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.