Monday, October 31, 2011

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Butts and Subjects

My Fellow Comedists,

A technical question this weekend. Is there a difference between being the subject of a joke and the butt of a joke? If a joke turns on an ambiguity about a property associated with a group, does that joke necessarily make fun of that group? If someone in traffic in front of you had a bumper sticker that said "Autistic kids rock," would that seem inappropriate? Would the fact that the pun is based on a recognizable behavior be an act of mocking? Does it have to portray it in a negative light, does it have to belittle the act, or is pointing it out, drawing attention to it enough? The point here is that, unlike Polish or blonde jokes, where the stereotypical element is clearly intended to denegrate the members of the group, this is simply a recognizable difference with no judgment made about it. If it is morally problematic, is it the drawing attention to it that is the problem, or is it the appropriation, that is, is it the using the unusual behavior as a tool for some else to get laughs even if we are not saying that it is a bad thing?

Other examples, jokes that do not necessarily cast a group in a negative light, but have a mechanism that plays off of recognizable features?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Meaning of the Statue of Liberty

Today is the 125th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. Like the Colossus of Rhodes, the giant depiction of the Roman goddess of Liberty stands at the harbor entrance to send a message to those arriving. The proximity of Liberty Island to Ellis Island made that message overwhelming for generations of immigrants arriving at our shores.

But with air travel being the means of entrance and anti-immigrant sentiment rampant in the culture, the Statue no longer is what it was. It no longer does what it did. But does it still mean what it used to mean? It may be reduced to an icon, but is it still an iconic representation of the same sense?

The poet Emma Lazarus put these famous words in the statue's mouth,

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Do they still hold true?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

What's the Difference: Guilt, Shame, Regret

So, what is the difference between guilt, shame, and regret? And, um, have you called your mother lately?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Acquring Diversity

One of the shocks in moving from grad school at a research university to a small liberal arts college was the degree of homogeneity within the community. Johns Hopkins, where I was, is a microcosm. There are people there from everywhere. Yes, they were brilliant, arrogant, stressed out nerds from everywhere, but they are from everywhere. Gettysburg, on the other hand, is different. There are lots of reasons -- cost, location, selectivity, liberal arts vs. a more vo-tech approach to education -- why the student body is less diverse. The joke here is that diversity means having people that wear both Abercrombie AND Fitch.

And it is not only the students. There is here, like most other institutions, a push to diversify the faculty. This is a good thing. Diversity on campus, and especially at the front of the classroom does a number of positive things for a college community. Among them is to widen the spectrum of perspectives on intellectual and social matters. We like to think that seeing is believing, but this presupposes that seeing is a passive act, a taking in of things as they are. But what we see is in part an act of interpretation. To see something is to take the sensory input and build the something out of it in a way that makes sense to us. But what makes sense is a function of the categories we use to understand the world and these come from our personal experience and the community from which we come. Diversity reminds us that everything we see is to some degree affected by a culturally constructed lens which can be changed. Being in a diverse intellectual community is like going to the optometrist and looking at the fourth line and being asked better now or now? A or B? Diversity in an intellectual community means constantly having to wrestle with multiple ways of seeing things because you come to understand the different lived experiences of different folks in the same situations.

This then leads to the question, what ought to count as desirable diversity? I remember being in a cubicle when I was adjuncting at Towson University and listening to a member of the English department, a middle-aged white woman, having a discussion with one of her young African-American students who was arguing that nothing had changed since the 50s. This was a woman whose husband of several decades was an African-American professor at the university. She spoke to me exasperated after the conversation about the ways in which this young man could have no clue about what it was like to be in a mixed marriage in the early 60s, the discrimination they faced and the recriminations directed towards her for being in love with the person she loves.

I think of several other colleagues. One's wife became severely limited physically because of a disease that has left her in a wheelchair. He sees the campus and life on it in a way that is radically different from what he saw twenty years ago. He cannot but see it, in part, through his wife's eyes. Similarly, I have had other colleagues with special needs children. Again, because of the nature of the parent/child relationship and because of the way that those with special needs experience our society, they bring a different perspective to conversations.

In these cases, the people I am talking about hail from the privileged class, they have all of the advantages that come with being in the in-group that has the power. But, because of choice or happenstance they have acquired perspectives that are those of the out-group, of those whose experience differs from most. Because they therefore bring to the intellectual community what is it we look for in a diverse community, should we think of these folks as bringing diversity? When we are purposeful in acting to diversify our community, should we think of these kinds of people as having acquired diversity?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hotels and Kant

I've been fascinated by the way in which hotels now play up the fact that they send in folks to freshen up rooms less frequently as something that has environmentally friendly effects. By using less water and energy washing towels and sheets, the hotel industry is having less of a negative impact on the earth. For this, they seek credit.

There is a famous passage in Kant's Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, in which he argues that the only morally good acts are those which are the right thing done by an agent who receives no reward or who suffers harm as a result. If there is any way in which you benefit from doing the right thing, even if it is just a warm and fuzzy feeling, then the act deserves no moral praise since you may have done the right thing for the wrong reason. To act rightly is to act solely from duty for the sake of duty.

This is a section that students always find counter-intuitive. On the one hand, sure, intentions matter. But then again, shouldn't you give credit wherever credit is due. Even if there is some reward, the person did the right thing and doesn't that in itself make the act a good one?

The hotel case reminded me of this passage because, while it is wonderful that hotels are in this case are having a less harmful impact on the planet, they also are saving significant money on electricity, labor, water, detergent, and wear and tear on industrial washing machines and driers. And strangely, these hotels that put such nice pictures of nature on the page explaining this policy also have no means of recycling the paper they leave for you every morning whether you intend to read it not.

So, is Kant right here? Does the hotel industry deserve any greenie brownie points?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, Thomas Kuhn, and Goldman-Sachs

Kerry pointed me to this insightful commentary on Occupy Wall Street:The central metaphor of the three card monty came is, indeed, apt, but what is it a metaphor for? What is the game in this case?

This is the point that allows the shills to plead ignorance. When millions of people were in the streets across the world to try to stop the U.S. from going to war in Iraq, the media largely ignored or belittled the movement, instead bringing on talking heads to tell us why the war was necessary. It was a thing and they could skew coverage to support the thing. But what is the thing here?

Thomas Kuhn, in his masterwork The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, makes use of the notion of a paradigm, that is, a conceptual framework that determines what are meaningful questions, what are acceptable ways of answering the questions, and what count as legitimate answers. Scientists work through their paradigm, never seeing it just as someone with glasses uses the lenses to view the world, but doesn't see the glasses. Anyone who questions the paradigm, Kuhn argues, is seen as irrational because it is the paradigm itself that defines rationality. When it is the system itself that is under consideration, the questions seem to make no sense to those who assume the system is the way the world must work.

The exception, Kuhn argues, is times of scientific crisis. A crisis occurs when anomalies pop up, when questions the paradigm deems as legitimate are approached using the tools the paradigm provides, but still will not yield answers the paradigm can accept. The Occupy Wall Street folks are ridiculed by those on the right for being middle class spoiled brats who just want to bring back the 60s. It is true that these are largely people from places of elevated socio-economic standing, but that is exactly the point.

Ever since the white guilt exhaustion of the Reagan 80s, when we decided to replace justice with greed as a national virtue, we've been sold the fictitious "meritocracy" line. Those who are better off, have more because they deserve it. These people are smarter, work harder, and are more entrepreneurial. If they didn't deserve more, the unfalsifiable nonsense goes, they wouldn't have it. Anything done to defend it, to keep the wealth where it is fairly or unfairly is therefore perfectly just and reasonable because these privileged white people should have it.

But we've been seeing the anomalies pop up. People who went into debt, getting a good education, who played by all of the rules made up to defend the "meritocracy," who were promised a privileged place in society and all the shallow material goods that are supposed to bring happiness, but who can't find work or are underemployed. Just like Nixon's southern strategy used racial fear to galvanize white voters against civil rights, fear of downward class mobility was used to unite the upper-middle class behind policies that only served the wealthy. But now, the middle-class is not getting the small cut it was promised and the class insecurity that was used to make sure the largest voting bloc in the country would not consider the working class and poor, is more acutely than ever feeling that fear in a way that that no longer plays into the desire to maintain the structure that shifts all wealth upwards.

And it does. Since the Reagan administration through Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, on through Obama, the policies of the government have been designed to shift wealth away from the country to a small group at the top. We use terms like "deregulation" in order to endow it a connotation of freedom and liberty, but really it is nothing but simple class warfare. It is a redistributing of wealth to those who have the most. Economic advisory positions and officials have largely come from the group whom this benefits. Lobbyists work with the beneficiaries to redesign the system to more efficiently move the wealth up and then those lobbyists are put in power to legally change the system in that way. In terms of the financial workings of the system, for example, it is run by Goldman-Sachs, an investment bank that rules the world in the way anti-Semites think of the Rothschilds. If you've not read Matt Taibbi's piece on Goldman-Sachs, do it now.

The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it's everywhere. The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who's Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.

THIS is the three card monty game. It is not a policy, a war, or a law that folks want changed. It is a socio-economic-political game of calvinball in which those who have the most constantly change and rework the rules to make sure that no matter what happens, all wealth and opportunity is shipped up to the most well-off. As long as the middle-class was given new episodes of Friends and shiny SUVs to distract them, the whole thing could be masked. But now that the shifting of wealth has undermined their expectations. Now that white collar unemployment is real, the line that the unemployed are lazy good-for-nothing, lucky ducks (as the Wall Street Journal editorial board referred to them) who were looking for a free hand-out and permanent weekends can no longer be maintained. The lie Reagan sold us and which was amplified repeatedly over the last couple of decades has been shown for what it is. We see the emperor's ensemble for what it is -- or isn't -- now. But we also see who has all the wealth and power. THAT is what is being protested. That is the scam and the question is whether those who benefit from the scam and benefit from protecting the scam have put themselves in a strong enough gated community that they will continue to feel that they can simply ignore the rest of the world outside. A world that is becoming less and less dazzled by them, seeing clearer and clearer what has been done to them, what they themselves were a part of creating and protecting.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend, let's talk about impersonations. John Powers, in an essay on "Fresh Air," argues for an incongruity account for the humor of impressions. He contends:

Of course, mimicry is not the world's most exalted talent, but I would cheerfully spend a whole night watching Bryden and Coogan do their warring James Bonds. This isn't simply because I am myself the world's worst mimic — I once reduced my sister, Becky, to hysterics with my hapless Howard Cosell, perhaps the all-time easiest person to impersonate. It's because good mimicry is kissed with the uncanny. Whether it's Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin or Jimmy Fallon's Neil Young, we hear the right voice coming from the wrong body. And in the process, we're shown something new about the person being mimicked.
The idea that impressions are funny because we see the right voice come out of the wrong body, I believe, is completely wrong. What makes impressions funny is not an incongruity being revealed, like a joke that uncovers some unspoken truth of the mark, but rather a congruity, a similarity made absurd, in the same way that a caricature or political cartoon does. Impressions, like those of Rich Little or Frank Caliendo, are not recreations of the target -- as say an Elvis impersonator strives to do -- but rather a recreation of a culturally constructed icon, a simplified, flattened image of the person. The standard Bogart impression, for example, makes use of the phrase "Play it again, Sam," something Bogart himself never said -- but the cartoon icon we have of him, did.

Consider the example that Powers uses, a piece of The Trip, a BBC series following comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as they go from great restaurant to restaurant:Brydon and Coogan are not arguing about Michael Caine, they are arguing about the icon of Michael Caine and what are essential properties of it. The standard impersonation, therefore, is to recreate the icon of a well-known individual.

But the more intricate version is the incongruent situation icon where we take the incon of a well-known figure and put it in a context that one would never expect to find the actual target in and use it to create absurdity or find unexpected congruences. A magnificent example has gone viral lately, the "Ira Glass Sex Tape." Masterful. It not only hits an icon of the target, but does so in a way that is exactly what it would sound like if...

Other favorite impersonations?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, October 21, 2011

What Do You Think? Cover for Einstein's Jewish Sceince

My next book, Einstein's Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion, is due out in April and my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press, has sent me a work up of a cover. Not sure what I think about it and have gotten a full range of responses from folks to whom I've shown it already. Thought we might use today's post as a focus group opportunity. Be honest, what do you think?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Ethics of Being an On-line Freerider

Farhad Manjoo has a wonderful article over at Slate entitled "Blocked Ads, Clean Conscience" in which he questions the moral status of ad blocking software. The ads on various websites are unwanted and disliked, but they are part of what allows the content on the page to exist. Things cost money and this applies to the delivery of online content. But with ad blocking software, we can get the spoonful of sugar without the medicine.

But, of course, that is a terrible metaphor. Medicine makes you healthy, marketing does not. Marketing is not merely drawing attention to products and serves, but actively trying to alter your views and perceptions about them to influence you to purchase them. In our house, it is a standard practice to mute all commercials -- even ones we would otherwise find cute or funny. We do not want our minds influenced by people who have nothing but maximizing corporate profits in mind and care not one whit what is in the best interest of me or my family.

So, is there something wrong with being an on-line freeloader? Are you not paying your fair share by blocking the ads? Is it reasonable to expect you to open your eyes and mind to influences you may not want in order to have your mind influenced by sources you seek out?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Categorizing Jobs for Philosophers

The American Philosophical Association produces a publication called "Jobs for Philosophers" (and, no, the plural is not meant ironically) that lists pretty much every open academic position in the field. When you have a line to fill, you run an ad in the JFP.

As long as I can remember, it was organized by region. It listed in alphabetical order, jobs in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, Midwest, Southwest, and West in separate sections. Glancing at this year's JFP, I noticed that the geographical divisions were gone. This makes sense since no one really searches by region anymore. Teaching gigs are so tough to land and often so specialized that you take a spot in your field (or something you can reasonably pretend to be your field) wherever you can get it. So the old regional categorization is meaningless in today's world.

But surely there is some way to organize the positions that would be helpful. After all, there are very different kinds of jobs in philosophy and very different kinds of folks looking. The senior endowed positions at Princeton are not looking for the same folks as a small teaching college in Kentucky.

Would it make sense to organize them by sub-field? Are the sub-sub-sub-fields so scattered or jobs that cover a range so regular that this would be impossible? Could we arrange it by teaching load? A 1-2 job clearly has a different audience from a 4-5 job (that's classes taught per semester, for the non-academics). Should we have one section for R1s, another for r2s, one for liberal arts colleges, and another for teaching universities? Would that make a classist academic structure even worse?

What would be a sensible way to categorize the jobs in Jobs for Philosophers?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

BBC as a Force for Smart in the World

Today is the 89th anniversary of the founding of the British Broadcasting Corporation, originally the British Broadcasting Company. Originally, a collection of interested parties, companies that were beginning to experiment with the new radio technology, with the intent that the communication across distance could be used to help foment peace in the world.

In the 50s, the beeb would make the move into television, but the radio would remain. The BBC world service is the largest international broadcaster, with programing in 27 languages that spans the globe. It is a voice of thoughtfulness that takes perspectives from around the globe and brings them together in insightful and provocative ways. In certain ways, it is the closest we have to a global village and it is one in which ideas instead of profit or propaganda are the rule.

I heard a heart-wrenching interview on BBC a few months ago with a British couple that had been seized by pirates off the coast of Somalia while trying to sail around the world. They had been imprisoned and separated from each other. When asked how they kept their sanity, the answer was the BBC world service. As they recalled hearing the annual choir concert in the Christmas broadcast, they both broke down and you realized just how powerful good radio can be.

Happy birthday BBC, and despite the nefarious efforts of Rupert Murdoch and David Cameron, may you have many, many more.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Class and Ethics

I had a buddy at a conference this weekend discussing an interesting phenomenon he has observed. He moved from one campus of his state university to another. The first was a working class campus full of first generation college students, the move was to a more upscale student population from families with a history of higher ed. What he noticed was that at the first campus, in several years of experience, he had virtually no cases of plagiarism. But in his limited time at the second campus, plagiarism was rampant.

There seem to be three possibilities here. One is that it is an accidental correlation due to small sample size. Two is that it is a real correlation that requires explanation, but that it is a local phenomenon about relative campus cultures limited to those two campuses. Three is that it is indicative of a larger set of social phenomena that are worth thinking about.

My guess is number three. Regular readers are familiar with my hypothesis that class insecurity is the single most important explanatory factor for understanding contemporary American social phenomena. I do not want to play into the romanticized Joe Sixpack mythology, that there is something more wholesome and moral about working class Americans. But it is interesting that this particular immoral act may have class implications. There is an important difference between working class and middle/upper-middle class students. All come to college with the expectation that their college degree will have a positive effect in terms of social capital, that higher education is a necessary component of maintaining or advancing social status. But where working class students are hoping for advancement, for middle/upper-middle class students there is an almost paralyzing fear of social backsliding, that if they do not remain in the social strata in which they were raised, that their life will be horribly unfulfilling and unbearable.

This pressure from class insecurity is combined with the meritocracy kabuki. We are better off because we work harder and are better than those who are blue collar. For that, we need to show better results, even if we do not do it legitimately, but it's o.k. because we are better than them. We have high school students engaged in all sorts of activities they are not really interested in because "it will help me get into a better college" where "a better college" means one that will make sure I stay in my current social stratum. If it was o.k. to half-heartedly volunteer at a soup kitchen to get into college, why would it be any different to half-heartedly cheat on a paper to get through? The whole thing is just a big hazing ritual for the fraternity of socio-economic class anyway, right?

Is plagiarism a class-related crime or is my buddy's observation a statistical blip?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Is a Sense of Humor a Virtue?

My Fellow Comedists,

Thinking about a paper at today's Lighthearted Philosophers' Society meeting. Is a sense of humor a virtue? Is a sense of humor a necessary part of a well-lived human life? If you do not have an appreciation for things funny, if you are not someone who enjoys humor and engages in humorous acts, can you live a complete human life?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Problems with Herman Cain's 999 Plan

So, Herman Cain has his 999 plan that completely reworks the tax code. He would replace the progressive income tax with a flat 9% income tax, a 9% national sales tax, and a 9% corporate tax. Take away the deductions, the loopholes, make it flat and simple. Seems a great first glance.

We replace income taxes with consumption taxes, something that many conservatives like because, they argue, it spurs investment which in turn spurs growth. Whether this is true or not, we'll leave open, but there is good evidence that it does not. But the big claim is that it ends up being revenue neutral, that is, it brings in the same amount of money. If that is true, and again, it is a claim I doubt, but if we grant it for the sake of argument, we see the real point behind the move.

Money can be used for two things: (1) to buy stuff, (2) to make more money. If you look at the way the wealthy use their money compared to the middle class, working class, and poor, you see a marked difference in the percentage allotted to 1 versus 2. The less money you have, the greater the percentage you spend. The more money you have, the smaller the percentage you spend. By taking the basis of taxation from income to consumption, what you do is make the poor and the middle class pay the lion's share of taxes. If the same amount of money is coming in from taxes, the rich pay MUCH MUCH less.

But what about the flat income tax part? That's more fair isn't it? The problem with the flat tax argument is that it confuses “wealth” with “value.” Money can be used to do two things, it can be used to purchase goods or services and it can be used to make more money. If you have greater wealth, more money, each dollar has a greater value. Consider two brothers, one a poor philosopher and the other a wealthy new economy entrepreneur. Both brush their teeth with equal frequency, for the same amount of time, applying the same amount of tooth paste. One is barely scraping by and can only spare a little money for toothpaste each week and so must buy the small tube. The other has plenty expendable income and so can buy the larger tube, the economy sized. Over the course of the year, the poorer brother has had to spend more on tooth paste because he had less money. If you have more money, each dollar is more valuable in that it can purchase more goods. Similarly, suppose you were given the following offer, “Either you can invest one million dollars for a year and keep all the money you make with it or you can have ten million dollars to invest and keep one tenth of what you make.” You should choose the ten million because having more money opens up more lucrative opportunities. If you have more money, each dollar is worth more because it can be used to make more money.

Finally, the income tax does not really touch the rich whose income primarily comes from capital gains -- that is, income from investments, not incomes from actually going out there and working for a living like the rest of us slobs. So, by moving to income and consumption taxes, you pretty much make sure that the middle class and working poor completely support the country with the rich not pitching at all.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Social contract and Generations to Come

Hopefully by now, everyone has seen this clip of Elizabeth Warren. Phil, a longtime Playground friend, asked me about a claim she makes at the end. She says that "part of the underlying social contract is that you take a hunk of that [earnings] and pay forward for the next kid who comes along." Is the social contract really temporal?

The idea behind social contractarianism is that we need a social contract to keep us out of a state of nature, to create a clear sense of what rights we have and do not have, of contracts and how they are enforced. But this is a contemporary sense of the contract, it is designed to order society here and now, so that I don't kill or cheat you and you don't kill or cheat me. I certainly want to make sure that the contract is in place for the near future because the contracts I enter into will often involve delayed satisfaction. I'll give you the money now, and you give me the goods later.

But contracts with me cannot extend beyond my lifetime because then the person you contracted with no longer exists. Do I have an interest in the social contract considering future generations? If I have kids, sure, but what about in general? Is there a sense in the social contract that the society created is designed to be lasting beyond the implicit signatories of the contract as it is now? Does the social contract really include obligations for me to future generations or do we need something other than a social contract to make sense of such claims of obligation?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Quizzes and Paternalism

So, at this time of semester I give quizzes every class drilling the rules of inference and equivalences needed to do natural deduction proofs. It is the same quiz day after day after day. When a student asked why I do this, I was honest and said that it is because they don't know how to study and that I have found that the repeated quizzes forces them to learn something they need to know. By giving the quizzes, they acquire a knowledge of these basic moves and the grades on the homeworks and quizzes go up. It is a purely paternalistic move. I treat them like children and they learn, but it is first order learning, not the higher level learning -- learning how to learn. They are adults, albeit young ones who behave in predictably self-defeating ways. By removing some autonomy, I can help them help themselves in ways they wouldn't otherwise. Is there a problem with paternalism in cases like this or as a teacher am I expected to be metaphorically paternal?

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Ontology of Cupcakes

So, if you have a piece of cake and a cupcake of the same volume and from the same batter, are they equivalent? Is a cupcake and a piece of cake variants of the same thing or are they different types of things? In solid state physics, you see how surfaces have different properties from the insides of materials, is a cupcake a different thing because of the increased external surface area compared to pieces of cake? Is the difference in the application of icing meaningful? If you were given a choice between a piece of cake and an equivalent sized cupcake, would you have a preference? If so, does this indicate a difference or is it purely a matter of pragmatic elements -- that one is more easily portable?

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Comedist Anti-Fundamentalism

My Fellow Comedists,

A bit of theology this weekend.

The central concept in Comedism is the joke. Think about how most jokes work. There are two parts to a joke. First comes the set up that makes you think about some situation in a particular way. A chicken crosses the road; the Pope, a rabbi, and a Viagra salesman walk into a bar..., some possible world is sketched for you, a scene that you think you understand.

Then comes the punchline -- "to get to the other side" or "well, at least my beer is no longer flat." What makes the punchline funny is the incongruity that it forces upon you. You now must make sense of the situation from the set-up in a completely different way. The humor exists in that moment when your brain is struggling to make sense of the two completely different competing scenarios. For a joke to be a joke, there must be more than one way to look at the world.

And that is the central belief of Comedism. There are always different ways to look at reality. The world is a multifaceted place and it is the appreciation of these distinct perspectives, even ones that seem irreconcilable, that makes life rich, interesting, and most of all, funny.

But this is exactly what the fundamentalists of all stripes deny. They think there is one truth and one truth only...and they think that they alone have it. They do not even allow the possibility that there are multiple ways to understand reality.

I was reminded of this foundational doctrine of Comedism this week when a student brought out the old chestnut "the Department of Redundancy Department." Of course, the full address used to be:

The Department of Redundancy Department
Twin Towers
New York, New York

But now, we can't make that joke. Another victim of fundamentalism.

But we need to reclaim our place. So, go out and look at the world in new and exciting ways.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, October 07, 2011

Steve Jobs, No Jobs, and the Job of the Teacher

It's been interesting listening to all of the reflections on the life of Steve Jobs on news programs sandwiched between reports on the failing world economy. We've got a fiscal infrastructure on the verge of collapse because of uncontrolled greed. Yet here is a man who changed the way people live, think, and communicate and in the process created a large amount of wealth. How did he do it? By not wanting to.

Much is being made of the way in which Jobs was a visionary in terms of design, in integrating form and function. Jobs humanized technology, saw it as life-changing only if it was life-enhancing in both an aesthetic and a functional sense. These were not gadgets created with the purpose of making money, but designed to enrich the lived experience of the user. He was a deadhead and a Buddhist, not someone dedicated to the acquisition of wealth for its own sake. He launched a visionary company and as soon as it started making money, the grey-suited, grey-minded business types made sure to run out the dirty hippies who would only inhibit the profit making capacity of the organization. And, as anyone not blinded by green could have guessed, they killed it. Of course, it was resurrected, but only when the hippies were brought back in.

The people who killed Apple are cut from the same cloth as those who killed the larger economy. Jobs saw money as a means and his work as an end in itself. The capitalists see the work as a means and money as an end in itself. That change of perspective is deadly. There's nothing wrong with capitalism...just as long as you don't let in the capitalists. Chuang Tzu tells a parable about a great archer whose intense desire to win an archery contest destroys his concentration. His need to win, we are told, robs him of his power to do what he needs to do to win. The all-consuming desire to maximize profits, likewise destroys not only your profits, but the entire system as well. If we lay-off all of the Carly Fiorinas, all of the MBAs with their skewed priorities and values, we might be able to have a capitalism that helps better the human condition.

But my fear is that the contagion is spreading. We see the same sort of thing infecting education. No longer is it about learning and growing, it's about assessment mechanisms that show how much we're learning and growing. In secondary education, the march of standardized testing has overtaken teachers ability to teach to their students, forcing them to teach to the test. Test scores are the coin of the realm, they are the new currency of education. In higher ed, we get regular orders to clearly lay out our learning goals and explicitly disclose what sort of assessment regimen we will be using to evaluate our success in achieving them. You build your classes around how you assess preconceived learning outcomes; you don't till the soil of your students mind and allow the intellectual wildflowers to be nurtured and develop. But the great teachers are the Steve Jobs of education. Just like Apple in the 80s, their ability to do what it is they do is now being subjugated to some larger grey-suited artificial end. A tool, a means, is being placed where ours ends go.

Maybe the passing of Steve Jobs will cause a moment of reflection that will begin to allow us to reassess how we structure the economy and education. Maybe we'll realize that a different approach which takes the emphasis off of what we are seeking will actually give us what we are seeking. Maybe we will realize how self-defeating our current path is. Maybe we'll let the Buddhist hippies back into the room to do what they do best, what they do for all of us.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Hank Williams, Jr.: O.k., Obama as Hitler, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah...But Netanyahu?

Everyone has surely seen the Hank Williams, Jr. rant from Fox's morning show by now. But, to remind you: So, Obama playing golf with Boehner is like Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu? I get the Obama/Hitler reference -- both are hated by conservatives and by the transitivity property of right-wing loathing, if conservatives hate Hitler and conservatives hate x, then x is like Hitler.

But what is the Netanyahu reference here? Is it that Republicans are nationalist hawks and Netanyahu is a nationalist hawk, so Netanyahu is a metaphorical Republican? Dominionists have warm fuzzies over pro-war Israelis, so is that a peculiar compliment?

Is it, as Bocephus seems to mean, an attack, lumping him in with the "enemies"? Is this enemy status a simple result of Netanyahu being a Jew? Was is naive, straight forward anti-Semitism? Was it that he was metaphorically John Boehner who was working with the enemy, so Netanyahu being a Jew is a modern day Judas?

Trust me, there is no love here for Netanyahu, but my beef with him (brisket) is surely not that of Hank Jr (double bacon cheeseburger). So, what sense should we make of the reference?

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Lutheran Sharia

The Supreme court today hears the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. in the case, one of the Lutheran school's teachers, Cheryl Perich, was diagnosed with narcolepsy. After a medical leave of absence, she informed the school that her doctor said that given her course of treatment she should be able to return to the classroom in a matter of months. The school changed their health insurance policy to one that was covered less and told her that she should resign. When she declined and threatened to sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act, she was fired -- something the ADA explicitly and clearly forbids.

The school openly admits that it was a retribution firing, but argues that because Perich attended a Lutheran college and received a degree, that she is a minister and since it is a religious school, they can extend a big ol' middle finger of Christian charity at their former employee because the law does not apply to them. They are arguing that the ministerial exception allows them to be above the law. Because they are a religious organization and this math and science teacher also had a couple of religious-related duties, that they can simply ignore the law of the land.

We have witnessed the spectacle of Christian conservatives passing laws to make sure that Islamic sharia law cannot become US law or influence judicial decision making in any way. But here, we have the same sort of folks arguing that internal Lutheran decision making needs to completely trump US law. The fact that this person is associated with a Christian denomination, the line goes, means that US law does not apply, internal church procedures are the only recourse for decision making.

We allow religious institutions to discriminate in hiring and in the benefits they off er their workers. This is wrong. But this case is particularly egregious. In the name of fairness and justice, these exceptions need to end. If it violates your theology to follow the law, I'm sorry. Laws need to apply to everyone regardless of race, sex, creed, or sexual orientation. These exceptions are simply wrong and hopefully we will see a decision in this case in favor of liberty and justice for ALL.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Dark Energy and the Nobel in Physics

The Nobel Prize for physics was announced and it goes to Saul Permutter of Berkeley, Brian Schmidt from the Australian National Observatory, and Adam Reiss from some school in Baltimore with a lacrosse team. The prize was given for the discovery that the rate of expansion of the universe is increasing.

We've known for almost a century that the universe is expanding. When something moves relative to us, there is a Doppler shift. Think of the sound of a fire engine siren going past you. As it approaches, the tone goes up and as it recedes, the tone goes down. The same thing happens with light. So, when we look around us at stars which give off light in the same way and so should have roughly the same color of light emitted from them, we notice some of them have light that is shifted towards the red end of spectrum and others that have their light shifted towards the blue. The father away the star is, the more likely it is to be moving away and moving away faster (which we know from the amount of the shift). This means that the universe is expanding. Think of raisin bread dough rising. As the dough expands, the raisins separate, but the raisins that are farthest apart at the start of the rise are farther apart than those that started off closer together. A longer distance over a fixed time means a greater relative velocity. This is what we see when we look out.

Of the four forces in nature, the only one that acts in a non-trivial fashion over any significant distance is gravitation which is an attractive force. As such, if the universe is expanding and full of objects pulling on each other in the opposite direction to the expansion, we expect that gravity is putting on the brakes. We weren't sure by how much, but the universe had to be at most constant in its expansion.

What the two teams led by these three physicists did was to look at objects very far away that are very, very old. Assuming the universe's expansion to be constant or slowing due to gravity, they expected to measure certain quantities in a certain range. But that's not what they found -- and they we looking independently. The only way these observations make sense is if the universal expansion is not slowing, but accelerating. But the only force out there that is operative is gravity which can only slow it down. What is causing this acceleration? That answer remains to be found. Some contend that it's a new force caused by something unknown to us but given the very cool name "dark energy." Others think that a fifth force is unlikely, but are at a loss to explain it. What ever it ends up being, it's just darn good stuff.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Gandhi's Legacy

Yesterday was Mohandas Gandhi's birthday. A brilliant man who was also a stunningly capable leader, two things that do not often get combined, much less come together at the right place at the right time. Now, though, it seems that Gandhi is simply a caricature, an icon for "smart and nice."

Is there more to the cultural meaning of Gandhi? Is non-violent protest really now a part of our collective consciousness? You look at the difference between the way the Tea Party has been treated by the mainstream media and the folks occupying Wall Street and you have to wonder. The Tea Party movement has always had an undertone of violence, that "if we don't get our way we could take up arms at any moment" sentiment. They made sure to carry weapons openly on national park land just to be provocative. Many signs made reference to watering the tree of liberty with blood. Their mouth pieces, like Glenn Beck, made liberal use of violent rhetoric. And they were babied by the mainstream media. Events that were billed as major gatherings that only attracted dozens were treated as cultural watersheds. Yet, where the Tea Party is a corporate sponsored astroturf movement, on Wall Street you have a growing collection of people who spontaneously are brought together to call attention to the actual plight of suffering Americans who are being preyed upon by an unjust system that is biased to the wealthy and powerful. Yet, you have a virtual blackout in the mainstream press about it and where you do see any coverage, it tends to be eye rolling condescension. This is no different from the anti-war protests before the invasion of Iraq. Millions of people in the streets across the globe all treated with a dismissive hand wave.

We love to put Gandhi bumper stickers on our cars and talk about how we are all Martin Luther King, Jr. now. But have these non-violent leaders really left us anything cultural that is lasting or have they been co-opted by those they were leading us against and turned into cartoon characters that cease to threaten the powerful?

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Best Comedians Working Today

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend let's turn back to the professionals. Who are the best comics working today? For my money, it's Demetri Martin:

and Jim Gaffigan:

Who would you say are the best in business today?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve