Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Poverty and Civil War

LT asks,

"Philosophically speaking, what does it mean to be human? More specifically, when Victor Hugo said, "poverty dehumanizes the poor", what do you think he meant by 'dehumanizes'?"
Not being a Hugo scholar, I won't even begin to argue intention, but three possible interpretations spring to mind.

First, there is human in the eyes of others, that is, treated as Kant would say as an end not a means. We look on the poor as a lower life form, as animals, not as humans deserving the dignity we would reserve for ourselves and those like us.

The second notion is that poverty removes you from "the civilized world," that absent from the day to day life of those who are forced to live on the streets or among others in poverty are the sorts of rights and protections that we associate with human life. Life for the poor is more like a Hobbesian state of nature where they worry about survival in a way that people generally don't and therefore have to adapt themselves to this "uncivilized" state.

The third sense is more Marxist, that the poor become alienated from themselves as species beings, as individuals with projects who have the chance to create themselves through doing. I am a philosopher because I philosophize. I am able to philosophize because I have an amount of wealth that allows me the freedom to do this. The poor cannot realize themselves as the humans they would choose to be because their poverty limits their choices.

Other senses?

Gwydion asks,
"Is a civil war beginning to brew in America, and if so, how do the teams seem to be dividing up, and also if so, how can we stop it?"
Having brought up Hobbes' notion of a state of nature, we come to Gwydion's question which i believe predates the FBI raid and arrest of white supremicist, Christian nationalists who were plotting to attack police officers and then their funeral with the expressed intent of starting another civil war.

This fringe is growing. The Tea Party movement is the attempt of conservative power brokers in Washington to create the threat of violence. Is is expressly designed to create a mob. the rhetoric from the likes of Palin and Boehner, from Beck and Limbaugh regularly incites violence and uses overtly eliminationist references. They will claim to be speaking metaphorically, but they aren't. They are tginning up fear, bigotry, and hatred, then talking about guns knowing that they are putting Democrats in harms way from the lunatics they are whipping up. We have had a rash of bricks thrown through Democratic campaign headquarters across the country in the last week. This is not accidental. The Republicans are trying to create a hostile environment which likely will boil over into violence.

Will this spark a civil war? No. I think the words of Chomsky explain it best,
"So long as the economic system meets the demands of the middle class for more jobs, higher income, more consumer goods, and more recreation, and so long as the demands take these forms, the perennial questions about power and control need never be asked. Or, better, those whose demands are being met can be congratulated on having "power," for what is power but the ability to have one's demands met."
The middle class is far too comfortable to back any significant change in the culture. The civil war would threaten them, a black President who guarantees that their children won't get thrown off their health insurance doesn't.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Laws and Reasons

A couple more philosophical questions today.

Philo asks,

"Is there a really a difference between (civil) law and morality?"
Absolutely there is. Civil law is the result of a legislative process that may be democratic in that it derives from a ballot initiative, it may the end product of horse trading among elected legislators, or it might be the whim of a dictator. None of these have anything to do with morality, they are simply the rule of the land enforced by the power of the governing body. If the two were not different, to say, "I oppose this law because it is immoral," would be the equivalent of saying "I know x is true, but I think it is false." While the second sentence is nonsense, the first one is perfectly meaningful.

Civil law are the rules by which order is kept (or not) in a region with a government. Hopefully these laws do not force us to do that which is immoral or keep us from doing that which is morally necessary, but they might. Most of them, however, are morally irrelevant, just making necessary conventions needed to make things more orderly and safe -- we are not morally superior to the Brits because we drive on the right, but some decision has to be made to limit traffic accidents.

71 asks,
"A philosophical bowling ball of a question... Are reasons causes?"
Causes may certainly be cited as reasons, but I do not think it is true that reasons are causes. Let me get Austinesque on this -- A reason is an answer a contextualized request for explanation. In the context, one may be asking for a cause, but the reason is not itself the cause, but a citing of something as an apprpriate explanation. It is a category mistake. The cause is the state of affairs that brought about the effect, but the reason need not be an actual state of affairs, nor need there be any causal connection between them. A reason, for example, may be an intention that was foiled because of intervening causes that allowed some unforeseen cause to be operative. So the reason for x would thus be distinct from the cause for x.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Putting the "Auto" in Auto Mechanics

I never actually get car questions despite the "Auto Mechanics" in the title of this bit, and this time we got two, so let's start with them.

Gwydion asks,

"Can you make a recommendation for a used car model that fits the following criteria:

-- Legroom for one driver who's 6'4"
-- Sturdy construction for another driver who's had her share of accidents and can't really afford another, physically
-- Relatively low environmental impact, given the first two criteria
-- Family-friendliness, loosely-speaking (gotta have room for a baby and, you know, baby stuff)
-- Sticker price under $10K, and preferably under $8K"
My suggestions would be either a 2003 or 2004 Toyota Rav4 or Subaru Forester.

Interestingly, the Forester would also say something about you. In a survey that asked about political leanings and vehicle driven, it turned out that drivers of the Subaru Forester were, of all vehicles on the road, most likely to be liberal. My guess is because it has the room of a small SUV, but the profile of a car, more like an old station wagon just more compact.

Rikki asks,
"Was Tony George right to start the IRL?"
The IRL was a competing racing organization to what had long been the establishment in American Indy racing, CART. He ran the Indianapolis Speedway and once he got himself removed from the governing body of CART created the upstart competitor, the Indy Racing League which took Formula One racing from the twisting turns one usually sees in Grand Prix to the oval of the track.

Formula One racing is a lot like horse racing in that the sport tends to be dominated by a couple very wealthy groups. The IRL offered an opportunity for those shut out of CART races to have a shot and arose as a sort of generic brand until it caught on and then overtook and eventually acquired what was left of CART only to return to pretty much the place it was before the whole mess started.

So was he right to make the move, to create a competitor? I don't think it was morally necessary, but it was not problematic. Sport is an odd endeavor in that it is part institution and part business. Sometimes the business gets in the way, causing changes to the sport that are financially advantageous, but which compromise the competition. Other times, the sporting competition is bolstered by the business competition, by competing for fans, the different leagues are forced to try to create the best version of the sport for the spectators.

In this case, the sport did change by going to the oval. For the worse? Well, it is easier for fans to watch, but with out the tight corners. It means greater speeds and so takes different skills. The sport was not in the healthiest of places and the competition may have saved it by forcing it to think hard about itself. So, while there is certainly a lot of ego involved in the decision to start the IRL, I don't think it was a bad one.

More tomorrow.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics

Yup, it's time once more for auto mechanics to quantum mechanics.

I have schtick I do at the beginning of all my classes where I let students ask any question at all, anything from auto mechanics to quantum mechanics and if I don't know the answer I try to find it. When I first started the Playground, some former students asked if I could recreate it here, so every once in a while I do. If there is a question you've always wanted to ask, let 'er rip and we'll try to get to as many as I can during the week.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Human Nature

Is there such a thing as human nature? Is it an oversimplified notion that derives from God as a perfect being? Is it something that the culture sets up in order to shape its citizens as it sees fit? Is there a biological element that shapes how we all are underneath? Or is there no such thing?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Plagiarism and Music

The less short of the short people has begun studying the clarinet. In learning a small piece of Haydn's Surprise Symphony, her teacher was surprised when she added her own ending beyond the piece she was given to work on. Sensing (quite correctly) that the short person would be motivated to play by being given the opportunity to be creative, the teacher asked her to bring in her own composition the next week.

Taking this assignment very seriously, she began to work on her initial opus. she began with the notes at the end of the first line of Mary Had a Little Lamb, put them at the front of the line and worked from there. TheWife expressed some unease about her appropriating the work of another song for her own piece, but I quickly said that this is a standard practice among composers of serious music who regularly work on variations of a theme from another piece or base works on beloved Hungarian folk songs.

The question is whether this is in fact the sincerest form of flattery or theft. You can't quote in music the way you can in essays. Surely there is a line that distinguishes stealing someone else's ideas and using their work as inspiration and a springboard to a new creative place. The question is how we draw that line. The shorty seems safe, but how far could she push it?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The God of Love and the God of Power

The conversation last week has had me thinking about religion. The first of the Ten Commandments essentially says that there is one and only one God in the Abrahamic faiths. But when you look at them, this is false. There are at least two. Ludwig Feuerbach wrote,

"If God were an object to the bird, he would be a winged being: the bird knows nothing higher, nothing more blissful, than the winged condition."
God is endowed with the highest possible degree of that which we see as good.

But what do we see as good? Here, I do believe that Nietzsche was right that what we prize derives from our place in the social context. (He was wrong to then move to the claim that this is the whole of what we do and should consider morality, but the idea that political power deeply shapes what we see as desirable behavior is no doubt correct.) Social and political power does make for the powerful and powerless. There are in and out groups. As a result, I think that the problem of evil/suffering is truly the key to seeing the different ways in which organized religion manifests itself.

The problem, of course, is that if you have an all loving and all powerful God, you should not have unnecessary suffering by innocents since an all loving God would desire to end it and an all powerful God could fulfill all his desires. In the end, it seems that to be a theist one must choose love or power as the essential property of God. Which to choose? This, I think, is the result generally of the distribution of power. Those in charge see their superior place as justified by the will of God and thereby worship the God of power. To them oppressing others is a holy act because they are jusr reinforcing the natural state of being created by God.

On the other hand, those who tend to be out of power usually worship the God of love, one who is merciful and understanding of the unnecessary suffering of humans. It is this God who provides strength for them in facing injustice and working against all odds to make life better for those in the world.

This division seems present in most of our religious organizations. We see it in Catholicism where the question of care for the abused and protection of the structure, its wealth, and its credibility have recently come into conflict. We see it in Protestantism where the conversation around Glenn Beck's diatribe about churches who champion "social justice" has exposed this fault line between the two approaches. In Judaism, Zionism has exposed this rift with horrible effects between treating the other as human and dehumanizing for land. We see the fight between radical and moderate Islam wrestling with the same foundational question -- which God is God?

It is here, I think, the real question lies, not, as Gwydion argued, in the fundamentalist/non-fundamentalist line, nor in the broader metaphysical question about whether God does or does not exist. Those who worship the God of love differ from me in metaphysical belief, but share with me a basic standing towards the world and being, a posture in which empathy and consideration are foremost. I feel no threat from their faith even if I do not share it and even if it is literalist or fundamentalist.

Those who worship the God of power, however, do seem to me a different group -- and their are atheists for whom power is the essential property of a successful materialist existence. It is the worship of power that threatens social stability and human well-being. It is there that we ought to be concerned and there that I think both Kerry and Gwydion are rightly and commonly deeply uncomfortable. I, too, share their discomfort and think this is the central place that we need to focus our dialogue.

Anselm argued that the theist and the atheist both agree on what the word "God" means. I don't think the theists themselves agree.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Imperfect Evidence and Information for the Public

Dr. Richard Ablin, the medical researcher who discovered the prostate specific antigen in 1970, wrote an op/ed in The New York Times a couple weeks ago in which he argues that we are wating a tremendous amount of money on PSA tests for men. There is a slight correlation between elevated PSA levels and prostate cancer, but some cases of the deadly form do not raise the PSA number. More prevalent is the false positive, the case in which the PSA number goes up for a reason other than cancer. Dr. Ablin writes,

"the test is hardly more effective than a coin toss. As I've been trying to make clear for many years now, P.S.A. testing can't detect prostate cancer and, more important, it can't distinguish between the two types of prostate cancer -- the one that will kill you and the one that won't."
My own doctor says that she attaches little importance to the PSA number and only considers it as evidence in context with other factors and tests (As my buddy Todd says, "They call it a digital exam, but it sure feels like analog to me").

But my doctor is a trained professional who thinks deeply about what one can and cannot infer from imperfect evidence, what about those who are not so trained? We give imperfect evidence to people all the time, sometimes for very important cases. Take, for example, pregnancy tests. What level of false negatives and false positives would be acceptable in such a test. You can try to explain it all you want in the instruction booklet, but you know that people who are worried and hiding the test, some who may have only a high school education, will not read it. How exact should the tests be to responsibly put them out for the public?

Monday, March 22, 2010

We're Four! It's Our Blogiversary

Today the Philosopher's Playground turns four years old. We've had 1278 posts to bat around (at least three or four of them were goods one, too) and almost a quarter of a million hits. I want to thank all of you who have come out to play, whether you are regular commenters or lurkers. I do strive, above all, to make this a fun place to exchange ideas.

I love the mix of old friends, family members, colleagues, former students, fellow Comedists, and on-line folks I know only through the Playground. You keep it fresh and enjoyable because even after four years, whenever I think I know what conversation will come from a post (and yes, sometimes I write things that I KNOW will bait one or another of you into commenting...) the discussion often takes a turn that I never foresaw and find fascinating (o.k., except for the threads about tipping etiquette which are pretty much always the same and which I keep putting out there to annoy Kerry).

So, the question for today is where to go now. Things change over the years. My posts now are shorter than they used to be, often less political. I write fewer op/ed type posts and have more open questions. Are there occasional features that you'd like to see come back or come out more often? More or fewer "auto mechanics to quantum mechanics" weeks? More snark? Fewer language questions? New ideas?

Thanks everyone for four fun years.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


My Fellow Comedists,

Today is the beginning of little league season. I'm managing my son's team, so all thoughts are turned towards baseball. When you think baseball and funny, nothing comes to mind quicker than Yogi Berra. Master of the unintended quip, it's all summed up by the famous radio blooper:

"Yankees catcher Yogi Berra was hit on the head with a foul ball. He was rushed to hospital where x-rays were taken of his head, but the x-rays showed nothing."
Here are a few of those lines attributed to Yogi:
A nickel ain't worth a dime anymore.

Always go to other people's funerals, otherwise they won't come to yours.

Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.

Even Napoleon had his Watergate.

Half the lies they tell about me aren't true.

He hits from both sides of the plate. He's amphibious.

I always thought that record would stand until it was broken.

I wish I had an answer to that because I'm tired of answering that question.

If the world was perfect, it wouldn't be.

If you come to a fork in the road, take it.

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.

It ain't over till it's over.

It was impossible to get a conversation going, everybody was talking too much.

It's like deja-vu, all over again.

Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded.

The future ain't what it used to be.

There are some people who, if they don't already know, you can't tell 'em.

We have deep depth.

You can observe a lot by just watching.

You wouldn't have won if we'd beaten you.

And of course: I never said most of the things I said.
Happy spring everybody.

Live, love, and play ball,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, March 19, 2010

Whty Do You Know That?

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

My contribution:

Oak trees don't drop their dead leaves in the fall.

The word "stoic" comes from the Greek "stoa" which means porch.

The word "set" is the most ambiguous word in the English language, having the most independent meanings.
So, what do you know and why do you know it?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Are There Songs on Dark Side of the Moon?

Pink Floyd won in court last week. They were suing their record label EMI who was trying to sell downloads of songs from Dark Side of the Moon on iTunes. The band argued that their contract required that it be sold in album form only -- these were the days when it would be possible to sell two individual songs on 45s, although no one at the time was buying 45s (for those of the younger generation, find "45 rpm recordings" on wikipedia). EMI contended that the contract, negotiated before the digital era did not cover downloads because neither of the parties considered such a thing. The judge disagreed and contended that a new method of dissemination did not change the agreement that was reached.

It certainly seems like the proper legal decision, but one claim made by the members of the band seems odd to me. They argue that Dark Side of the Moon is not a collection of songs that can be sliced and diced, but, as a concept album, is a single coherent piece of art that cannot be unbundled.

The band's lawyer, Robert Howe, said the band was known for producing "seamless" pieces of music on albums like "The Dark Side of the Moon" and "The Wall," and wanted to retain artistic control.
Is this seemlessness claim true? The band seemed to have no problems collecting the royalties and getting the publicity when radio stations played parts of the album. The album does have song names and breaks where one could put down the needle that correspond to those names. The album does have at least two sides which cannot be musically contiguous, but can we draw distinctions that they seem to make in saying that there are discrete songs on Dark Side of the Moon?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Why Be Moral?

Heard an interview with theologian Bart Ehrman the other day in which he was saying that because Jesus was an apocalypticist who believed that the world as we know it would end in the very near future and the Kingdom of God would arrive on Earth in a time frame such that some of those listening to him speak would be present, that the motivation he provided for ethical action was egoistic. God would be choosing his kickball team very soon and trust me you want to get picked, so you better do it. One who does not believe in the continuing existence of society would not appeal to a social contract or making the world the best possible place for those in it, since the world and hence the society were not long for being. The only real motivator left is selfishness.

But the world and human society as we know it will continue to be. So the question then stands, why be moral? It is one thing to know what you should do, but it is another to do it. On what basis then should we do what we know we should do? Is it to make ourselves the best human we can be? Is it out of duty? Is it to avoid punishment or social derision? Is it to create a better world for everyone? Is it just to make ourselves feel better? Why be moral?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Poker and AI: I'll See Your Turing Test and Raise You an Algorithm

Alan Turing came up with the first standard criterion for artificial intelligence. According to the Turing test, if you were to interact with the computer and not know it was a computer, say by asking it questions and having it answer, then we could say that we had achieved artificial intelligence as conversational interactivity is a hallmark of intelligence.

This started a long and intricate discussion among philosophers, cognitive scientists, computer scientists, and whoever else cared to weigh in. Other criteria were floated as lines in the sand to differentiate thinking from mere calculating and among those was strategic planning. Consider games in which one could outwit one's opponent, surely if we could get a computer to do that, it would be significant. And so chess was taken as the quintessential strategic game and Grandmaster Garry Kasparov was taken as the pinnacle of human achievement against which to pit our best computer.

In a recent edition of The New York Review of Books, Kasparov muses about the meaning (or lack thereof) of his much heralded match with the IBM computer Deep Blue. Chess, he contends, is a different case than checkers. In checkers, the number of possible games (each game is a string of moves) is small enough that someone has developed a program that has solved it. That is, it knows every possible game and will always makes moves so that it never loses. For a simpler example, think of tic-tac-toe, a game that becomes boring quickly because we learn the secret to never losing. A computer can play checkers in that way.

But chess is much more complex. The number of games is so large that this cannot at present be done. But what can be done -- and this is how chess programs work -- is that you can translate the chess board into scores, with more advantageous positions given higher scores and less advantageous positions given lower scores. One can then make sure that one's program always maximizes the the score, making it more likely to win. The better this algorithm, the better the program and it can be developed to compete with the best rained human players. that this is possible, Kasparov argues, is interesting, but not THAT interesting. The ability to translate chess into a number crunching exercise turns it from a strategic enterprise into something less "human."

The real place to put the line we thought was drawn with chess, he argues, is poker. Poker, Kasparov contends, is different from chess in two key ways: (1) in chess there is no chance, all the pieces are on the board, but in poker you are operating with only partial information, and (2) the most rational move is not always the best move. It would be easy enough to develop an effective poker playing program in terms of hands won, but the goal in poker is not to maximize your wins, but rather to maximize your winnings. If one always made the maximally logical move, one could be easily read and when you do win, you don't win much.

So, could we see a similar event to the one in the 90s with Kasparov and Deep Blue? Could we design a new IBM machine across the table from Daniel Negreanu that would consistently take all his money?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Mississippians Turn to Iran for Health Care Help

Guest post today from Barbara of Mahablog (one of my daily reads).

Recently I wrote that Mississippi has the worst health care in the nation. Now I want to tell the story about how desperate Mississippians, abandoned by their government, turned to Iran for help.

But first, I want to tell you about Mississippi’s infant mortality rate. The rate of infant mortality is the number of infants who are born alive but die before their first birthday, per 1,000 live births. In other words, if infant mortality is 5, that means that 5 of every 1,000 babies in that population will not survive the first year of life.
According to the CIA World Factbook, the estimated infant mortality rate in the United States for 2009 is 6.22, which is high for an industrialized democracy. But according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the infant mortality rate in Mississippi is 11.4. Only Florida is worse, at 14.1. By contrast, the infant mortality rate for Washington and Minnesota is 5.1.

Now, here’s where Iran comes in — according to the Times of London, last October “five top Iranian doctors, including a senior official at the health ministry in Tehran, were quietly brought to Mississippi” to advise Mississippians how to lower their infant mortality rate.

This exchange came about when James Miller, managing director of Oxford International Development Group, was consulting in a rural Mississippi hospital. “He was shocked to find that the state had the third highest medical expenditure per capita, but came last in terms of outcome,” the Times article said.

Miller remembered a conference presentation on how Iran radically lowered its infant mortality rates. Facing a shortage of doctors and hospitals, the government launched a program of “health houses” staffed by local people trained to be health workers. The health workers are authorized to provide basic medical services such as diabetes monitoring as well as prenatal and obstetric care. Infant and maternal mortality rates both fell dramatically as a result.

James Miller contacted Iranian doctors to find out if their program might be applied to Mississippi. So the Iranian doctors came to Mississippi to give advice. Although the idea of following an Iranian model was a hard sell in Mississippi, at least one community has begun work on an Iranian style “health house” to provide better care for pregnant women abandoned by Mississippi’s health care system.

Dr Aaron Shirley, who worked with James Miller on the Iranian project, admitted they were staying under the radar. Mississippi government officials, including Governor Haley Barbour, were not involved or informed.

This takes us back to the issue identified in the earlier post — Mississippi has the worst health care in the nation, but as far as Gov. Barbour is concerned, this is not a problem. The governor is perfectly clear, on his website and in public pronouncements, that Mississippi fixed its health care problems by passing a comprehensive tort reform bill in 2004. The 2004 law affected all kinds of personal injury lawsuits in Mississippi.

In the U.S., state after state has passed “tort reform” laws that make it harder for citizens to file personal injury suits and also limit the amount of damages they can receive. This is a critical issue for people with asbestos-related disease such as mesothelioma cancer, who so often need damage awards to care for themselves and their families. “Tort reform” also is being pushed by conservatives nationwide as the way to fix the nation’s health care crisis.

But Mississippi reformed tort in 2004, and it still has the worst health care in the nation. What did Governor Barbour “fix,” exactly?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Slice of Pi

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend is not only Einstein's birthday, but also pi day. So in honor of 3/14, let's have some mathematics jokes because as we know old mathematicians never die, they just lose some of their functions...

An engineer and a topologist were locked in the rooms for a day with a can of food but without an opener. At the end of the day, the engineer is sitting on the floor of his room and eating from the open can: He threw it against the walls until it cracked open. In the mathematician's room, the can is still closed but the mathematician has disappeared. There are strange noises coming from inside the can... When it is opened and the mathematician crawls out. "Damn! I got a sign wrong..."

There are 10 kinds of people in the world, those who understand binary math, and those who don't.

Q: Why couldn't the moebius strip enroll at the school?
A: They required an orientation.

What are your favorite math jokes?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, March 12, 2010

Looking for a Silver Lining

Been some interesting goings on these last couple weeks on the equality front. The good news is that gay marriage has finally come to the nation's capital. In it's wake, we've seen those trying to deny equal treatment under the law take a couple different approaches.

In Virginia, the homophobic Attorney General, Kenneth Cuccinelli, tried the head-on attack, using his office to try to force the public colleges and universities of the state to allow discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It turned out to be such a pr fiasco for the state that housed the capital of the Confederacy to be seen as endorsing discrimination that even the right-wing nut-job of a governor realized he needed to put the brakes on it and ordered an executive directive restricting (though not an executive order which would have the force of law) against Cuccinelli's opinion.

So, if the frontal assault on equality is unseemly, the next best way is blackmail. "You know, you can offer gay men and lesbians equal rights under the law if you want, but I'd hate to see anything happen to these cute little kittens here..." O.k., they aren't threatening kittens, just preschoolers. In Colorado, the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School kicked out a preschooler because the child's parents are lesbians. Yes, I'm sure the sacred heart of Jesus Christ would turn hateful towards a little kindergartener because of the plumbing her parents had. Nothing like punishing the innocent to send a message of love for all God's children.

And if punishing one child wasn't enough, let's threaten a whole bunch of needy people! Maybe that'll work better.

"The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington said Wednesday that it will be unable to continue the social service programs it runs for the District if the city doesn't change a proposed same-sex marriage law, a threat that could affect tens of thousands of people the church helps with adoption, homelessness and health care."
Yup, we'll let people go hungry and without shelter unless you change your mind about treating your brothers and sisters like human beings.

Of course, the Protestants can pull the same bigoted move as well. In Mississippi, school officials canceled prom this year because a lesbian couple were going to attend and destroy it for everyone by dancing and that is not something we can have at our proms.

Maybe I'm being Pollyanna here, but the fact that the direct approach doesn't work and that the forces of bigotry are having to threaten innocents seems like they have their backs up against a wall. Maybe this shift in approach represents a cultural shift forcing them to be devious and underhanded to protect their discriminatory ways. The hope is that like the Republicans shutting down the government in hopes of garnering sympathy, this too will backfire and the public will see injustice for what it is and call it out.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

RIP Granny D

Sad news today. Doris Haddock, better known as Granny D, passed away. She is best known as an advocate for campaign finance reform who walked across the country from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. as a spry 90 year old to try to raise awareness of the corrupting role money plays in our political system. She also ran an unsuccessful bid for the Senate.

I was fortunate to have lunch with Granny D a few years back when she was visiting my dear friends, Pat and Lou, who, like Granny D, are not only activists for many good causes in the name of democracy but also senior citizens. I think of the three of them and marvel because I know many people with good hearts who spend years fighting the good fight to help bring about positive change in this world, only to end up disillusioned, exhausted, and bitter. Indeed I worry that some day I too will end up a crabby old liberal. but then I look at folks like Granny D and wonder what it takes to keep the fire burning, to have your commitment to justice not get quashed by the money and influence the bad guys wield.

That is today's question. What do you need to do to keep the optimism, to keep working when you see that there is so much that needs to be done no matter how much you accomplish. How can you keep the sisyphisean task from wearing out your spirit?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Lessons for the Health Care Debate from the Tragedies in Haiti and Chile

One of the principle lines of argument from the Republicans in the President's health care summit a few weeks back is that universal health insurance, especially health insurance that covers what people will need from health insurance is an affront to personal freedom. We ought to have the right, they argued, to forgo health insurance or choose to have something that is called health insurance, but would not function like health insurance in the case of illness, pregnancy, or injury.

There are two arguments given for this position. First is the libertarian line, that maximal freedom is an end in itself, that it does not matter how helpful the government mandate is to the individual, that it is a mandate itself is the problem. The second grounds for opposing universal coverage is the radical capitalist view that such a mandate (especially if coupled with a government run option) interferes with the functioning of the free market and the market forces will always in every case bring about the best results for all because it is the only way to actively balance the interests of all concerned.

Both of these positions are flawed and the problems are easy to pick out when we consider a different topic, the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. The Chilean quake was hundreds of times more massive and yet did much less damage and claimed many fewer lives. Why? There are, of course, several overlapping causes, but one of the most important was government regulation. In Chile there were strict guidelines and building codes requiring homes and offices be built to specifications that made them sturdier in the event of a natural disaster like this. In Haiti, this was not the case. The difference in results is stunning. In this case, government mandates saved lives, saved money, and improved the prospects of those dealing with the aftermath.

This, of course, would not have happened without the governmental regulations forcing it to happen. Human beings are not the purely rational self-interested agents that the Enlightenment picture used by the libertarians holds us to be. We are short term thinkers. That is just how we are wired. There is a passage in Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac which recounts what happened when the government repealed its requirement for windbreaks between fields. Farmers who were staring down the banks, who were on the verge of losing their homes, their livelihoods, their family lands because of erosion of the top soil during the dust bowl quickly undermined the thing that would keep it from happening again just for a few more square feet to plant. They saw what happened to their neighbors and what almost happened to them, but the short term gain won out over the more rational long term gain. In the case of natural disasters and health care, that means that we know what people will choose by in large and it is not that which brings about the best result for them or the society at large.

Further, we see that this propensity to irrationally prefer less advantageous short term benefits will affect the workings of the marketplace. If we look to market forces to bring about the best possible distribution of goods and services at the most rational prices, then these forces will be undermined. The market will in fact create conditions which harm, rather than help those in the market and the wider society because we do not take long term or catastrophic risk seriously and we are wired to take irrationally rosy views of our prospects, confusing our wishes for likelihoods. These errors strike at the heart of the neo-classical capitalist worldview underlying the conservative claims.

Problems with our health care system and how we pay for it is now at or approaching crisis level and indeed those who ignore history are in fact doomed to repeat it. We should heed the warnings of the dust bowl and the recent earthquakes. If we all strive to maximize human well-being, then we will have to be concerned about protecting civil liberties. The underlying premise of the libertarian view is correct that human flourishing requires a great degree of personal freedom. But the problem comes when freedom itself is made abstract and turned into an idol, when it becomes an end in itself and not a means to living maximally human lives. Because we live in organized communities and because there are times when we are better off being protected from our own worst elements, there is a place for making sure that we do what we should do. Human freedom, or at least the exercise of it, requires a cultural context in which we are (a) alive, and (b) have the material means and social and physical infrastructure to make plans for growth. Both of these preconditions need protection. We have to limit our freedom in certain ways in order to make sure we have any.

If we learn nothing else from current events, it will hopefully be that these spurious arguments about freedom should not keep us from doing what we need to do to fix our health care system and insure all Americans.

Monday, March 08, 2010

What's the Difference?

What's the difference between beautiful/handsome, cute, and hot?

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Bad Advice

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend let's share stories of bad advice. People mean well, think they are helping, but good intentions do not always translate into effective results.

There was the time in college I took my grandfather's suggestion on a barber. My grandfather was bald. But he swore by Tony the barber, so I went. I walked in and the place was empty. This should have been my first clue. Only Tony and Gino. Gino didn't cut hair, his job was to sit in an empty chair and swear at the pictures in Life magazine in Italian. I tell Tony I want it long, take off my glasses, and he starts cutting. A couple minutes in, he says to Gino, "You know who had curly hair like this, remember that guy Joe who would come in years ago?" Great, Tony hasn't seen curly hair in years. Just get me out of here. So, he cuts and cuts and finally says, "What do you think?" I hate getting my hair cut and am virtually blind without my glasses, glasses that have to be removed before I haircut. Assuming he is a professional, I'm sure the job is fine and get out of the chair, put my glasses back on, pay, and leave. I drive back home and my mom looks at me, her eyes get wide and she starts to laugh. Not a little chuckle, but a full out can't control it, belly laugh. Baffled I run to the bathroom mirror and look. I told Tony to leave it long, something he apparently only remembered after cutting the top and back of my hair which were short. The sides, however,... when you have very tight curls, length turns into volume meaning that Tony sent me out of his barbershop with what looked like a pair of kaiser rolls over my ears. It has become known in family lore as the "Princess Lea" haircut. I went back to campus and it took my girlfriend the better part of an hour to fix it. And from then on I never took advice on finding a barber from a bald man.

Worst advice you ever got?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, March 05, 2010

The Knitting Exception

I have noticed in virtually every meeting I attend now, people knitting. It strikes me as odd that if one were doodling, working on a crossword puzzle, or texting, that it would be seen as horribly impolite. Yet, there is an exception made for knitting. I've heard the excuse that I can listen and knit at the same time. But I can doodle and listen at the same time, but that would not be acceptable. While knitting, you have to be counting rows and keeping track of stitches, so it can't be true that it is truly independent of mental effort. Why is knitting the one acceptable form of multitasking?

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Cart or Horse?: Politics, Religion, and IQ

From CNN:

"Political, religious and sexual behaviors may be reflections of intelligence, a new study finds.

Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa at the the London School of Economics and Political Science correlated data on these behaviors with IQ from a large national U.S. sample and found that, on average, people who identified as liberal and atheist had higher IQs. This applied also to sexual exclusivity in men, but not in women. The findings will be published in the March 2010 issue of Social Psychology Quarterly.

The IQ differences, while statistically significant, are not stunning -- on the order of 6 to 11 points -- and the data should not be used to stereotype or make assumptions about people, experts say. But they show how certain patterns of identifying with particular ideologies develop, and how some people's behaviors come to be.

The reasoning is that sexual exclusivity in men, liberalism and atheism all go against what would be expected given humans' evolutionary past. In other words, none of these traits would have benefited our early human ancestors, but higher intelligence may be associated with them.

"The adoption of some evolutionarily novel ideas makes some sense in terms of moving the species forward," said George Washington University leadership professor James Bailey, who was not involved in the study. "It also makes perfect sense that more intelligent people -- people with, sort of, more intellectual firepower -- are likely to be the ones to do that."

Bailey also said that these preferences may stem from a desire to show superiority or elitism, which also has to do with IQ. In fact, aligning oneself with "unconventional" philosophies such as liberalism or atheism may be "ways to communicate to everyone that you're pretty smart," he said."
Evolutionary psychological explanations always make me worry because they are just-so stories, arguments of the form "Well, this could be explained this way, if this were true," but there is no actual evidence to suggest that whatever advantage you want to base your story on is actually the advantage that was selected for, if it even was directly selected for and didn't show up as an accidental attribute from some other combination of features.

The question here is why the correlation even exists. Is it that one causes the others, that a combination of the others cause one, or is it a case of common cause, some other factor that makes all of the rest more likely. so, for those of you who are liberal, atheists, or both, and are not too busy with...shall we say...other things, what's the cart and what's the horse?

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Jon Stewart Thinks This Is Funny

Warning: Adult language...

Andrew Arenge, Sebastian DiNitale, Zack Travis, and the rest of the gang in on this one are unbelievably talented.

UPDATE: We got an e-mail from the executive producer of the Daily Show who said that he and Jon watched it and that they thought that "the comedic content and the level of professionalism used to create the piece were extraordinary." Classy.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010


TheWife and I try to be supportive of the short people's dreams and aspirations. We feed them the (probably false) old chestnut that if you try hard enough, you could be whatever you want.

Additionally, we try to expose them to the injustices of our society and history by telling the stories of heroes who have opened doors for oppressed groups in our culture. We do not hide the inequalities, but try to present them in terms of the sacrifices and triumphs of those who worked for justice.

So, the shorter of the short people decided that he wanted to use his athletic interests to break down barriers like Jackie Robinson or Jackie Mitchell and announced his intention to become the first white Harlem Globetrotter. At this point I'm letting him have his fantasy, but it makes me wonder how much of a political statement the Globetrotters are.

Part of the point of the schtick is to have the African-American clown princes of basketball (they do now have their first Latino Globetrotter) who are named after the New York neighborhood to accentuate the racial angle (they were all midwesterners at the start) show up the stuffy and white Washington Generals -- clearly named to reflect their role as representatives for the powerful. We root for the Globetrotters in part because they represent the little guy against The Man. Have the Globetrotters become such an institution in themselves that this edge is gone? Would a white Globetrotter be like a married bachelor?

Monday, March 01, 2010

Invisible People

Today would be the birthday of Ralph Ellison, most well-known for his work The Invisible Man which opens with the famous passage,

"I am an invisible man. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."
The question today is who, in contemporary society? Who is it that we choose not to see?