you must have been overtaxed with work or that we gave a bad assignment. We will still like you. Attach a note to the bad paper telling us that you know it is not your best work and that if you had more time it would have been better and that you had hoped to take it in this other more interesting direction. We write papers all the time, often at the last minute for conferences. We understand, it happens to us too. We've just learned the trick of saying at the beginning, "this is a work in process" -- "in process" is professor-speak for "inferior work I hope to do well someday."

But when you plagiarize, you put us in a horrible position. We don't want to turn you in, in part because we want the best for you, but also because we don't want to have to deal with the process. We are tired too. It's been a really long semester and we just want to get our grades in so we can get to the plans we've made for break. And now you make us have to spend our time searching for your sources, documenting evidence, and explaining how we knew this had to be plagiarized. We have so much to do right now that we don't need the headache. You just made so much more work for us because you decided not to just turn in a lousy paper. We resent the fact that I now have all this extra work because you didn't want to do the work you knew you were supposed to do. You write a paper, I read a paper, that's the deal. Because you decided not to hold up your end of the bargain I now pay the price. Screw you! It is frustrating at a time when I'm exhausted and pissy, too.

But more than that, it feels like betrayal. All semester, you've been great in the classroom with interesting things to say. I looked forward to giving you a good grade and seeing you around the campus and now you go and do this to me? ME: the one who spent the time preparing for class, answering your e-mails at awkward hours, giving you extensions and offering to look at drafts. I was more than happy to write a letter of recommendation for that internship for you when I had a stack of blue books on my desk and a meeting for little league coaches to go to, and you do this to me?

So, students, please. Give me shoddy work if you must. It's the season of generosity. I know how tough it is for you right now because it's that tough for us too. Do us all a favor and try your best to get in the best work you can even if your best right now isn't that good. For all of our sakes, just don't plagiarize. Please.


Uncle Steve

p.s. Do try to get sleep, eat well, and take a break to get some exercise -- it will make you more efficient, improve the quality of your work, and keep you from getting sick.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Brains and Brawn

I was teaching an intro class yesterday for a colleague who was looking at economic structures and morality. We watched the part of the Enron documentary "The Smartest Guys in the Room" where the Enron energy traders were cackling over the way they were manipulating the energy market in California, depriving millions of electricity in the hottest part of the summer and getting them to pay $1000 for what is usually $30 worth of power.

One student said that he can't blame these guys for making all they could by outsmarting the people. Everyone in the marketplace has their wits and if these guys could outwit the rest, then that's how it works.

If having superior intellect was sufficient, I inquired, was having superior physical attributes also sufficient. Is it o.k. for bigger kids to shakedown the smaller ones for their milk money? No, he agreed. Then why should intelligence bullies be different?

Many thought that while both might be wrong, there still seemed to them a difference between the smart and the strong who used their attribute to acquire wealth from those who are less well-endowed and made the smart less morally problematic.

Is there a difference? If so, why?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Simple Truth Thesis

Our friend Bob Talisse has a post up over at This Side of the Pond, Cambridge University Press' blog. He's got a new book out (nice job Bob, and Cambridge...very nice) called Democracy and Moral Conflict and the post sets a nice foundation for his book's argument.

In the post, he argues that our contemporary political discourse suffers under the "Simple Truth Thesis,"

"the claim that Big Questions always admit of a simple, obvious, and easily-stated solution. The Simple Truth Thesis encourages us to hold that a given truth is so simple and so obvious that only the ignorant, wicked, or benighted could possibly deny it. As our popular political commentary accepts the Simple Truth Thesis, there is a great deal of inflammatory rhetoric and righteous indignation, but in fact very little public debate over the issues that matter most. Consequently, the Big Questions over which we are divided remain unexamined, and our reasons for adopting our different answers are never brought to bear in public discussion. And what passes for public debate is no debate at all. No surprise: debate or discussion concerning a Big Question can be worthwhile only when there is more than one reasonable position regarding the question; and this is precisely what the Simple Truth Thesis denies."
The effects of this oversimplification to our discourse are deeply problematic,
"All agree that, with respect to any Big Question, there is but one intelligent position, and all other positions are not merely wrong, but ignorant, stupid, na├»ve. A minute in the Public Affairs section of a bookstore confirms this: Conservatives should talk to liberals “only if they must” because liberalism is a “mental disorder.” Liberals dismiss their Conservative opponents, since they are “lying liars” who use their “noise machine” to promote irrationality."
There is no doubt that the diagnosis is correct and that the health of the body politic is at risk because of it. But what is the proper course of treatment?

To try to play by the rules of rational civil discourse when your interlocutor is not, is not the equivalent of bringing a knife to a gun fight, but bringing a rubber chicken to a gun fight. If, as philosopher of language H.P. Grice points out, conversation is a cooperative endeavor, what do you do when your conversational partner is a bully who will only play when the rules are in his favor, who refuses to play fair according to the rules of rational discourse? When their team line up is Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Glen Beck, and Matt Drudge, how do you reestablish order on the field of play?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Parlor Games?

Maryland and Pennsylvania have joined the states that have legalized controlled locations for slot machines. We use the name "slots parlors," evoking 19th century imagery, instead of "casinos" which comes with pictures of Las Vegas and Atlantic City and all the baggage they bring. A casino is not a slots parlor because it has table games -- blackjack poker, roulette, craps,...

Is this a meaningful distinction? Is the difference that players do not gamble against a living dealer or against each other? Is that experienced difference enough to alter the kind of experience? Is it that table games can have higher stakes and thereby are more likely to cause gambling addiction related and financial problems for the players? Slots can be played by anyone, there is no advantage to be gained from understanding probabilities or complex strategies, therefore slots are not played by people we could call "real gamblers" or "professional gamblers," the class of folks you might run into at a horse or dog track, is that what makes them different?

Are lotteries more like slot machines or table games? We seem to have no problem with them. Or is it completely different because buying a lottery ticket does not require loitering at a machine or table, it requires no gambling space, but can be tucked away neatly at a grocery, liquor, or convenience store counter? Is the difference really about place, not about activity?

Why do we draw the seemingly arbitrary line between these types of gambling?

Monday, December 07, 2009

What Is the Purpose of School?

There is always hand-wringing about our schools, "Our schools are failing," "What will it take for our schools to succeed?" All this, of course, begs the question exactly what is it they are succeeding or failing in doing? To simply say "to educate children" doesn't answer the question, but pushes it back. Educate them about what?

the "No Child Left Behind" standardized testing approach presumes that education is about memorizing certain facts, knowing how to carry out certain processes, and how to solve certain well-delineated types of problems. But, surely, education is more than that. It is also about socialization, learning how to learn, and how to follow directions.

So, what are schools for? Creating workers? Creating citizens? Creating intellectuals? Training children how to live in today's world? Creating leaders who will take us beyond today's world? Molding the next generation of docile plastic people to buy the worthless garbage they are told they need to be fulfilled? What is/ought to be the point of schooling?

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Feast of Saint Steven

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend we celebrate the feast of Saint Steven. Steven Wright, the Salvador Dali of observational comedy, turns 54 this weekend. A Boston-area native, he did it the honest way, working ope-mics at Ding Ho, a half-Chinese restaurant/half comedy club when he quickly was made a regular and put on the Tonight Show where he absolutely killed and cemented his place in contemporary comedy.

In some sense, what he was doing was nothing new. Observational comedy had been flourishing. Robert Klein had been doing it for years. Cosby and Carlin were masters, the one making it narrative while the other tinged it always with his "see how stupid things are" aggressiveness. Gallagher took off the edge, but had to add in his smashing bit. Wright took it in an entirely different direction. His slow stoner delivery -- only Abe Vagoda can deliver a line slower -- and his ability to make the normal absurd and the absurd seem normal creates a surrealistic comedic space where the Gestalt remains fuzzy.

As magnificent as his delivery is, he is an absolute master craftsman of a writer. His jokes are flawlessly written, sharp, smart, magnificently structured, his rhythm and timing impeccable. And because there is no fat in a Steven Wright set -- no segues, no rambling set ups or diversions -- he has to write more jokes than other comedians. He writes more and better than anyone I can think of.

I got to see him years ago at the height of his fame in the late 80s when he had Randy Newman opening for him. Great show, but you could tell he was suffering from a bit of what Steve Martin describes in his autobiography. For a number of jokes, the crowd would laugh at the set up and be settling down during the punchline. He was getting laughs for free, earning them, but not getting them because he earned them.

Favorite Steven Wright lines? A few of mine:

"I met my girlfriend at Macy's. She was buying clothes and I was putting slinkies on the escalators."

"As a hobby I collect sea shells. I have an immense collection. Maybe you've seen it, I keep them scattered over the beaches of the world."

"I poured spot remover on my dog. Now he's gone."

Here's the set that started it off:"

Happy birthday Steven Wright. What are your favorite Steven Wright lines?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, December 04, 2009

Pressing Your Love Button

We had a student present a senior thesis on reductionism in philosophy of mind and the love button example came up.

TheWife and I went to a showing a couple weeks back of a Bangladeshi artist who has moved to the area. Very nice work in a wide variety of styles. We came to his newest work, multi-media collage in deep colors and TheWife fell in love with one particular piece. Not "I like that. That's really pretty." but head-over-heels, obsessed, "Cannot live without seeing that everyday. Must have painting." kind of love.

The idea here is that some environmental factor, a combination of color, texture, light, and shadow upon the retina caused a neurological state which was the experience of love, of being unified with the thing, of being related to the thing in a deep way, a yearning to be with it, and a deep appreciation of it. When we first met, the same sort of feeling swept over us both and here we are ten years later.

Suppose I could implant in your brain a device to electrically bring about that state whenever I push a button on a remote control I have. I have your love button and can make you fall in love with something or someone at the push of a button. The only difference is that the correlated neurological state is not being triggered by an environmental stimulus that you did not expect, but by the conscious decision of someone else.

Does this mean love is just a neurological state? Would it be love at all or a false sense of love? Suppose I could use it to make someone actually love a thing they didn't love, but wanted to love? If someone, say, had fallen out of love with a person s/he was married to, but knew that his/her life would be better if the love came back. Would that be real love if it felt the same after pushing the button as it did when they were first dating? Does the wanting to love something make a difference?

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Is Pain Like Water?

Water is what philosophers call a natural kind, that is it is a thing found in nature that has a grouping definable in terms of purely natural properties. Water isn't just related to having the chemical make-up of H2O, to be water IS to have the chemical make-up of H2O.

What about pain? Pain is certainly a real thing. It is correlated with certain things happening within the brain, but is pain nothing but those things happening within the brain? Is the brain state that causes pain the same thing as the experienced pain? Is pain a physiological phenomenon or is it something else caused by or correlated with a physiological phenomenon?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Power, Strength, and Force

Teaching Arendt today right after the President's speech on Afghanistan, so this seemed like a good question. In the social/political context, what is the difference between power, strength, and force? We tend to use the words interchangeably, but are they really synonymous? It seems that you can show strength without using force. The weak can have power, surely, indeed sometimes the weakness can be a source of power. So what's the difference?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Irony Can Be So Ironic: Tiger Woods Edition

The single best statement about the Tiger Woods fiasco comes from Paul at LGM,

"Tiger Woods has become a billionaire by marketing himself so assidiously that he's now the most recognizable athlete, and indeed one of the most recognizable people, in the world. His vast wealth (less than 10% of which has been earned directly through his athletic achievements) is a product of making himself into a kind of human logo, that corporations pay him immense amounts to attach to their products. They find it profitable to do so because of the preposterous yet very widespread idea that athletic excellence somehow reflects well on a person's character and general value as a human being. Tiger Woods alleged adultery has nothing to do with his ability to excel on the golf course, but has everything to do with his ability to market himself as some kind of exemplary person, whose putative preferences in regard to cars and accounting firms and watches should influence your view of these products, and the corporations that produce them."
Yes, it is obscene to focus so much attention on the domestic problems of anyone, but this story is about irony. Tiger Woods has traded humanity for celebrity with the sole intent of making himself into a cash-producing brand. He does not sell Oldsmobiles and sweatshop produced Nike-wear to be able to play golf, he plays golf to rake in the millions from selling Oldsmobiles and sweatshop produced Nike-wear.

In carefully crafting his golly-gee, all-American guy image for the sake of profit, he has consciously opted to make himself into a human billboard and the purpose of a billboard is to be looked at. It is nothing but disingenuous to ask for nothing but attention when you are using it to create the power to suck money from our wallets, but then to say that we have to avert our eyes the minute it might damage the brand. Tiger Wood's plea for privacy at that moment only recalls the great and powerful Oz's command to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. He loves the attention when it helps him control us, but how dare you look when it might give you a liberating view into the reality of the situation.

It was a choice that he is paying for now. Larry Bird and Cal Ripken made commercials and certainly cashed in on their stardom and similar images, but there is a difference with figures like Woods, Michael Jordan, and Peyton Manning who have become complete corporate marketing prostitutes. They have created false images for the sole purpose of enriching themselves. If they smash that in front of us, we are not to blame for glimpsing the real world.

At the same time, I love the Tiger Woods episode for its unparalleled pun potential, after all here's a guy who crashed his car right outside of his house when he is famous for being able to drive straight for very long distances. His wife is furious because she thinks that someone else is helping him with his putz. It would hardly be surprising if he put it right in the hole on a front nine he wasn't supposed to be playing, and his wife got teed off as such a thing could drive a wedge between them. Of course, once the police came knocking, they ducked into a bunker. Refusing to get a grip, they kept their heads down, but did not follow-through. Releasing a statement, they claimed it could all be ironed out. For those who think such word play is out of bounds or a taking chip shot, I'd say that it's par for the course.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Why The "Climategate" E-Mails Do not Mean What Conservatives Seem to Think They Mean

Many on the right are up in arms over a set of stolen e-mail messages among some of the bigger names in the political climate debate. Accusations of fraud and deception abound and the inference they draw from these conversations is that the case for global warming is flawed and therefore that nothing needs to be done. Of course, that is not what they mean at all.

It is as wrong to call it "the" debate over global warming as it is to call it "the" debate over intelligent design. In both cases, there are two conversations: one scientific and one political. The scientific conversations in both cases are not as controversial as those on the right would have you believe. In both cases there is clear consensus with a few outlier researchers opposing that consensus. In every case there are such figures. Ernst Mach and Henri Poincare, two of the biggest names in turn of the century physics, both denounced the theory of relativity and the existence of atoms. There will always be figures who disagree with the mainstream scientific beliefs, but that does not mean that those beliefs are flawed. Dissenting voices are always there in science, occasionally these dissenting voices are right, usually they aren't. They play a crucial role in scientific discourse, but their existence in any given case does not imply anything special. The scientists in both of these cases have good reason to believe in the likely truth of the hypotheses.

That does not mean that there is not rousing and passionate disagreement among them. Again, of course there is. There are competing hypotheses and models within the research program, but that does not mean that there is a problem with it. to the contrary, it means that it is live. Scientists disagree with other. That is what they do. Evolutionary biologists duke it out over all sorts of questions. That does not mean that speciation by natural and sexual selection is in doubt. similarly, there are many open question in climate science, but their existence does not throw the central working hypothesis in a skeptical light.

But these debates, the ones between scientists, are not the only debates occurring. The other completely distinct conversations occur in the body politic. For decades, scientists shunned these discussions arrogantly believing that in the division of intellectual labor, their specialized knowledge made them the sole legitimate source for insight and that the rest of society would simply shut up and listen. This didn't happen. indeed, when the message they conveyed stood contrary to powerful and wealthy corporate interests, they found themselves minimized, all but shut out of the conversation. The public is scientifically illiterate thinking that "experimental error" means scientific flaw. Those with financial interest in moving public opinion away from scientific consensus realized that this ignorance was an advantage for them, that they did not need to win the scientific battles, only muddy the waters enough, create sufficient doubt in the non-scientists' minds that they could believe whatever was most convenient and desirable.

The tobacco industry was among the first to realize this and created the Tobacco Institute which housed scientists who were willing to say things (especially in court) that the industry liked for a nice fat paycheck. Other corporate interests follwed suit, especially after the Daubert decision. It had been the case that scientific testimony in a court of law was limited to qualified scientists explaining scientific consensus to the jury. but in a case brought against manufacturers of vaccines, the plaintiffs -- the little guys -- argued that they should be allowed to bring scientific witnesses who held views contrary to the consensus. When they won, the corporate fat cats saw an opening for them and they nurtured corrals of dissenting scientists willing to do their bidding. Not long ago, a similar call went out to academics -- earth scientists and economists (although somehow I received it as well) -- who would be willing to speak out against global warming for remuneration.

The strategy that had been used successfully by the tobacco industry was formalized for the global warming debate by Frank Luntz, the conservative mastermind who gave us the phrase "death tax" for inheritance tax. he realized that language reframed debates in ways that left certain presuppositions of limits to debate. It was he who coined the phrase "climate change" because it was much more friendly than "global warming" which sounded dangerous. Climate changes, that's just what it does, so there's nothing to worry about here. Move along. He explicitly articulated for conservative and corporate interests that they did not need to win the scientific debate, just muddy the waters in the public mind. If they could be perceived to have fought to a draw, they win -- whether they did or not in the scientific debate. People don't want to be responsible, so if you cast even a shadow of a doubt, people will think that the question is unsettled and opt for their preferred, more comfortable beliefs which is "do nothing."

So, scientists found themselves in an odd spot. They saw a need, were the experts in determining how to fix the problem, but were being shut out of the policy debates that would lead to the implementation of those measures that would fix the problem they knew was there. But what happened because of the Luntz strategy is that the level of support they needed to bring was not what was needed in scientific debate -- reasonable belief based on evidence -- but something utterly unattainable in any scientific case -- near proof, virtual certainty. Luntz knowingly raised the bar above what they could deliver. so, know scientists changed from merely being scientists to being scientist politicians. The scientific question was settled, now they needed to do battle in the political arena according to the political rules. And so they had to give an artificially inflated interpretation of the evidence for political reasons, one that exceeded the needs for legitimate scientific belief may have been inflated beyond the limits of the data itself.

And THAT is what we see in those e-mails. Look at internal discussions in any situation, on any side of any issue and what you see is exactly what you see in those e-mails. It is not scientific malfeasance, but political machination. The e-mails have no bearing on the scientific case, one that has never been effective in moving public opinion because we don't understand it and sadly, scientists suck at explaining it to us.

But scientists' political power comes in part because they are seen to be "objective" and the idea that they are part of a political movement seems to damage this objectivity. This, of course, is an equivocation -- the same one that keeps reporters giving equal weight to the views from left and right even if one is demonstrably wrong. What is meant by objectivity in science is that one tries to falsify beliefs and follows inductive inferences from the data. It does not mean that once the data has a reasonable interpretation, that one does not lobby on behalf of solving problems one has uncovered. If I see a baby being stalked by a coyote, I need to do what I can to save it. The scientists saw exactly that and so they cried wolf, not because there wasn't a threat, but because they needed to draw enough attention to get the problem solved.

And there is a problem. There are almost no glaciers left in Glacier National Park. The peak of Mount Kilimanjaro is no longer covered in snows as it has always been. Venice is having to build a sea wall to protect itself against the rising ocean. We are losing chunks of the arctic ice shelf the size of states. E-mails or no e-mails, we need to be responsible. We need to clean our room. We need to do what we need to do.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

More Smart Jokes

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend we do more smart jokes. Good brother 71 sent us this:

and it reminded me of a question I've been meaning to ask the congregation. Been working on my roll of smart jokes and have two new ones:

I went to the doctor yesterday because I had inflamation in one of my eyes or the other. He said I have disjunctivitis.

Last night I had non-abelian group sex, at the end of the evening everyone you claim to have slept with denies having sex with you.
But I'm stuck on the phrasing of one punch line. The set up is: What do you get if you cross Sophocles with James Bond? The punch line is either (a) Oedipussy Rex or (b) Octopussy Rex. I've been using (a), but am not convinced it it the better phrasing. Thoughts?

Oh, and the Cosmic Comic will smile upon all contributions of smart jokes in the comments.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, November 27, 2009

Meditation on Black Friday

So once again, it is time for our holiday dedicated to overcomsumptive consumerism. It is a little bit hard to take seriously any givings of thanks when no sooner have they left our lips than we turn around and become petty, pushy, and selfish about all the things we want and don't have. We move from one day of unhealthful nutritional overindulgence to unhealthful financial overindulgence.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Origin of Species and the Historicization of Science

Today is the 150th anniversary of the publishing of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, a book that changed our view of biology, ourselves, and of science itself. What is interesting about it is that it was a book that was never meant to be written. Darwin was working on his "big book" on natural selection when fellow naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace independently arrived at the idea of descent with modification, that is, Darwin's theory of evolution. With his hand forced, Darwin wrote The Origin as an introduction, an abstract to the more comprehensive work he intended to produce.

The ways it changed our views of the natural world and economic life are legion, but it also changed science itself. Before Darwin, the picture of science was mechanistic. Going back to Rene Descartes, the physical world was seen as a machine whose governing principles were absolute and mathematical. In a given situation there is a completely deterministic outcome that is absolutely determinable. It was a view that Isaac Newton found deplorable as it removed God from the workings of the world, but it was a picture Newton's three laws of motion and law of universal gravitation cemented in place. Newtonian mechanics and gravitation explained so much so well that it became the touchstone, the template, the epitome of what science was to be.

Newton's laws treat objects as mass points and for any arrangements of them, give us with absolute certainty the arrangements that follow for any time in the future and allow us to determine their arrangement in the past. This view was coherent with both an atheistic materialism providing naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena and with theism and deism, providing rational principles of the sort one would expect from an all-rational Creator.

Darwin's theory in The Origins of Species, however, is different in a very important fashion.

"We can understand why a species when once lost should never reappear, even if the very same conditions of life, organic and inorganic, should recur. For though the offspring of one species might be adapted (and no doubt this has occurred in innumerable circumstances) to fill the place of another species in the economy of nature, and thus supplant it; yet the two forms -- the old and the new -- would not be identically the same; for both would almost certainly inherit different characters from their distant progenitors; and organisms already differing would vary in a different manner."
For Newton, the same conditions entails the same result, not so for Darwin. This is not to say that variation follows no rules, although Darwin had no idea what they would be. This is not to say that selection follows no rules -- Darwin gives us two, natural and sexual selection. But it is to say that we can no longer think of the world as a machine, it is instead an organism. To hold a scientistic view before Darwin was to hold that the world was completely graspable, a clockwork mechanism whose principles and initial conditions simply needed unraveling. But for Darwin, it was much more complex, it was historical. For Newton, you just needed the laws and the state at any time, for Darwin, you needed the laws, the state, and a full accounting of the past. Where you are going biologically is not just a function of where you are, but where you come from. You inherit your past and you never lose it.

This was a completely different scientific stance. The world had a memory. Such a notion would appear elsewhere in science. Embryology would contain it. The recapitulation hypothesis of Serres that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, that as an embryo develops, it goes through stages of all of its ancestors' ancient forms is a version of this approach. Freud takes it from nature red in tooth and claw and puts in our heads neurotic and raw. People are not point masses, put in the same situations they react differently. Your mind contains its past and changes uniquely because of it.

While neither of these historically important positions held up to critical scrutiny, what we see in Darwin is an early notion of chaos, that the world may be deterministic, but in being so it is also extremely sensitive to initial conditions. Indeed, so sensitive with so many independent variables that we cannot treat it as a simple machine. This complexity may not take it beyond our comprehension, but it does make it more beautiful and awe-inspiring. It is what it is, but what it will be is a function of what it was.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Romanticizing of Outlaws

Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Henry McCarty, better known as Billy the Kid. He was not the serial killer that his legend holds him out to be and, indeed, was not well-known until Pat Garrett, the sheriff that ultimately did him in, wrote a self-aggrandizing account.

But the legend lives on and that leads to today's question: why do we find outlaws so romantic? The great advances in society, the ability to live long and fulfilling lives, the heights of science and culture are all predicated on there being order. Without a social contract that allows us to be fairly confident about our ability to live without fear of one another, we couldn't do or plan and these projects are what make us who we are. All of this is threatened by by the outlaw. Yet, we love them, are drawn to them. Why?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Comedist Apostate's Day

My Fellow Comedists,

Good brother Ron asks,

"What is the unfunniest day on the calendar? Is it December 7, a day that will live in infamy? Sept. 11? Aug 6 (Hiroshima)? That list seems distinctly American, but I'm having trouble thinking of others. The Jewish calendar has Tisha B'av, a day to remember the destruction of the Temple. Other historical Jewish catastrophes (the Nuremberg Laws, etc.) are shoehorned in as well."

He gives us a link to Newsweek's vilification of certain big name comedians. Their list of 12 unfunny comedians:

Larry the Cable Guy
Carlos Mencia
Howie Mandel
Dane Cook
Andrew Dice Clay
Emo Philips
Jay Leno
Jeff Dunham
Paulie Shore
Carrot Top
Yakov Smirnov

The list, to my mind, is a bit suspect. A number of these guys were decent stand-ups whose fame outran their standing.

Dane Cook is no Carlin, but he's a good comic, not as good as the press he gets, sure, but he's got a "The Price Is Right" sketch that is well written and he knows how to work a stage. No, that stage shouldn't be as large as it is, but, hey, jealousy is unbecoming. Ditto for Larry the Cable Guy. Yes, the least talented of the blue collar guys, but he's got a schtick. No, he's not as good as the reception he gets, but, then, someone gave me tenure.

Gallagher and Carrot Top are hack choices. Everyone busts one them. Carrot Top is an anti-comedian, his schtick is to be unfunny and over the top. Gallagher was smart and clean and comics see him as not having had an edge at a time when Eddie Murphy was reshaping the art form. But as a smart kid who loved comedy, I enjoyed his linguistic/observation stuff (same for Emo). Yes, sledge-o-matic was obnoxious, but you could tell he hated it, too.

Going nightly or weekly makes stand-up tough because you don't have the chance to sharpen your material on the road like other comics. You have writers who give you a regular monologue and your routine suffers. I think Leno and Mencia get a pass for their regular contributions to comedy.

Yakov Smirnov caught a moment. His line in Vegas -- I was walking through a casino and saw some people playing roulette, I like your version a lot better -- has always been one of my favorites. No, he's not one of the all-time greats, but making light of the Cold War was a good thing. No one would compare Dexie's Midnight Runner to The Stones, but why begrudge them their fifteen minutes?

The others, o.k., I'll give them to you. Andrew Dice Clay was the Ronald Reagan of stand-up and Jeff Dunham is the Dick Cheney. Paulie Shore is the Kato Kaelen of comedy.

So, who do you find unfunny or not as funny as their reputation?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Effectiveness of Book Cover Blurbs

TheWife last night said that if she picks up a book and sees a positive blurb from someone whose books she likes, she is, in fact, more likely to buy the book. I, on the other hand, have never read a jacket blurb before making the purchase. How much do you find book blurbs to be effective, helpful, relevant?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Why Do You Know That?

Let's do this one again. It's the converse of "Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics" where you provide everyone with those tidbits of useless knowledge you have stored away for no good reason.

My contribution:

New Haven, CT has the greatest number of Dunkin' Donuts per capita of any city.

B.B. King's real name is Riley. B.B. is short for "Blues Boy."

William Whewell gave us the terms "scientist," "physicist," "ion," "anode," and "cathode."

So, what do you know?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Animal Consciousness

I'm teaching a seminar on The Origin of Species this semester with a colleague who is writing on animal consciousness and it's generated a bunch of conversation around these parts, so I figured I'd raise the question here.

At what point do we attribute consciousness to animals? Surely goal directed behavior is not sufficient. Electricity "seeks" the path of least resistance. Heat flows from hot to cold. Metal is attracted to a magnet. Yet, no one will want to grant consciousness to these objects. At the other end, complex mammals like elephants, dogs, and apes clearly have some sense of self and awareness of their surroundings and what they can do to them. Where do we draw the line? Bees complex dances tell other bees where food is. Ant colonies have incredible differential roles for individual members. Fish schools have helpful functions. Where do we draw the line between conscious and non-conscious? Or is there a line to be drawn at all?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


The shorties have had some good ones lately. The shorter of the short people asked me if there was a name for pairs of words that spell each other backwards like "pots" and "stop." Anyone know if there is such a term? I came up with "contranym" where palindromes would become autocontranyms.

Five letter ones are easy enough to come up with -- parts and strap, for example, or snaps and spans. Can we find ones that are even longer?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Short Ethics Questions

This weekend, the short people had some very good questions. The taller of the short people asked whether doing a number of good acts made it ok to do a bad one, whether we save up ethics points that can be redeemed on something we know we shouldn't do.

When I asked whether that was right, the response was that it seemed better to do something bad after a number of good things than to do a number of good things after the wrong act. The second seemed like bribes to get one out of trouble, but that when done in the opposite order, it was more like a good person making a mistake and we all make mistakes.

The shorter of the short people then asked whether being good meant that you had to do good things or whether you could be good by just not doing bad things. Is ethics necessarily about actively making the world a better place or abiding by "thou shalt not"?

I responded, "Good question. Let me put it up on the blog and see what people think." They were excited by the prospect of starting an adult conversation. So, for the shorties, what do you think?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Feast of Saint Will

My Comedist Brethren and Sistern,

Good brother Ron reminded me that last weekend was the Feast of saint Will. It was the birthday of Will Rogers, the man single-handed made political satire in America an art form. When you watch Jon Stewart or Bill Maher, you are watching the great-grandchildren of will Rogers. Armed with a newspaper, a gee-golly style, and a quick wit, he became a comic superstar before there was such a thing.

Here are some Rogerisms good brother Ron has supplied:

An ignorant person is one who doesn't know what you have just found out.

An onion can make people cry, but there has never been a vegetable invented to make them laugh.

Ancient Rome declined because it had a Senate; now what's going to happen to us with both a Senate and a House?

Be thankful we're not getting all the government we're paying for.

Diplomacy is the art of saying 'Nice doggie' until you can find a rock.

Don't gamble; take all your savings and buy some good stock and hold it till it goes up, then sell it. If it don't go up, don't buy it.

Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there.

I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat.

I never expected to see the day when girls would get sunburned in the places they do today.

I was not a child prodigy, because a child prodigy is a child who knows as much when it is a child as it does when it grows up.

I'm not a real movie star. I've still got the same wife I started out with twenty-eight years ago.

Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip.

Nothing you can't spell will ever work.

On account of being a democracy and run by the people, we are the only nation in the world that has to keep a government four years, no matter what it does.

Our constitution protects aliens, drunks and U.S. Senators.

Politics is applesauce.

Take the diplomacy out of war and the thing would fall flat in a week.

The best doctor in the world is the veterinarian. He can't ask his patients what is the matter-he's got to just know.

The movies are the only business where you can go out front and applaud yourself.

The only time people dislike gossip is when you gossip about them.

There ought to be one day-- just one-- when there is open season on senators.

There's no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you.

This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer.

We are all here for a spell; get all the good laughs you can.

We can't all be heroes because somebody has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.

We don't know what we want, but we are ready to bite somebody to get it.

Rumor travels faster, but it don't stay put as long as truth.

There is only one thing that can kill the Movies, and that is education.

The more you read and observe about this Politics thing, you got to admit that each party is worse than the other. The one that's out always looks the best.

The income tax has made more liars out of the American people than golf has.
Happy birthday, Will Rogers.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, November 13, 2009

What Is Superstition?

Between it being Friday the 13th and the Stevie Wonder kick I've been on all week, let's ask about superstition. Surely it's more than the line "when you believe in things you don't understand" because we can have reasonable beliefs about things we don't understand. I don't understand the triggering mechanism for the airbags in my car, but I have a reasonable belief that they will work if I need them. So, what is superstition, then?

Let's use some of the most superstitious people around as a case study, athletes. Four examples:

1) A soccer player always wears a particular pair of socks for big matches because he believes that they are lucky and wearing them increases the likelihood his team will win.

2) A devout Catholic baseball player always crosses himself before batting believing that the act will please God and make it more likely that God will look down and smile upon his efforts to get a hit.

3) A football player finds that in the several games this season, whenever he puts on his left shoe first, he has played well and whenever he has put on his right shoe first, the team has played badly. So, not believing it has an effect, but just to be sure, he puts on his left shoe first.

4) A lacrosse goalie who would later become a philosophy professor would always engage in a ritual in the last few seconds before every game by facing the goal and tapping the inside of all the poles of the goal with the back of his stick, turning around and reaching back for the right pole, then then left, spinning his stick while doing a deep knee bend, stretching his neck to the left, then the right, then running out and greeting his defensemen -- right, crease, then left. He has a naturalistic explanation about getting a feel for the goal he was defending, focusing his mind, and creating a bond with his teammates, but knows that he might play well whether he does this or not.

So, it seems pretty clear that #1 is a case of superstitious belief. Is #2? It is certainly religious, but is it also superstitious? Is #3 also superstitious if there isn't a complete acceptance of the potential superstition, but action in accord with it? How about #4? Does the existence of a naturalistic explanation mitigate its superstitious nature?

And, of course, any excuse to hear Stevie covering Stevie:

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Can You Argue From Ignorance?

There is a standard reasoning error called "argument from ignorance" which is asserting that a lack of proof for something is proof of its falsity. For example, before I was about to teach this fallacy for the first time I came into the room to find the students engaged in an argument about the existence of God. The last thing said was "You can't disprove God's existence, so He must exist." This student turned beet red in the middle of class.

We ought to believe that for which we have good evidence, and that we do not now have evidence does not mean that such evidence doesn't actually exist, just that we don't yet know it. The proper stance of the ignorant is suspended belief, not to believe one way or the other.

The way one usually commits this error is by shifting the burden of proof. When you make a claim, it is now your responsibility to provide good reason for me to believe it, it is not my job to provide reasons why it is not true. Arguing from ignorance often occurs when you shift this burden of proof to me, where it does not belong. You made the claim, you support it.

But we do infer from ignorance all the time and sometimes it does seem proper. When someone pleads the fifth, for example, we generally take this as good reason to believe he is guilty. From a lack of evidence given to clear his name, we assert that we have a reasonable belief that he, in fact, did it. The lack of evidence of his innocence is what we base our assertion of guilt upon. But isn't this a good inference?

In this case, it is a shifting of the burden of proof, but in the context don't we have reason to suspect that this is a burden that he would gladly take up. We have reason to think that given the consequences of belief in his guilt, that he would do everything that would help him convince the jury of his innocence and not taking the burden -- even if if isn't required of him -- is odd and that oddity is best interpreted as likely guilt. He didn't explicitly tell us he was innocent because he probably isn't. He didn't explain away the charge because he can't.

Is this legitimate reasoning? If so, when is an argument from ignorance acceptable and when is it fallacious?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On Those Who Gave Their Lives

On Veteran's day, it is appropriate to think about those who gave their lives. There are those who died, lives of hope and promise terribly amputated from young people who hopefully understood the cause. But those who perished are not the only ones who gave their lives. Those who returned, too, have given their lives, lives they must continue to live.

I have mentioned my grandfather before, a member of the 82nd Airborne during World War II who jumped behind German lines before D-Day. He lived a full life, but in his last days, with his family around him, he was returned to Europe, returned to the torture that never left his soul. Sherman wrote truthfully that "War is hell," but we must remember that hell is not a tourist destination. The devil does not rent souls. You never leave hell and it never leaves you.

In Marshall's words, those in battle come "from a civilization in which aggression, connected with the taking of life, is prohibited and unacceptable...The fear of aggression has been expressed to him so strongly and absorbed by him so deeply and pervadingly — practically with his mother’s milk — that it is part of the normal man’s emotional make-up. This is his great handicap when he enters combat. It stays his trigger finger even though he is hardly conscious that it is a restraint upon him." People are not the natural killers needed in times of war and so they must be remade, broken of their normal humanity, and reconstructed.

Then we sent these young people to witness horrors, live in constant fear, survive in an unnatural state of hyper-readiness, and experience loss at a personal level that is unimaginable for the rest of us. Surely, we are not so naive to think that this process and exposure comes with no cost after the fact.

Veterans come back to us with parades that end and even those who have been fortunate enough to have their bodies completely intact are left more likely to divorce, more susceptible to drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, suicide, less likely to be able to thrive in an occupation. It doesn't end for them.

When you see a veteran, remember that the sacrifice he made is one he is still making. War changes those who witness it in a way that unalterable. Veterans continue to give their lives, even after they have have retired from service, even as they continue to live them.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Coins, Cookies, and Kindness

Been thinking about Isen and Levin's psychology experiments on kindness from the early 70's. In one experiment, a confederate handed out cookies to random students in a university library. Some time later, another confederate asked students in the library -- both those who received cookies and those who didn't -- whether they would be willing to give up twenty minutes to help with a psychology experiment. In the second experiment, a phone booth* was randomly stocked with a dime in the coin return. After a caller had completed a call, a confederate walking by the phone booth "accidentally" dropped a manila folder full of papers. In both cases, a statistically significant additional number of people agreed to help the psychology student and the person picking up the papers after having experienced good luck. When someone has done something nice for us or when the universe has given us a good turn, we are more likely to be thoughtful and kind.

If our behavior is so influenced by our surroundings, it raises a couple of questions. The obvious one which we've played with before is how much praise or condemnation do people deserve for being or not being thoughtful if we are not completely free agents? But knowing the effects of social psychology, should we set up society in a way that makes the best use of it? Of course, people who get used to having things done for them acquire a sense of entitlement and expect it, so the acts must continue to be thought of as random kindness. How could we harness this to make the world a better place?

*For younger Playground readers, a phone booth was a small closet-sized enclosure made of glass that contained a large telephone into which one would insert coins in order to make a call.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Testing and Stress

Guest-post today from Jim B.

Steve’s post from two weeks ago, “Campus Mental Health and False Urgency”, brought to light some interesting correlations between course work and an increase amount of mental illness on college campuses.

“That while students may or may not be coming to campus with higher rates of psychological concerns, we are creating them at a higher rate on our campuses”.
I do not believe this is a problem isolated to college campuses; having taught for ten years at the secondary level, I too have seen the amount of physical and mental illness associated with stress increase each year. The other day I took an informal poll of my classes, asking how many students have experienced some form of anxiety or stress prior to taking an exam. Nearly all students raised their hands. This did not come as much of a surprise, who has not felt the stress associated with a test? However, when I asked how many students have experienced more severe cases of physical or emotional symptoms related to school, resulting in their need to stay home or seek medical attention, over half of the students raised their hands. This I found to be an extremely large number of cases, after all, I teach twelve to thirteen year-olds.

A look at the special education data demonstrates an increase in the number of students with cases of emotional disorders, attention deficit syndromes, operational defiant, anxiety or emotional disturbed. Now, it would not be fair to blame testing on all emotional and physical ailments, however, I am sure that there may be a little more than just a coincidental correlation. Some students relate this feeling of stress to the increase amount of testing pressure, compliments of the No Child Left Behind emphasis on nationwide assessments. The “pass or else” syndrome has taken over many of the schools. Teachers, guidance counselors, administrators, parents, put the fear of failure into the heads of their students or children. “Do you want to work at McDonald's your whole life Johnny!” “If you fail this exam, then you will be taking extra course work next year, therefore, you will not be able to take an elective course, and you may even have your lunch period reduced”. “If you do not receive a level three on this assessment, your transcripts will show that you did not pass, what college wants a failure?” These statements, told to students prior to the administration of a mid-term, final exam, or statewide assessment, can contribute to the amount of pressure testing brings. Now, in New York State, assessments are given as early as the fifth grade. That means, by the time students graduate (if they have passed all their assessments) high school, they have been exposed to eight years of assessment pressure, not including midterms and final exams.

Each year, high-stake testing becomes the focal point of primary and secondary institutions. Conferences, superintendent days, faculty meetings, and in-service programs continue to feed the machine of testing pressure. Since it seems highly unlikely the No Child Left Behind Act, or testing mandates for that matter, will experience dramatic revisions or adjustments, students need to develop coping skills to help reduce the amount of stress and pressure aroused by high-stake assessment performance. By the time students reach college; changing their thinking patterns and attitudes becomes difficult. Coping strategies should be taught at the primary and secondary levels. Much like curriculum grows with age so should the development of proper study skills and coping mechanisms. The question is, however, how do teachers find the time, or are they willing to find the time, to add the responsibility of teaching such skills on top of their day-to-day duties of classroom instruction? What are the data patterns for educators and physical and mental ailments? Are educators becoming overwhelmed, like students, with all the pressure associated with our current educational institutions?

Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Year of Living Humorously: A Stand-Up Philosopher's Pilgrimage - Part VII

My wife’s Grandmother is 100 years old. She has a very weak heart, any sudden shock could be it, so every year we wrap her Christmas presents in Saran Wrap.
I wrote and edited, worked in front of the mirror, went over and over bits as I drove to and from work. It had been a long odyssey of self-doubt and reaffirmation, but I thought I was in a place to pull it off.

I should have sensed something wrong when the afternoon of the show, I finally got around to timing out my routine. I had relied on my page length calculations and did not actually figure out how long I was running. When my first set clocked in at twenty-three minutes, I realized something needed to be done. I had to cut about a third from each set. But I had segues leading from section to section and references back to earlier jokes that only made sense if the earlier jokes were still in.

I figured out where there was fat and tried not to chop out too much content, but got it down to size. Sloppy and unprofessional, I chastised myself. How could I not have done something as basic as timing out my sets? But I had rescued it and sat confidently eating and chatting with the band before the show.

Leaving the green room for a visit to the men’s room, I noticed some of the staff moving benches in from the lobby. They had run out of chairs. It was going to be an overflow crowd. I gave them a hand hauling in more benches and looked up in horror at the arrangement. It was a dance, how could I not have realized that there would be a dance floor? The distance between the stage and the first set of chairs was huge. If a single empty row of chairs was a chasm for comedy, the vast wasteland of a dance floor was a region of astronomical proportion, a black hole that would suck in my entire set. There was only one solution, I had to bring the stage to them. I needed a wireless mic to use the dance floor as the stage. I was told they didn’t have one, but the terror in my eyes led them to search.

By the time they found it, the set up was the least of my worries. I looked by the door and there they were…mom, dad, and their daughters, one about six and the other probably eight. This was a full set, forty-five minutes of jokes written for an audience I thought would be drunk college students. I ran and got a member of the planning committee with whom I had become very friendly, northeastern Jew who loved having another member of tribe around. I ran through my routines for her. Oh, she laughed, joke after joke, “That’s great, you can’t tell it.” I looked down at my book. After spending months to get a tight forty-five minutes of strong jokes, my entire routine was twelve minutes at best with only a few minutes before Showtime. I had signed the contract. I had already been paid for the show. What could I do?

The crowd was a mixture of families with young children and a lot of senior citizens. I was in the South. I am a secular Jew. These were very much not my people. I was on their turf and was expected to entertain them. I started to feel the old fear resurface. If ever there was an appropriate time for a meltdown, this was it and I braced myself for it.

I had developed a couple of jokes about Cajun food while I was in town, that would work. I could do a bit I had cut about the similarities between Baltimore and Lake Charles. It wasn’t as funny as the rest of the stuff, but it was clean. Along with what remained of my original material, it gave me enough to get me through my first set. So, the bandleader introduced me and I launched into it.

Interestingly, it was the best thing I could have done because it showed that I was not just a performer playing yet another show wherever he happened to be, but displayed deference to their much maligned hometown. Now I was not some Yankee, but a cousin from out of state. The audience had embraced me and they were laughing at lines I thought were just ok, but not my best work. They were with me and having fun. They wanted to laugh and I realized that I was nowhere in my head, I was surfing.

But I had two more sets I needed to spontaneously generate. For the second set, I remembered advice from my buddy – tell stories. So, I took an old dinner party favorite about the time I tried out for “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire,” embellished it and with a couple of TV jokes as an intro took it out to fifteen minutes. I was always a punch line guy, I’d never tried the Bill Cosby narrative approach. Here I was, on the fly, realizing that my job as a comedian was not to keep them continuously laughing, but to keep them engaged, entertained. By the time, I got to the final pop in the story and hit a quick segue back to the band, I could sense that I had made a roomful of friends.
As the Cajun music started up, an older gentleman in a plaid flannel shirt came up and spoke to me in Cajun French. Reaching back to high school, I got a little bit, enough to know he asked at the end “Do you understand?” When I replied “Une peu,” a little, in a terribly rusty accent, he grinned and slapped me on the shoulder, and went off two-stepping off with his wife.

I had one set left and knew what to do. I had created a pretend religion, Comedism, in which that which is holy is that which is funny and had developed a set of schticks I tell in my classes when asked about it. I’d pull that out and end by inviting people up for a joke telling contest offering automatic entry into comedy heaven to the winner. So there I was talking about our Holy Scripture, The Comedist Manifesto, and explaining the central tenet of the religion that life is a joke. You see a joke has two parts, a set up that leads you to think of a situation in a particular way and a punch line that forces you to realize that you need an entirely different understanding than you first thought. Laughter comes when your brain is stuck trying to reconcile these irreconcilable interpretations. Jokes require you to see the world in more than way at the same time.

As I was getting laughs, I realized that these folks who were not my people, were, in fact, my people. I had found my voice and it was, in fact, my voice. What started as an attempt to avoid a midlife crisis had become a full-blown search for identity. In the end, the Comic religion was actually right. The stage is the ultimate confessional where your flaws and sins are not absolved, but in being brought out into the light become invisible because you have no more need to hide them. The connection that you make in bringing a laugh to a stranger bridges any divide as long as there is not space to separate you from each other. My life now made sense as a joke. The set up took an entire year, and here in the joy of the room with the mic back in the stand I finally got the punch line.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

The Year of Living Humorously: A Stand-Up Philosopher's Pilgrimage - Part VI

David Vitter, the very socially conservative Senator from Louisiana, was caught in the DC Madame scandal. What makes it even more ironic is that the prostitute spoke with the press and told them that the Senator insisted on wearing diapers to their sessions. Apparently, it’s still family values as long as you call the hooker “mommy.”
But then it was as if my guardian angel was protecting me. Writing at the public library, I rifled through the comedy albums, finding a Mort Sahl disk. A routine from the 90s with a few good lines, the CD held minor interest until the end. He closed by saying that he was told that you had to play down to the audience to succeed in comedy, but that he had always treated his audience as if they had Ph.D.’s. The wording stung me. He paved the way for Leno and Letterman with that approach, I could do worse.

It gave me back a sense of power over my act. I would write forty-five minutes of material that even drunk college students would have to laugh at. I got a note from the organizer that the gig would be a combination of comedy and dance music called “Chicken and Beer, Music and Comedy.” I’d be doing three fifteen-minute sets during the band’s breaks. Fifteen minutes was the combined length of my first and second modules. I already had a third of it written.

Typed out, seven minutes of comedy was about two pages. So, fifteen minutes, I estimated would be five, allowing for the fact that things tend to come out quicker on stage because of nervousness. I would need fifteen pages of jokes that would entertain beer drinking, chicken-eating, college students. I could do that.

But I would also need to develop stage presence, at least enough to get by. Karen, a friend in the theater department, offers a class in improv comedy and she was graciously willing to let me sit in to learn the basics of stagecraft. I could begin to solve the problem in my own geeky milieu.

But I would need to confront the mic and stool and the drunks that came with them. The classroom was one thing, but if I was going to be a comedian for a night, I needed to be a comic for several hard months.

Looking for rooms to play, a friend tipped me off to a new place in Northeast. I showed up to literally play to an empty house. The bartender, house manager, and sound woman took the front table as I got up and told every joke I had ever written. The sound woman had minored in philosophy and wanted more smart jokes. Was she a prophet?
The only thing worse than playing an empty room is playing a room of comics... which happens often. Bars rely on comics to bring people, but since the number of friends who would come out to see your act is limited, you only invite them to big gigs. As a result many open mics are badly attended. Of course, without the open mics, the rooms close and then there is no opportunity for the better shows. The circle is vicious.

Almost as vicious as the comics themselves. As a matter of policy, comics do not laugh at each other’s material unless it is to express derision. While newbies will get compassionate handshakes and nurturing backslaps, once you are seen as a regular, the best you can hope for is the comic’s attaboy, a flatly delivered “nice set.” You know you nailed it when someone comments that they had never heard the Mr. McFeely one before. A direct reference to a joke means it stuck in the mind and needs to stay.

Another room only gives you three minutes for your first set at the venue. The need to pack set ups and punch lines into such a tight time and the fact that a cable company was filming it for its amateur comedy specials combined to throw me back into my head and I blew it, but I learned a valuable lesson. The host made the comics sit in the front row until the room filled and audience members looked for those seats. No one wants to sit up front out of fear of getting picked on by the comedian, but if there is distance between the stage and the audience, jokes fall into the void never to be laughed at. You need to hit a home run, he said, to get it over the wall of empty seats.

Then I found a home at a club in Arlington, All-Stars Comedy club. I could get guaranteed stage time every week and a college educated audience. The regular comics were a good bunch and I settled in. Each week, I’d watch them hone their act making minor modifications while I’d take the chance to work through new modules. Some hit, some missed, but I was gaining back my confidence and adding to my time.

I figured that a college audience would have at least a few geeks, so I wrote some nerd jokes (I was part of a study testing the placebo effect, but I ended up in the control group. What do you get if you cross Sophocles and James Bond? Oedipussy Rex.) I knew that I had no business telling these jokes in a bar, but I had a roll of twelve and needed to practice the rapid-fire delivery in front of a crowd. They were going to fail. I was going to die on stage. I knew it and I accepted it. I was going to become a comedic martyr for my cause and I was at peace with that.

It was the day before April Fools’ Day and on that holy day the comic gods saw the new purity of my heart and my reverence for the jokes and they did deliver a miracle. A new guy, a recent graduate from James Mason, brought an entire table of twenty bright college kids and sat them right in front of the stage. They got each and every reference. Other comics were strangely complementary about the bit. The weather was getting warmer, time was getting shorter, the comic gods were smiling and I was feeling ready.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Year of Living Humorously: A Stand-Up Philosopher's Pilgrimage - Part V

I have this friend who is completely blind. Loves to go to Hooters. They keep the restaurant cold for him so that he can read the waitresses’ t-shirts in Braille.
Not only had I died on stage, I was sent to hell. My stomach tightened thinking about comedy and like your tongue searching the empty spot of a lost tooth, it couldn’t stop going there.

I was giving academic talks and cracking jokes with no problem in front of at least as many strangers as were in the bar that night. I was teaching and for all intents and purposes doing stand-up breezily. In my classroom, I could do the Lewis Black style rant, the Steven Wright word plays, the Steve Martin goofy bit all in the context of philosophy lectures and pull it off without breaking a sweat. But the thought of the stool and mic made me ill. It was the dark night of my humorous soul. I wandered in the comic desert. I felt like Moses led to, but barred from seeing the Promised Land.

As a philosopher, I could not avoid analyzing it. The only difference was the context, the place. What was it about the stage? I was comfortable in the company of other geeks. But to do stand-up I had leave the comfort of my little Nerdvana. Comedy is done in bars. Bars are filled with people who go to bars. These were not my people, this was the in-crowd, the guys who bullied me as a child and the girls I wasn’t cool enough to even have crushes on. It was their territory and I always knew that I was out of place among them. Now it was my job to be their court jester. If I was to succeed, it was because they would judge me funny enough by their standards.

Middle school had never ended. The revelation was sickening. I was writing the sort of jokes people with doctorates in philosophy would enjoy, but I was telling them to drunk people who laugh at one thing and one thing only. If I wanted to avoid the comic equivalent of this atomic wedgie, I would need to once again be subservient to the jocks and princesses I thought I had left. In the classroom, I had the red pen, but here once again they held the social capital. So, I was faced with a choice – give up the dream and surrender to the fear, that would mean the bullies had once again won, or else figure out how to play by their rules and entertain them, meaning that they once again held the power over me and won.

I tried to work more blue, but even my dirty jokes seemed too sophisticated. The fear ebbed and flowed. A good night was not one that got laughs, but just one where I wasn’t inside my head and they weren’t happening very often. I seemed more and more sure that I could never fake it. I wasn’t a comedian and I’d never be able to fool a packed room full of people for forty-five minutes who paid to see me that I was.

When both of the open mic comedy nights I was playing closed in a matter of weeks of each other, it seemed like an omen. The comedy gods were sending me a message, I had fallen from grace.