Thursday, December 30, 2010

False Needs, Technological Regress, and the Mechanical Pencil

As I wasted a perfectly good hour of vacation fixing the shorter of the short people's mechanical pencil -- a stocking stuffer he asked for and received -- Marx's notion of false needs came to mind, that is, the idea that in order to sell more stuff, the capitalists will have to convince the consumers that they need things they really don't need. If the consumer was the rational agent that classical capitalist theory assumes, then there would be markedly less activity in the marketplace.

Along these lines, there is absolutely no reason for the existence of the mechanical pencil. It is less convenient, less dependable, and more expensive than its traditional counterpart. It does nothing the regular pencil doesn't and does what it does less well. It is an example of technological regress where something new and cool is actually less effective than the thing it replaces. Yet, we think we need it because it looks shiny, new, and cool. It is not only unnecessary, it is anti-necessary.

What other products can you think of that are hailed as advances on its predecessors, yet are actually a step backwards in terms of utility? MicroSoft Word would be example number 2 from me (I suppose the pencil should have been number 2, but that's a different issue). Others?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Value of Ethnic Studies

As if Arizona had not done enough with it's anti-immigrant law has now passed another law making it illegal to teach ethnic studies. African American Studies and especially Latino/a Studies are impermissible because giving attention to the lived experiences of minorities and the social structures that help shape those experiences is tantamount to being "taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people" where those others, of course, are white, straight, Christian Americans. We need to only see people as individuals, they argue. By outlawing such intellectual inquiries they are actually preventing bigotry, you see, because racism requires the notion of race and if we never admit there is such a concept, there could be no more racism, at least not towards the white, straight, Christian Americans who -- especially in Arizona -- would never dream of being racist themselves. They don't see race in Arizona. It never even occurred to them before that some of the people living among them were Latino/a.

So, the question is, then, what are the values of ethnic studies programs? Because such programs are inherently interdisciplinary, it seems that they contribute in five basic ways:

Literary value: Every culture has a body of writing and what words mean is contextual. To understand what an author is really saying requires an understanding of the audience he is speaking to and his/her background that led him/her to use those words in that way. This means that one who does not understand Soviet times could not fully appreciate Solzhenitzen, one who knows nothing of Victorian England can not fully appreciate Dickens, and one who does not fully understand South American culture of the 20th century will not see all there is to see in the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. the same is true with non-verbal forms of art. If we want to fully comprehend the art of a set of interconnected cultures, we need to understand the cultures.

Historical value: History is made up of narratives, the dots of events connected by lines drawn by historians and the broader culture. It is cliche to say that the victors write the history, but it is true. The meaning we inherit attached to events come from the cultural constructs of the powerful. Ethnic studies challenge those narratives, by providing counter-narratives, other sides and parts of the story that were conveniently left out of the usual approach to history. This, in part, is what scares conservatives, because when the full story is told, the white, straight, Christian Americans do not always come out looking very good. In the name of anti-racism, they are trying to protect their historical dirty laundry from ever being aired.

Anthropological value: The move to seeing us all as individuals is slimy because couched in pseudo-ethical terms is a denial of a basic truth of the world -- there are cultures. We have grouped ourselves in various ways and these groupings have given rise to different ways of life. Any phenomenon deserves to be studied scientifically. Cultures exist and anthropologists should be able to document what they are in a given place at a given time.

Sociological value: Cultures have institutions, norms, and means of enforcing those norms. Examining these aspects of culture in multiple cultures and what happens when cultures mix and interact gives insight into the ways humans organize.

Political value: Misunderstanding other cultures gives rise to misinterpretation of political actions and statements and this misunderstanding can cause unwise policies to become unwise laws -- not that such a thing would ever happen in Arizona. They way towards understanding and more moral laws is study and that study requires scholars and teachers, exactly what ethnic studies programs provide.

Those are my five. Other values in ethnic studies?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Is Blogging Passe?

This is my 1,500th post on the Playground. That's a lot of words. I first really got plugged into the blogging world during the Presidential primary of the 2004 elections when Howard Dean's campaign was largely a self-organized on-line phenomenon. At the time, a dear friend and colleague had a blog that sadly no longer exists and told me regularly that it was something I should do. It wasn't until I decided to try to write popular philosophy that I took the plunge. A book that helped first time authors get published suggested it, so I figured I'd give it a try.

It's been a wonderful experience, getting to watch interactions among a wide-range of folks, family, friends from virtually every part of my life, and folks who just found the place and settled in. People tend to come for a while, have a sizable presence, and then move on -- kind of like a college. Others are always around and you know with a given post who is going to get fired up by it. Sometimes a post that seems provocative falls flat and other times something I thought was thin gives rise to clever or passionate discussions with comments in the 50s. Occasionally there's a link from a big time blog and traffic goes sky high.

But things certainly aren't what they were in the blogosphere, say three years ago. It used to be the heart of the on-line opinion expressing world. But things went in two directions. Sites like the Huffington Post have tried to corporatize blogging and make it more like a traditional newspaper. In the other direction, Twitter and Facebook have displaced the personal blogs that were more diary-like. The ability to have short shots collected for you allows certain things blogging doesn't. So, it is caught in the middle.

Is blogging a transitional form of on-line communication on its way to extinction, replaced by newly evolved species more suited to the environment? Does it have lasting, but smaller niche role?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Festivus

My Fellow Comedists,

It is once again time to bring out the aluminum pole and celebrate another Festivus for the rest of us. A happy Festivus season to all!

As usual, please use the comments for the airing of grievances.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Is Cosmopolitanism Inherently Unstable?

One of the founding fathers of sociology, Ferdinand Tonnies discussed at length the inherent tension between communities (groups based on a shared identity) and societies (groups based on diversity). This came to mind this morning listening to Philip Mansel discuss his new book Splendour And Catastrophy On The Mediterranean on the BBC. He examines the rise and fall of Smyrna and Alexandria as a context in which to consider contemporary Beirut, a focus of cosmopolitanism in the contemporary Middle East.

It led me to wonder whether cosmopolitanism is an unstable social state. The joining of cultures with the possibilities for growth and synthesis is a major catalyst in social evolution. The times and places that have been the most cosmopolitan have also, by in large, been the most fruitful for human society. We do better when we do what we do with each other.

But it has to happen somewhere and therefore therefore cosmopolitanism always happens on someone's home turf. When things turn bad politically, socially, or economically, which they are bound to do eventually, it tends to give rise to a reflexive isolationism and scapegoating. If things are worse than usual, what is the cause? What is different? Oh, those people over there. They must be to blame. Of course, they are no doubt having a tough time of it also and then when the suspicion, the alienation, and especially the legal or economic measure are put into place to punish them, they become bitter and you get a circling of the wagons counter-movement that stresses purity within their community which may launch anything from separatist movements to terrorist attacks like the one we saw in Sweden.

Is this sort of dynamic unavoidable? How does one protect cosmopolitanism from the inherent dangers?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

RIP Steve Landesberg

Sadly, Steve Landesberg died yesterday from colon cancer. As a nerdy kid growing up in the 70s, his character detective Arthur Dietrich on the show "Barney Miller" was a great comfort. It was one of the few places you could see a positive, but realistic picture of what it was to be smart, but alienated from those around you. He was written and played beautifully as well-read and bright, with a sly and dry sense of humor, but always held slightly at arm's length by his co-workers. It was inspiring to see it portrayed so accurately, yet positively.

I was fortunate to see Landesberg do his stand-up in the early 80s -- don't remember if he was at the Lyric in Baltimore or at Shriver Hall on campus at Hopkins, but I remember his saying that he was awed by Abe Vigoda's timing, that he had a slow delivery that made his punch lines the focus of the episodes. He said then he realized that it was actually because he was so old he couldn't remember the line. Ironically, Abe Vigoda out lasted him.

RIP Steve Landesberg and thanks for the inspiration and the laughs.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Quantum Santa Hypothesis

I teach a first year seminar called "Einstein in Wonderland: Physics, Philosophy, and Other Nonsense" in which we consider the classical notion of sense from Descartes and Newton, classical nonsense from Lewis Carroll, and then look at relativity theory and quantum mechanics to decide whether they violate the classical notion of sense, whether modern science forces us to not only rework our understanding of the world, but also our understanding of understanding. This year's bunch went beyond philosophy and actually framed their own scientific theory -- the quantum Santa hypothesis.

In quantum mechanics, when a system is unobserved it behaves according to Schrodinger's equation. This means that it finds itself in what we call a superposed state, that is, a combination of all possible values for its observable properties. In the case of position, for example, it means that a things "spreads out" over all of the places it might be found. But we never see a system in its superposed state, when we make an observation, the system collapses into one of its property states, into one single value of the observable quantity, for example, into one place.

The class realized that this might be the answer to the Santa paradox -- how can Santa visit every house in one night when doing so would require him to move faster than the speed of light, which, of course, is prohibited by the theory of relativity? The proposed answer hinges on the fact that Santa always comes in the middle of the night when no one is watching. Because no one observes Santa, he would be in a superposed state, that is in every house simultaneously.

Further, the presents he brings are not truly independent of him, but rather part of a larger system that is superposed. The potential of the system is set by the children's behavior throughout the year making the bicycle/coal coefficient lean in one direction or the other and as soon as the first little one wakes up and looks under the tree, a present measurement is made and the Santa wave function collapses into a single present state in which the value of all presents are instantly determined throughout the whole world at that moment, just like electron spin in the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen-type cases.

Is the quantum Santa theory testable? I suppose one way would be to make constant observations throughout the night which would mean that Santa would be forced to remain in single positions throughout the entire eventing and thereby would be unable to deliver gifts to his full contingent of children. Perhaps there are some experiments that science shouldn't carry out.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Best Movie Theme

The kids just watched The Pink Panther. The only thing that comes close to rivaling Peter Sellers' performances in those films is Henry Mancini's theme song. Are there other movie themes on that level? The Bond movies always had great ones. On opposite ends of the spectrum are the themes from A Summer Place and Star Wars. What was the movie theme ever?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Comedy and Technology

My Fellow Comedists,

Every new technology brings with it comic possibilities. Radio gave us not only Burns and Allen and Jack Benny, but Spike Jones and the use of sound effects.

Television opened the door for comic geniuses like Ernie Kovacs and Sid Cesar who used the new medium to create comedy that couldn't have existed without it.

The internet gives us YouTube, an amazingly effective tool for humo distribution. So, this weekend, what's the funniest clip you've seen on YouTube? This week the talking animals have been viral:

So, what's the funniest YouTube clip you've seen?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, December 17, 2010

Dialogical Combobulation

We've been conducting interviews for an open position in our department and Kerry has been asking the candidates how their scholarship relates to their teaching. You can't go through the process and not think about how you would answer the questions if you were being interviewed. So, I've been thinking about the odd nature of this job.

You'd think it would be continuous. I sit in my office philosophizing and then go into the classroom and show the students how I do it, training them in the steps, so they can do it too. But it doesn't work like that. In fact, the doing philosophy and teaching philosophy are in a certain sense opposite tasks.

The job of a good philosophy instructor is to problematize. Students come in naively smug about their beliefs which they've never thought very hard about. This sort of simplistic certainty is inimical to the entire philosophical project, so it is the work of the philosophy instructor to disturb it. Every philosopher you will ever talk to will claim to use the "Socratic method," but what we really take from Socrates is his goal of being the gadfly. The one thing we want students to see is that no matter the view they came in with, you can assert the proposition "It's more complicated than that." When it happens several times in a row -- if you are doing it right -- it causes a crisis, students become completely discombobulated. It is an uncomfortable place and there is the ever-present fear that the reaction will be "Well, then there is no answer and it's just whatever you think it is."

But this is wrong. Being discombobulated is the starting point, not the end. The act of philosophizing is taking the problem and making sense of it, pulling insight out of it, restoring in a deep and subtle way an understanding of what really is true. Philosophy is the process by which we stop being discombobulated and resume in a more sophisticated way being combobulated. But recombobulation is a difficult task. It is really, really hard to do.

We assign names to views that make significant strides in the recombobulization -- Kantian ethics, Platonic realism, Cartesian skepticism -- and this gives the false appearance that it is something atomic individuals do on their own. When I am being a philosopher, I sit in front of my computer and combobulate myself. We attribute authorship to articles and books because they announce individual efforts leading to combobulation on some topic or another and by reading them in your study, you too may follow this path to combobulation.

But it doesn't work that way. Combobulation is a communal process. It takes interaction with other minds. It is the result of hard work undertaken jointly by all of the members of discourse communities. It takes cooperative and competitive conversations where we build on each others ideas, synthesize each others ideas, and challenge each others ideas. It is why we have conferences where we leave our families for a period time, converge on some city or other and spend entire days together giving and responding to papers, taking part in panel discussions, and then having a nice meal together at a Thai restaurant, and going back to have a couple beers in the hotel bar so that we can combobulate each other.

It takes a group to reach any sense of combobulation. You do it through interaction, through dialogue. That is why doing and teaching philosophy are so different. Where teaching philosophy is the art of discombobulation, doing it is an act of dialogical combobulation.

It's probably a good thing I already have the job...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The 2nd Amendment, Military Spending, and Abortion: A Curious Conservative Conundrum

Contemporary American conservatism has a deep commitment to originalism as a means of interpreting the Constitution. We need to understand the words of the Constitution, they argue, in the sense that they were intended by the framers.

The Constitution itself was adopted in 1787 setting out the structure of the government of the United States of America. Two years later it was amended with the Bill of Rights, ten declarations asserting freedoms necessary to maintain that form of government in reality. The first amendment, those freedoms which were deemed most vital to a functioning democracy were freedom of speech, freedom of peaceable assembly, freedom of the press (a form of speech), freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances (again a form of speech), and freedom of religion (which in its actual manifestation of congregating for prayer is a combination of assembling for speech). These were seen as establishing the preconditions for the possibility of democracy. Without these, you would not have a pluralistic, maximally rational, Enlightenment-inspired democratic system that is functional.

Then, they included amendments that would guarantee that these foundational freedoms could not be tampered with. What is the first most important protection for the basic operations of democracy?:

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
What is going on here? Why is this the most important issue that has to be set out to make sure our democratic government maintains itself? There are two possible threats to it. First, there is the need for defense of the country against external invaders and this requires an armed force. But this armed force could take one of two forms, either a professional standing army under the control of the government or a militia in which the force ceases to be during peace time, but assembles when necessary during invasion. The framers clearly opt for the latter. Why?

The decision to have a militia based defense force instead of a standing army is to both protect the borders from outside and freedoms established in the first amendment from inside. If one is exercising one's freedom of speech and says something unpopular, the discussion might go something like this:
"Shut up."
"I said shut up."
"And I said no."
"Shut up or I'll shut you up."
"Yeah, you and what army?"
Ooooooooh. So, that's why the framers didn't want a standing army. If the President as Commander-in-Chief has an armed force under his control that makes him more than first amongst equals -- he's no longer equal. That sort of power will inevitably be used to silence critics, but the criticism is essential to a healthy democracy which is why the first amendment guarantees it.

But if we need a military and it cannot be a standing army, then it must be a militia of citizen-soldiers who are citizens under normal circumstances and soldiers when needed to defend the borders. The framers' logic behind the 2nd amendment is:

1) We need a military for security and it could be either a standing army or a militia-based force.
2) We don't have a standing army if and only if we do have a militia.
3) A militia requires the citizens to have quick access to arms.
4) Citizens will have quick access to arms if they have the right to own them.
5) We don't have a standing army.
Therefore, we need the citizens to have the right to bear arms.

The framers' intent in declaring a right to bear arms was to protect both the country from other governments' attempts to invade and to make sure our government doesn't have the means to silence speech by force or threat.

But we decided that the framers' notion didn't work in the real world and we amended our government's structure to allow for professional soldiers in a standing army. No problem there, the framers allowed for changing the structure of the government through several different processes. But the 2nd amendment still stands as it is and by the originalist reading, must remain true to the writers' intended meaning. As such, the above argument still stands, but is altered so that premise 5 is false. But if 5 is false then by 2, we have no militia-based system and thus the argument for an armed citizenry it rendered moot. It is no longer operative because by the framers' reasoning -- which under the originalist reading is sacrosanct -- the preconditions necessitating the right no longer exist.

So, it seems like conservatives have one of three options:

A) Give up the standard understanding of the 2nd amendment as providing them with the right to own personal firearms.

B) Keep that right as it is currently understood, but zero out the military budget and disband the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.

C) Keep both the right to bear arms and the military as is, but give up originalism, thereby contending that the Constitution is a living document whose meaning needs to be understood in light of the current context.

If they go with C, then that forces them to surrender the objections they have to the reading of the Constitution which grants us the right to privacy which is the basis for the decision in Roe v. Wade. If conservatives want to keep their guns and the military, then they have to admit that they were wrong in their arguments against the legal permissibility of abortion. It seems, then, that you cannot consistently hold three of the marquis issues underlying contemporary conservatism. Here's three, pick two.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tripe My Guacamole, Baby or Hooked on Phonics

Yes, I was listening to Little Feat on the way home last night and the phrase "tripe my guacamole" stuck in my head. As "tripe" is a noun, the sentence is not syntactically a well formed sentence, forget the fact that the combination of words is not meaningful. Yet, it does seem to convey something.

It started me thinking about a talk a saw in grad school with a philosopher of language whose name I do not remember. But s/he was discussing the fact that words do have phonological meaning, that is, the sounds we use as verbal symbols for words do have psychological pull in terms of meaning. S/he used an example where we were going to replace the words "yes" and "no" with either "blip" or "bloop" and said that somehow it was obvious which of the two ought to represent the affirmative and which the negative.

But etymology is often filled with accidents, so there are some words that despite not being onomatopoetic in that they are not directly derived from a sound in the world do sound like they should and others that do not. "Perky," I've always thought is exactly the right word for perky. So, too, "lonely." "Pizazz," is good, but its converse "zzazip" seems to have it even more. "Sanguine," though seems phonologically inappropriate. It sounds depressing, not upbeat.

So, what other words sound like what they mean and which ones don't?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Should Managers Have Their Own Baseball Cards?

The shorter of the short people has started collecting baseball cards. It's been a real hoot for me, seeing some of the old cards I used to have back when I was a kid.

It's also provided ways to parent covertly because many cards give me a chance to start different conversations with him. Some about games I went to with his grandfather and his uncle years ago. Certain players give us a chance to discuss hard work, fair (or unfair) play, and how to treat and work with other people. Others, like Curt Flood, give us a chance to talk about fairness to workers. Some,like Frank Robinson or Roberto Clemente, lead to discussions about race and equality.

But then there are the manager cards. They have always struck me as a bit out of place. This is not to denigrate the manager. We have nice conversations around them because he has my love of strategy, of seeing the game as more than just a physical contest, but also a chess match and thinking about what could be done in various scenarios given the full context of the game. And in this way, the manager makes as much a difference as the players. But he isn't a player and baseball cards seem to be about the players, not really about the game in some sense. Yes, some are former players whose celebrity is worth still having a card -- Frank Robinson, Yogi Berra, and Ted Williams all managed. But it was as a player, not a manager that their real fame was made and celebrated.

For a while this incongruity was acknowledged by putting the manager's image and name on the front of the team card. He was at a different level, so he would be acknowledged in this higher place. But, then they went back.

So, do managers deserve their own baseball cards?

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Ethics of Incest

We had a senior thesis writer this semester look at the ethical limiting case of incest. So, it seemed a bit odd when this story broke only a week after her thesis defense:

A Columbia University professor has been arrested on charges of having sexual relations with his daughter, officials said on Friday. David Epstein, 46, a political science professor at the Ivy League school, faces one count of incest in the third degree, according to a complaint filed by the Manhattan District Attorney's office. He had relations with his daughter, now 24, from 2006 through 2009, the complaint said. Epstein was released on his own recognizance after appearing before a judge on Thursday. His attorney, Matthew Galluzzo, said on Friday that Epstein was innocent of the "unwarranted and unfair charges."
The student argued that while there are certainly cases of immoral sexual contact between relatives, one cannot give a blanket prohibition against all cases of incest. If one were to consider cases -- which this may or may not be -- of consensual contact between adults, say a brother and sister, such that procreation could not occur, she argued that libertarian type concerns would say that there is no reason to impinge on bodily autonomy.

I argued with her all semester that sexualizing inherently non-sexual relationships of various types -- doctor/patient, teacher/student, sibling/sibling -- even if consensual, when viewed from a larger context, would undermine the other element of the relationship, not to mention the relationships to those beyond the two. This harm, I contended, would outweigh the other concerns. She argued that this is true of all sorts of cases, sexual and non-sexual, and the fact that life is messy doesn't give grounds for limiting one's choices with one's own body. There need to be extremely severe concerns to curtail such a basic right, and these do not rise to that level.

So, the question today is what would be the moral argument to preclude adult/adult non-reproductive consensual incestuous relations?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Play It Again, Sam...or Should He?

Of course, the line "Play it again, Sam" never actually appears in Casablanca. What Ilsa says is, "Play it one time Sam, for old time's sake...Play it Sam, play 'As Time Goes By'."

I'm interested in Sam's predicament here. For those who have never seen the film (and you should be ashamed of yourself), Rick and Ilsa fell in love in Paris as WWII has just begun when Ilsa was a widow. But she learns that her husband, a great Czech statesman, is actually still alive, but she can tell no one lest he be hunted down by the Nazis. So she leaves Rick without explaining why which crushes him to the core. He ends up a curmudgeonly bar owner in Casablanca when of all the two bit gin joints in all the world, she walks into his. Sam, Rick's friend and employee, was there the whole time and has been ordered in no uncertain terms to NEVER, EVER under any circumstances play "As Time Goes By," their old song. But Ilsa asks to hear him play it again the way he played it for them in Paris so many times before (the clip cannot be embedded in the post, but you can see it here).

Sam lies -- "I'm rusty on it" -- but then, when she insists, plays it. Should he have? He was told never to play it and agreed. It is not quite a promise, but it wasn't exactly just an order from the boss either. It was a request from a friend to avoid something Sam knows would cause his friend great pain. As such, under normal circumstances, he would never do it.

Similarly, if Rick was at the Blue Parrot as Sam tried to lie about earlier, he would have had no problem playing it for Ilsa for old time's sake. It was a simple enough request for a piano player and one that would have brought back bittersweet memories for his old friend.

But here, he's caught in between. On one hand, Rick's pain would clearly be more intense than Ilsa's joy at hearing it, so on a utilitarian calculation, it seems that he shouldn't play it. On the other hand, she's in the bar, he's going to see her. The pain will happen whether he plays it or not. So, why not give Ilsa the little bit of pleasure? But even if the pain would happen regardless, it would still be his choice that caused the pain to be instantiated in that particular way. So, ethically, should Sam have played it again?

Thursday, December 09, 2010

A Comedist "Dylan Goes Electric"

Steve Martin has written his first novel, "An Object of Beauty," that is set in the contemporary art world, something he knows quite a bit about. Since his wild and crazy days as a meteoric rising star in the 70s comedy scene, Steve Martin has become a serious member of the arts community. So, with the launching of his novel, a public interview was arranged at the 92nd Street Y in New York, a place where such events often take place. He was interviewed by Deborah Solomon, also someone with deep knowledge of contemporary art, and the two began to have a thoughtful conversation about the theory and culture of the current art scene.

There was an audience revolt. Tickets were $50 and those who bought them were angry that they weren't treated to any of Martin's comic antics, but rather a philosophical conversation. Sensing the crowd's displeasure, notes were passed to Solomon to ask Martin about his past, about his comedy. She refused and they continued their conversational trajectory. Afterward, responding to complaints, the Y sent out refunds and apologized that the event was not up to their usual standard of excellence. Steve Martin replied with an op/ed in the Times that is clearly miffed by the apology and the reception.

The question here today is who has a right to be upset. The audience members shelled out a good chunk of change and did not get what they expected, although they certainly got something of value. They came for an A and ended up with a really good B. Is it bait and switch? Just because it's Steve Martin does not entail that it will be comedy. Were they too shallow in their expectations? Steve Martin has a following that made him what he is. Does he owe them what they expect every time he appears in public? He is not only a clown, but a very smart person with other interests, does he have to put out a warning that this will be serious every time he wants to be taken seriously? This was in support of a book project, should the audience members have been expected to do their homework and assume responsibility for figuring out what they were likely to be discussing? Is it a problem that people can't be interested in something deep that is not merely amusing?

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

What's the Difference: Happy, Content, Satisfied

It's an old coaches cliche, "It's o.k. to be content, but never be satisfied." Good enough is never good enough. This gives us a chance for "what's the difference." So, what is the difference between being happy, content, and satisfied?

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Weed Out Classes and the Nature of the Student/Teacher Relationship

Scott Aiken, over at The NonSequitor, has an interesting discussion of the appeal to students not to plagiarize. It has led me to think about how odd the student/teacher relationship is.

Carol Gilligan distinguishes between those relationships that are based on contract and those based upon care. A contractual relation is one in which the terms are clearly delimited and by acting, I am freeing myself from the relationship. "I did my part, now you do yours." This is a relationship based on the marketplace. I hire you, you do what we've agreed to -- nothing more, nothing less -- and in return I pay you the agreed upon price -- nothing more, nothing less. If we choose to contract again, fine, if not, nice knowing you. See ya. In care-based relationships, your goal in acting is other-directed, you act not for your own negotiated benefit, but for the good of the other person. You think about what the other person needs to make him/herself better and you work to give it to him/her. Acting, in this context, does not free you from the relationship, but rather only makes you more involved in it. Think of a parent/child or lover/beloved relationship. By being there you are letting the other person know that you will be there for him/her.

The student/teacher relation is a mixed on on Gilligan's picture. On one hand, teaching is just a job. I get paid to show up, talk, and grade. I didn't contract with my students, but with my school and I owe the school a well-thought out set of learning goals, lectures, group exercises, assignments, and grades that reflect student success in meeting the goals. The students are just the moving parts. End of semester, class, have a nice life.

But, of course, that isn't really how it goes. It is a classroom full of humans and my job is to improve them -- to introduce them to ideas they never had, to teach them how to think about those ideas, to challenge their presuppositions, to show them subtle and rigorous, but creative thought. You do emerge changed from a good class, deeper, smarter, more interesting, and hopefully more thoughtful about the world around you. It is the teacher's job to be a partner in that growth. in that way, it is more like a parent's place. I'm not trying to milk maximum self-interested results from them, I'm trying to help them. They are my students and I need to be attentive to their needs and give them encouragement, a stiff kick in the butt, extra study guides, extensions on papers in certain circumstances, and whatever else I can identify in order to help them learn what it is I am trying to teach.

But in doing this, am I going beyond what is required in the class? Some students take the class to take a class with me. That seems to indicate a relationship of the sort Gilligan labels "care." But in other cases it is more contractual; they take the class because they need the class to fill some requirement and I just happen to be the one teaching it. But even in an arranged marriage, there are spousal expectations. And it is, in a sense contractual in that I provide a syllabus and it sets out expectations of what they will do for a passing grade. You don't do it, forget you, you don't get the passing mark you need. No reason to feel guilty on my part, you didn't live up to your side of the bargain.

Is the teacher/student relationship one that makes sense in terms of Gilligan's care/contract distinction? Is it a hybrid, or a different sort altogether? Does it differ by discipline or level? Introductory classes in the sciences, for example, often tend to be too large to have any sort of relationship and are often seen by departments as "weed out" courses. In that case, the idea is not to give the majority of students what they need to thrive, only give the few, the proud, the future physics/chem/bio/econ students what they need to survive, and at the end of the semester identify those who made it through the academic hazing ritual and deem them worthy of either another round or entrance into the major's club with all the rights and privileges there attached.

I understand that everyone comes to college thinking they are going to be doctors, physicists, or the next Warren Buffet and that these department could not do what they do with so many majors, especially those with insufficient quantitative reasoning skills. But there does still seem something wrong, something unteacherly about the weed out course. Is this a mushy, bleeding-heart misreading of the student/teacher relationship on my part? Is there a difference in the relationship a teacher should have with a student depending upon whether it is a naive freshman who happened to wander into your class for reasons nobody can figure out or whether it is a senior major who is your advisee? what is the nature of the student/teacher relation?

Monday, December 06, 2010

Bullshit or Not: 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.

Since, we're already talking about Frank Zappa, here's a quotation from an interview with him to play with today:

"I think love lyrics have contributed to the general aura of bad mental health in America. Love lyrics create expectations which can never be met in real life, and so the kid who hears these tunes doesn't realize that that kind of love doesn't exist. If he goes out looking for it, he's going to be a kind of love loser all his life. Where do you get your instructions about love? Your mother and father don't say, 'Now, son, now daughter, here's how love works.' They don't know, so how can they tell their kids? So all you love data comes to you through the lyrics on Top Forty radio, or, in some instances, in movies or novels. The singer-songwriters who write these lyrics earn their living by pretending to reveal their innermost personal turmoil over the way love has hurt them, which creates a false standard that people use as a guideline on how to behave in interpersonal relationships. 'Does my heart feel as broken as that guy's heart?', 'Am I loving well?', 'Is my dick long enough?'"
So, are love songs responsible for unattainable images of love whose lack causes psychological distress? Are we psychologically poisoned by our popular music, striving for an unreachable ideal and feeling wrongly inferior because of it?

So, bullshit or not? You decide. As usual, feel free to leave anything from a single word to a dissertation.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Remembering Frank Zappa

My Fellow Comedists,

Today is the 17th anniversary of the passing of Frank Zappa. He had the talent, the brains, and the wit to be a massive commercial success, but his loathing of the corporate capitalist culture led him to make sure he sabotaged any attempt to mainstream him. And thank goodness for it. His work was not only prolific, intelligent, and intricate, it was just darn funny. Part of it was the shock stuff, but there was always a part of Zappa that was always clever or surreal and another part where you could never tell what he was making fun of and what he was authentically doing.

Funniest Zappa tune? My suggestion is the version of Sofa #1 on the first volume of "You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore."


Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, December 03, 2010

An Open Letter to Students

Time for the semi-annual appeal:

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 Rawls' 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 02, 2010

Were the 80s a Cultural Wasteland?

Had my 8 a.m. Logic class translating dialogue from Casablanca into first order predicate logic the other day and then Confused, Maybe Not pops into the office and we started talking about the cultural legacy of decades. When we turned to our decade, the 80s, he said that looking back it seems like the entire decade is dark, just nothing there. Everything was so clearly corporately constructed for marketing purposes that there seemed to be so little that was novel and bold. It all seems so embarrassingly dated when it is looked at now, nothing that seems a timeless contribution to the collective consciousness of the culture.

We tried to think of what will be the iconic works, the lasting impact of the 80s. We couldn't think of much. TV-wise, there was "Cheers," "Hill Street Blues," and "St. Elsewhere," but are any of them really going to stand the test of time? Musically, in terms of mainstream success there were the Talking Heads, early U2 and REM, maybe Tom Petty. On the fringe was American punk and the early days of hip-hop, but what from any of them will take on a life of its own? Film-wise, The "Breakfast Club"? "Back to the Future"? We did mention "Brazil" a few days back. Literary works that define the 80s? Non-fiction? In terms of social activism, we had Apartheid rallies, Ethiopian hunger, and homelessness come to the fore and with it stadium-sized rock fundraisers featuring artists from the 60s and 70s. There was cable tv which freed us from the triopoly of the networks, but is that really it?

Can anyone cite anything that will culturally justify the Reagan years or is it all just one big Flock of Seagulls haircut?

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Envisioning Science

Otto Neurath argued that social progress depended on finding a visual language in which to express scientific facts and relations. We cannot expect everyone, especially working people, to acquire the technical proficiency with formal mathematics to understand the results of science, but that doesn't mean that not everyone can understand science. We all can if someone finds a way to translate it for the rest of us.

This piece from the BBC is an amazing example of this in terms of the relation between public health and economics (hat tip to Kerry for sending me the link):

In a democracy, especially one in which our stance towards the rest of the world makes a real difference in real lives, how come we have to go elsewhere -- to the BBC -- to see something like this. Why isn't CNN with all their technological flash and fluff using it to effectively educate us in this sort of way?