Monday, August 31, 2009

Tipping and Sports

Chris V, the ever-generous master of virtue, asks,

What's the protocol on tipping for take-out? It's not like they have to wait on you, and yet tips are the majority of a waiters pay. I generally leave %10, rounded up to the nearest dollar (as opposed to %20 for sit-down meals) and I always feel sort of guilty. Am I being a miserly bastard?
Take-out may be the one place where a gratuity is gratuitous. Tips, for everyone but a mohel, serve two purposes: first, they are an appreciation for service, second, they are a part of service wrokers' pay. When you eat at a restaurant, the wait staff works extremely hard to make sure that your meal is a pleasant experience, taking your order, offering advice, making sure that utensils and drinks are present for you, actiing as your intermediary and advocate with the kitchen, cleaning up after you during and after your meal. for these services, they are paid terribly. Their service was directly to you, so a tip for that work not only seems reasonable, but is expected by those who write the checks for the restaurant.

In the case of take-out, the role is extremely circumscribed (darn, alrteady used my mohel reference). The person who hands you the bag and takes your money does not dedicate the time or effort that she or he would if you were seated. As such, the expectation of a tip and the amount are both certainly decreased. I don't think 10% is unreasonable, indeed it seems thoughtful, especially if you've ordered, say, a complex coffee drink that you know takes effort.

GC asks a couple of sports questions. First,
Will baseball ever regain its lustre, i.e., as compared to football, in America?
No. Baseball is in trouble for a couple of reasons. First, it is by its nature a slow game. There is a natural rhythm and it is not action packed, something that attracts the younger generation. It is part of what those of us who love it, love about it, but it is certainly something that hampers its wider appeal. Second, there is a lot more competition these days for leisure time attention, not only from other sports but from other non-sporting activities. There was a time when baseball was pretty much it, but like network television, it is a thing of the past. Finally, while baseball has teetered on the verge for years, especially after the self-inflicted wounds of the strikes, the whole enterprise was rescued by Cal's streak and then the McGwyer/Sosa home run race. But once the fact that the latter was the result of steriods came out, and then with the Bonds fiasco and the drip, drip, drip that has followed, any amazng feat will be seen skeptically. I don't think baseball is in danger of collapse, but I also do not think it will ever regain the place it once held.

GC also asks,
"Is ultimate fighting an improvement upon other gladiatoral sports--a friend recently claimed that UF is less dangerous than boxing, among other things."
The name "ultimate fighting" is a modern marketing moniker for the ancient sport of pankration which was a part of the Olympic games in ancient Greece. While contemporary ultimate fighters are no doubt tough, the ancients engaged in their version in the nude which lent itself to additional dangers not faced today.

The Romans, of course, took such games to levels otherwise never replicated. In the 80s, we had the Ameircan Gladiator version which can only be seen as the Vanilla Ice of the hand-to-hand sporting genre. While contemporary ultimate fighting comes closer to the testoterone-drenched ignorance of ancient times, certainly the lack of cool metal outfits and wild animals keeps it from approaching the level of its classical forerunners. It is interesting, however, to note that the Christians are now the gladiators. Not sure what it means, but there is a certain irony to it.

More tomorrow.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics: Any Questions?

It's been a while and in honor of the start of classes...

I have a schtick I do at the beginning of every class where I let my students ask me absolutely any question they have, any question at all, as I say, from auto mechanics to quantum mechanics. When I started up this blog years ago, some former students asked me to revive it on-line, so every once in a while I open it up.

So, if there's a question you've always wanted to ask or something that's just been stumping you, here's your chance. Ask away and I'll try to open up to discussion as many as possible in this week's posts.

Friday, August 28, 2009

What Is Style?

We picked up a great game, bananagrams. Don't let the cutesy name fool you, it's a good one. It's really just two sets of scrabble tiles with no point values. Each player gets 21 random tiles and it is a race to make a complete board out of them. When someone finishes, everyone gets another tile and the race continues. Sometimes you get an "s" that you can tack on quickly, other times, you get a "q" forcing you to dismantle and rework everything under pressure. It's easy enough that the kids can play, but complex enough that we have a good time too without running over them to a degree that it stops being fun for them.

The shorter of the short people had an epiphany while playing. At first, you could see him getting a little frustrated at not winning, but then there was a change, he realized that there were two games inside the game. Everyone was competing in the normal sense of doing their best to win according to the rules, but he caught on that there was something else, style points. He found that other players were making words and garnering appreciation for moves that were not necessarily maximizing the likelihood of victory, in some cases actually making it harder for the person to win. But if it is a really interesting word, a particularly long word, or one that is unexpected and uses up tricky letters, the person didn't mind losing the round and had a sense of pride in doing something that seems antithetical to the point of playing a competitive game. He came to have some sense of style.

This isn't the arrogant "I'm so smart I can beat you with one arm tied behind my thesaurus" sort of thing, but an appreciation of something or other. The question is what. It seems like style points require a sense of strategy where things become abstract. It seems like a second-order appreciation in some sense. It's like a joke. it's not just playing the game, it's understanding how something is unique or playful strategically.

but it is certainly not something that is peculiar to games. I see students on assignments try to go for style points. It's a tricky thing because if you miss, it just looks cheesy. Style involves risk. It seems to convey mastery in some sense. I can not only do it and do it well, but i can do it in a clever way you didn't expect and have to be hip enough to appreciate.

What is style?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

God, Darwin, and Conservative Kumbaya

In a recent op/ed in The New York Times, Robert Wright offers a "grand bargain" in a bid to arrange a ceasefire in the war between the religious and those who accept evolution. We can form, he argues, a theory completely consistent with evolution by simply adding a designer. This sort of neo-deism would be a compromise that could suit everyone and we could have cultural peace (and an embarrassing bad loan erased from the ledgers of contemporary conservatism). Put the religious peanut butter in the biological chocolate. Evolution with God tastes great and is less filling. It's conservative Kumbaya.

The whole argument is reminiscent of the White Queen's claim in Through the Looking Glass to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Are beliefs really open to this sort of negotiation? It is certainly true that we can have two theories -- Darwin plus God and plain old Darwin -- which make all the same predictions and are supported by all the same evidence, but yet seem to say different things about what really exists in the universe. But what seems odd is that the question "Which of these theories ought we think is true" is somehow not a concern of philosophy, but simply a matter of politics.

Philosophers are used to cases like this. Indeed, philosophers of physics had a case in the 20th century that was completely analogous. Isaac Newton proposed a gravitation theory in which we have a space that is flat as a board and not influenced by the matter and energy in it. He added a second object, a gravitational field, that caused all massive objects to attract each other. Albert Einstein proposed a different theory in which space was not flat and did warp from the mass and energy it contained in such a way that we understand gravitational effects in terms of the interaction of stuff with a reactive space. Einstein's theory explained and predicted things that Newton didn't -- things like the strange orbit of Mercury and the bending of light rays near large bodies -- so, Einstein is right, space is curved and Newton is wrong that space is flat.

Hold on. It's not so simple. It turns out that we could use Einstein's mathematical trick in reverse and give Newton a curved space and Einstein a flat space and keep the two theories predictions all the same. So, if we could have flat Einstein or curved Einstein in a way that both are supported by all the same evidence, which is it? Is space curved or not?

A group of philosophers called the Logical Empiricists led by Hans Reichenbach, who had been a member of Einstein's very first seminar on general relativity at the University of Berlin and whom Einstein would use his political muscle to bring to the University of Berlin until the Nazi purge of 1933, argued that these two were in fact the same theory. If two theories say the same thing about everything that could possibly be observed, then they are the same theory just expressed in different ways. Geometry is not a real aspect of the universe, but just part of the grammar used in talking about it. the theory may look different in French and German, but it's still the same theory. It is a free choice, a linguistic convention, that does not affect what the theory says about the world.

If we apply this to the case of evolution, it would mean that plain old Darwin and Darwin plus God are the same theory and that the God talk is just a way of speaking, just as an atheist who says "I swear to God I not believe in a deity" is not uttering something self-contradictory. This is clearly not what Wright has in mind since those on the right would now see this as a lousy bargain.

But in the 70s and 80s, there arose strong objections to the Logical Empiricist line. Thinkers like John Earman, Michael Friedman, and Clark Glymour argued that we could have good reason to prefer one of the space-time theories over the other. It may be the case that every observation that is evidence for the flat theory is also evidence for the curved one, but just because the two theories have the same confirming instances doesn't mean that they are confirmed to the same degree by them.

Theories make claims that are observable and have metaphysical commitments, that is, they say things about what exists. Think of evidence as income for a theory and think of metaphysical commitments as debts it owes. The degree of confirmation, the likelihood of a theory's truth, is the cash that's left over when it uses its evidential income to pay off its metaphysical loans. Two competing theories are suitors trying to get our hand in belief and the criterion of theory selection they propose is a gold-digger's version of Occam's razor, prefer theories that are the best confirmed, those that have the most cash in their evidential bank account.

Because flat space requires two entities -- a flat space and a gravitational field -- it has more of a debt load than its curved competitor which posits only the existence of a space. As such, they share all the same evidence, but that evidence makes curved theories better supported by that same evidence because the flat version has extra metaphysical baggage and like the airlines these days, you have to pays for baggage. As such, they contend, there is good reason to believe that space is in fact curved.

In the same way, plain old Darwin has less of a metaphysical debt to pay off than Darwin plus God. So, even though Wright is absolutely correct that the two theories are empirically equivalent, there does seem to be rational, non-political reasons to prefer Darwin without God.

Wright is arguing that we should accept the marriage proposal from the poorer suitor because even he has less evidential money, it would make Thanksgiving dinner more pleasant. He is offering a Marxist version of Pascal's Wager. Pascal argues that if you do a cost/benefit analysis of personal belief in God, that rational self-interest makes it more reasonable to believe. Wright is saying don't think of your self, consider the whole community and give in to the Hegelian synthesis of the theists thesis and the evolutionists antithesis as a higher form of thought that will break the bonds of alienation of one from other and each as a species being.

In the end, the proposal is a lot like a puppy -- cute, silly, but cute. Someone needs to pat Wright on the head, scratch his belly, and give him a toy because his article is simply one big category mistake.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Disentangling Healthcare Debates

With the passing of Ted Kennedy, it seems only appropriate to discuss health care today.

I watched Jim Moran's town hall meeting with Howard Dean last night and it is certainly true that not everyone on the political spectrum is interested in actual debate. It is also true that when your interlocutor is disinterested in rational engagement, bringing cogent arguments to the table is not like bringing a knife to a gun fight, but more like bringing a rubber chicken to gun fight. That being said, it is still valuable to be clear about the several different questions that are being confused and conflated.

When we talk about health care, we are actually talking about three different things that give rise to seven different issues.

1) Who pays.

A major part of the debate over health care has nothing to do with health care, but with health insurance, with who gets the bill. Our health insurance system arose accidentally in a manner that was not well thought out. We get our health insurance through work because in the aftermath of the crash of '29, when inflation was destroying our economy, there were wage controls put in place to try to keep prices down. As a result employers could not give monetary wages and so they sought to attract workers with better non-financial compensation, with fringe benefits and these included health insurance from for profit insurance companies. So now health insurance comes through employers. This has caused two big ol' problems.

1a) The uninsured.

Health insurance would be universal, that is, cover everyone, if we all had jobs that came with health insurance. But we don't. The unemployed, those with part-time or temporary jobs, and those who work full time for places like WalMart do not have health insurance. This is a problem because someone has to pay for their care and they cannot afford to. In addition, we know that these tend to be folks in populations who are more likely to have more regular and severe problems. There is an undeniable link between social class and public health. Additionally, because they do not have access to regular check-ups or family physicians, problems that could be spotted early and fixed easily and cheaply tend to be ignored until they can no longer be, get treated in emergency rooms when they are more severe, more debilitating, and more expensive. This means their care costs more, results in decreased productivity, and increased human suffering. No other industrialized nation has this problem.

We should be much more embarrassed than we are by it, but Reaganesque hatred of those lower on the social ladder has allowed us to turn up our nose at anything that would help those Americans who need help and we use the smokescreen of the word "rationing" to create the same hysteria we find around affirmative action. If we help the uninsured it will mean that good, hardworking white regular Americans won't get the medical care they've grown used to and thereby deserve. Of course, this is false, but facts are stubborn things.

1b) The uninsurable.

Insurance companies exist not to help Americans get the best health care possible, but to make a profit. They do this by collecting premiums, paying out overhead, paying claims, taking the money that is left and investing it to collect the dividends. As a result, they love people who pay in and who have no or few bills to pay. They hate those who have large bills. They employ actuaries who have seen that people who have been sick before are more likely to get sick again, especially in the same sort of way. So, what they've done is make up rules whereby if you have been sick before or may have been sick before, they can refuse to pay for any further sickness that is or might be connected. If you have a pre-existing condition, insurance companies see that they will likely make less money off of you and thereby will refuse to cover you or will only do so for things not connected with your pre-existing condition. in other words, they will let you pay in, but not take out for what you will most likely need it. The whole scam works just like a crooked casino, only one with really powerful lobbyists.

1c) The formerly insured.

But the crooked casino example goes farther. You have someone who is winning...a lot. What will happen even if the winning is legitimate? They will be escorted from the casino by large burly men with sports coats and earpieces. Same thing here only instead of bouncers, there is what is called rescission. There are employees of the health insurance companies who look for or look to manufacture reasons to disqualify their policy holders from receiving their benefits or removing them entirely from their roles. The health insurance companies sat in front of a Congressional panel, admitted that they do this, that they pay bonuses to employees who successfully keep the corporation of having to fulfill their end of the bargain by leaving their customers to go bankrupt. They told Congress that not only do they do it, but they had no intention of stopping.

But it's ok, they said, because it really only affects .5% of policy holders. That does sound small...until you run the numbers. As Taunter points out, though, this is not a random occurrence. When you realize that most of us don't make use of our insurance in a given year and look at the percentage that make significant use, the odds of having the rug pulled out from under you for being inconvenient to the bottom line of your insurer approaches one half. In other words, they are happy to take your payments, but the minute you really, really, really need what you paid for, they'll flip a coin to see if you get it. It's the American version of Russian roulette, only the Russians give better odds.

1d) the underinsured.

More than sixty percent of bankruptcies in this country derive from a medical emergency. Most of those people were insured. We pay and we pay and we pay and we still get screwed often because of nothing we did. You do everything right, something unfortunate pops up and even though you thought like any rational person that you had all the i's dotted and t's crossed, the system leaves you in a place where you are not only suffering physically, your entire family is devastated financially.

1e) the complexity of paying

With health insurance companies controlling the purse strings they do everything they can not only to avoid paying, but to delay payment. Since they make their money investing the overage, if they can put off paying, they make more money. So, the dark labyrinth of codes and forms are put in place. This means that every doctor now has to hire staff for the sole purpose of battling insurers to get paid for their services. This means they have a higher overhead and therefore we have to pay yet more for health care. Additionally, much of the hassle gets passed along to us in the form of rejected claims that require hours on the phone with generally unhelpful representatives trying to baffle us with arcane details that we surely know nothing about. A version of the auto mechanics swindle where the asymmetric knowledge leads to an disadvantage for the consumer that can be exploited.

2) How much we pay.

In addition to where the payment comes from, there is also the problem of how much we are paying. We pay much more than any other country for a lower standard of care. Why? There are a number of factors here. The American lifestyle and diet makes it more likely we will not be healthy. Financial incentives are there on the part of providers to do more when less would be fine or better. Other countries have panels of experts that look at the relative effectiveness of treatments and which are more likely to succeed. We, on the other hand, do not and have major drug companies with highly paid sales wings taking doctors on junkets. We, as a population, have a fascination with the newest, the latest, thinking it always to be better even if it can be shown not to be. We feel cheated if we haven't done everything, tried everything, even if there is good medical reason to believe that the additional very costly procedures offer nothing by way of actual health benefit.

Further, one third of all spending is on end of life care. It turns out that when you ask people what they would actually want at the end of their life, it isn't what they get. What they want turns out to be much cheaper, but grieving family or reimbursed physicians worried about lawsuits will opt for more care even when it isn't warranted. It would be a good idea, one would think, to have people who understand what often happens at the end of life to talk to folks so that people can write down their actual wishes in terms of care. This increases personal freedom and decreases costs. But, if you were dishonest you could whip people up about government run death panels and say that such compassionate thoughtfulness is morally equivalent to Nazism.

Finally, much of the treatment comes in the form of drugs. Pharmaceutical companies have made sure that we do not use our collective bargaining power in our dealings with them. Big players and make better deals, but because of the lobbying power they have, the government has agreed to allow them to continue to fleece us lest their campaign dollars go to folks on the other side of the aisle.

3) What we pay for.

None of this is actually about the care we receive. The move to managed care has meant fifteen minute visits with someone who is no longer the family physician who knows and cares about you. When you look at major markers in terms of time waiting before getting seen, medical outcomes, and patient satisfaction, we lag far behind other industrialized nations. Our for-profit health care system is the equivalent of new Coke.

So, what we are dealing with now in terms of the public option is only something that affects 1, not 2 or 3. It is not about care, but about payment for care. This would be a government run non-for-profit insurer who could keep the for-profit companies honest. But it would leave them on the playing field to use all the advantages conservatives say that the private sector affords them. This is different, not the same, contrary to, a horse of a different color with respect to a single payer system like that proposed by Representative Wiener. On that model, insurance companies go away and everyone ends up on the equivalent of Medicare. That seems to work well for those countries who are ranked above us in terms of care provided and yet who spend much less than we do to get it. But we trot out the phrase "socialized medicine" to scare people away -- Sure, that might be a better mousetrap, but don't you see that the packaging is RED.

There are several very distinct conversations that need to occur. Yet none are actually happening. When we try to have any of them, they all get conflated and outright lies get violently shouted. All the while Americans suffer. Maybe the passing of Senator Kennedy will allow us a breather in which to begin to discuss these things sensibly. But I'm not holding my breath -- after all, it might be considered a pre-existing condition should anything unfortunate occur.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Price of Textbooks

Few would dispute that the cost of college textbooks is out of control. I regularly have students come in to beg a desk copy because they have run into financial problems and simply cannot afford to drop the outrageous amounts that are charged.

On the one hand, you have a captive consumer, someone who must purchase something and that means that the seller can jack up the price. There is little in terms of competition because most cannot go anywhere but the college or university's bookstore to get their books and they are printed by one publisher only.

At the same time, many academic presses are in financial dire straits. These are not highly profitable companies gauging their customers for record high profits. Writers of textbooks are not poorly remunerated (or so I've heard...mine is not out yet), but profs are not getting rich off of these things, by in large.

But the prices are unreasonable. What can be done?

I made clear to my editor at University of Chicago Press (who is wonderful and fully agreed) that everything that could be done needs to to make my textbook, Methods and Models, affordable. It will be paperback. A companion cd or website has been eliminated. I'm using as many public domain translations as possible to limit fees where possible. But what else can be done?

Most profs would be happy to let students know ahead of time what books they will be using so that students could shop around. But what else can we do?

An interesting development is new publishers like Flat World who make web access to textbooks free with affordable pfd's. I don't know if that is a feasible model beyond a few boutique classes, but it is an interesting approach to watch.

What else can be done to keep students' book costs down?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Should Prostitution Be Illegal?

We can legally contract away our bodies for use in manual labor that picks strawberries or cleans hotel rooms. We can agree to use our bodies in ways that are physically dangerous and potentially harmful through exposure to various chemicals and repetitive motions. There is no problem with boxers agreeing to step in a ring and assault each other, some dying as a result. Is there something inherently different about sexuality?

Or is the case in favor of legalizing prostitution another example of a libertarian argument failing to account for the realities of the context. When there is a power differential in society, would this lead to the strong being able to further prey upon the weak? This would not be a choice made by most women, generally only those on the bottom rung of the social ladder who then have little choice but to fulfill the desires of those in a stronger social position to be able to feed their families.

Or is the problem that sexuality should not be seen as a commodity? There are certain things that are not things and this would be one. (Health care, of course, would be another...but that's a different post.)

Is it a public health matter? Is it like gambling where a prohibition helps maintain the neighborhoods?

Is the illegality of prostitution a leftover of our puritanical past or is there good reason for it?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

He Himself Then Relapsed Into Laughter

My Fellow Comedists,

A big ol' hat tip to good brother Helmut for linking to this. Ever had one of those thoughts that seemed like a good idea at the time... I would have thought this a Monty Python bit, if I didn't know better. True giggle bait.

New idea for neuropsychological warfare?

"I'm not sure, Captain, but the incoming enemy barage seems to be entirely comprised of, no, sir. Yes, that's affirmative, sir. I believe Corporal Johnson did, sir. Yes, one with green peppers and onions, and one with ham and pineapple. Yes, sir. No, I think it is just the sauce, sir, I do not think the pizza is bleeding. No, sir, I have never wondered what it would be like if we had vaccuum cleaners instead of hands, sir."

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, August 21, 2009

Me, Me, Me, I'll Do It

I was sitting in a meeting yesterday of incoming department chairs and the Provost and started thinking about some of the verbs being used. What is the difference between saying that someone (a) chooses to do x, (b) agrees to do x, (c) volunteers to do x, and (d) expresses an interest in doing x?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Is Research Success Related to Sucessful Teaching?

I applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities' pilot program called "Enduring Questions" which funded the development of courses dedicated to enduring questions. My class was called "Can This Class Be Taught?" and asked students to think about the role of the teacher and what teachers can and cannot do for their students (and thereby what students have to do for themselves...). I selected readings from Plato to Friere and the structure would have students pair theoretical discussion with a practical application -- can you be taught to love art?, can you be taught to be a great athlete?, can you be taught to be creative?, can you be taught to be moral?, can you be taught to be a leader?... It was a class I thought would be fun to teach and the fact that the government might give me a hunk of cash to develop it only encouraged me. So, I sent in my applicaiton and got rejected.

But what struck me was the first sentence of the first review. The reviewer rated the propsal excellent and lists as the very first piece of evidence for the likely success of the course that I have astrong record of publication with a forthcoming book from the University of Chicago Press less than a decade after his Ph.D. I was caught off-gaurd and just atared at the comment. What in the world does one have to do with the other?

Is there a relation? Is success in one evidence that one is a hard worker and thereby likely to put in the requisite effort? Of course, that effort is split between research and teaching, so effort in one might mean less effort dedicated to the other. Is it that you cannot teach well unless you keep up-to-date in your field? But surely, the details of Plato scholarship are not really in play when doing a freshman's first reading of The Republic? Is it that both require a sense of intellectual life and curiosity?

In higher ed, especially in the liberal artsy joints, we frequently hear that you need to be a scholar to be a scholar-teacher, but why? Is there a correlation and is it a positive or a negative one? Is scholarly success a mark of likely pedagogical success?

Intelligent Design Question: What Is a Scientist?

I'm wrapping up work on my textbook Methods and Models: A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science and have run into a question. The book has an interesting structure. There are six chapters of readings like all other textbooks, but running perpendicular to these are nine tracks relating to nine sciences: astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, genetics, evolutionary biology, psychology, sociology, and economics. Each students selects the science he or she is most interested in and there is a case study at the end of the chapter that the student works out and views through the philosophy of that chapter. By the end of the semester, the student has written a history of his or her science of interest with philosophical commentary. Hopefully others will find it as nifty as I think it is. (For those who teach philosophy of science -- it'll hopefully be out next year from University of Chicago Press, contact me and I can make sure you get a review copy.)

The last chapter looks at challenges to the notion of a scientific method from Paul Feyerabend, Ruth Hubbard, and Bruno Latour who contend in their own ways that we cannot separate science from the social, that we cannot look at science as objective rationality independent of a cultural context. The case studies thereby look at contemporary issues where science intersects with society or government in some way. The sociology track, for example, examines Michael Burawoy's call in his ASA Presidential address for public sociology, that is, for sociologists to be active in the use of their technical knowledge for bettering people's lives. Do scientists have special moral responsibilities and does this affect their objectivity?

The evolutionary biology track's final piece deals with William Dembski's work on intelligent design theory. Therein lies the question. The way the exercises are laid out is in three parts labeled The Case, The Scientist, and Your Job. The second part is a brief biographical sketch (a paragraph, just a couple sentences about the person's life). Not every case study has a bio -- for the discovery of the top quark, for example, there is no "The" scientist -- so the question is whether I should have one for Dembski.

On the one hand, having it seems to beg the question I am asking the student -- is it science. By labeling him "the scientist" in the text is to send a signal to the student. At the same time not doing so seems to send the same sort of message in the opposite direction. It also seems to be a political statement whether I do or don't. If he had a Ph.D. in biology or had done some other work, that would make it easy, but he has a Ph.D. in mathematics and another in philosophy and teaches philosophy at Southwest Baptist Seminary. He did have an NSF research fellowship at one point, but then so have many philosophers whom I would not call scientists. His arguments are aimed at the discourse within evolutionary biology, that is, he sees himself as doing science and it is his clear intent to do science. Is that enough to be a scientist? Would being a mathematician with a professional interest in complexity theory, applied statistics be sufficient? Does the applied nature, the world-pointing orientation of those field make one a scientist? What is a scientist and is William Dembski one?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Back to the Garden

With the passing of the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, it seems a good time to ask about the living legacy of the 60s. What appealed so much to many of us who were not there was not only the peace and love that were supposed to serve as guiding principles, but the sense at that time that the culture was starting with a clean slate. The term revolution conjures too many images of violent overthrow, and while in some sense the term is appropriate, in many ways it was just a point in time where social structures and ways of being could be formed anew. Because of the size of the baby boom, because of the advances in technology, because of the way it had been rebuilt since the Depression and WWII, the culture seemed plastic in a way that it usually is not. It seemed reasonable to believe the world could, in fact, be changed by popular will and the movements of the time attempted to do just that.

How much did they succeed? How much and in what ways has the culture changed because of those years? As a guy with a ponytail who gets not a second glance, there surely are some things that are now a normal part of American life and thereby invisible to us that had been radical and absent from American social life. What?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Alte Cocker

My fellow Comedists,

As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, it seems only appropriate to post this:

Truly, the funniest Joe Cocker bit since this:

We all get by with a little help from our friends.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, August 14, 2009

Bullshit or Not: Hugo Chavez 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 occasional series of posts.

This time, let's discuss one of the less controversial comments from Venezuelean President Hugo Chavez,

“Let’s leave this clear,” Mr. Chávez said during a live broadcast of his Sunday television program. “Golf is a bourgeois sport,” he said, repeating the word “bourgeois” as if he were swallowing castor oil. Then he went on, mocking the use of golf carts as a practice illustrating the sport’s laziness.

The government’s broad nationalizations and asset seizures have gone far beyond the oil industry to include coffee roasters, cattle ranches and tomato-processing plants.

If the golf course closings go forward, the number of courses shut down in the last three years will be about nine, said Julio L. Torres, director of the Venezuelan Golf Federation. A project on Margarita Island, designed by the American architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. and intended to be South America’s top course, was halted because of financial problems.

Most of the closed courses are in oil regions, near Maracaibo in western Venezuela and in Monagas State, in the east, and were initially built for Americans working in the oil industry. Mr. Chávez’s purge of dissidents from the national oil company focused suspicion on the golf courses, which were seen as bastions of the old elite.

A housing shortage has also pushed the government’s hand, Mr. Chávez said last month, when he questioned why Maracay had so many slums while the golf course and the grounds of the state-owned Hotel Maracay, a decaying modernist gem built in the 1950s, stretch over about 74 acres of coveted real estate.

“Just so some little group of the bourgeois and the petit-bourgeois can go and play golf,” he said during his television program.

Backing up Mr. Chávez, a noted baseball fan, state media here have gone after golf.
Is golf a bourgeois sport? Are golf courses a waste of land that could better be used for the good of the larger community and not just the well-healed, non-plaid-pantsed few?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Hallowing Ground

On my way into work, I drive winding country roads that take me past the cemetery at Gettysburg. Along those roads, I am finding more and more makeshift memorials marking the places people have died in traffic accidents. Thinking about them, they seem strange.

Presumably, those who tragically lost their lives at those places are buried not too far away. There is a grave where the body has its last resting place. This is a place for the deceased's loved ones to come and memorialize the full person, to remember who they were and what they did. The grave is a reminder of the life, the spot on the road is nothing but a reminder of the death. The grave is a tribute to all the days, whereas the spot on the side of the road only represents one horrible moment.

In the case of Gettysburg it makes more sense as the deaths were part of a struggle to define and defend a nation. I understand why the battlefield is considered sacred ground as a result of the loss of life because that loss was a sacrifice to a cause. The people who died there were committed to something larger and that cause and their contribution combine to make the place special.

But that is not the case with the sad, unfortunate spot along the road. The death itself does distinguish a point that otherwise seems just like those a hundred yards up or back. It is no longer just a place, but the place where someone loved ceased to be. But it seems odd to memorialize that place in addition to or instead of focusing on memorializing the person. It memorializes what happened accidentally in taking the person away, not everything else that was done intentionally in the years before and that seems to be what it is we would want to remember and celebrate; what they gave us, not simply focusing on the loss.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Sadly Shakes Head

An editorial at Investors Business Daily tries to make the case against the current proposed health care reforms by confusing it with the socialized medical system of Great Britain (which it in no way resembles). To make it better they try to tie it in with the latest bizarro-world Republican claim that the proposal has provisions for mandatory death panels. If that isn't laughable enough, they come up with this:

People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn't have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Burp Is Spontaneous. A Burp Is Not Romantic.

A friend asked the other day, "What makes something romantic?" and I thought it would be a good question to play with here. Are there necessary and sufficient conditions? Is it purely subjective? There are certain things that will make almost anyone go "Oh, that was sooooo romantic," meaning that it doesn't simply seem to be a matter of taste. What characteristics of an act will tend to make it romantic?

Friday, August 07, 2009

The Feast of Saint Steve

My Fellow Comedists,

This week we see the feast day of Saint Steve. Steve Martin will be 63 years old. Born in Southern California, he was an actor and magician before heading to San Francisco in the late 60s to start his stand-up career working small coffee houses often in front no one but a hippie or two.

He wrote for the Smothers Brothers before deciding that he was going to start writing and performing anti-comedy. He observed the old Borscht Belt comics who were so professional that they played their audiences in a way that was mere formula, not real comedy. So, like the Dada artists and atonal composers of the early 20th century who took the state of art as their topic, making surreal art about art, so Steve Martin started doing surreal comedy about comedy, inverting joke structures and playing with the usual timing.

It worked. He became wildly successful on his own with a series of magnificent comedy albums and regular spots on the Tonight Show and the earliest days of Saturday Night Live.

But then came "King Tut" and suddenly there he was in the same place he saw the greats of the last generation, getting laughs that he did not earn. So, he turned away from stand-up and started doing films. The Jerk, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Man with Two Brains, good stuff all. After that, his work wedged in the mainstream was still magnificent.

The man is smart, talented, and truly one of my favorite comedians of all time. I had all of his albums memorized in high school. There was a bit he did somewhere that I have not been able to find where he was a tv reporter reporting a sighting of the abominable snowman that made me giggle for years. But perhaps the classic is the "Grandmother's Song."

Thank you Steve Martin for all the years of being obsequious, purple, and clairvoyant.

So, what are your favorite Steve Martin bits?

Live, love, and put a live chicken in your underwear,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Sleep and Philosophy

An interesting story on sleep the other day on NPR. We sleep differently now than we used to.

Psychiatrist Thomas Wehr has one consoling message for those who wake up at 2 a.m.: This is likely the way our ancestors slept.

"There are historical records of people sleeping in two bouts at night," Wehr explains. They called the first bout dead sleep, and the second bout was called morning sleep. The wakeful period in between was referred to as watch or watching...

He and his colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health recruited 15 young, healthy adult volunteers. They went about their normal business during the day, then reported to a sleep lab in the early evening.

"We had our subjects go into the dark at 6 p.m., lie down and rest," Wehr says. The lights didn't come back on until 8 the next morning; it was a simulated winter day.

The sleep study found that the long night led to two bouts of concentrated sleep — with a wakeful period in the middle, lasting a few hours. The study was published in the American Journal of Physiology in 1993.

"You might think that lying awake for two hours would be a kind of torture," Wehr says. "But it wasn't at all." The people in the sleep study described it as a kind of quiescent, meditative state.

Researchers found similar results in a more recent study of adolescents. The longer night seems to give rise to a sort of "midnight comfort."
We still have the phrase "questions that come to you in the middle of the night" which refers to deep, philosophical issues. This makes sense if we are accustomed to a period of quiescent meditation in the middle of the night. There is a natural space to do our deep thinking undisturbed by the triviality and details of waking life.

Yet, now, because our technology and economic structure demand that we be up late and up early, we no longer have this period for contemplation. If we do awaken during the night, we label it insomnia and take medication to end it or fill it with bad reruns, infomercials, or web surfing.

We know that lack of sleep not only leads to decreased efficiency, but also to ill-health and weight gain. But are we also intellectually less fulfilled as a result? The next time I find someone sleeping through one of my philosophy classes, I may not be so worried.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Doctor Is Out: Peanuts, Intellectual Property, and Fair Use

I had a great idea. It was Hanukkah last year and the shorties had gotten gift cards from my grandparents for a national chain bookstore. Being the proto-nerds that they are, they had big plans for them. One advantage to being from a minority community is that stores are still open on your holidays, so on the way home we stopped.

As they moved from "young readers" to "humor" in order to look at Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes collections, I went back to the philosophy section to turn The Grateful Dead and Philosophy cover out on the shelf. Then it hit me.

I've always loved Charlie Brown. Rereading them with the short people, I realized how Minnesotan Charles Schultz really was. His mother was Norwegian and that Scandinavian sensibility is shot all through the strip. It was one of those light bulb moments that makes you giddy because the more you work it through, the tighter it gets.

It was a book, You're a Good Being-For-Itself, Charlie Brown: A Peanuts Introduction to Existentialism. A niche book perhaps, but little in philosophy has more of a market than existentialism and it works off of the success of the philosophy and popular culture series. Best of all, it flowed perfectly. The early chapters would cover the influences that led to existentialism while the later ones examine the movement itself:

Chapter 1 -- "Schroeder the Ubermensch" looks at Nietzsche's approach to moving humans beyond good and evil. Schroeder is the future of humanity, playing Beethoven (the quintessential German romantic) and catcher on the Peanuts ball team (the toughest, most physically demanding of all positions). His disinterest in Lucy's advances show that he puts transcendence before mere comfort.

Chapter 2 -- "The Great Pumpkin and The Knight of Faith" takes Linus as Kierkegaard's knight of faith. God, Kierkegaard argues is that which lies beyond the edge of reason. To take a leap of faith is to reject the rational for the higher truth. He knows he will be mocked as a blockhead, yet the usually rational Linus willingly and hopefully takes the leap that lands him in the pumpkin patch at 2 in the morning each year, faith unabated.

Chapter 3 -- "The Doctor Is In" discusses Freud's psychology and takes the ever-in-control Lucy as an example of the tension between the motivational theories of Freud and the radical autonomy of the existentialists.

Chapter 4 -- "From Angst to Aaaargh" looks at Sartre's brand of existentialism and shows how Charlie Brown lives the angst and alienation that he argues are the essential features of human life.

Chapter 5 -- "Why Do You Keep Calling Me Sir?" looks at de Beauvior's work on gender through Peppermint Patty (the opposite of the standard socially enforced picture of femininity), Marcy (the oppressed), and the Little Red Haired Girl who never appears but is constructed in the mind of Charlie Brown as the image of perfect femininity.

Chapter 6 -- "We Must Imagine Snoopy Happy" looks at Camus' Myth of Sisyphus and examines Snoopy and Charlie Brown as his absurd men. Just as Sisyphus rolls his boulder to the top of the hill knowing that it will roll down again only to trod to the bottom to undertake the task again, so too Charlie Brown knows that Lucy will pull the football away. Yet, time and again he charges. Snoopy creates his own reality to give his life meaning. He is a pet, but he transcends being owned by experiencing life as he chooses.

That was the idea. I was excited. So, I contact the Peanuts folks at United Media and get this response:

I would like to thank you for your interest in PEANUTS and Mr. Schulz's work. Unfortunately, due to various restrictions we cannot grant your request to use the PEANUTS characters in this way. I'm sorry to disappoint. We wish you the best.
It was, to say the least, disappointing. It would have made a fun, interesting read that would have been a blast to write.

The question here is over control of characters as intellectual property. Surely, using individual strips without permission would be problematic, but referring to characters? Aren't they a part of the larger cultural consciousness? If this were a book for academic use, then fair use would probably cover it; but if it was a trade book for profit, that does seem a bit different. what if I wrote these up as blog posts, would that be problematic?

Judge Charles Metzner in the suit filed by Isaiah Berlin against Mad Magazine contended that satire is a protected form of speech. This wouldn't be satire, but a pedagogical use that seems to fulfill a similar social goal. Should explication be given the same breadth as satire?

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Birther Cage and Frame

YKW pointed me to Eugene robinson's latest in the Washington Post.

Trying to analyze the "birther" phenomenon would mean taking it seriously, and taking it seriously would be like arguing about the color of unicorns. About all that can be said is that a bunch of lost, confused and frightened people have decided to seek refuge in conspiratorial make-believe. I hope they're harmless. And I hope they seek help.
I think the harmlessness hope is misplaced. Where have we seen something like this before? Hmmmm. Whitewater, anyone? Remember how it just happened to come out when Clinton was working on, what was it? Oh yeah, health care reform.

What we are seeing here is classic misdirection, the magicians' trick. Look over here at this shiny object so that you don't see what the other hand is doing. We can distract everyone from real issues if only we drum up enough of a sideshow to demand attention. It is what I call the "cage and frame" strategy. If there is an entire set of issues you want out of public discourse, put them in a cage. Let out one that you will put all of your energy into, screaming and shouting and engaging in as vocal a debate as possible. People will see this vociferous back and forth and assume that it means that there is an open fair debate on all issues. The opposition has to make a choice. Confront you and suck all the oxygen in the room away from the substantive concerns they really want to talk about, or lose the battle at which point you pick another issue and win a war of intellectual attrition.

Remember the Swiftboat attacks on John Kerry? Democrats learned that no matter how stupid and demonstrably false conservative claims are, the media will run and run and run with them out of fear of being labeled "liberal media elites" and people will begin to believe them. So, you have to fight, but then you lose because you are stuck slugging it out over something innane.

Is it harmless? No. This is no less absurd than Whitewater or Swiftboat, but perhaps because of the debacle in Iraq and the tragedy of Katrina, maybe because of the ugliness at Palin rallies during the election, there is negative blowback on the GOP this time. But sustaining the hits may prove to be the cost of doing business in derailing a proposal that will challenge heartless insurance companies and help hurting Americans.

UPDATE: Josh at TPM says something similar about the teabagger thugs showing up at health care town halls:
From my Republican pal under deep cover ...

"I'm surprised that it's your Republican pal that has to make this point: The precedent on the anti-health care protests isn't Bush's Social Security town hall meetings. The real precedent is the "Brooks Brothers riot" during the 2000 recount. The point is to create disorder, but get the media to cast blame on the underlying issue and NOT the protesters.

That's what happened during Florida: The "blame" was on the "chaos" created by the "unfair" counting methods brought on by Al Gore's call for "selective" counting. No blame was focused on the young GOP activists upsetting the process.

THAT seems to me to be the comparison that Obama supporters should be on the lookout for this summer.

You can say this came from a Republican friend -- but not by name. ;-)"

Monday, August 03, 2009

Lieberman to be Indicted: Middle East Peace Possible

From the Washington Post:

Israeli police Sunday recommended that the state indict Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on charges of bribery, fraud, money laundering, witness harassment and obstruction of justice.
Lieberman, a Russian immigrant to Israel, is the Joseph McCarthy of Israeli politics, an anti-Arab bigot and founder and leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our home) party.

He has served (and in some cases been removed) from ministerial positions in other Israeli governments as his party has gained strength, but now he is the foreign minister under his old boss Benjamin Netanyahu. His presence there has caused nothing but indignation from Israel's neighbors -- imagine what Mexico might think of Tom Tancredo or Lou Dobbs as Secretary of State -- and governments from Europe have refused to meet with him. French President Sarkozy told Netanyahu point blank that he needs to "get rid of him." When Netanyahu responded that he is sounds different one on one, Sarkozy responded that Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the racist National front party, "is a very nice man" in person. Even the Obama administration has steered clear of him.

Lieberman is not a hurdle, but a brick wall in front of the revival of the peace process (so is Netanyahu, but that's another issue). His indictment and subsequent resignation can only be a good thing.