Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Pedagogical Value of Gardens

NPR has been running a series on financial literacy in which people are arguing that it is essential to work into middle and high school curricula modules teaching children about money and how to handle it. Last week, I was chatting with someone who made a similar claim about a different aspect of human life -- food. She contended that all schools should have gardens. No child, she argued, should be considered educated who has not acquired some sense of how food grows and what it looks like when harvested. I didn't mention to her that my children's school does exactly that and during the spring, they spend time getting their hands in the soil and enjoying the fruits -- or vegetables -- of their labors as a class. It is something I really love about their school. It makes me think of the end of Candide. Perhaps part of learning is tending to one's garden in a non-metaphorical sense.

But is the general claim true? Is this just a nice thing or should ALL schools have a garden? Are there lessons one learns in the garden that are essential and can be learned no other way?

Monday, May 30, 2011

In Memorium of Body and Soul

Memorial Day always makes me think of my grandfather who served during World War II. He had stories about the war that were curious, funny, sad, shocking, mysterious, and telling of the human condition. My sense of war comes in large part from the man, many tales he wove from his Lazy-Boy as I sat on the couch.

He had lived a full life: raising a family, running a business, raising orchids and making bonsai trees, kibitzing with everyone he met. But the defining time of his life had been World War II, during which he had been a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne, jumping behind the enemy lines before D-Day. As a teenager, I would mow my grandparents lawn and then sit with him for hours listening to old Yiddish jokes, arguing politics, and hearing the war stories. He always made sure that I knew that it was the convicts, colorful criminals with off-color pasts, let out of jail so they could serve in this unit that brought him home alive. And though it remained unsaid, it was always clear that in some indirect way I owed my existence to these people I was very lucky not to have had to associate with. Big Boy Buchanon, Jimmy D, the whole cast of them led to stories that might have been left on the editing room floor after shooting the Dirty Dozen. They were exciting, they were funny, they were poignant. Those were Pop Pop's stories and I heard them all countless times.

I was very fortunate that he and my grandmother lived only minutes from Johns Hopkins, where I was finishing my dissertation, so I could be close by. His last couple of weeks were clearly his last couple of weeks, so that I and the family as a whole could be with him. In the end, it was the cigars, not the Nazis, that finally got him.

But one thing about my grandfather's death that will haunt me until mine, was the way the war would not let him go. Even though he was surrounded by the people he loved most in the world, the war commanded his soul with an frightening ferocity. We all sat with him up in his bedroom; but in his last two days he drifted back to Europe and north Africa during the war. Sometimes it was hallucinatory, other times he knew he was in his bedroom, but he couldn't pull his mind off of the war. I saw in my grandfather's face something I had never seen before, it was beyond fear, it was true horror. And he would not talk about it. I tried for two days, hoping that describing it would exorcise it from his spirit. His agony was not from the disease of his body, but something in his mind. It was so painful to see my beloved Pop Pop in this anguish that I gladly would have taken the burden. But he would not speak. He would not dare expose me to whatever it was. His last act on Earth would be to protect his loved ones from his deepest demons the way he had protected the country decades before.

I will never know the particulars of it, but I know full well what it was. It was post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. With the advances in medical technology and so many returning from Iraq with grave injuries that would have killed them in wars past, we are all too easily turned to the body in thinking about permanent disfiguration. The loss of limbs or paralysis will be this generation's version of the homeless Viet Nam vet muttering to himself. But it is the psychic injury that will linger. Some will not recover from it, others will go on to be able to lives lives that seem normal and productive from the outside. But the effects of war on the mind will linger dormant. But they will be there.

And not for soldiers only. Indeed everyone who lives in the affected area will themselves be touched in a way that will never allow for life to be completely normal. We have entire nations now full of children whose brains have been altered by exposure to what we are capable of doing to one another.

So, on Memorial Day, when we think of those who have sacrificed their lives, we think not only of those who never came home, but also those who did, forced to leave part of their soul behind.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Funny Funnies

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend the Reubens are announced. Named for Rube Goldberg, the Reubens are the awards of the National Cartoonists Society. Awards are given in thirteen categories from feature length animation to greeting cards. You can see all the nominees here.

From Saturday morning Scooby Doo for kids to The New Yorker for sophisticates, cartoons have become an accepted part of the comedic landscape. In any cartoon medium, what is the funniest cartoon you remember?

My favorite has always been this old Bloom County:


Congrats to all of this year's Reuben winners.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, May 27, 2011

Dying Malls

Heard a story on NPR that retailers are optimistic about the resurgence of malls. Not sure if I share the feeling. Several of the malls around me are eerily empty, both of shoppers and stores. Malls that had been central locations in the community are now barely on life support. In the 70s and 80s, malls replaced the old department stores and discount stores like Woolworth's. but now, the next generation of department stores and discount stores, combined with on-line malls like Amazon and eBay, have struck back. Is the pendulum going to swing back? Will malls see a resurgence with the economic recovery or are their days as social gathering spaces and retail outlets done? Have big boxes and point-and-click finished them off for good? Are malls terminal?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Medicare Semantics

Democrats are arguing that Paul Ryan's approach to replace the current Medicare system with one of vouchers for private insurance for seniors kills Medicare. Republicans respond that this is a falsehood meant to scare older voters. Many reports in the media label Ryan's proposal as an attempt to "fix" Medicare, that is, not to do away with it, but to keep it in a different form. Democrats argue that the form is the essence of what it is and such a radically different system is not Medicare, but something else. Who is right here?

Medicare is a government run, single-payer system in which the costs of helath-care (with the exception of some prescription drugs) is covered directly by the government. Ryan's system is one in which a fixed amount is given to seniors in the form of vouchers and seniors then go out on the open market and purchase their own coverage through insurance companies. If their costs outrun their voucher amount, seniors are on the hook for the rest. So, unlike the current system, not all medical bills will necessarily be covered for standard, required care.

The question then is which of the follow three possibilities is the correct one:

1) "Saving Medicare" Ryan's plan is a form of Medicare, just one with a different internal structure. If one had a manuscript and a copy editor made some adjustments to the prose, so it flowed better and was grammatically correct, one would never say that the edited manuscript is a different book. Rather, it is a better version of the original book. In the same way, Republicans are arguing that Ryan is not ending Medicare or replacing Medicare, just making some adjustments within it. Medicare may make radical changes, but it is the program that changes and so the program exists before and after the alteration. Medicare has gone nowhere, it just has been restructured.

2) "Changing Medicare" The picture here is that the two are not identical, but similar enough to be grouped together. Where the first option considers both to be the same thing, number 2 takes the name "Medicare" to be one in which a book is adapted to a screenplay. If one can argue that the first Harry Potter book and the first Harry Potter movie are the same story, then one could argue that the Ryan plan and Medicare are the same program. "Medicare" means any government run and funded program that helps seniors pay for medical expenses and while the current program and the Ryan plan are different programs, they both fit under the heading "Medicare."

3) "Ending Medicare" The Democrats' line is that the single-payer non-market-based approach is the defninitional element of Medicare, remove that and what you have is no longer Medicare. They look at the Ryan plan as undermining the nature of Medicare and while you could call the Ryan plan by the name "Medicare," it isn't. It would be like buying every copy of War and Peace and burning it, then buying every copy of Moby Dick and pasting a sticker with the words "War and Peace" on the cover. You could not claim that War and Peace still exists by pointing to the altered editions of Moby Dick. Moby Dick is not War and Peace just because you've decided to now call it that. In the same way, Ryan's plan is not Medicare, they argue, even if you want to call it "Medicare."

So, which is the most accurate description, 1, 2, or 3?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Oprah, Bob Dylan, and Middle Class Neuroses

Yesterday was Bob Dylan's 70th birthday and today is Oprah's final show. In a certain sense, the work of both have been about the same exact thing, the neuroses of the American middle class.

Dylan's rise to prominence came as a result of his song-writing when folk music had a certain cultural place. Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, and others had a social edge to them, but the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul, and Mary and others softened it. Folk music was never seen as dangerous until Bob Dylan put anger in it. His was a sardonic, literary venom that appealed to the young baby boomers who saw themselves as smarter than the past, above history. He put his finger in the wounds of an unjust society showing how the privileged were not only failing to insulate themselves from the sickness of the larger society, but becoming ill in very particular ways from it. When he asked "How do you feel?", he knew full well that Mr. Jones was not well -- and it wasn't because of the yelling of the one eyed midget, either. The class-based culture of American life had poisoned the comfortable. Ward and June and Ozzie and Harriet were not true models of life for the new suburban middle class in Levittowns across the country. The new, post-war, post-industrial modern reality had a dark side and Dylan's sharp lyrics pointed at the contradictions and hypocrisy that lay right beneath its claims to moral, social, and spiritual superiority.

But then those baby boomers got older, got married, got jobs, and had families. Who did they try to become? Exactly those that they sneered at through Bob Dylan's songs. They became "the man" -- even the women. And by stepping into the complacency of that middle class privilege and electing and re-electing Ronald Reagan to protect it, they contracted exactly the disease that they let Dylan diagnose in the previous generation. They got the sickness of the soul. And then along came Oprah.

Phil Donohue, a smart gentle soul, had already been there trying to point out the ailment and its symptoms and effects in a way that didn't upset anyone. But his attempts were neutered by the network. Forced to bring on a never-ending parade of circus freaks instead of his friends like Ralph Nader, he was made to turn himself from a younger Bill Moyers into a proto-Jerry Springer.

That left the space of family spiritual physician open for Oprah to fill. Her canvas was the wide range of middle-class neuroses that plagued those with privilege. Their lives were not as advertised and whether it was with Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, or any number of other recognized or self-appointed doctors, Oprah became the sociological HMO of the nation. Her prescriptions, while sometimes effective for some side effects and sometimes not, were exactly the sort of medicine that the baby boomers wanted to take; they appealed to the self-indulgent baby boomers who would never take responsibility for their own sickness, the one they knew all about from the lyrics of Bob Dylan.

And so we are here with an old Bob Dylan, a departing Oprah Winfrey, and everything contagious that they both pointed out for decades. Yet the patient is not ready to go to the hospital, the large scale changes in the American way of life are not in the offing. Will it take the cultural version of a heart attack? Maybe, but even if such a trauma occurred, you can be sure that the only sound that could be heard after the ambulances go, will be Cinderella sweeping up the cash on the Disney channel.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What Hath God Wrought? How Modern Time Was Born Today

One hundred and sixty seven years ago today, Samuel Morse sent the first telegram from Washington D.C. to Baltimore with the message "What hath God wrought?" It was the first non-local instantaneous transfer of human thought in history. The world, which was almost unfathomably large, had begun to shrink. That I could know what was happening there while still being here, separated space from time.

It was also on this day one hundred and eighty one years ago that the first commercial railroads became operable -- again connecting Baltimore with the outside world, in this case westward with the B&O lines -- making it possible to get from place to place in time-spans that were previously unthinkable. Again, the world shrunk.

But it not only changed our view of space, also time. The trains moved fast and space was no longer the obstacle it had been. But that speed came with danger. Trains used the same tracks and to avoid deadly accidents, switches had to be changed with precisions that were not previously needed. Time became a matter of life and death.

But this time needed to be a universal time, that is, when the conductor coming east from Pittsburgh checked his watch and the conductor going west from Philadelphia checked his watch, they needed to say the same thing. But time in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were different. Noon is when the sun is at its highest point in the sky. But since Pittsburgh is west of Philadelphia, noon happens there later. When the train conductors looked at their watches, where was the time to be set? The difference from town to town was enough to wreak havoc on the railroads. A standard needed to be set for safety's sake.

And so it is that a movement began that gave us time zones, regularity across the entire planet. The observatory at Greenwich became the zero point -- partially because astronomers also had need for very accurate time measures, and in part because the French had the official meter stick and if the French were going to be the holders of the unit of space, then the British were going to claim the standard for time.

So it is that the advances of May 24 gave rise to the need for time as we know it.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Real Advice for Graduates

Graduation addresses are so full of cliches and standard aphoristic approaches that they give no real sense of the real world for those about to enter it. So, from those who have been there, what real advice would you give to graduates?

Funniest Commencement Speech

My Fellow Comedists,

It's that day again, when I can walk around campus in a bright yellow dress and not get funny looks. When someone asked me how long the commencement ceremony lasts, I replied three weeks...or so it seems. Nothing works better at these occasions than a funny speaker.

Here's Conan (yes, the Amartya Sen joke kills me)

Other funny commencement addresses?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, May 20, 2011

Deregulation Kills

For all those who scream for "smaller government," here is what it means -- unnecessary funerals for innocent hard-working families, children who will not have fathers, wives who will not have husbands, parents who have to grieve for dead sons who did not have to die, but for the greed of Don Blankenship and the rhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifest of the Massey Energy administration. They put profits before the lives of their employees. The non-partisan report on the tragedy reports,

"During the 10-year time period examined, the reporters found that Massey had been cited for 62,923 violations, 25,612 considered 'significant and substantial.' During that time, MSHA proposed $49.9 million in fines against Massey, $15 million more than any other company."
The response to this was to treat it not as a safety concern for its workers -- workers whose union Blankenship had made sure to violently bust -- but as a PR concern. From the report,
"Despite Blankenship's protests to the contrary, Massey Energy's safety program in fact appeared to be just a slogan."

The point is that when evil, in this case the complete disregard for the workers' welfare in order to maximize profits, becomes a central part of the worldview of management, obvious and egregious problems are not seen as problems, but as normal. Even Hannah Arendt would have to marvel at Blankenship's operation.
"Massey Energy engaged in a process of 'normalization of deviance' that, in the push to produce coal, made allowances for a faulty ventilation system, inadequate rock-dusting and poorly maintained equipment. The pre-shift, on-shift examination system -- devised with the intention of identifying problems and addressing them before they became disasters -- was a failure.

Most objective observers would find it unacceptable for workers to slog through neck-deep water or be subjected to constant tinkering with the ventilation system -- their very lifeline in an underground mine. Practices such as these can only exist in a workplace where the deviant has become normal, and evidence suggests that a great number of deviant practices became normalized at the Upper Big Branch mine."
What is supposed to protect the innocent workers from such deviance? The government. While Massey had been massively cited, Blankenship just happens to be a major contributor to the Republican party and law makers in it. We need to get government off the backs of industry, regulations are killing corporate productivity and profits. And so, government enforcement on scum like Blankenship and Massey largely went away under the Bush administration. The same old story, their people -- industry management and lobbyists -- get named to governmental posts "overseeing" their friends who happen to be past and clearly their future employers. The revolving door spins and innocent people pay the price, usually they just take our money, but this time they went for lives. If you think government is too big and you are paying too much in taxes, I've got 29 families in West Virginia for you, they're paying a lot less in income tax this year thanks to smaller government and Don Blankenship.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ayn Rand, Malcolm Gladwell, and Mastery

A few weeks ago, one of my student asked about Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule wherein mastery of a complex task takes 10,000 hours of work. My reply at the time was that clearly the time dedicated will be variable by individual, but that there must be a difference between learning to play quarter note triplets as well as Ringo Starr and being able to do what Buddy Rich could do. Certainly one could master (a term that is worrisome in its vagueness) given tasks, but the question remained as to whether any amount of effort could make one great at it. This answer contained traces of two seemingly mutually exclusive positions which we'll call the Gladwellian and the Randian views.

Consider the change in the notion of IQ. Originally, the idea was formulated with a very egalitarian presupposition -- everyone could acquire a basic education. IQ was to be a measure of how long one would have to work to get there. A 100 IQ meant it would take an average amount of time, higher meant that the person could acquire the knowledge quicker, lower meant it would be a longer process, but beneath it all was the belief that all humans could be educated to any given degree. This is the Gladwellian view applied to intelligence.

When the idea came to America, it became suffused with a Randian, social Darwinist twist. IQ was seen as a measure of innate intellectual value, of raw mental firepower which some had and others did not. The higher the number the better and we ought to do what we can to make sure those who are more innately gifted get what they need to be great, weaker be damned. (If you've never read Stephen Jay Gould's amazing book The Mismeasure of Man, which traces the history of IQ testing, please pick it up.) This Fountainhead/Bell Curve view, the Randian position, is one in which greatness is not acquired, but innate. It may or may not require development, training, hard work to sharpen and apply effectively, but there is an inherent inequality in human beings that cannot be overcome.

So, is the Gladwellian position or the Randian position correct? Can anyone reach any level of mastery if they just put in enough time and effort? Could Salieri become as great a composer as Mozart with enough time and effort? Are some sorts of tasks Gladwellian, while others Randian? How do we know which are which? Are the two not really mutually exclusive, but complementary? If so, how, given that they seem to conflict?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sisyphusian Moments

Albert Camus points to the myth of Sisyphus as a metaphor for the human condition. For angering the gods, Sisyphus was condemned to roll a massive boulder up a mountain for all of eternity. What makes this tragic, Camus points out, is not not the continuous hard labor, not the futility of all http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifthat work, but the fact that as Sisyphus gets the boulder to the top it rolls back down and every time, Sisyphus must trudge down the hill to the boulder fully aware of the futility of the act he now faces. It is not the task itself, but the break where he must approach the task wherein we find the tragedy.

The Gettysburg College women's lacrosse team has made it to the NCAA division III semi-finals against Cortland State, a game scheduled for next Sunday when the college holds its commencement ceremony. Since the three graduating seniors on the team will be unable to attend, the college held a special graduation ceremony for them on Monday and asked me to be the faculty speaker.

In speaking to these graduating seniors, I reflected on the life's lessons I learned as a lacrosse goalie and I realized that lacrosse goalies have their own Sisyphusian moment. Whenever there is a goal scored, everything stops because the ball is in the goal. nothing can happen until it is taken out. So, whenever you get beat on a shot -- whether it was a shot you should have saved or not -- everyone in the stadium, everyone on the field, everyone on the benches, all stare at the goalie as he turns around, rakes the ball out of the net and flips it to the ref. In your failure, you are forced to face that long moment where you are the focus of all attention and must act to get it all started again. In the games where you are getting clobbered, it repeats and repeats and repeats, each time knowing that despite your best efforts, you will likely again be turning around with all eyes upon you.

This is, of course, not limited to Greek mythic figures and lacrosse goalies. Back before everyone had e-mail, when grades were posted on sheets outside of professors' doors at the end of semester, in classes you knew you bombed, that long Sisyphusian walk was something students knew.

Anyone think of other Sisyphusian moments in other parts of life?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Mitch Hedberg: Not Forgotten

Midweek Comedist post for everyone. Today is the official re-launch of Mitch Hedberg's webpage by his widow Lynn Shawcroft. Truly a labor of love, she has compiled an archive of old material, writings, and notes. It not only includes Hedberg's own work, but remembrances. One of Lynn's is this beautiful story:

Once, while being driven from the Atlanta airport to the hotel, our cab driver started talking shit. He was creeping towards a racist rant. We were still a ways away from the hotel when it dawned on us that he felt super okay with being a hateful weirdo.

Mitch leans forward, “Hey Man. Up here on the right is a deli that sells Boar’s Head Ham. Can you stop so we can grab something to eat?”


Mitch returned with THREE subs. No one spoke for the rest of the trip.

Lesson learned. It’s impossible to spew racist crap while eating a delicious sandwich.

I miss you Mitch.

- Lynn
Try to read that and not hear Hedberg's voice and cadence. The humanity, the gentleness, but the way of dealing with a situation that no one else would have thought of -- classic Mitch Hedberg.

Thank you Lynn for all the work.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Future of TV News

The last couple of weeks have seen a pair of contrasting retirement announcements in the TV news world. On the one hand, there was Katie Couric, a journalistic lightweight who tried to seem more serious with pre-prepared gotcha questions. On the other hand is Jim Lehrer whose quiet gravitas was expressed through extended civil discussions that you cannot see anywhere else on television.

The twin retirements provide an interesting backdrop for a discussion of television news. With cable news programs catering to particular demographic slices of the population and more and more folks getting their news on-line or from the radio, is there a place still for the traditional news programs? They don't provide the in-depth reporting they once did. They do not have the journalistic edge they once did. They are businesses (with the exception, of course, of the no longer named McNeil/Lehrer NewsHour) that have to compete with 24-hour news channels. People don't eat dinner every night at 6 in front of the tv like they used to. Have the times made the network news obsolete or is there a future? Will it have to change? If so, how?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Feast of Saint Foster

My Comedist Brethren,

This week brings us the feast of Saint Foster. This would be Foster Brooks' 99th birthday.

Beginning work as an announcer and news reporter, he began doing stand-up. Steve Allen and Perry Como launched his career, but it was the Dean Martin Roasts that made him a household name.

His schtick was the drunk guy, always two steps drunker than Dean Martin was supposed to be. His stammering, halting, slurred delivery and his spoonerisms were classic. The character of the drunk in the 50s and 60s that Brooks personified was very different from the enlightened stoner bit we would see in the next couple of decades from Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg. Brooks' drunk was not the wise fool, but rather the purely honest man. His laughs came from seemingly unintentional puns, mixed up phrases, but often from saying things one would not generally say when sober -- even if one was thinking it. The drunk in this period was to be laughed at, not with, but laughs he got, as much from his delivery as from his material.
Happy birthday, Foster Brooks.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, May 13, 2011

Magic Dick and Other Underappreciated Artists

Today is the birthday of Richard Salwitz, better known to the world as Magic Dick, the harmonica virtuoso of the J. Geils Band and Bluestime...well, not that much better known, unfortunately. He is an under-appreciated artist. For the talent he has, he should be better known than he is.

Here's his classic extended solo "Whammer Jammer":

Who are other under-appreciated artists? I would add Viktor Kee, possibly the greatest living juggler:

Other under-appreciated artists, people who should be better known for their work?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Distributive Justice, Gendered Restrooms, and Experiemental Philosophy

Michael Moore had a short-lived television program call TV Nation. One of the bits he did was to address a social injustice. When someone has to visit the restroom at a movie theater, sex matters. Guys can go in, come right out, and miss virtually none of the film. Women, on the other hand, always face long lines to even get in the door. By the time a woman is done, she's missed a significant part of the movie she came to see just because she is a woman. That's unfair. So Michael Moore rented a flatbed truck and four super-nice port-a-pots colored pink and rolled up in front of theaters with a big sign that read "Johns of Justice" and had a bullhorn to announce to all the women inside that relief had arrived...in more ways than one...

The college did something similar recently. We have in various places on campus single user restrooms. They usually appear in pairs and until recently were divided half men's rooms and half ladies' rooms. This gave rise to the sort of unfairness that Michael Moore was concerned with. To address it, the college has left the women's facilities the same, but turned all of the men's rooms into unisex restrooms. So, there are now, no men's rooms.

Is this just? We often think that fairness requires equality, but does it? Distribution of scarce resources like this seem to turn of questions of equal access and in this case the question seems to be the length of wait or likelihood of availability. What we have is fair if the probability that someone will have to wait for a restroom, given that the person is male is equal to the probability that the person will have to wait for a restroom given that she is female. Is this the case?

That's an empirical question. Seems like we have another need for experimental philosophers...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Fictional Fights and Rhetorical Questions

Chris V asks,

"who would win in a fiction character fight, Tyler Durden or The Man With No Name?"
I would put my money on the man with no name. Durden is the Heracles character whose rage is his strength, but against one who knows him well will lead him into error.

Peter LC asks,
"who would win this fictional character fight: James Bond or Jason Bourne?"
I would put my money on Bond, unless it's Pierce Brosnan.

YKW asks,
"Are rhetorical questions asked mainly to demonstrate the cleverness of the person posting the question?"
The only thing more rhetorically obvious and self-serving is when an academic cites one of his or her own works in support of a rhetorical question...something I point out only to raise the question as to whether or not you have read the article I published with Hanno in the journal Pragmatics and Cognition a decade ago that clearly explicates the linguistic mechanism at play behind such pseudo-questions.

Monday, May 09, 2011

de Tocqueville and Sophistication

Chris V asks,

"How would Alexis de Tocqueville see democracy in America today?"
The nice thing about putting words in the mouth of a dead person is that he's not there to correct you. On the one hand, the America of today with its corporate oligarchy is not the America of Jacksonian democracy that de Tocqueville observed. In certain ways, it is more like the aristocracies of old Europe with a landed gentry and a permanent underclass dedicated to propping up the oppressive order -- the system that was falling to pieces before de Tocqueville's eyes. On the other hand, there is still the same general character that he described. I think de Tocqueville would be fascinated by the Bush administration and the Tea Party wherein capitalism and Christianity are still seen as inexorably entwined and a sense of antipathy towards that which is caring, kind, and humane is taken as a sign of strength, authenticity, and truth. The more things change the more they stay the same.

Michael Schmidt asks,
"If sophia is wisdom, why are so many stupid things called sophisticated?"
I think the answer comes from Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals wherein he contends that those with political power give meaning to moral vocabulary. When there is a change in power structures, there is a change in meaning of the moral vocabulary. While "sophistication" is not directly an ethical term, it is clearly value-laden. To be sophisticated is to be better than most.

The idea is that with age comes wisdom, but after the industrial revolution this got altered to which money comes wisdom. In the 30s and 40s, when the rest of the nation was reeling from the Depression, movie stars and robber barons became those to whom the rest of us could look for a different way of being. The lifestyles of the rich and famous came not only with comforts and pleasures we could never afford, but also a different set of rules, a new social etiquette that we were shut out from learning. As such, whatever these admired few did, they did with a haughty sense that made it sophisticated by definition. But, some of what they did was stupid and as stupid begets stupid, so the notion of sophisticated became more and more alienated from its etymological roots.

More tomorrow...look for the less sophisticated ones then...

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics

I have a schtick I do at the beginning of each class where I allow the students to ask me any question, auto mechanics to quantum mechanics, I tell them that any question at all will be entertained. I had some former students who come here to play ask me if I could bring it back and so every couple of months, I solicit questions. So, if there was ever anything you always wanted to know, a question that has been nagging at you, or a real stumper you haven't been able to figure out, fire away and I'll answer as many as I can in the posts this coming week. Any questions?

Friday, May 06, 2011

Osama bin Laden and the Dread Pirate Roberts

It has been very interesting watching the administration's finesse in handling the bin Laden assassination. Some of the interest was in doing the right thing because it is the right thing, some of it has been to make sure that there was as little backlash in the Muslim world as possible, but some of it has been driven by the desire to deflate bin Laden instead of inflate him. The possibility of conspiracy theories has been a genuine concern and things have been done in the way they have to try to create a context the inhibits the rise of conspiracy theories. The question I have is how important this squelching really is.

What the Obama administration is clearly worried about is the "Dread Pirate Roberts Syndrome." In The Princess Bride, when Wesley explains how he both is and is not the dread pirate Roberts, he recounts getting the title from someone else who had inherited it. "It is the name that is important." The "brand" dread pirate Roberts is what instills fear and gives the current Roberts his power, regardless of who happens to be the CEO of DPR, LLC at the time. What concerned the President was that the disappearance of bin Laden would give his name a similar power.

But would the conspiracy theories make bin Laden legendary or would it marginalize those who bought into it? Think of those who did not -- and especially those who still do not -- believe that President Obama was born in Hawaii. The so-called birthers are an embarrassment to conservatives. Would the same be true of those who thought that bin Laden was alive and living with Elvis somewhere in Michigan?

Are the conspiracy theories that may have sprung up around Osama bin Laden to be feared, or do they help identify and marginalize those would seek to introduce other forms of nonsense into the popular discourse?

Thursday, May 05, 2011

There Is No Such Thing as a Stupid Question. Really?

The old chestnut "there is no such thing as a stupid question," is clearly designed to encourage questions from those who are insecure, but not stupid. But is it true?

When I do my "any questions: auto mechanics to quantum mechanics" schtick everyday, one of the challenges is to take questions that are clearly intended wise acre students to be stupid questions and show that they actually are deep and interesting questions when you look at them from a larger viewpoint or a perspective one generally would not occupy. In this sense, perhaps there are, indeed no stupid questions.

Some philosophers, on the other hand, have clearly held certain questions to be stupid. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that the question "What do you want all that happiness for?" is a stupid question. Frege looks at two questions (Frege's Frages) "Is the morning star the same as the evening star?" and declares it non-stupid and "Is the morning star the same as the morning star?" and declares it stupid. Maybe they are correct that these are stupid questions, or maybe they are begging the question by not allowing for perspectives from which the questions become interesting.

So, are there any stupid questions? Is that one of them? How about that one? Or that one?

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Alternating Vowels and Consonants

Driving in this morning, the shorter of the short people got very excited that the word "cemetery" alternated consonants and vowels. We tried to think of more and longer words that followed the pattern. The longest ones we could come up with were "originality" and "municipality" at 11 and 12 letters, respectively. Anybody do any better?

Tuesday, May 03, 2011


In the conversations involving the death of Osama bin Laden, one hears the word "closure" used very frequently. Is it a meaningful notion or just pop psychological nonsense?

It is certainly true that in unusual cases such as the disappearances of political dissidents in Central America in the 1980s, their loved ones had problematic grieving processes because they felt they could not surrender hope that the person was still alive in a secret prison and could someday emerge. In such cases, final word would free the loved ones from this emotional limbo. But those cases are far the exception.

What about more normal cases? Do we use notions like "closure" to justify what we realize are just revenge fantasies and use pseudo-psychological babble to provide moral cover for our baser urges or is it a legitimate concern for the healing of victims?

Monday, May 02, 2011

Had Been Laden, No Longer Is Laden

I suppose this is bad news for some:

First there are popular uprisings demanding democratic reforms in Muslim countries and now the death of bin Laden. It's not been a good couple of months for the jihadists.

Donald Trump lost his birth certificate issue last week, hopefully he'll not start asking where the long form death certificate is.

But on the up-side, the resources that went to tracking someone who had himself so isolated that he could no longer effectively run the organization he founded can now be redirected to stopping future incidents.

Also, we have seen a very measured, muted response from the President, not the sort of crowing and chest-beating we likely would have been treated to with the last administration. The adult reaction that tamped things down instead of inflaming them has been nice to watch.