Monday, February 28, 2011

Is There Something Intrinsically Good About Fair Play?

I told the shorter of the short people yesterday that he should not cheat at solitaire. He responded, "Why not?" To which I said, "Ummmm..."

Clearly, "cheating" in this case indicates breaking the rules and not swindling another player. By breaking the rules, he is, in fact, just playing a different, albeit easier, solitaire game of his choosing. But there does seem to be something wrong. Is it a virtue type thing, that the cheating is embedding a proclivity towards dishonesty, or at least taking the easy way out, in his character?

So, is there anything wrong with cheating at solitaire?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

RIP Kenneth Mars

My Fellow Comedists,

Last week I wrote about Ernest Marsden, a scientist who pulled yeoman's duty and contributed to one of the most important scientific discoveries without receiving the credit. Last week, we lost a comedic version. Kenneth Mars passed away from pancreatic cancer. A comic actor of great range -- Mel Brooks had him as a Nazi and Woody Allen made him a rabbi. He worked for decades in supporting roles, but always wonderfully funny, whether it was the snobby competitor in What's Up, Doc or in his most famous role as Franz Leibkind in The Producers. My favorite Kenneth Mars scene, however, comes from a slightly later Mel Brooks film:

RIP Kenneth Mars and thanks for all the laughs.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, February 25, 2011

By and Large

A fascinating etymology from The Phrase Finder:

Many phrases are wrongly ascribed a nautical origin just because they sound like mariner's lingo. This one really is and, like many such nautical phrases, it originated in the days of sail.

To get a sense of the original meaning of the phrase we need to understand the nautical terms 'by' and 'large'. 'Large' is easier, so we'll start there. When the wind is blowing from some compass point behind a ship's direction of travel then it is said to be 'large'. Sailors have used this term for centuries. For example, this piece from Richard Hakluyt's The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation, 1591:

"When the wind came larger we waied anchor and set saile."

When the wind is in that favourable large direction the largest square sails may be set and the ship is able to travel in whatever downwind direction the captain sees fit.

'By' is a rather more difficult concept for landlubbers like me. In simplified terms it means 'in the general direction of'. Sailors would say to be 'by the wind' is to face into the wind or within six compass points of it.

The earliest known reference to 'by and large' in print is from Samuel Sturmy, in The Mariners Magazine, 1669:

"Thus you see the ship handled in fair weather and foul, by and learge."

by and largeTo sail 'by and large' required the ability to sail not only as earlier square-rigged ships could do, i.e. downwind, but also against the wind. At first sight, and for many non-sailors I'm sure second and third sight too, it seems impossible that a sailing ship could progress against the wind. They can though. The physics behind this is better left to others. Suffice it to say that it involves the use of triangular sails which act like aeroplane wings and provide a force which drags the ship sideways against the wind. By the use of this and by careful angling of the rudder the ship can make progress towards the wind.

The 19th century windjammers like Cutty Sark were able to maintain progress 'by and large' even in bad wind conditions by the use of many such aerodynamic triangular sails and large crews of able seamen.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

And a Half

Today is the shorter of the short people's half birthday, he can officially claim to be 8 and 1/2. When and why do we stop using the "and a half" when discussing our age?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Is Variety the Spice of Life?

Is there an inherent worth to variety? Is it a response to the modern notion of boredom that doesn't come about until industrialization gives us leisure and people trying to sell us things to do with our leisure time? The word "bored" doesn't appear in the English language until 1823 and "boredom" until 1853 (The OED has Dickens' Bleak House as containing the inaugural use of the term). Is variety intrinsically valuable or is it something that enterprising capitalists are trying to get us to believe in order to induce false needs to buy more and different? Or is there a truly human reason why we love -- and should love -- novelty? Is novelty a condition for growth, innovation, and progress? By experiencing a range of things, does it make us broader minded across the board? Should we seek variety to round out our character? Is variety the spice of life, or would that be cinnamon?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

God's Infinite Properties

A student and playground regular is working on a senior thesis with me about natural language uses of utterances referring to the infinite. He's got an interesting puzzle that I figured I'd throw out there for everyone to play with.

There are two types of transfinite numbers -- cardinals and ordinals. A cardinal number is an amount. I have five bananas. An ordinal number is the rank of something. Stan Musial's jersey was not saying he had 6 of anything, but that if you lined up everyone in order according to what was on the back of the jersey, he would be 6th in line. Of course, that would mean he played for the St. Louis Ordinals, not the St. Louis Cardinals.

If we consider the three classic properties attributed to God -- omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence -- which notion of the infinite is implicit in each?

With omniscience, the idea of being all-knowing implies that God knows every fact, that we could take all of the facts, number them, come up with an infinite number and attribute knowledge of all of them to God. It appears to be a cardinality claim.

With omnipotence, on the other hand, it is not saying that God could do everything on an infinitely long list of actions, but rather that being all powerful means that no matter how powerful you are, God is always more powerful than that. God in front of you in the power line-up. It seems to be an ordinal notion.

But what about omnibenevolence? What does it mean to be all good or all loving? Is it that if you listed out everything, God would love everything on the list? Or if you listed every possible action, God would always do the right one? Or is it that no matter how much you love a thing, God always loves everything more? there doesn't seem to be a quantity of anything to count, but there also doesn't seem to be a scale here to make God the holder of the ultimate degree. What does it mean to say that God is infinitely good or all loving?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Most Important Presidential Actions

On President's Day, let's consider what Presidents have and have not done. What were the most historically important actions or words, both positive and negative, that have come from American Presidents?

I'd put Washington's stepping down after two terms as the most formative action by a President. The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Lincoln as the most morally necessary act by a President. And Eisenhower's Farewell Address as the most insightful speech by a President.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Passing the Plate: A Man Walks into a Bar Again

My Fellow Comedists:

In many houses of worship, they pass a collection plate. Comedists donate jokes of value. Let's go back to the classic theme, "A man walks into a bar..."

Dig deep, give your best.

My contributions:

I believe this one was first told to me by "YKW":

A sandwich walks into a bar and orders a drink. The bartender looks up and says, "I'm sorry, we don't serve food here."

And my all-time favorite:
A man walks into the bar of the penthouse restaurant of the Hilton in Times Square. A drunk walks over puts $100 on the bar and bets him the he could jump out the window and fly around the building.

The guy says, "You're drunk."

The drunk says, "I may be, but I'm going to do it whether you take the bet or not, so you might as well make the money, right?"

So, he puts $100 on the bar, the drunk opens the window, flies around the building, picks up the $200 and puts it in his pocket."

Incredulously, the guy asks, "How did you do that?"

"Easy," says the drunk, "I'm an architectural engineer and if you look at the height and location of this building with two larger buildings to the east and west, it creates a wind tunnel effect that supports up to 300 pounds or so. You just lean your body and the air currents take you around. Now you go do it to that guy."

"I don't know," says the guy.

"Look," the drunk tells him, "if you don't I will, and you're down $100."

So the guy walks over, makes the bet, opens the window and plummets to his death.

The bartender looks up and says, "You're a real bastard when you're drunk, Superman."

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, February 18, 2011

In Praise of Ernest Marsden

Tomorrow would be the 122nd anniversary of the birth of Ernest Marsden, the man who discovered the nucleus for the man who discovered the nucleus. As an undergraduate at the University of Manchester studying physics, Marsden became a laboratory assistant for Ernest Rutherford, who like Marsden hailed from New Zealand, but had found his way into the scientific circles of early 20th century England. Rutherford was loud, brash, and, compared to his contemporaries at Cambridge, shockingly uncouth. But that is what endeared him to J.J. Thompson, discoverer of the electron and the most powerful scientist in the country.

Having discovered the electron, tiny particles of negativity in the atom, Thompson had proposed the "plum pudding model" in which these electrons swam in a soup of positivity making an electrically neutral atom. Rutherford, along with his assistant Hans Geiger, was testing whether such a model fit observation. So they devised an experiment wherein they would fire alpha particles -- large projectiles from an atomic point of view, at very thin foil of gold. Most would go through, some would deflect. They would need statistics on the angle of deflection. This meant sitting in an incredibly dark basement staring for tiny flashes and meticulously recording them for hours upon hours upon hours. Rutherford was brilliant, but had little patience and so the job was given to Marsden.

He did what an undergrad research assistant is supposed to do -- the crapwork. And he was careful noting all of the scintillations for hour after long hour. Even some that reflected at very large angles, something that should not have happened. He could have waved it off as his eyes playing tricks. But he didn't. He recorded it and looked for it, such flashes not happening often. But he told Geiger and Rutherford about it.

Rutherford took Marsden very seriously despite their difference in social position and thought about what would cause such radical changes in direction. It had to be something hard. And thus was discovered the structure of the atom, something for which Rutherford received the Nobel Prize.

But behind every great advance, there are people quietly who do the hard work. We rarely give these folks the credit they deserve, but they are always there. The world is full of gaffers and gophers, secretaries and offensive linemen, ghost writers and joke writers, TAs and RAs, people who don't get the glory or adoration, but whose dedication is paramount in making things work. Happy birthday Ernest Marsden and thanks to all the Ernest Marsdens out there.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Jeopardy!, Errors, and Artificial Intelligence

Thinking about the man vs. machine competition that is going on this week on Jeopardy! The challenge is to get computers to interact in a way that accounts for the sophistication of actual intelligent human discourse replete with allusions, puns, and plays on words. The concept behind it is a particular picture of artificial intelligence: achievement. A computer displays intelligence when it can do the sort of tasks that humans can do. This is different from the approach offer by Alan Turing who offered an experiential criterion, that is, if you cannot tell whether you are interacting with a person or a computer, then the computer is displaying intelligence.

But last year, when my personal hero Doug Hofstadter (how cool am I, I call him Doug -- he's actually a really nice guy) came to campus, he took the question in a different direction. He said that if we want to think of a computer as intelligent, we shouldn't look at what it does well and see if it is the same sort of thing we do well, we should go in the other direction. Ask whether the computer makes mistakes in the same sorts of ways we make mistakes. Humans make interesting and peculiar kinds of errors and the question is whether we see computer errors of the same sort.

In the match, the computer did answer some questions wrong and in ways that were similar to wrong answers given by its human counterparts. Which is interesting. But I want to think of the sort of errors the human mind makes.

There are Oliver Sacks style wiring problems. My favorite of which is Autosomal Dominant Compelling Helioophthalmic Outburst syndrome or A.C.H.O.O. which is a common condition in which exposure to sudden bright sunlight causes sneezing. The nerves from the eyes and nose are close together and in many people strong signals from the eyes gets misinterpreted by the brain as coming from a disturbance in the nose triggering the sneezing reflex.

But Hofstadter's interest is more in cognitive errors. The sort he presented are typified by something TheWife said a while back when we were having trouble with our well. She needed me to go out and open up the metal plate covering the opening and clearly couldn't decide whether to say "lid" or "cover" and so asked me to go out and "open the liver."

A similar sort is confusing words that are somewhat close in meaning and in sound. Last night at a little league meeting, the head of the league was explaining the means of drafting teams which is a cooperative approach. He meant to say that the coaches confer on decisions about which player to draft, but he repeatedly said that they commiserate about the choices. While I am sure that there are some players (or parents) about which coaches can commiserate, that is clearly not what he meant. But both words begin with the prefix "co" and refer to situations in which people come together verbally.

But then there are other sorts. Some deal with linguistic expectations. Yesterday, TheWife had rung in on skype just as the chair of our Women, Gender, and Sexuality program walked into my office for a meeting. I told TheWife, "Hang on a sec, Sweetie Pie. I have to talk with someone for a couple minutes. I'll call you back." Seeing that I was on the computer and hearing "Hang on a sec, Sweetie Pie," my colleague responded "o.k." and ducked out of the office. I was horrified for a moment thinking that the head of our women's study program thinks I just called her "Sweetie Pie," but, of course, after about 5 seconds, she realized the full context, that she had misinterpreted the utterance and found it amusing. Had she processed the entire utterance, that it was not an attempt to communicate with her would have been clear -- I am quite friendly with my colleague, but not THAT friendly -- and on a second processing, it was. But the original interpretation came from assessing not only the utterance, but the context which led to certain expectations which were partially fulfilled by the utterance. This is a common kind of error for humans we hear what we expect to hear, not what was said.

What are other human errors that would be interesting to find in computer behavior?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What's the Difference: True, Actual, and Factual

So, what is the difference between true, actual, and factual? Is your answer true, actual, or facutal?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

RIP George Shearing

George Shearing has died at 91. A master pianist, Shearing was an early member of the cool movement which provided a contrast to the frenetic bebop of the times. Combining a strong sense of melody with the thoughtfulness of bebop, he created magic for decades.

There is perhaps no better epitaph than the heartfelt tribute of Kerouac in On the Road:

Dean and I went to see Shearing at Birdland in the midst of the long, mad weekend. The place was deserted, we were the first customers, ten o’clock. Shearing came out, blind, led by the hand to his keyboard. He was a distinguished-looking Englishman with a stiff white collar, slightly beefy, blond, with a delicate English-summer’s-night air about him that came out in the first rippling sweet number he played as the bass-player leaned to him reverently and thrummed the beat. The drummer, Denzil Best, sat motionless except for his wrists snapping the brushes. And Shearing began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; he began to rock in the piano seat, back and forth, slowly at first, then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped up with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat. The music picked up. The bass-player hunched over and socked it in, faster and faster, it seemed faster and faster, that’s all. Shearing began to play his chords; they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you’d think the man wouldn’t have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea. Folks yelled for him to “Go!” Dean was sweating; the sweat poured down his collar. “There he is! That’s him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes!” And Shearing was conscious of the madman behind him, he could hear every one of Dean’s gasps and imprecations, he could sense it though he couldn’t see. “That’s right!” Dean said. “Yes!” Shearing smiled, he rocked. Shearing rose from the piano, dripping with sweat; these were his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial. When he was gone Dean pointed to the empty piano seat. “God’s empty chair,” he said. On the piano a horn sat; its golden shadow made a strange reflection along the desert caravan painted on the wall behind the drums. God was gone; it was the silence of his departure. It was a rainy night. It was the myth of the rainy night. Dean was popeyed with awe. This madness would lead nowhere.
Rest in peace George Shearing.

Monday, February 14, 2011

What's the Difference: Valentines Edition

One for the heart and mind today. What's difference between a crush, infatuation, and love at first sight?

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Clean Air Act?

My Fellow Comedists,

There is a battle in the Malawi courts over the interpretation of a new clean air law:

The Local Courts Bill, to be introduced next week reads: "Any person who vitiates the atmosphere in any place so as to make it noxious to the public to the health of persons in general dwelling or carrying on business in the neighbourhood or passing along a public way shall be guilty of a misdemeanour." Mr Chaponda, a trained lawyer, insists that this includes farting. However, he was directly contradicted by Solicitor General Anthony Kamanga, who says the reference to "fouling the air" means pollution.
Does this mean that you could be charged with attempted murder in Malawi for a "silent, but deadly"? Apparently, this is what "passes" for organized crime there.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, February 11, 2011

Doggone It, Is It Music?

A colleague is teaching a class in the philosophy of music and began by asking if certain instances of sound production fit the definition of music. He played this clip:
The class contended that if this was a free act by Tucker, they would consider it music. But if Tucker was trained to do this by way of treats or some other means of conditioning, then it would not be music. The intention on the part of the dog was a determining factor in deciding the question, they held. Does this really matter?

What about the dog in this clip from Pink Floyd at Pompeii where it is clear that the dog is just yelping at the sound of the harmonica?

Is there a difference between the two scenarios? Are either music? Both?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Why Do You Know That?

Been a while since we've had one of these. 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:

The capital of West Virginia was originally named Charles Town until they were informed that there already was a town in West Virginia named Charles Town (over by Harpers Ferry) and so they shortened it to Charleston.

So what do you know and why do you know that?

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Moral Import of Modern Conservatism

With the centenary of Ronald Reagan's birth this week, it is a good time to consider his intellectual legacy. Reagan launched his presidential bid with a full-throated endorsement of states' rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three people were murdered 1964 for registering African-Americans to vote, an act that was seen by Southern whites as interference with that state's "rights." One might see this act as an attempt to court the votes of racists or as contributing to legitimizing of racism in America itself, but if want to be maximally charitable, we can see Reagan's legacy as connected to an interesting moral concern.

Susan Wolf's most famous work is an article entitled "Moral Saints" in which she asks in terms of ethical theory, how good is good enough? Utilitarians, for example, contend that an act is morally good if and only if it maximizes overall utility, that is, it brings about the best overall consequences for everyone affected. Wolf asks why we need to maximize the consequences, isn't there a point where they could be a little better, but that is clearly sufficient to have done the job morally? Do I have to spend every spare waking minute helping out in a soup kitchen or could I relax and at least do something fun and silly this week? Surely, to be good is not to be perfect, the good life needs to be one that is worth living, is attainable and consistent with a life that is rewardingly lived.

The question that modern conservatism asks is related to Wolf's concern. Calls for smaller government and self-sufficiency are really motivated by the desire to pay less in taxes. Less regulation is not an abstract bid for liberty, but as a decrease in the obligation I incur to consider the welfare of others and focus on my own bottom line. One could see this as greed, a vice, but the most charitable read is that it is just asking the Wolf-like question, when is my moral obligation to the other fulfilled. When is enough enough? When can I ignore the homeless person and say I gave at the office? If I am my brother's keeper, when can I finally consider him kept and worry about me? Why do I have to be the one who cares? In the Reagan era, we had a blockbuster movie tell us that greed is good and a major prime time news program featuring conservative commentator John Stossel arguing exactly the same thing. The free market is free in that it frees me from worrying about others. Indeed the point of Stossel and others is that the Other is better served when I do only think of myself, the structure will be healthier for all leading to the best overall consequences if I do not help those in need. Greed will meet or minimize need.

We can separate the question from the politics, though, and it is a valuable question to ask. At what point am I freed from my moral responsibilities to the Other? Am I always on the moral clock? Can I ever close the door in the face of the Other say go away, I'm just going to have some moral me time?

Tuesday, February 08, 2011


Yesterday was the 533rd anniversary of the birth of Sir Thomas More, author of Utopia. What More pictured as utopian would hardly strike us now as such. For example, in Utopia, there is slavery,

"THEY do not make slaves of prisoners of war, except those that are taken in battle; nor of the sons of their slaves, nor of those of other nations: the slaves among them are only such as are condemned to that state of life for the commission of some crime, or, which is more common, such as their merchants find condemned to die in those parts to which they trade, whom they sometimes redeem at low rates; and in other places have them for nothing. They are kept at perpetual labor, and are always chained, but with this difference, that their own natives are treated much worse than others; they are considered as more profligate than the rest, and since they could not be restrained by the advantages of so excellent an education, are judged worthy of harder usage. Another sort of slaves are the poor of the neighboring countries, who offer of their own accord to come and serve them; they treat these better, and use them in all other respects as well as their own countrymen, except their imposing more labor upon them, which is no hard task to those that have been accustomed to it; and if any of these have a mind to go back to their own country, which indeed falls out but seldom, as they do not force them to stay, so they do not send them away empty-handed."
Nor any premarital embracing,
"Their women are not married before eighteen, nor their men before two-and-twenty, and if any of them run into forbidden embraces before marriage they are severely punished, and the privilege of marriage is denied them, unless they can obtain a special warrant from the Prince."
Everyone wears the same thing,
"Throughout the island they wear the same sort of clothes without any other distinction, except what is necessary to distinguish the two sexes, and the married and unmarried. The fashion never alters; and as it is neither disagreeable nor uneasy, so it is suited to the climate, and calculated both for their summers and winters."
And they have only two games,
"They do not so much as know dice, or any such foolish and mischievous games: they have, however, two sorts of games not unlike our chess; the one is between several numbers, in which one number, as it were, consumes another: the other resembles a battle between the virtues and the vices, in which the enmity in the vices among themselves, and their agreement against virtue, is not unpleasantly represented; together with the special oppositions between the particular virtues and vices; as also the methods by which vice either openly assaults or secretly undermines virtue, and virtue on the other hand resists it."

Clearly, Utopia is not a utopia. If one were to re-write the work now, what elements would a contemporary utopia include?

Monday, February 07, 2011

Public Ownership of the Means of Superbowl Production

The Green Bay Packers have won the Superbowl, bringing the trophy named for their legendary coach back to the city of 100,000 people. Titletown, USA has another title. The Packers are owned by the fans, by the community in which they play, far and away the smallest of any major sports team. They are a non-profit organization. For those who think that profit motive always leads to better decisions and that the invisible hand of the marketplace necessarily makes institutions more effective and rational...all I have to say is communitarianism 31, private enterprise 25. But hey, the capitalists put up a fight and if it weren't for the turnovers, it could have gone the other way.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Happy Year of the Waskally Wabbit

My Fellow Comedists,

This week the Chinese calendar took a left turn at Albuquerque and the New Year's festivities ushered in the year of the rabbit. So, in honor of the new year, it seems only fitting to ask about the funniest Bugs Bunny cartoon ever made.

My money is on the opera ones:


Live, love, laugh, and a happy, healthy New Year,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Irony Can Be So Ironic: Egypt Edition

I was browsing through the new acquisitions shelves at our library yesterday and came across Tarek Osman's new book, "Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak." On the one hand, it's great to be right about something. On the other hand, it's got to hurt having a decade of research and analysis rendered obsolete in a single week precisely because you were right. Let's hope his editor at Yale University Press has asked him for another book called "Egypt Past the Brink."

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Ernie Banks and Existentialism

Yesterday was the 80th birthday of one of my heroes, Ernie Banks, the Hall of Fame shortstop for the Chicago Cubs. His nickname was Mr. Sunshine and everyday he would say "It's a beautiful day for a ballgame, let's play two." He wasn't playing in Los Angeles where everyday is a beautiful day for a ballgame, he was playing in Chicago. And it's not like the Cubs were winning, far far from it. But that was the point. Ernie Banks provided his own sunshine. Life is a joyful place, revel in it. In our success obsessed culture, it was about playing two. the point is to be playful, to love the process, life activities as an end and not a means.

We've got someone on campus today talking about existentialism, the early 20th century French movement in which life's meaninglessness gives rise to angst, anxiety, and fear. The lack of meaning puts the ultimate responsibility upon the shoulders of the individual to create his or her own meaning by acting, by doing, by unguided choices for which there are no, can be no helpful signposts. We create our own essence as an act of will. We choose to be who we decide to be by acting, by being that person. This responsibility, they argue, gives rise to intellectual trembling before its importance and emptiness.

Existentialism is dark, heavy, and brooding. Everything that is supposed to be the hallmark of a deep mind. But it seems that the embodiment of this existential being is not Camus' Sisyphus sneering at the Gods in contempt or his absurd murderer from The Stranger, but rather Mr. Sunshine. In the gray cold of early Chicago spring, he willed himself truly happy wanting to go out and possibly lose yet another double-header with his hapless Cubbies because, gosh dang it, he got to play. There is no dread in taking the field to likely be beaten yet again, instead there is playfulness, joy, and love of the game and life. THAT would be the true absurd hero.