Monday, April 30, 2012

Al Shabob or Al Kebab?: Comedy, Free Speech, and Responsibility

Adel Imam, the Egyptian Bill Murray, was brought up on charges of insulting Islam in an Egyptian court for his work over a 50 year career as a comedic actor whose roles portrayed the authorities in a humorous, often critical light.  The charges were brought by Asran Mansour, a right-wing Muslim attorney.  It is a crime that brings with it fines and jail time.  A first court found him guilty, but a second threw out the charges and made Mansour pay Imam's court and attorney fees.

YKW has asked three interesting questions about the case:
  1. Acting vs. Agitating: If Imam only acted in the movies (as opposed to writing or producing them), is pretending to play a character who is required by the script to say things offensive to the authoritarian regime the same thing as if Imam went to the street corner and espoused the same things?  Surely no one would accuse Ralph Fiennes of being a Nazi based on his portrayal of one in Schindler’s List.  Or prosecute him for wearing Nazi uniforms (illegal in some countries in Europe).  
  2. If Imam made some of these movies over a 50-year career, what’s the statute of limitations on offending the authoritarian regime?  Say a movie he made in 1974.  It gets rebroadcast by a fledgling cable channel in Egypt in 2010.  Are they prosecuting him for saying it in 2010 or 1974? 
  3. Should the authoritarian regime in Egypt be allowed to prosecute him if he made the movies (a) when a more moderate government allowed it; or (b) if he made the movies in a less tolerant country, but one that could tell the difference between acting and agitating?
The second two seem pretty straightforward to answer -- no, you should not be allowed to prosecute someone for offending a government that did not exist at the time of the comedic act and once the comedic act is no longer current it makes no sense to prosecute although a reshowing is a new speech act by the network. 

But the first one is tricky.  How responsible is an actor for the effects of the portrayal given that the actor does not write the words and receives direction in how to deliver them?  The question is made trickier when we move from legal to moral responsibility.  

There is no doubt that when All in the Family first aired, racists felt emboldened by having the main character clearly and explicitly speak their mind on prime-time network television.  Carroll O'Connor,on a number of occasions, discussed the letters he would receive praising Archie Bunker.  Was O'Connor to blame for what was surely predictable -- the perceived support for a bigoted worldview?  By making it more plain, it seemed to give it credence -- even if the idea was to expose it to sunlight. 

Actors seek edgy roles.  The power of theatre, television, and film is in part in its ability to provoke and so actors look to be provocative.  But should they be held responsible for such provocation and its effects?  They act under the direction of another with words from yet another.  But it is from their mouths that the words come.  They could choose not to accept the role.  How much responsibility should actors be afforded?

(and to explain the Al Kebab pun, here's a scene from "Terrorism and Kebab" in which Imam's character accidentally ends up taking a government building hostage and in order to find a way out makes his only demand for carry-out food)

Friday, April 27, 2012

High Maintenance as a Moral Category

We had our senior thesis presentations the other day and one of our seniors wrote on the moral responsibilities that stem from friendship relations.  She took an Aristotelian sort of approach and during the Q&A section, a colleague raised the issue of high maintenance friends and asked whether it was a character flaw.  Is "high maintenance" a moral category or at least does it have an ethical dimension?  There is a difference being immoral and annoying, where do we put being high maintenance?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Statute of Limitations

Ought there be a statute of limitations on crimes?  On the one hand, the longer one goes from the time of the crime, the more the evidence loses its strength.  Over time, notoriously unreliable memories fade and become even less reliable, physical evidence decays or risks contamination, and witnesses move away.  This not only makes it tough to prosecute, but makes a fair defense much less likely.  Further, it keeps defendants from an open-ended, limitless sense of threat of suit.  If a defendant is going to bring the case, bring it.

On the other hand, it means that if you commit a crime and are good at hiding the evidence, you get away with it.  It rewards better criminals. Justice delayed may be justice denied, but justice delayed with a statute of limitations seems to deny even the possibility of justice. (Big 'ol tip of the hat to YKW for clearly framing these arguments.)

So, should there be a statute of limitations?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Are Friends Necessary?

Having friends is a wonderful thing.  No one would deny that.  But is having friends necessary for a well-lived human life?  Could you have a full and satisfying life without friends.

The question does not ask whether one could be a happy hermit.  We can assume that humans are social beings and that we require interpersonal interactions.  But does that necessitate friendship relations exist within those relationships?  Suppose you were, say, say, a substitute Good Humor man, moving from place to place, never seeing the same folks twice, but everywhere you go having pleasant interactions with people, all of whom are glad to see you.  In this case, you chat with folks all the time and you would enjoy your passing, fleeting moments you spent with each of them.  Could that be enough?  Is the depth of friendship needed as well?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Mass Effect Mess: Artistic Integrity, Artsitic License, and Commerical Art

A former student of mine, Matt, came up to me with an interesting question about the nature of commercial art and artistic freedom and integrity.  He ran into an intriguing situation in which the creators and consumers of a video game series came into conflict. 
Basically, the whole controversy is based on this epic Space Opera game called Mass Effect. It spans 3 games, and is an open RPG, where you make choices which directly impact your personal experience and roll over through each game. Choices you make in the first game impact what happens in the second and third, so no fans play through is the same, though obviously the overall narrative arc follows a generally similar path. Most of the differences in the story are thus details. Most notably, primary characters can die, and various alien species may be allied with you or not based on your in game decisions, which also impact the strength of humanity in that pantheon.

The overall plot is pretty straight forward for an epic space opera following a standard format, and honestly, the quality and depth of the characters and supporting world is what holds it up. To give you a quick synopsis for reference--Giant robotic alien spaceships called reapers threaten space faring civilizations with destruction every 50,000 years; hiding in deep space until the galaxy is ripe for "harvest." The galactic civilization forms around a nexus of "mass relays" which instantaneously transmit matter to another relay. These artifacts were designed by the reapers and left so that civilization evolves along the pathways they choose. The role of the protagonist is to garner the various races of the galactic community to fight the threat.

The end of the series was terrible beyond words. Basically, the entire series you've been dealing with themes that synthetic and organic life can coexist. If a player has met certain levels, they can make peace between an organic and synthetic race that have been battling for 300 years. But, in the last five minutes of 140 hours of game-play and story, a new character appears, informs the player that synthetics and organics are doomed to kill each other, and that the reapers were created by this character to solve this by killing organics before they create new synthetics which will kill organics.

Basically, in the last minute, the entire series was summed up in the phrase "synthetics will kill organics no matter what, so I made a race of synthetics to kill organics before they make synthetics that will kill organics"

On top of that, we have tons of errors in lore and basic narrative processes. Characters appear in places they cannot possibly be based on where they had been minutes before and act contrary to how we have understand them, player choice is stripped from the player despite the 140 hours solidifying it as the main drive. The protagonist cannot argue with the new character, who then presents 3 choices, each equally terrible--control the reapers and die; destroy all synthetic life, including the synthetic allies that you befriended and whose rights you fought for; or forcibly merge all synthetic and organic life (how this even works is never mentioned). The only in game representation of the different choices is (I kid you not) a change in shade in the ending cinematic. The ultimate player choice is what is your favorite color: red blue or green? 

Obviously the fans were outraged. They had become engrossed in the story and the characters, but it was all stripped from them in the last five minutes. Immediately, the community demanded a new ending that was "fixed." In less than a week, the movement raised $80,000 for a charity that buys video games for kids in hospitals. Bioware's (the producing company) response was to call the fans "entitled whiners" and to stand by the "artistic integrity" of the writing team.

Fans were even more incensed by this. Complaints were filed to the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau for false advertising. The BBB found in favor of the consumers: the advertised claim that the choice of the individual resulted in huge implications and wildly different endings was false advertising. Bioware, under increasing pressure, agreed to release free content by sometime this summer to "clarify" the endings, without changing the actual choices.

What it ultimately boils down to is: A video game was advertised as an epic conclusion that highlighted the choices made by the player, but the choices the player made did not impact the end result in any significant way.  The story of the game abandoned character traits, thematic elements, philosophical ideas, and even basic logic in literally the last 5 minutes. The last five minutes also contain innumerable lore errors and basic narrative failings that completely destroy the suspended disbelief the player has established, ruining the entire 140 hours of game-play they had invested.

The question to draw from this then, is--what is the relationship between consumer and artist when the artist has produced commercial art? If the art does not fulfill basic expectations, can the consumer (who in this case paid $60 for the game) demand an ending that fulfills the promises or at least matches the narrative quality of the series? Or are they simply "entitled whiners"  who are subverting the artistic vision of the writers?

Anyway, I thought this would be something you'd have fun dissecting. It certainly is a question that's been driving me crazy.
So, when an artist has created a community of consumers for his art, does he then forfeit some of his artistic freedom to the expectations that he has created?  Is there a fundamental difference in terms of integrity for commercial and non-commercial artists?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Biography as a Genre

Should we think of biographies primarily as historical or literary works?  What about memoir? 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Typos for the Ages

My Fellow Comedists,

This week we pay homage to the random comedy to which the universe treats us -- the typo. Last year, author Susan Andersen, in the electronic version of her romance novel Baby, I'm Yours discovered a doozy. The line was supposed to read, "He stiffened for a moment but then she felt his muscles loosen as he shifted on the ground," but the "f" in shifted appeared as a "t".

So, what's the best typo you've ever found?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, April 20, 2012

Born to Be Mild: Dick Clark, Jamie Moyer, and Ayn Rand

Reflecting on two news-worthy events this week -- the passing of Dick Clark and the win by Jamie Moyer, the oldest pitcher to ever record a victory -- only further deepens my belief that human greatness of the sort we see championed by the minions of Ayn Rand is antithetical to a real human life well lived.  It is human goodness, not human greatness that we should seek.

Dick Clark was known as "the eternal teenager" because of his seemingly unchanging boyish features and because of his association with rock and roll music.  But in a deep sense, the moniker fails.  Dick Clark never resembled a teenager.  Teens are rebellious and impulsive.  They push the envelope and intentionally try to insight disdain from their elders.  Dick Clark was forever a nice guy, gentle and mild.  American Bandstand and his Rockin' New Years Eve did allow new groups a bigger platform, but it was never threatening, it was always nice.  Dick Clark did not engage the rough and nasty nature of rock and roll; he smoothed it, polished it to a gleaming alabaster white, made it something that was able to be integrated into the respectable middle class ethos. 

It was because of this kind persona that he was so deeply loved.  We looked at Dick Clark and saw a model for humanity.  You could be fun and playful, caring and smart, gentle and likeable and be a success.  It wasn't about exploiting the mistakes of your enemies.  Dick Clark took the errors and fumbles of others and instead of beating people down with them, he showed them as delightful, fully human bloopers that you could claim and have everyone laugh along with you, not at you.  This is success by building others up, by seeing them as worthy companions, not by seeing them as competition that needed to be destroyed for your own advancement.

The other event last week was the victory by Colorado Rockies' pitcher Jamie Moyer at age 49 and a half, the oldest pitcher to ever win a game at the major league level.  In a league where star pitchers throw at or above 100 miles per hour, Jamie Moyer throws in the mid-70s -- at his fastest.  A change-up is a pitch that is meant to fool batters by being so slow that it throws off their timing.  Moyers' fastball is slower than many pitchers' change-ups.  but he has pinpoint control.  He keeps batters guessing by putting the ball in places they don't expect. 

Throwing a baseball is an incredibly unnatural motion.  We are not built for it and it puts strain on tendons and ligaments that damage the body.  The great pitchers, the Bob Fellers and Nolan Ryans blow batters away and so many who strive to be like them destroy their bodies seeking the sort of individual greatness that some would have us set up on a pedestal.  But Moyer took the other route.  He not only holds the record for oldest pitcher with a win, he also holds the record for most home runs surrendered.  No one has given up more long-balls than Moyer.  But he keeps pitching where others would not even imagine it as a possibility.  He is a professional baseball player who is older than half of the major league managers.  He remains among the elite athletes in all the world not by seeking to be great, but by working at being good. 

As we remember Dick Clark and honor Jamie Moyer this week, there is a deeper lesson for all of us.  These two should be held up as role models who did what they did because they did not try to elevate themselves by setting the world on fire, they did it with a thoughtful, concerted approach that led them to consistent good.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Meta-Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics

Michael Schmidt asks,

"In the context of your classroom, what is the significance of Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics? What is the intended significance, and have you found there to be unintended consequences?"
It does three things for me in terms of establishing classroom culture. First, it gets students talking immediately. If a precedent is established from the first moments that you do the talking, they won't talk, even if asked or invited. By getting them to talk right off the bat, the participation rate jumps markedly. It shows that we are not slaves to the syllabus, but here to be interesting and that they have to drive not just get pulled.

Second, it creates an atmosphere of play. Students quickly learn that when I say "ANY questions" I mean ANY questions and they get goofy quickly which I make sure to acknowledge with further goofiness, but also to show how there is smart hidden within the goofy. This makes reticent students more relaxed and willing to ask questions they might worry are stupid, assured that if I took the earlier, clearly stupid question and turned it into something smart, then I would do the same with theirs.

Finally, it functions like an inside joke, it makes the class into a community because we have a common ritual. I regularly have former students, even ones who come back a decade later, say how much they wish they had the "auto mechanics to quantum mechanics" as a regular part of their lives. People enjoy it and it becomes something we as a group share. They'll often come to me with disagreements from the dorms the night before where they'll say, "as we were arguing, we decided that we should ask you today." It becomes a part of our collective culture.

And I enjoy it and it's my classroom, so I'll do as I darn well please.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Moquito Bites and World Records

JB asks,

Why does our brain trigger us to itch a mosquito bite?  It doesn't seem to accomplish anything useful...
Nothing useful at all.  We have two sets of nerves in our bodies, one for sensing big impacts on the body and one for sensing gentle interactions with the surroundings.  This is why rubbing an injury decreases the pain experienced -- the nerves for the big stuff are sending their signal to the brain causing the pain, but the light rubbing fires up the other nerves telling your brain that there is something gentler going on.  This forces your brain to split its attention and thereby give less focus to the pain signal.  In the same way, scratching an itch can not only dislodge the irritant causing the itch, but triggers the big contact nerves and keep the brain from focusing on the sensation of the light touch nerves that causes the itch sensation.

When a mosquito bites you, it injects a chemical to stop clotting so it can take the blood it seeks.  As a result, your body sends histamines to remedy the situation and this in turn causes a swelling in the blood vessels.  This stretches the skin ever so slightly and that disruption from normal triggers the signal from the gentle touch nerves which the brain interprets as an itch. The itch is just a by-product of your body trying to heal itself from the small injury inflicted by the mosquito.

PeterLC asks,
Each year the world's fastest man seems to break his own record (by 100ths of a second).  Since no one could conceivably run a 2 second 100 m dash. What is the maximum speed possible for the human body to run?  There must be a physical limit that can be reached.
 Like yesterday, we cannot put a number on it, but yes, there will be a limit.  Improvement in training techniques and athlete size may always make a record breaking run possible, but like Zeno's racetrack, there's a convergence to a lower limit.  You see this in baseball where pitchers throw no harder now than at any time in history.  Nolan Ryan threw 100 miles per hour and while you'll get someone who can crack 103 or 104 from time to time, you don't see major jumps.  The human body works the way it does and this does put constraints on how fast we can run or throw.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Remakes and Artificial Knees

Gwydion asks,

In the film industry, very few stories are remade. Most of the movies that come out from year to year tell, at least on the surface, new stories. (Not all, but most.) Most novels are new. Most poems as well. Why is the same not true for theater and for music and for dance and for opera?
The difference is in the film, novel, and poetry community as opposed to that of theater, orchestral music, and opera.  For the latter, there is a sense that there was a golden era and it is past.  Quality is achieved by understanding and partaking in the greatness of the masters.  For the former group of artists, the artistry is found in progressing beyond the latest stage, in breaking new ground.  The past is not to be worshiped, but transcended.  It's a hard question as to why certain art forms tend to have communities that look back and others forward.  The obvious line might be art forms that stress performance versus those that stress creation -- but that's just a first order approximation.

Philo asks,
There is technology on the horizon (e.g. nanotechnology) for slowing aging and extending the maximum human lifespan. Let's say it could be extended to 120 years, or 150 years. Is there a maximum to the maximum that should be set? Is there a point at which raising the maximum beyond that causes a problem?
Of course, any number will fail since there will always be degenerate cases -- I know a number of elderly degenerates -- but certainly extending life arbitrarily far is problematic.  Our pieces were not made for the long haul.  Evolution is generally unable to select for anything beyond the age of fertility and so we have eyes, ears, backs, knees, short term memories,... that fail.  Even if we can develop new replacement parts, for example, artificial knees, it is the system as a whole that fades and so I do believe that you will hit an upper limit -- perhaps not of our ability to stave off death, but of the ability to live a full and rewarding life.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Poker and the Self

A Stranger asks, 

"Simple questions this time. Since we've played online poker together before, I felt a desire to ask -What was it like when you were dealt a Royal Flush, and the follow up, how well did you play it? What size was the pot?  I imagine other people thinking they've caught pairs or straights with the royalty, but I can also see you winning with everyone checking til the end."
Actually, I won very little on what is the biggest hand.  When face cards of a common suit start showing up, folks are reticent to bet and when you have it, the last thing you want is everyone to fold and not give you a chance to show it.  So, you check along, hoping someone else will start raising, but often it doesn't happen and it didn't then.  The dream hand turned out not to play out like the dream you might think it would be.  A lesson for life.

Michael Schmidt asks, 
"What is the optimum size of the self?  It doesn't make sense if you take it too literally--but it may be a question worth unpacking. Clearly different people, different cultures and different religions have different notions of how much the "self" should encompass, or how much it should be emphasized. Must the self be maintained at all?"
Clearly related to the poker question.  In the case of the royal straight flush, you want to show it -- in part because it is so unusual and you want people to enjoy the rarity of the moment, but in part because YOU have it.  It is in part ego -- look how strong MY hand is. So, we have here both a sense of belonging to the community that is larger than me and wanting my success to be our success; but then there is also the individuality that is a central characteristic to Western society where I want to celebrate that it is ME, ME, ME and not little old you, none of you. 

That dichotomy is, I believe, one of the central features of human consciousness.  We are capable of holding both subjective and objective perspectives concerning the same events.  On the one hand, the sun, moon, and stars all rise to one side of me and set to the other.  The universe, from my vantage point, does revolve around me.  On the other hand, I can comprehend how completely insignificant I am in the scale and history of the universe.  I can understand what things look like in a way that does not consider its effects on me.  We can both look at a situation and understand it in terms of our own desires, preferences, and history, but also understand what it looks like to someone outside of myself, the proverbial "fly on the wall."  We teach children compassion and empathy first by putting themselves in the place of another -- what would you feel like if you were Jimmy and someone had done that to you? -- then to the no place -- What would you think if you saw someone doing that?  Here, there is no connection with the actor or the victim, just an observation of the act itself as a purely objective occurrence.

It is this ability to switch back and forth that is key to authentic human being.  If the self becomes too large, that is, if we are incapable of thinking beyond ourselves, we give unreasonable degrees of meaning to small things.  We lose our sense of perspective and lose the ability to live in the world outside of our own head.  On the other hand, if the self becomes too small, if we live without an appreciation for the significance things have in our lived experiences of them, we live a meaningless life.  There is a reason no one wants to be Mr. Spock until you have a broken heart.  Being able to occupy an objective standpoint where we can see ourselves from outside is useful and necessary, but it is equally as important to experience our lives as subjects.

So, how big ought the self be?  It depends on the context, but it must not be too much or too little.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechnics: Any Questions?

Been a while since we've last done it, so let's give it a go. I've got a schtick I do every class where I let my students ask any question at all, auto mechanics to quantum mechanics, and we entertain it. When I started the Playground years ago a former student asked if I could do the same thing on-line, so occasionally I open up the blog for anything anyone wants to ask and I try to get to as many as I can during the week.

So, any questions?

Friday, April 13, 2012

Group E-mail vs. Spam

Is there a difference between sending an e-mail to a group of people and spam?  Is the difference based on the number of people contacted?  If so, where is the dividing line between contacting a bunch of folks and sending spam?  Or is it something else?  Is it a matter of the intent of the sender?  If you are letting a bunch of people know about something is that different from electronic cold call selling?  Is it a function of the content of the message?  Does it matter whether you know all of the people on the list?  Is it a depersonalization issue?  What is the essential property of spam?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Are Critics Artists?

It's an old cliche, "Everyone's a critic."  While it may be easy to be critical, it is not easy to be a critic.  Real criticism takes a work of art, literature, or film and uses it as the basis for an insightful discussion that weaves together history, philosophy, and the technical side of the work's field to create a sense of meaning that may or may not be in the work itself. 

Because good criticism can create meaning that transcends that of the object of criticism, we can ask whether criticism itself is an art form.  A poet writing sonnets is bound by a form.  A critic is constrained by the need to work with what is offered by the work.  The two seem similar.  On the other hand, the critic is commenting on, not creating.  Or is she?  Is criticism its own form of art?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Morality and Markets

Barbara from Mahablog has directed my attention to the recent work of Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist Gary Cohn's work on the continuing use of asbestos over at the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance Blog.  Please read it.

While the horrible health effects of asbestos are tragic and well-documented, it is still in regular use in Asia. 

"India, China, and other countries on the continent continue to use – or in some cases, even increase – their dependence on asbestos for cheap roofing insulation, in cement, and other widespread applications."
As a result, the expectation is an epidemic of mesothelioma.

Yes, shame on Asian governments and industries for putting profits before human life and public health.  But it gets more complicated when we ask where the stuff came from.

"Canada, which has largely banned asbestos for domestic use, is the second-largest exporter of asbestos to Asia, behind only Russia... 'It is taking it (asbestos) out of Parliament buildings but willing to sell it overseas.'"
The claim by public health experts is that knowingly selling materials that will cause illness is immoral.  The free market folks would argue that the moral responsibility is on the consumer, those who are buying it and subjecting their fellow citizens to the risk.  The Canadians didn't expose the workers to the substance, the line goes, they are just filling demand in the marketplace.  So, are you responsible for effects that come from selling something to someone else if the consumer is a responsible adult?  Does it matter if the negative outcome is foreseeable?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What's the Difference: Happiness, Joy, and Contentment

So many people wished me a happy birthday (thanks everyone), that it started me thinking about happiness.  Aristotle devotes a significant amount of space in the Nicomachean Ethics to the question, so let's play with it in this turn's "what's the difference."

What is the difference between happiness, joy, and contentment?

Monday, April 09, 2012

Continuity of Self

Today is my birthday and it is fun to look at all of the greetings on Facebook from folks I've known over the entire range of my life.  Some who know me only as a graying department chair and others who knew me as a member of the red group in Wellwood Elementary, and every phase in between.  Seeing the mix of folks from all of the different places and stages and reflecting on who it is to whom they think they are sending birthday greetings, it does make you wonder if they are all going to the same person. 

If you look at the evolutionary development of a given type of animal, there are points along the line that we designate as different species.  They are related, but they are signified as different even though they are all points along the same developmental history.  In the same way, as we trace our own timelines, are there spots where we say "that was a different person"?  We have memories that span the time, more or less.  Does that give individuals a unity that species don't have?  Is it something else?  Am I the same person I was then -- whenever then happens to be?

Saturday, April 07, 2012

The Feast of Saint Tom

My Fellow Comedists,

I am humbled to share a birthday this week with a true Comedist saint, Tom Lehrer. An undergraduate and masters students at Harvard in mathematics in the late 40s and early 50s, he began to play novelty songs in the Cambridge area. Eventually, he spent $15 and made a record in 1953, "Songs by Tom Lehrer" -- recording all of the songs in one one hour session -- which he initially just sold around Harvard for $3.

He was a local underground success, with friends of friends at Harvard ordering copies from other universities until a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle got a copy and suddenly he was nationwide. He began to play shows in New York and sales began to pick up although major labels and radio refused him because of his controversial lyrics.

He joined the army for two years from '55-'57 -- a sure fire way to avoid the draft -- and after getting out he continued to write putting out another album in '59, "More Songs by Tom Lehrer."

The album was successful, he began touring which led to the live album "An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer," and then realized that he hated playing the same thing every night and gave up the road the next year. In the mid-sixties, he wrote for the television program "That Was the Week That Was" and collected the songs onto one last album "That Was the Year That Was." In the 70s, he did some work with "The Electric Company," but for all intents and purposes, he gave up show business altogether, teaching the occasional course in math or musical theater at the University of California Santa Cruz when he feels like it.

Tom Lehrer was counterculture before there was a counterculture. He was a wordsmith and punster par excellence who was not afraid to be smart. Coming from the Cold War 50s when the powers that were were not all that bright, he lampooned with razor sharp insights and a wit to match. He was part of a movement with people like Stan Freberg who were clean cut, educated, intellectual, political and just plain funny.

Happy birthday, Tom Lehrer. Thank you for all the laughs for all the years.

Live, love, laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, April 06, 2012

The Irrationality of Being a Fan

Today is opening day for the Orioles.  I'm a lifelong O's fan and my kids have been junior Orioles for the last five years -- I figure, well, you have to learn to cuss sometime.  In long discussions about the nature of bring a fan with Playground regular Jeff Maynes, he points out how irrational it is.  First, you are putting your hopes in something beyond your control.  But further, it is something that is most likely to lead to your ultimate disappointment.  The expectation value of being a fan is negative.  The likelihood of joy and the degree of happiness you can hope for when compared with the likelihood and depth of disappointment makes the decision to be a fan irrational.

This seems to be true even if there is a higher expectation value for success.  If you are a fan of a team in a large market that goes out and buys the best players every year, then you expect to win and thus get less joy from the actual success and deeper disappointment when they don't.  Increasing the likelihood of success does not seem to change the irrationality of being a fan.

So, why then do we do it?  Why do we willingly tie our happiness to the slim chances of others on the playing field?

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Best Friends

Given that "best" is a superlative, can one have more than one best friend? How many could one have and still rightly claim that all are best friends?

We have special moral obligations to friends on the basis of the relationship, but are there special additional moral responsibilities we have to best friends? If so, is it a matter of degree or a matter of kind?

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Is TED Indicative of a Healthier Public Discourse?

I was on a plane flying cross-country a couple weeks back and had a couple standard business suit types on the other side of the aisle with their shiny new iPads.  During the flight, they were both watching TED talks they had downloaded to pass the hours.  They intentionally chose to make "the smart" a part of their routine. It made me wonder whether we are seeing a change in the public discourse.

There have always been outlets for intelligent conversation in the media.  NPR, PBS, and The New York Review of Books are out there, but their audiences are a closed group.  TED seems to be expanding the circle.  Intelligent, thoughtful talks are being seen as mainstream entertainment options, as pleasurable ways to pass time.  Because of lousy high school instruction, we often lump thinking and learning in with the "have to" stuff, the work.  We take the "want to" as mindless relaxing.  As a result, we have become intellectually lazy in the way we talk about hard issues and have allowed experts to be discounted as "elites" and not as a necessary part of the discussion. 

At the same time, the experts have created a world in which their reward structure is completely predicated on talking to each other.  Professors are recognized and get raises not for making a difference, but for publishing in technical journals.  If lots of people read and understand what you are doing, that is a BAD thing because if you were doing serious work, only a dozen people in the world would be able to have a sense of it.  As a result, the people most needed at the table have refused to sit down.  TED, and the cultural place it is occupying, seems to be starting to change that.  The notion of a public intellectual seems to be creeping back in.

TED has branched out and local TEDx groups are popping up.  (Indeed, for those in the area, I'll be giving a TEDx talk along with the inimitable John Commito and Dusty Smith and alums Luke Norris and Sarah Calhoun on April 18th at Gettysburg College.)  This movement seems to be coming out of a need, a desire for smart talk.  Is this something that will change the way we talk about issues in the world in a significant way?  Is it a canary in the cultural coalmine or just a flash in the social pan?

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Is English Only Making Us Stupid?

Research shows that there are cognitive advantages to bilingualism.  Speaking more than one language makes you smarter.  Neuroscientists are examining the ways in which strengthening particular regions of the brain that are connected with specific functions benefits the working of the general area and therefore the ability to carry out tasks beyond that immediate function.  Others consider the ability to think through multiple sets of concepts and being able to see things from different perspectives and the advantages that brings.

So, when I hear about English only movements and proposed legislation, it makes me wonder whether such positions are designed to make us dumber.  There has always been a deep anti-intellectualism in this country, especially from those with strong nationalist leanings and English only is clearly based on a desire to claim ownership of the culture for a specific group.  English only tends to be championed by folks who are not the most proficient speakers of English, are based on biases against certain groups, and come with a deep reticence to entertain a global perspective and the insights that come with thinking differently.

This is a nation of immigrants.  Virtually all of us come from ancestors who spoke a different language. Yet, the bilingualism is often lost on the third generation.  The cognitive boost of bilingualism is an advantage that recent immigrants have over those who have been in the country for generations.  There is certainly an advantage to being raised in a culture -- knowledge of how things work, what can be done, and the ability to pick up subtleties.  Is English Only an attempt to keep newer immigrants from having an advantage of their own?

People who speak multiple languages are either foreigners or liberal elites, both of whom are groups to be feared and opposed.  Joe Six-pack is also Joe One-language.  Seeing Russia from your front porch makes you tough and savvy, but being able to speak Russian makes you someone whose liberal indoctrination, also known as education, makes you less able to make reasonable decisions.  Is English only just closed-minded and exclusionary or is it meant to retard social intelligence?

Monday, April 02, 2012

Compare and Contrast: Animal Farm and Animal House

Had an idea for a possible recurring theme, Compare and Contrast.  So, let's see how it goes.

Compare and contrast Animal Farm and Animal House.

My take -- in both cases we see the cautionary tales about power and repressive regimes.  When a non-democratic structure causes power to rest in the hands of a small group, it inevitably gives rise to oppression and to the rise of anti-structural organizations which see the enemy not only as those in power, but the power structure itself.  However, where in Animal Farm, Napoleon sought to leave that power structure in place and assume control of it in the name of fairness, Dorfman, Bluto and company sought an anarchist solution.  The irony, of course, being that at the very end of Animal House, when we learn that John Blutarsky would go on to become a United States Senator, it does seem that we see him transforming into a structural insider and thus something more akin to Napoleon.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Happy Saint Shecky's Day!

My Fellow Comedists,

On this, the holiest day of the year for us, Saint Shecky's Day, I bring you greetings and inspiration.

Comedism began when the great Cosmic Comic taught the teacher. I was a younger instructor, teaching just my third class, a night course in ethics, when I was trying to draw a distinction between moral precepts and cultural mores. A student in the front row raised his hand and asked, "Steve, what are mores?" Looking him straight in the eye, I said, "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's a more." I knew instantly that set-ups that perfect don't just happen randomly, that was divine comedic intervention. I was in the presence of something bigger, funnier than all of us.

A few years later, I was teaching a class in philosophy of religion at the United States Naval Academy and the topic was Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God which claims that an all-perfect being necessarily exists. By an all-perfect being, he meant all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful. But missing from the Judeo-Christian God was the property of being all-funny. Surely, being funny is a virtue, yet nowhere in the Abrahamic holy texts are there any good punchlines, no one-liners, not even a thy-mama joke.

And so I realized that I was being called to start a new religion -- Comedism -- in which that which is holy is that which is funny. Our central tenet is that the universe is a joke and only the righteous shall get it. Jokes have two parts, a set-up and a punchline. The set-up leads you to think of something in one way, but the punchline makes you realize that there was another interpretation, an entirely different way of seeing the situation and the humor is in the mind's futile attempt to rectify these distinct ways of understanding. Our belief that the universe is a joke means that there is ALWAYS more than one way to understand things, there are always different perspectives. Comedism, therefore, can have no fundamentalists who think they have the one and only truth as there is no one and only truth. Wisdom is being able to see things simultaneously in multiple ways, with multiple meanings. That is how to live the good life, the holy life.

And when that life is over, your soul ascends to the pearly gates and there behind them stands Saint Shecky with the great book of judgment. Throughout your life, you are provided with a number of set-ups. Those, like "that's a more" that you make into jokes count in your favor. But those you miss... A time later, I was out taking a walk and was working my way up a big hill when a couple passed me in the other direction. They both looked at me funny and when we were within speaking distance, the man said to me, "Didn't we just see you with a dog?" I said no, that he must have me mistaken for someone else, but as they continued on past me, I realized that the correct answer was "Excuse me, THAT was my wife." I had missed it. The universe gave me the chance, and I blew it. That counts as one against. Saint Shecky has the tally and if you've made more jokes than you missed, you are welcomed in to sit at Groucho's right hand. If you've missed more than you made, you are sent to comedy hell where it is hot and all water is in dribble glasses, all chairs have whoopie cushions, and you are forced to watch reruns of Three's Company for all of eternity.

Our holy book, of course, is the Comedist Manifesto. You may read excerpts here and here. Unlike other religions, we believe in gay marriage because we don't think it's prpoer to deprive our gay and lesbian members of mother-in-law jokes and because "Take my civilly united, legally recognized, domestic partner, please" just really destroys the timing.

People ask me whether I'm serious about Comedism being a religion. I tell them, of course not, if I was serious, it wouldn't be holy. So, for those who are already practicing Comedists, happy Saint Shecky's Day. For those who would wish to join us, everyone is welcome, just be funny.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve