Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Presbyopia and Other Milestones

When I was 13, I had a bar mitzvah. It was supposed to celebrate my moving from childhood to adulthood, but at 13 I hadn't even figured out how to be a teenager much less a man. But the idea is right. There are times and events that are universally human -- or at least culturally nearly universal -- which mark different phases of life.

Yesterday, I had THAT optometrist visit. My glasses will now become as progressive as I am (although that might mean I only have a lens on the left). I asked my optometrist whether presbyopia, age-related far-sightedness, was seen cross-culturally. He explained that it is truly universal. Environmental factors play some role in time of onset -- his academic and accountant patients would get it a few years earlier on average in his experience -- but it crossed all demographic categories and always started in the early 40s and subsided in the late 50s. The human eye is just built that way. So, reaching that point is something that everyone has or will experience. It was my blur mitzvah.

What other events would be that sort of shared milestone that virtually all others would be able to identify with that mark a change in life phase?

Losing your first tooth
Riding without training wheels for the first time
Having your first crush
Getting your driver's license (a car mitzvah)
The first funeral of someone in your age cohort


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Are Boring Classes More Difficult?

I just had my logic class translate the sentence "Boring classes are more difficult than demanding courses" into first order predicate logic. It made me wonder whether it was true or not. Is it?

Monday, November 28, 2011

How Do We Protect Ourselves from the Corporate Corruption of Science?

I've been reading David Michaels' book Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health. Truly a must read. As an insider, he chronicles the ways in which corporations are not only undermining the public's understanding of science by infusing misinformation and illegitimate doubt and having Republican cronies insert unreasonable and carefully crafted rules into the regulatory process that keep the government from acting in the public's best interest when we have strong scientific consensus of dangers to our health, but corporations are also corrupting the scientific process itself.

Where corporate interests are quick to scream "junk science" whenever legitimate scientists show that the world works in a fashion that is not in line with maximizing profits, the fact is that they are intentionally junking up the scientific system. They do this in three ways. The first is to find hired guns, scientists willing to design flawed studies that are guaranteed to give the industry the result it wants. You can do this if it is a comparative study, say demonstrating the increased efficacy of a new drug over an alternative already on the market, by putting up a straw opponent. Study your drug at full dose against the competitor at half dose. Hey, what do you know, this one works better.

Another way is to cherry pick your data and your results. If we're looking at rare diseases caused by chemicals in industrial work sites, make sure you only record some but not all of them. Have several data sets demonstrating the results of exposure to something used in your manufacturing process or a chemical you want to put on the market, only analyze the ones that give you what you want to show. Did you have the foresight to have several different groups run experiments under one of your hired scientists? Only let the ones that support you see the light of day.

A third is to not do the science yourself, but to reanalyze all the results that show the problems you are causing. A little adjustment in some of the assumptions of the model over here and a tweak of the statistical methods over there and, poof, the evidence that you are the one killing the parents of those cute little orphans has disappeared. Must have been lifestyle choices. thanks to Richard Shelby, the Senator from Alabama, it is the law that industries have access to the raw data of all of the scientists working in the public interest so that they can monkey with it and create false doubt in the public mind while corporations and the front organizations they finance to do their junk science can hide from the public and regulators everything they don't want us to know.

They work very hard disguising the junk they put out, trying their hardest to slip it into peer-reviewed journals so that they then have studies they can point to in court. With no moral values and tons of cash, they are succeeding in undermining the system.

Merck just pleaded guilty in the Vioxx case. They hid data from regulators so that they could generate profits on a drug that they knew would unnecessarily cause heart attacks. Somewhere between 88,000 and 139,000 people had heart attacks they otherwise would not have had because of Merck's actions and 30-40% of those were fatal. that means that somewhere between 26,000 and 55,000 families lost loved ones for no reason other than corporate profits. 3,000 people died on 9/11 and we call it terrorism and go to war. Ten times that many die from corporate malfeasance and we make sure they get tax breaks and legal protection to keep misleading and killing our family members.

So, given that they have the means to influence both the process of science and the reporting of it, do non-specialists in a field have good reason to form any belief about scientific consensus? Look at what they are doing with global warming. The misinformation campaign is massive. Where can we, the non-technicians, get information that is not filtered through the corporate spin and doubt machine so that we can get some sense of what the actual consensus among legitimate scientists is on issues that concern our health and well-being?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Are the Three Stooges Timeless?

My Fellow Comedists,

I've been working my way through Robert Solomon's piece on the Three Stooges. The short people LOVE the Stooges, while TheWife cannot stand them. This would not seem unusual. There is clearly an age and gender divide in Stooge appreciation. But is this indicative of a larger sense in which the Stooges' work is time limited? The Stooges are clearly an artifact of the Depression era when life itself was rough, especially for immigrants without access to education. But in that ability to represent over-the-top reactions to adversity do they touch something deeper in the human condition? Is there something timeless about the Stooges or are they temporally located? Will they become less and less funny to each passing generation of adults? Will they always be funny to kids?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Problems of Evil and Free Will

Guest-post today from Todd Furman at McNeese State:

A plausible theodicy must accomplish at least two tasks. First, it must clear God of bringing evil into the universe; and two it must absolve God from being culpable for any existent evils. The Fall, be it in the form of Satan’s fall, or Adam and Eve’s, is supposed to be the starting point of the ever popular free will defense -– God didn’t bring evil into the world, Satan and/or Mankind brought evil into existence by abuse of their free will. But John Hick finds both of these falls to be nonsensical: God’s original creations must be wholly good; else God is responsible for the introduction of evil into the universe and if Satan and Adam and Eve were created wholly good, then they would have no motive to ever actually do evil, even though they possess free will; hence, any resulting evil must actually be due to a non-culpable act of ignorance or to an already fallen nature provided by God, a nature that admits to envy and disobedience.

This much seems on target until one begins to think about J.L. Mackie’s classic paper on the logical problem of evil. At one point, Mackie claims that God should have made persons that freely always do the good; and if God can’t, then He isn’t omnipotent; if He won’t, then God isn’t all good. The classic, and accepted, rejoinder to Mackie is to claim that a creature that always freely chooses the good is a logical impossibility. Hence, not even an omnipotent God could make such a being.

But isn’t this sort of being just the sort of beings that Hick supposes Satan and Adam and Eve to be pre-fall? I believe so. In this case, who is right; those that assert or deny the possibility of a being that always freely chooses the good?

I have always been tempted to side with those that argue that such a being is a logical impossibility, but consider the following: being free entails that X could have done other than she did (in identical circumstances). So, suppose that X has three choices A, B, and C. Suppose too that A and B are morally permissible but C is not. If X were all good and chose A, but could have chosen B, and would never choose an option like C, doesn’t X count as a free creature that would always do good? Perhaps we believe that a free creature that always does good is a logical impossibility because we incorrectly assume that choices are always between good and evil, in which case a free creature that always chooses the good might be nonsensical.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

God As My Witness, I Thought Turkeys Could Fly

Hat tip to Gwydion for reminding us all of the funniest Thanksgiving sitcom episode ever. Happy Turkey Day everyone.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why Don't We Like Dollar Coins?

If the treasury switched from paper dollar bills to exclusively producing dollar coins, it would save us $5.5 billion according to a GAO report. but every attempt to roll out a dollar coin recently has failed.

Is it the size? The dollar has to be larger than the quarter. Does that make it too big? The Susan B. Anthonys weren't that bog. Neither were the Sacagaweas. Nor the present presidential coins. They are a bit thicker, but are they really uncomfortably bigger? Why won't we embrace the dollar coin?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What Does It Mean to "Accept Full Responsibility"?

In the wake of the unprovoked spraying of peaceful demonstrators at the University of California at Davis with pepper spray by a police officer associated with the campus, the Chancellor, Linda Katehi, said,

"I am deeply saddened that this happened on our campus, and as chancellor, I take full responsibility for the incident. However, I pledge to take the actions needed to ensure that this does not happen again."
The word "however" in that utterance is odd. It functions logically as a conjunction, that is, like the word "and" in saying that what comes before and after the "however" will both be true. But "however" is different from "and" in that it also connotes that the two sentences connected are not ones that one would expect to be linked. Consider a more normal use -- "I am not feeling well, however, I will make it into the office today." The idea being conveyed is that both the clauses are true, but that given the truth of the first, my being ill, that the second, my coming into work, is unexpected. But if Chancellor Katehi is accepting "full responsibility," then it should be expected that she would make sure this never happens again. No?

I suppose it depends upon what one means by "taking full responsibility." What does that mean? It is a phrase we demand people utter. Anthony Wiener took "full responsibility" after his misdeed was exposed. Chevron just took "full responsibility" for an oil spill off the coast of Brazil. Richard Nixon, after the release of the smoking gun tape, said "This was a serious act of omission for which I take full responsibility." Lots of people do it...or at least say they do it. But what is it that they are actually claiming to do?

Sometimes saying is the same as doing. There are what ordinary language philosophers call performative utterances. When you say "I promise to do x," you have done something -- promising -- by saying the words. Similarly with making a bet, taking an oath, or pronouncing "I do." In this case, to say is to do. We tell out children that they must say "please." They must write thank you notes for gifts. They must say "excuse me" when they accidentally bump into someone. In all of these cases, the saying IS the doing.

Is that the case with taking full responsibility? In basketball when a player is called for a foul, he or she has to face the scorers' table and raise a hand. Is taking responsibility the same sort of act where one stands up and acknowledges one's role in bringing the unfortunate act about or is it more?

There is a difference between "excuse me" and "I'm sorry." "Excuse me" says, "It was me who did it and I know it displeased you." "I'm sorry," on the other hand not only points out one's own role in something unpleasant, but also implies that the displeasure was significant, that I am empathetic, will try to stop it henceforth and make whatever amends are necessary to repair the damage of the act. To mean less is not to apologize, but -- to play with a phrase from "All the President's Men" -- to offer a non-apology apology.

"I take full responsibility" seems more like I'm sorry than excuse me. But what is entailed by it? Does it mean to be the one solely accountable for the act? The officer who sprayed the students is on administrative leave, so she did not accept his share of responsibility. He may be fired, but she might not resign. If the act was worthy of losing one's job, would that be accepting full responsibility?

What responsibility is it that is being accepted? Is it not a question of accepting all of the retribution, but rather accepting full responsibility for changing the system moving forward? Is that the case, then when one leader is fired for misdeeds and another takes over the new leader who may have had nothing to do with the situation would take full responsibility in this sense. But that does not seem appropriate. Surely, that's not what we mean.

But what then do we mean? When someone accepts full responsibility, what is it they are now responsible for? Is it something they were not responsible for before? Some they already were responsible for but they are now publicly acknowledging it? The negative effects of their actions? Changing the way they act or the system that brought this about? What does it mean to "take full responsibility"?...if anything.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Ayn Rand, Occupy, and Irony

Watching the Afghanistan war veterans and little old ladies getting assaulted as police are sent in to rough up Occupy protesters across the country gives rise to many reactions -- bafflement, outrage, and sorrow. But there is also a deep appreciation of the irony that is present on so many levels. Here are just five of those levels:

1. The protesters, not the opponents, embody that which is the basis of what is being protested.

The Occupy Wall Street movement arose in response to a political structure in which the governmental rules and regulations have been intentionally designed to redistribute the wealth in the United States, systematically stripping it from the working and middle classes who spend it and thereby multiply its positive economic effects, and transferring it to the wealthiest who hoard it so that it is much less effective at creating jobs and elevating the general standard of living. The initial intellectual justification for this clearly unfair and unhealthy approach to governing was the trickle-down theory of economics in which dumping twenty gallons of paint on the roof would magically cause the paint to evenly coat the house. By making the rich into the mega-rich, everyone beneath would benefit. It is false. It has never worked. Even the first president Bush referred to it decades ago as "voodoo economics."

But when it was shown to be conceptually bankrupt, the other justification came out. The real one. The wealth of the nation as a whole was not being given to the already wealthy because it would help everyone, but because the wealthy are the ones who deserve it. Helping those who need help is not the good thing we think it is, it is the worst thing we could do. The worst thing for whom? For the species. For the human race. Thus spake Ayn Rand.

If you take everything smart, insightful, and funny out of the works of Friedrich Nietzsche what is left are the writings of Ayn Rand. The human race is not an interconnected social web in which we lift each other up, establishing the conditions of human flourishing as a community, no, we are atoms, individuals, single entities creating greatness through triumphant self-affirmation at the cost of another. It is the great individual that advances the race, that makes history by breaking history. If we care for weak, the poor, the hungry, it removes the resources from the strong,the brave, the smart, in a zero sum game. We need to create heroes, to let the magnificent ones rise and thrive. Eat the weak, their only purpose is to feed the strong. Traditional ethics with its accent on helping the helpless and downtrodden must be overturned if we are to become what we can be. Instead, we must have maximum freedom, allowing the great to rise and removing the impediments from their ascent. We must unshackle the great ones who will create and their creations will transform life and the world. Human progress comes from the unbound individual.

This line was bought by everyone from Alan Greenspan to Paul Ryan. The ideas of Rand inform the conservative worldview and its approach to governance, the approach that got us where we are. The redistribution of wealth on this view is a good thing and needs to continue. But does it really help the smartest and most creative, the ones who are transforming life and the world as we know it?

No. The irony is that if you want to see the best and brightest, look in the tents in Zuccotti Park. It's the protesters who represent the most admirable elevators of the species. A former poet laureate of the United States was just assaulted at the Occupy gathering in Berkeley. But, but, but they're hippies. Yeah, they are. It was the hippies who created the iPhone and the technological basis for the internet. It was hippies who helped eradicate smallpox. these are the people across space and time that have always brought us the great advances. Einstein was a socialist and a pacifist who wore sandals and long hair. Nobel Peace Prize winner An Sung Suu Kyi is a deadhead. These folks are the ones who will pave the way to the future.

Want an example? Look how the occupiers solve their own problems -- keeping a community going in the cold after the police seized your generators? No problem. Be scientifically well-informed and extremely clever:

The Randians? Not so much. As humans we are programmed to be irrationally optimistic, to think things are better than they are. We think we are richer than we are relative to the average. We think we are more talented than we are relative to the average. And we think we are smarter than we are relative to the average. If you spend lots of your time reading and talking about Ayn Rand, you're not one of the great individuals -- that in and of itself makes you one of the sheep. If you were really that smart, you would realize that the field of sociology exists and the ways in which human interactions and helping all people does establish the preconditions for human flourishing. You'd realize that every time those folks are given power they really, really, really screw things up for everyone.

2. The brutality is to stop the freedom that is supposed to be at the heart of the vision the opponents desire.

It is funny how much of a threat the Occupy movement seems to them, though. If these are folks who are the weak fighting for the weak, let them gather, they can't do any damage to the rise of the great ones. But we must shut them down, after all they are saying things and making funny signs. They are marching and worst of all they are being mean to the strongest, toughest, greatest of the species and that might hurt their little feelings. So, in the name of freedom and liberty we need to remove their camps and libraries from public spaces and spray them with pepper spray in the face. we must defend liberty and freedom by making sure that they cannot speak and petition their government for redress of grievances. After all the only way to make sure we are free is to deny them their freedom because they might rise and change things and that would be bad because only the smartest and most creative are supposed to use the freedom to successfully change things.

3. The real criminals destroy the lives of millions and get coddled, the ones standing up for the victims get victimized.

Real people are suffering around the globe because these folks have controlled government for a generation and built up a house of cards to serve themselves and it finally collapsed. We have had two decades of creative accounting, bribery, predatory lending, ignoring of safety standards, and illegal and immoral acts that led us to an unhealthy place. What happens? They get tax breaks while those who stand up and demand change for the actual victims are arrested and beaten.

4. The police fight against the protesters while the protesters fight for the police

Accounts of the behavior of some police officers have been shocking. You have people who are engaged in peaceful demonstrations, clearly not armed, clearly not violent, and being physically abused for being rationally angry and having the nerve to express it in public. Whether it is an 84-year old former school teacher or college students sitting on the ground, the behavior towards these American citizens has been outrageous.

So, the police are angry. They feel the need to strike back at these protestors. They cannot stand what the occupiers stand for. But suppose the protestors lose. Suppose the people the occupiers are opposing get into power. What then?

We don't need hypotheticals. It's happening. Take two examples, Scott Walker the new governor of Wisconsin and John Kasich the new governor of Ohio. These guys are funded by the Koch brothers, two of the leaders of the conservative movement and the money behind much of the tea party. When the Koch brothers' elected representative take office what is the first thing they were told to do? Strip collective bargaining rights from...wait for it...public unions including teachers and...yup, POLICE OFFICERS. The protestors are protesting, amongst other things, to protect the police officers' ability to put food in their table and send their kids to college. How dare you fight for my family, I better hit you with this knight stick.

5. The 1% are poisoning the well they drink from, too.

We are a short-sighted species. As much as the libertarians love to think of us as rational, we are built with a small horizon that often shields from us what is actually in our own best self-interest. As Robert Frank argues, when group interests and individual interests in the short term appear to diverge, we often think we are best off by pursuing our own interests at the expense of the greater good. But while we might gain a small advantage now, we deprive ourselves of the larger windfall that comes from the broad-based prosperity. As Robert Reich puts it,

"If an economy is functioning correctly, everyone wins -- the top 1 percent and the bottom 99 percent.

For three decades after World War II, that's the kind of economy we had. Labor productivity doubled, and the incomes of almost all Americans doubled as well. In fact, the pay of workers in the bottom fifth more than doubled -- rising at a faster pace than the pay of people at the top. The vast majority of Americans did so well they had enough money to buy just about everything they produced -- which, in turn, kept the economy growing at full tilt.

But over the last three decades, the opposite has happened. The economy has doubled in size but the pay of most workers has barely risen, adjusted for inflation. Almost all the gains have gone to the very top. America's middle class maintained its purchasing power for a time because wives and mothers enter the paid work force, and then, during the housing boom, it could borrow trillions against their homes.

But those coping mechanisms are now exhausted. Which means most Americans no longer have the purchasing power to keep the economy going. That's why we're in the mess we're in. So to get the economy moving again we have to restore broad-based prosperity -- not just for the top 1 percent and not just for the bottom 99 percent, but for everyone.

The top 1 percent should be eager to do this. As we learned in the three decades after World War II, the rich do far better with a smaller share of a rapidly-growing economy than they do with a big share of one that's barely growing at all."
It turns out that with the "greater good," the good is in fact greater. In order to stick it to us, the wealthy are actually sticking to themselves in the end.

Ah, the irony.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Funniest Cartoon

My Fellow Comedists,

This week marks the 83rd anniversary of the release of Steamboat Willie, the first animated cartoon with sound. From the beginning, the medium was seen as a good one for comedy because the sort of slapstick gags we saw coming out of Vaudeville and into the early silents with masters like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and then into the talkies with Laurel and Hardy could be ramped up to be even more absurd. Eyeballs could bulge out of heads, people would not get hit with boards but anvils, you could do anything to your characters and not have to worry about the next thirty seconds much less the next performance. But the humor slowly became more linguistic and the comedy more sophisticated.

So, the question is the high water mark. What is the funniest cartoon -- both series and individual episode -- ever?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, November 18, 2011

Plato's Revenge

Plato smiles as the elected prime ministers of Greece and Italy are replaced with technocrats from global financial institutions. Plato argued that political power should reside with specially trained experts he called philosopher-kings, or in today’s case, economist-kings. This system – ironically developed in Greece and implemented in Italy – is flawed, but presents insights that remain prescient in this time of great turmoil.

On a ship full of sailors, Plato argued, each one will think himself most qualified to be captain. But the one who takes the wheel will not be the person most able to account for the complexities of wind and weather, most schooled in reading the intricate maps and star charts, but rather will be the one who knows how best to exploit the weaknesses and insecurities of the other crew members. Getting elected does not make you qualified for the office. Virtues for effective candidates may be vices for effective leaders.

The troubles with many of the teetering economies (and perhaps not only those in Europe) arose in part from unsustainable structures within the political systems. But austerity of any degree is a tricky sell because it does mean real human suffering. Even when populations acknowledge the need, they will almost universally be unwilling to elect people to do the difficult and painful work. As a teacher, I know how much students cheer the cancelling of a class or assignment. They know that doing the work benefits them, yet they prefer to avoid it. Given the opportunity, the majority will vote for more recess almost every time.

But this does not mean that the people assigning the work or demanding the austerity are necessarily the adults in the room. Plato’s republic was notable for a feature that we see in no contemporary political system, an absolute barrier between wealth and power. Those who seek enrichment are encouraged to do so. Become as rich as you can, have as much as you want; just be aware that you will have no role whatsoever in governance. The merchants will have no power and rulers will possess no property and accumulate no wealth.

But when we look at those who are installing the new leaders in Europe they are not only the ones whose risky investments kicked off the current crisis, but also those who are benefiting most and sacrificing least from the proposed way out. The concern was whether the markets would react favorably to the replacement of Greece’s Papandreou and Italy’s Berlusconi. “The market is demanding seven percent interest on bonds,” we were told and that requires bold action to avoid a bailout. It is the market whose wisdom is being put above that of the people.

Plato dismissed the rationality of the populace, but he also knew firsthand that oligarchies lead to injustice. Giving influence to a small group of wealthy citizens will result in a swelling the ranks of the poor who will become increasingly impoverished. Excess and consumption will be mistaken for ethical superiority. The poor will become beggars, thieves, or thugs with the rich expressing more and more need to repress them, lest they rise up.

In Plato’s time, leaders of the Athenian democracy were replaced by the thirty tyrants, a group that ruled over the citizens of Athens, only 3000 of whom were given legal recognition making the oligarchs quite literally the 1%. Combining the hording of wealth with the accumulation of power results in the suppression of human flourishing, as the classical Greeks witnessed.

While Plato’s sentiments are being echoed nationwide from those in the Occupy movement, he would be equally scornful of their radically democratic approach. So, if we cannot look to the markets or the majority to select the appropriate leaders and we dismiss the possibility of breeding them according to Plato’s vision of political eugenics, where do we find them? Who are the experts we can trust to find us the experts we should trust? Where are the wise and moral leaders we need at this time who can avoid both the perils of popularity and the financial interests of the financially interested? Are Lucas Papademos and Mario Monti the right people to save Greece, Italy, the European Union and the world economy? That’s an empirical question, the sort philosophers have a long history of answering badly. We can only hope that as they walk down into the cave in which the world financial system dwells, that they have indeed basked in the sunlight of the Form of the Good.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bargaining for Beliefs

There is a scene in Through the Looking Glass in which Alice meets a unicorn who thought humans were fanciful monsters of the imagination. As they confront each other, the unicorn offers Alice a deal,

'if you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you. Is that a bargain?'
A bargain is a contract that both parties have to enter into willingly and with the ability to fulfill their end. Is that the case here? Is belief something we can decide to choose or not? If I offered you $100 to believe in unicorns, is that an arrangement someone could enter into? You could say "I believe in unicorns, but could you choose to really believe? How free are we to determine what we believe?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Market Is Up On News That I Wrote This Post

Everyday we hear an interesting causal claim "The market is up(down) on news that..." How do the financial reporters make this statement? Seem like there are three possibilities:

(1) They interview traders and ask them what influenced their thinking on the day.

(2) They examine stocks that are reasonably associated with the news of the day and imply the effect from the movement of those particular companies.

(3) They simply look for something important that happened and infer causation from correlation, post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Which one is it or is there another possibility?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pluralism and Constraint

Our friends Scott Aikin and Bob Talisse over at 3 Quarks Daily have an interesting discussion of pluralism. Following the argument in Bob's new book, Pluralism and Liberal Politics, they call it a "halo term," a notion that has such a positive connotation and is so connected with virtue that attacking it seems beyond the pale. But attack it they do. "Vacuous!" they assert. (O.k., the exclamation point is mine, but they should be tolerant of one's punctuational choices.)

They point to certain terms like "exclusionary" that have negative connotations, that are loaded with ethical baggage. But for each negative term , there is one that expresses the same sentiment with a positive sense. "Selective" is an affirmative way of being exclusionary. The selective person excludes, but does so for good reason where the exclusionary person merely excludes for the sake of excluding. In the same way, the flip side of pluralism is relativism. The relativist is a buffoon who allows that if Joseph Stalin thought that murdering hundreds of thousands of people was morally right, then it is morally right for Stalin. The relativist is absurd, the pluralist is thoughtful and open-minded.

But there is a significant difference between relativism and pluralism. Relativism is a philosophical free-for-all. Like taste in ice cream, holding a view justifies the view. If I like vanilla more than chocolate, then I do regardless of any rational argument that could be offered. Pluralism, however, is different from relativism. Pluralism allows that there are sidelines that mark what is out of bounds, but still has plenty of room on the field of play for people to run with the ball in different directions. Pluralism implies constraint without complete determination.

We could differentiate between two flavors of pluralism: co-deterministic pluralism and under-deterministic pluralism. Co-deterministic pluralism is where the ethical, epistemological, or metaphysical constraints allow that two answers are equally correct and other pragmatic considerations must then be used to break the tie. Suppose you are ordered to build a bridge 15 plus the square root of four feet long. The square root of four is both positive and negative two, so you follow orders by building either a seventeen or thirteen foot bridge. Which should you build? It would be cheaper to build the short one, but perhaps more stable to have the long one. Other factors need to be considered, but either selection would be correct.

Under-deterministic pluralism is where the constraints simply limit the possible right answers, but do not select a unique one. Unlike the co-deterministic case, the answers are mutually exclusive; they are not both right, but which one is the right one needs further determination than the agreed upon conditions. the example I think of here comes from a short essay by Jean-Paul Sartre who considers a student who came to him during WWII with a problem. His father had become a Nazi sympathizer and thrown out of the family. his brother had been killed in the war. He was all that his beloved mother had left and she lived only for him. If he fought to liberate his country, a duty he felt, his mother would die alone and brokenhearted. If he stayed, he would be neglecting his deeply felt duty to his country and the urge to avenge his brother's death. What should he do? It seems that either decision has its virtues and its flaws. Ethical theory does not seem to answer the question. But hacking his mother up with an axe and joining the Nazis is not a moral option. There are wrong answers even if we do not have a way of absolutely determining the single right one.

It is here that pluralism is connected with open-mindedness without dissolving into relativism. I can understand that there is a limited field of possible options and I can have a sense that mine is the strongest thereof, but still have a sense that my reasoning may be faulty and be open to hearing those who want to move in the other direction. Pluralism is the admission that i need to be kept honest by someone who is smart and disagrees with me because while I think I'm right, it's only through vigorous intellectual wrestling that I can be assured of the strength of my view -- something I believe without certainty.

Monday, November 14, 2011


The earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand caused major structural damage to the Anglican Cathedral causing it to be condemned for safety reasons. Because it is a cathedral, before it was torn down, it had to be deconsecrated, that is, it had to be transformed from a place with special designation and recognition as more meaningful than other places back into a mundane building.

The act of consecration is fairly unproblematic. Because of an event that occurred at a place or a social need to conduct certain socially important functions, we specify a location and endow it with special significance. From the Vatican to Graceland, from City Hall to the Ben and Jerry's factory, consecration -- either secular or religious -- occurs because we do attach special meaning to places.

But is it really possible to deconsecrate a location? The people of Christchurch clearly understand the reason why the Cathedral needs to be torn down and no one is arguing that it shouldn't be. But it clearly still holds special significance for them. Jewish weddings end with the breaking of a glass, an irreversible reaction. Once the glass breaks, the world is different. It cannot go back to the way it was. Is consecration the same sort of thing? We move courthouses and churches all the time. Broadway theatres are renamed for more recent celebrities. Is it irrational romanticism to think that places cannot be deconsecrated or is a place, once endowed with meaning, forever?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Why Is Pantsing Funny?

My Fellow Comedists,

I had cause this week to look up the word "pants" in the Oxford English Dictionary. The noun form is surprisingly contemporary, not appearing in the language until the mid-19th century. More interesting is that the verb "to pants" someone appears in the early 20th century, originally meaning to put pants on someone, then acquiring the meaning of partially taking the pants off someone in the late 20th century.Why is this funny? There are three primary accounts in humor theory. Freud argues that laughter is the result of making ourselves superior to someone else. The victim of the pantsing is made to be in a situation he or she does not want and by doing the pantsing or watching the pantsing, we are therefore superior to the mark and that is why we find it pleasant to watch.

Robert Solomon argued that humor can arise when we empathize with someone who is in a position of inferiority, allowing us to safely admit our own inferiority. In this way, seeing the pantsing, we identify with the victim and can project our own discomfort and powerlessness finding pleasure in company.

The classic incongruity account would argue that what is funny is the bizarre experience of seeing pants pulled down in public when we expect pants to be up in public. It could be a cognitive incongruity or a shock of seeing the absurd, but it is hard to make sense of this sight or this behavior in a situation where it is not generally observed and runs contrary to expectation.

So, why is pantsing considered funny?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, November 11, 2011

Penn State's Other Disgrace: Academic Department For Sale

I've not written on the horrible events that have been uncovered in State College because I've no idea what to say other than how absolutely horrible it all is. A reporter this morning discussing the internal committee at Penn State that would be investigating the matter, said that the goal would be both to uncover the truth but would include high profile names in order to protect the reputation of the institution. The host remarked that the scandal itself came in part from the desire to protect the institution's reputation.

But for those who live in parts of Pennsylvania, Penn State's reputation is already sullied. When a geologist steps forward as an expert and identifies himself as being from Penn State, locals know not to take him at his word, words that have been bought and paid for, words that he could lose his job if he does not utter. The geology department at Penn State is a model of the lack of academic integrity we expect from researchers. If you've not listened to this program, please do:

What we see in the financial sector, the banks controlling government and using "deregulation" as a means of shifting wealth from the rest of society to the richest is no longer subject to the Willie Sutton rule -- banks aren't the only places where the money is. The Mafia knows to get its fingers in all sorts of pies and the banksters are like the gangsters; they branch out when there's money to be found elsewhere and that has meant science.

I'll comment more on this issue in the coming weeks (I'm reading David Michaels' book Doubt Is their Product, a must-read), but here I just want to carve out a first spot to begin to reflect on the corrupting influence of corporate money in science.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Herman Cain's Butterfly Effect

UPDATE: Either Matt Bors and I think alike...or he reads the Playground...

O.k., so Herman Cain argues two things: (1) the sexual harassment and assault claims against him are false, and (2) they are part of a Democratic conspiracy against him.

The first proposition is probably false. You have four completely independent women who did not know each other or of each other who told pretty much the same story. Two of them were given full years' salaries and made to sign gag agreements. One of the others, someone with an Ivy League education, immediately told her physician partner and her lawyer, both of whom have signed affidavits to that effect. These women have nothing to gain, but lots to lose in coming forward. Are they all lying? It is possible, but not likely.

But does the fact that (1) is false mean that (2) is also false? It would be odd for it not to be, but it isn't necessarily false.

Now, in order for the whole thing to be a conspiracy to sabotage his 2012 presidential campaign, the women in the 1990s would have had to known they needed to put themselves in positions to be harassed by a presidential contender. This is tough because, let's face it, just three years ago when an African-American Senator and former constitutional law professor with degrees from Columbia and Harvard ran, folks were shocked he was elected. "I never thought I'd live to see this day..." was heard often. So, twenty-some years ago, an African-American with no legal or public service background who ran pizza restaurants and Burger Kings and served as a lobbyist for the fast food industry would not have been thought to be a real contender for the post of commander-in-chief. So, we can't believe that people in the past were part of the conspiracy.

Further, if you ask Democratic pols and consultants now who among all the Republican candidates they would most like to run against, they'd say Cain. He is seen as the weakest of the bunch from polling data and in term of strategy. They wouldn't be trying to weaken him, but build him up and weaken his opponents. As such, present Democrats would not be conspiring against Cain.

But, Democrats have been here before, wishing they could run against a particular candidate. They did it with Reagan and look what happened. Maybe history is repeating itself. Maybe an unhindered Herman Cain would have gone on to roll through the primaries and become President. And maybe this would come to be seen by Democrats in the future as a dangerous turning point in history...a turning point that would need to be changed. Maybe this long view occurs once science has progressed to the point where time travel is possible. If past or present Democrats would not be the conspirators, perhaps it is future Democrats whose lived experience makes clear the need to send women back into the past to change the flow of history by tempting Cain by repeatedly asking for help finding jobs. Maybe Cain was, in fact, set up by Democratic operatives from the future to save the future.

But, of course, if Democrats had a time machine, Republicans would possess the technology as well. They would realize the plot and see the need to defeat it. They couldn't destroy just the Democrats' time machine, but would need to destroy the time machine project itself. Now, going after just time travel would seem suspect. so, they would need to attack the credibility and funding of science itself, of all science. Hence, they point their time machine earlier than the Democrats and seek do all they can to damage the reputation of all scientific research and theories -- whether it is global warming, evolution, or whatever. Republicans seek to de-fund and discredit science in the public mind in order to stop the progress of science that would lead to time travel.

So, should we believe the women? Yes. But does this mean that what we are seeing is not a Democratic conspiracy? Not by a long shot. Eventually when the truth is told on film, the title of the documentary will, of course, "The Hermanator."

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Outlawing Synthetic Marijuana: What is the Target?

The legislature in Virginia has banned synthetic marijuana, manufactured substances that are not pot, but when smoked induce similar effects. Things have gotten difficult because manufacturers stay one step ahead of enforcement by changing the formula.

"It seems that once a compound becomes prohibited, the people who are manufacturing these preparations just take that compound out because it is prohibited, and they now add in another one that is not," says Department of Forensic Science Chemistry Program manager Linda Jackson.
My question is what is the target here? On the one hand, it is the substance and not the effect of ingesting it. Alcohol makes you intoxicated, marijuana makes you intoxicated. Alcohol is legal, marijuana is not. So, it is not the intoxication, but the substance that seems to be the target for elimination.

On the other hand, in the mind of the authorities, by changing the chemical make-up of the synthetic pot, it does not become a new thing, but is still the same thing they sought to outlaw, synthetic pot. But how can two different things be the same thing? This makes sense if the substance is not the issue, but the effect of it. Both chemical substances cause intoxication and so are functionally identical despite being chemically distinct. So, here it is the intoxication that they are trying to eliminate, not the substance.

So, exactly what is it that they are seeking to eliminate? What is the target?

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Idaho's Ignorance, Technology, and Privatizing Schools

Idaho just passed a law mandating on-line classes as a requirement for a high school diploma. The argument is (1) it saves school districts money by outsourcing teaching to private firms instead of paying public servants (that is, teachers), and (2) it prepares students better for the real world in which this sort of learning will become standard. It does indeed save money, but that's because you will generally pay less for an inferior product. Idaho is undermining their educational system.

I teach. That's what I do. My most effective pedagogical tool is my eyes. A teacher sees everyone in the classroom. You see the faces. You know who is engaged, who is sleeping, who got it and -- most importantly -- who is struggling. You can see the faces and adjust how you say something in working through the question again, take two steps back and build back up to your point, make a joke and relax the person before trying again,... There are any number of strategies teachers pull out on the fly to connect with students so that the students learn. But in an on-line course, none of this is there. Going back to the ancients, the key to education has been a relationship between the student, the teacher, and the material. On-line education does not allow for that relationship to form and as a result, the foundation of healthy human learning is undermined.

Can you learn in other ways? Of course. In grad school, I needed to pick up tensor calculus, so I got a couple of textbooks on the subject and taught myself. It can be done and with certain studies, especially those that are about skill acquisition, it may be easier than those that deal with abstract reasoning or wrestling with questions of ethics or meaning. But even in the learning to do type classes, on-line is inferior. When I have a struggling student in my office and I watch him try to work on a problem, I can see the thought process. I know what he is looking to do, what he is missing, and when the light bulb goes off. I know how to give hints so that I don't do the problem for him, but help to prod him along the way to the light bulb moment. None of this is possible in on-line learning.

Do the folks in Idaho know this? I don't know. there seem to be two possibilities.

Maybe they don't know it. It's a conceivable mistake. Ever since the end of World War II, we have had a cultural infatuation with technology. Anything technological is presumed to be superior to anything more natural. We yearn to be the Jetsons because theirs must be a better life. Labor-saving devices are leisure-enhancing devices and leisure is when we are who we really are. So, technology makes us healthier and more human.

Of course, this is false. Along the way two things happened. First, we confused technological with corporately mass produced. TV dinners, Big Macs, and twinkies became food and food became less than food. The technological stopped being tools we used and became things we consume. Second, the technology may have made us more efficient, but that doesn't mean that it increases our leisure time, our time to pursue our projects and activities that lead to self-improvement and growth. No, it has meant that we can no longer separate ourselves from work, we are not only more efficient, but we are never off the clock. We have, in deep ways, lost ourselves to the technology. And so, the people of Idaho may wrongly think that they are helping their children when in fact they are harming them.

But maybe they do know. Maybe they are fully aware that the education will be inferior and just don't care because either education doesn't really matter to them or it matters less than not paying the taxes needed to support teachers. Maybe in a state as conservative as Idaho, ideology has become so poisonous that decreasing taxes is seen as more important than educating their children. Cynical, horribly, horribly cynical. Of course, cynical and false are not synonymous.

Either way, I am sorry for the children of Idaho. Good luck and feel free to audit the philosophy course here at the Playground. It's fun, but not as good as my real classroom.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Gendering Leisure

TheWife and I took the short people rollerskating yesterday. Everyone had a good time, but noticed something odd. The place was 4:1 girls to boys. I had noticed something similar, although not that stark at other roller rinks. When did skating become a girl thing?

It is interesting what leisure time activities that are male-dominated elsewhere have become female dominated here. When you have 4-6 year old daughter, you are expected to do the ballet/tap dance class. Think of all the great tap dancers that come to mind -- all male. No boys in tap classes.

Once they turn 5 or 6 for the next several years, it is an expectation that you will put your daughter on a soccer team. Soccer is to young girls what little league used to be for boys, just a natural part of American life. Soccer is a male game everywhere else on planet earth, and while the men's game here is certainly growing (among young men who are clearly not manly enough to play American football), it is a regular part of the life of young American girls.

Theater classes, again, virtually no males. No one looks at leading men in Hollywood, take, for example, Rock Hudson, and thinks he's anything but a model of masculinity. But acting classes and drama productions have to regularly deal with interest from few young men.

Later in life, when women want to stay in shape, many will think of yoga classes. The famous yogis are men (or male bears in Jellystone), but yoga instructors are almost universally female as are the classes they teach. Yoga is gendered here.

It is odd and sad in this age of obesity how many active activities boys are culturally discouraged from. Why is it that we've gendered certain leisure time hobbies?

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Unintendend Caricature

My Fellow Comedists,

A few weeks back we talked about what makes in impersonation funny. The theory I proposed involved creating an icon of the target, a simplified version that stresses certain properties and then verbally and visually recreating that icon. A similar type of humorous act is drawing a caricature. But what happens when the caricature is unintended? I came across this drawing the other week:If I had sat for a caricature, that is most likely what it would have looked like. But it isn't me (to the best of my knowledge). It is a representation of an icon, not the icon of a particular individual, but of an archetype. You can't draw dog with drawing a specific dog. Here, you can't draw a liberal without drawing a specific liberal. And the archetypal image in this artist's head just happens to look a lot like me. Is there extra humor in the "found art" sense that it seems to be a caricature of me, but isn't? In any meaningful way, can it be said that it is a caricature of me?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, November 04, 2011

Papandreou vs. Plato: Greece and Democracy

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou is in a bad spot. Greece's economy is on the verge of collapse, France and Germany are offering to try to save it if Greece surrenders part of its national sovereignty to them, the Greek people are resentful that they are suffering and told they need to suffer more not believing that the suffering will do any good for them or the country, the opposition is calling for his resignation, and his own party is saying that they don't support him either. So Papandreou, finding himself trapped between Scylla and Charybdis, damned if he goes along with the bailout and damned if he doesn't, decided to emulate Solon instead of Odysseus. He decided that if the people are unhappy with the bailout, let them say so and be responsible for the decision -- Greece would once again be the site of direct democracy. This is a matter that concerns the lives of all of the Greek people in a very direct way, so why shouldn't they have a direct voice in deciding the direction?

He received an unbelievable amount of pressure and condemnation for the move, so much that he backed off from the idea yesterday. You are the leader, lead. The people might vote it down, they do not know what is really in the best interest of the country and markets hate uncertainty. It is unacceptable, after all, to make markets suffer, only people. This is not something that should be democratically decided, it is too important.

Plato, the greatest of the Greek philosophers, would agree with this line. Plato was rabidly anti-democratic because he believed the people on average too stupid to rule. Macroeconomics is tricky, technical stuff. It isn't something most people understand. If you put this matter to a vote, a platonic line would go, there is absolutely no reason to believe that you would find yourself taking the most thoughtful, well-informed, rational course.

In this case, does Plato have a point? Was the proposed referendum a good idea? Should large decisions that have both major impact on a population and technical, complex elements be taken to the people or decided by a group of elites that may have been themselves selected by the people?

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Goldline, Glenn Beck, and the Ethics of the Hard Sell: Autonomy or Psychology?

The company Goldline, sponsor of Glenn Beck's program as well as a number of other conservative talk shows, has been accused of running an illegal bait and switch operation. The charge brings up a fascinating and ironic question connected with the fairness of the free market so radically espoused by these talking heads.

The scam on its face is simple. Goldline lures in customers by convincing them that gold bullion is something they should acquire. Then, they talk them into buying collectable gold coins instead that are sold above their actual value. So, people think they are buying something as a safe investment when they are really being fleeced for something that will depreciate instead.

The reason the conservative talk show hosts are a part of the scam is that the people who listen to them are ripe for the plucking. They come in already believing that the country and world in general are going to hell. They listen to receive confirmation of their dark worldview and this leaves them open to conditioning for other beliefs. Obama takes a Republican health plan and puts it forward as a compromise. They call it evil socialism, their listeners believe it. Government sponsored death panels? Jack-booted thugs confiscating guns? Gay people recruiting children? They buy it.

So, you've got people who have a preexisting notion that the culture is collapsing, who are told that things are worse than they thought and told what to think and how to think about it. And then you've got the people seen as authorities putting commercials into their programs in a fashion that does not clearly delineate them from the other portions and those commercials tell them that when the world collapses, money will be worthless, they need to buy gold, lots of gold. And here's where I buy MY gold -- Goldline. so they call and are given the hard sell into buying something that will not do what they were led to believe it will do -- hold value better than their cash.

Is it illegal? Dunno. Is it slimy? Absolutely. Is it wrong? Oooooh. The marks could have said no. They were not forced to buy the coins at a terrible price. They agreed to do so. But, of course, the people at Goldline know exactly what they are doing. they are setting up a scenario in which people are psychologically primed and therefore much more likely to act in a particular way. Think of the old gag where you ask a person to pronounce T-W-A and T-W-E and T-W-I, then T-W-O. If you had just asked them to pronounce T-W-O without the others first, they would have said the name of the number 2, but because of the priming, if one has not heard the gag before, they pronounce it phonetically. It works every time. It's the basis for most of the illusions magicians perform. It's why movie music is what it is -- listen to the cello swells from Jaws and try to keep your heart-rate from increasing. We know it works and how to do it.

And so, the Goldline people know how to apply psychology to get people to act irrationally in a fashion that benefits them financially. If it was a matter of physical or psychological coercion, we'd say that the people were not free and the responsibility is on the person being coercive. But what if it is psychological manipulation, not coercion?

The conservative, libertarian line is caveat emptor, buyer beware. People are all self-interested and rational and thus the marketplace should be left alone because it is the shopper's responsibility to do his homework to decide whether this is in his best interest. The conservative beliefs of the victims are justifying their being shafted. The liberal line is the paternalistic approach in which the psychological manipulation is seen on a par with coercion and the act is wrong. But this removes the autonomy from the agent, it undermines our picture of ourselves as in control and responsible for our own actions.

So, in this case, which takes precedent, autonomy or psychology? Is Goldline's approach morally wrong? Suppose we look only at the hard sell without the psychological priming, like with time shares or used cars. Does that make a difference if we have good reason to think that it will work?

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Truth and Falsity in Advertising

Heard on NPR yesterday that New York mayor and uber-rich guy Michael Bloomberg broke with his tradition and did not hand out full-sized candy bars to trick-or-treaters this year, but just the little ones. Makes you think about truth in advertising because anytime a kid comes across a house that gives the big chocolate bars, extreme joy results. Yet what do they call the little ones? "Fun-sized." Yes, because nothing is more fun than getting less candy. It's homeopathic confectionery: the less you get of something that makes you happy, the happier you will actually be.

On the other hand, the brand that I've always thought had the most accurate name for their product: Laz-y-boy recliners. When your backside is too big to fit in a normal chair...Laz-y-boy.

Other examples of truth or falsity in advertising?

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Modern Saints: Where Have You Gone Joe DiMaggio?

On All Saints Day, let's think about the notion of a saint. Auguste Comte thought that while the metaphysical elements of religion would eventually fade away as part of an immature phase of human development, the structure of religious institutions would remain necessary for the majority of people. He proposed founding a "religion of man," wherein we use the Church as a model for secular belief system with rituals and an ethical code. This would even come with saints whom we would use archetypes to hold up as representatives of human greatness. For Comte, these would be scientists of monumental achievement -- Saint Newton, Saint Darwin,...

If we broaden the notion, whom would we hold up as modern saints?

I suppose those who championed justice through non-violence like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and Cesar Chavez would be the first to be considered. We erect a hall of fame where we make great athletes and coaches into cultural saints -- Babe Ruth, Vince Lombardi, Wilt Chamberlain. Occasionally, the two overlap with folks like Jackie Robinson and Billie Jean King. We have popular art forms like film and music where the work of modern saints allow them to remain forever young -- Frank Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, Madonna.

From all aspects of contemporary life, where do we and where should we look for our modern saints? Or should we at all? Is the notion of a saint harmful? Knowing that all humans were just humans and anyone we elevate, we will be able to find evidence of moral and personal fallibility, is this myth making unfair to those whom we select? Should we create false images to strive for or should we develop our own internal drives based on our own projects and circumstances?