Thursday, May 31, 2012

Spelling Bee and Scrabble Champions

Today is the climax of the national spelling bee.  The field has been cut to fifty and the competition is heating up.  But what should we think of the winner?  If you win the Boston marathon or the Olympic 100 meter dash, you could rightly be called the world's fastest person.  If you win boxing's heavyweight belt or the mixed martial arts championship, you may lay claim to being the world's toughest person.  But what should we think of the champion speller? 

Surely, not the world's smartest.  The word smart is multifaceted and it seems odd that any of them would be well-measured by one's knowledge of spelling.  Not most well-read.  Now, there is clearly a correlation between the amount of reading one does and the strength of one's vocabulary.  Knowing the spellings of a wide range of words would be one way to assess one's vocabulary and thereby indirectly how well-read.  But these spellers prepare for this competition.  They train, not by reading widely, but by learning and drilling words and roots.

It's not entirely dissimilar from the case of Panupol Sujjayakorn, the non-English speaking competitive Scrabble champion of the world.  He is from Thailand and memorized legal strings of letters, but does not speak English.  He is the greatest living player of the game Scrabble, but it seems that part of the fun of the game is the gestalt switch, seeing really cool words pop out of a random array of letter tiles.  If those words are not part of your spoken language, some sense of the game seems to be lost.

So, we should celebrate the young person who wins the national spelling bee tonight, but, I wonder, for what?  What does this victory signify?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Joan of Arc and Evidence of the Divine

Today is the anniversary of the execution of Joan of Arc. She was burned at the stake for being a heretic by the pro-English government of Burgundy for claiming to have Divine inspiration in leading anti-British French troops against them in an effort to reunite France under the Catholic Charles VII. One side believed she was in touch with God and the other side killed her for believing that she was falsely saying so.

What would count as evidence in such a case? If someone came to you in all seriousness and claimed to be able to speak with God, what sort of confirmation would be necessary for such a proposition? What would be needed for reasonable belief?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Rite of Spring Riot

This is the 99th anniversary of the premier of Igor Stravinsky's ballet "Rite of Spring" in Paris. It is a musical dance tribute to pre-Christian Russian paganism, especially focused on some sense of the fertility ritual. Not only is this an edgy subject for a ballet, but Stravinsky's music is fully of odd rhythms and melodic dissonance. All of this is interesting enough, but it was the reception was as tension-filled as the score. The Right of Spring riot began with the audience divided into those who appreciated the work and those who were appalled by it. Arguments broke out and became more and more intense. The police were called in to settle things down, but once the second act began, even their presence was of no use and a full-fledged riot resulted. Stravinsky himself fled the scene in fear.

Today, the idea of a ballet-inspired riot is comical. We see riots after sporting events or at funerals in countries on the verge or in the midst of civil wars, but not art-inspired riots or even serious passions from virtually anything else. Why not? Is it that we take our lives less seriously? Is it that we have achieved a level of comfort where we refuse to let anything stir the emotions to the point that rouses us from our contentment? Is it a cultural maturity where we have learned to disagree more constructively? Is it a result of social segregation where we only consume art and entertainment with those who agree with us? Is it that our arts and intellectual activities have lost the edge they had a century ago, now everything being polished for the marketplace? Why don't we have ballet hooligans?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Towel Day

My Fellow Comedists,

Yesterday was Towel Day, the international celebration of the work of Douglas Adams. Like all other nerds who love comedy, Douglas Adams was my hero. His dry, smart, playful humor has made him a modern day Lewis Carroll.

My favorite passage:

The principle of generating small amounts of finite improbability by simply hooking the logic circuits of a Bambelweeny 57 Sub-Meson Brain to an atomic vector plotter suspended in a strong Brownian Motion producer (say a nice hot cup of tea) were of course well understood — and such generators were often used to break the ice at parties by making all the molecules in the hostess's undergarments leap simultaneously one foot to the left, in accordance to the theory of indeterminacy.

Many respectable physicists said that they weren't going to stand for this, partly because it was a debasement of science, but mostly because they didn't get invited to those sorts of parties.

Another thing they couldn't stand was the perpetual failure they encountered while trying to construct a machine which could generate the infinite improbability field needed to flip a spaceship across the mind-paralyzing distances between the farthest stars, and at the end of the day they grumpily announced that such a machine was virtually impossible.

Then, one day, a student who had been left to sweep up after a particularly unsuccessful party found himself reasoning in this way: If, he thought to himself, such a machine is a virtual impossibility, it must have finite improbability. So all I have to do in order to make one is to work out how exactly improbable it is, feed that figure into the finite improbability generator, give it a fresh cup of really hot tea... and turn it on!

He did this and was rather startled when he managed to create the long sought after golden Infinite Improbability generator. He was even more startled when just after he was awarded the Galactic Institute's Prize for Extreme Cleverness he was lynched by a rampaging mob of respectable physicists who had realized that one thing they couldn't stand was a smart-ass.

Two questions. First, your favorite Douglas Adams passage. Second, what is the difference between The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and an iPad rigged to only access Wikipedia?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, May 25, 2012

Noah Webster: Founding Father of Political Correctness

The phrase "political correctness" may have been coined within the last few decades, but the concepts behind it and the initial attempts to put them in action may be found in the earliest years of our country.  Noah Webster is best remembered for compiling the eponymous dictionary.  That dictionary, its methodology, and intent are pure PC.

Webster believed that the United States not only needed to be politically independent of the British, but further that this independence would only be complete if it was fully cultural as well.  The British governmental system was pregnant with basic social values -- people are divided into higher and lower classes, the power and wealth was to be unevenly distributed based on this split, the powerful have the right to dictate every aspect of life to the less powerful.  This was not an unusual view to hold, but Webster took an additional step -- the problematic social values were contained in the language and as long as Americans spoke the British language, we would be unconsciously buying into their morally problematic cultural ethic.  If we are to be us, to be fully liberated, then we must have our own language, our own English, not the King's English, but the American people's English.

And so Webster took an American approach.  Where the King's English was a set of formal rules and meanings grammatically imposed upon the people with the power of the name of the monarch, American English would come democratically from the people, documented as was actually spoken.  Instead of being an authority that dictates what words mean and how they are used, it would instead be an empirically-based document that describes what colonial speakers mean by the words and how they use them. 

This is a striking precognition of the political correctness movement of the 80s and 90s in which language was seen as containing subconscious conceptual frameworks of subjugation put in place by an unequal power structure.  The way to liberate the oppressed was to reform the language so it no longer contained the old invisible connotations.  The next time you go to the dictionary to look up a word, realize that your action is intrinsically the hallmark of political correctness.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Is Addiction Itself Problematic?

I had lunch yesterday with my editors from Johns Hopkins University Press and one of them who ordered a cup of coffee was making light of her supposed caffeine addiction.  It leads to the question whether such an addiction would be a problem.  Suppose you are a fully functioning addict -- addicted to whatever it is -- and the addiction does not harm your ability to have the life you want and does not cause hardship to those you care about.  Maybe you really enjoy the object of your addiction.  Is this a problem?  Addiction, by its nature is a forfeiting of autonomy.  Doesn't an addiction, in this way, make you less human?  But if your life is no worse, is it problematic?  Is it addiction or the effects of many addictions that are problematic?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Should Computers Be Allowed on the Sidelines?

Laptops and iPads are now used extensively in sports. From scouting to playbooks, like everything else it is all going electronic. If allowed during games, coaches and players could analyze opponents' tendencies and pick up on weaknesses with statistical and video applications designed to allow them to see things they could not see. It would take the game to a higher level. But is that level sportsmanlike? Is the use of the computer like better training or is it like a corked bat? Would it remove an element from sport that needs to be essentially human? Should computers be allowed in the dugout and on the sideline?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Pity Party

It's been a very long time since we've pulled this one out of moth balls.  The question is simple, "Whom do you feel sorry for?"

I feel sorry for the Chinese security officer who was in charge of overseeing Chen Guangcheng's house arrest.  I cannot imagine what it must have felt like to have to call your superior and tell him that the blind man under house arrest whom you were supposed to be watching had escaped.  How do you say "Inspector Clouseau" in Mandarin?

I feel sorry for people who thought they were going to be making a killing on the Facebook IPO only to have the price go down.  I guess there's a difference between liking a stock and "liking" a stock.

So, whom do you feel sorry for?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Are Honorary Degrees Earned?

It was commencement weekend and like all other schools we were honoring people with honorary degrees. Karl Mattson, our longtime chaplain and founder of Gettysburg College's Center for Public Service was so honored. Barbara Ehrenreich was supposed to be, but was unfortunately unable to attend at the last moment. Both wonderful people who have made a difference in the world.

It brings to mind words of a colleague who commented that honorary degrees are the only degrees granted, but not earned. Is this true?

Friday, May 18, 2012

How Common Are Epiphanies?

I went down the Center for American Progress in DC yesterday to record an interview with Rev. Welton Gaddy -- very nice and smart guy who tirelessly works not only for separation of church and state, but for a real caring, thoughtful brand of Christianity -- for his program "State of Belief." It was an interesting conversation in which he asked me interesting questions about the book and the relation between science, religion, and politics. He asked me the question I was expecting about meaningfulness for life in contemporary culture, but he also asked me about any epiphanies I had in working on the book. I had several aha moments connecting dots I never realized connected that way and so I chose one to discuss.

But the question interests me. The assumption -- and I think it is a fair one -- is that if someone spends a couple years working on a topic consistently, there are bound to be those moments of sudden insight. But not everyone has the luxury of researching a single topic and getting into the weeds where these hidden connections often remain obscured from view. Would it be a fair question, say, at a dinner party with someone new you've just met -- "tell me about the most recent epiphany you've had." (Yes, I realize that is not a question.) Are epiphanies a regular part of human life as normally lived? If someone asked you that (non)question at a dinner party would you be able to respond easily? And...what would your response be?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Is Beauty an Ethical Notion?

Beauty enhances life. A life lived surrounded by beauty is a better life than one not. Does this mean that beauty is a moral concept? Do we have an obligation to make the world more beautiful if we can? Do we have a moral duty to create beauty?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What's the Difference: Equality, Justice, and Fairness

We were talking about bathrooms the other day.  I mentioned that in my building at work, on the top floor there used to be one single stall men's and one single stall women's room.  They have since chanced the men's room into a unisex bathroom.  My son protested that this was unfair since females of the floor had a bathroom and a half, but the guys only had a half a bathroom.  It was a good point to discuss the difference between equality and fairness.

It reminded me of an old bit Michael Moore did on his short-lived television show, TV Nation.  He loaded three super nice porta-pots on a flatbed truck with a big sign that read "Johns of Justice" and took it to movie theaters where the lines for men's and ladies' rooms are certainly asymmetrical in length.  "Justice" is a great word for this discussion.   

So, in terms that a smart nine year old would understand, what is the difference between fairness, equality, and justice?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Meanings of Clowns

Today is Wavy Gravy's 76th birthday. A peace activist who has dedicated his life to making this a kinder place for all who live on the planet, he has done work both small and local and large and global. And he's a clown.

I heard an interview with him years ago where he explained that he actually is a clown and was going to an anti-war march one day when his schedule was unexpectedly tight. He didn't have time to stop home after bringing joy at a children's hospital and so went to the peace rally in costume. It became apparent quickly that the right-wing roughians didn't look so manly beating up a clown and thus left him alone. So he began regularly showing up to events dressed as a clown -- both as a political statement about what a circus the world had become and as a matter of personal safety.

Wavy Gravy's birthday coincides with the release of a new film by Bobcat Goldthwait whose initial film was "Shakes, the Clown" -- called "the Citizen Kane of drunk clown movies." Add to that the news of the weird which has focused on a new business where you can hire an evil clown to stalk your child on his or her birthday, and there's just too much clowningness in the world right now not to comment.

Clowns began as comedic performers. They were meant to be funny with their zany slapstick antics. But with the ability to amplify voices, linguistic comedy has all but replaced clowning. The are certainly some who have maintained and extended the art -- Bill Irwin and Roberto Benigni, for example. Cirque du Soleil has even brought back the circus clown to our collective consciousness as an artist. But the clown has taken on new meaning. Whether it is a sense of obsolescence -- "Bozo" being an insult like the term "clown" itself -- or the sense that they are not funny, but to be feared. It has become cliche to invoke a fear of clowns, especially after a string of clown-based horror films.

Why did clowning change its cultural meaning? Was it Ringling Brothers and the failure to innovate? Was it inevitable? Can anyone rejuvenate clowning or is it a thing of past?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Are Late Night Talk Shows Obsolete?

This is the 50th anniversary of Johnny Carson taking over the Tonight Show. Steve Allen and Jack Paar made the show an important part of the television landscape, but Carson turned it into an American institution. Even after his departure, the next generation of hosts -- David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Conan O'Brien -- maintained a sense of relevance for the slot. But with the proliferation of entertainment and media options, have these programs lost their place in our culture?

For the last bunch of election cycles, appearing on them was essential. Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on Arsenio is as iconic a political broadcast moment as the Checkers speech or the Kennedy/Nixon debate. For comedians, playing Carson was the gateway to a career. But the stature seems to have been lost.

Is this the case? Are late night humor/interview shows no longer the cultural powerhouses they once were? If so , why? Is it the hosts? the writing? Is it the technology? the times?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Does Fiddler on the Roof Have a Happy Ending?

The less short of the short people completed a run of Fiddler on the Roof last weekend (she was a wonderful Yente). So, as I watched four performances in three days, i was left with this question -- does it have a happy ending?  Is the answer to that question perspective-dependent?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

So What Are These Ethical Issues Around Gay Marriage?

With North Carolina's enshrinement of bigotry into their state constitution and Obama's evolution to accepting the need for gay men and lesbians to receive fair and equal treatment under the law, there has been lots of talk about the ethical dilemma of gay marriage.  O.k., sure I teach and write professional articles about ethics, so one would expect that I could clearly enunciate the conundrum that accompanies this issue.  But I've got to tell you, as far as I can see -- there just ain't one.

The question is whether we should discriminate against a minority and make sure that they have second class status or whether we should afford all citizens equal treatment under the law with all the rights, protections, and responsibilities that come with it.  Ummmm...o.k., so where's the hard moral question?

Is it contrary to some theologies?  Yeah.  But being theologically problematic does not make it moral so. Orthodox Jews won't drive on Saturday.  Doing so isn't immoral, it just means you're not a good orthodox Jew.  Catholics won't eat meat on Fridays during lent.  Doing so isn't thereby immoral, it just makes you not a good Catholic.  Theology and morality are completely different subjects.

Abortion?  Yeah, hard moral issues.  Balancing security and privacy?  Yeah, hard moral issues.  Balancing social justice and economic growth?  Yeah, hard moral issues.  Gay marriage?  Where are these hard moral issues?

Someone please help.  Where, oh where are these moral issues in the gay marriage debate?

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

What Is Priceless?

The sale of the last privately owned version of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" has me thinking about the old Mastercard commercials where they list a number of purchases and the cost of each, only to end with something emotional that gets labeled "priceless."  What is meant by that word? 

We talk about cultural treasures, like great works of art, as priceless, yet they do sell for amounts.  Similarly, your child's happiness is important, but wouldn't you skip that ballgame or that ice cream cone if someone offered you a large enough sum of money or if you needed to in order to keep your job that pays the Mastercard bill? 

Theologians have long had a debate about the God's eternal nature.  Does it mean that God is present at each moment of time or does it mean that God exists outside of the realm of time?  If it is the latter, what does it mean and why use a temporal predicate to indicate it?

Similarly, if we say that something is priceless, does that mean its cost is infinite or it exists outside of the realm of cost?  If it is the former, then no amount of money would cause you to forgo it.  If it is the latter, what does it mean and why use a financial predicate to indicate it?

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Sacred Right of Complaint

With several elections going on today, it seems appropriate to bring out this one.  I heard someone the other day utter the old chestnut "I vote because if you don't, you have no right to complain."  It's a veritable cliche of American democracy.  But what is so important about complaining and why is this an alienable right? 

There are several presupposition in the claim: 

First, is a sense of political fatalism.  No matter who gets elected, there will be something worthy of complaint. Things are going to be messed up.  We don't say that if you don't vote, you have no right to celebrate.  Surely, those in office make some things better?  But this is irrelevant to why you should vote.  Politics is not to make the society a better place because it just ain't gonna happen. 

Second, there is value in being able to express your complaint.  Suffering is bad, suffering in silence is significantly worse.  It would be horrible if you had something to complain about and couldn't express your displeasure to those around you.

Third, there is nothing that can be done about these things by those who are unelected.  If you are not in elected office, you cannot make things better in the society.  Complaining about the situation -- which doesn't alter it, but allows you to express your dislike -- is all that you have. 

Fourth, it is only by choosing a candidate that you are awarded the right of complaint.  This is a right you are granted by action.  Cast a vote, get the right to complain.  If you see something wrong but didn't submit your ballot, no fair pointing it out.   Not that voting would have changed it (see presupposition 1), but the fact that you didin't do this one little thing means you have no right to be upset about it or to voice that displeasure.

All four of these presuppositions seem completely false.  Voting is a good thing, it can change the world.  Voters in North Carolina, for example, are once again trying to write bigotry into law.  Voting could stop this if enough caring people vote.  Politics can make the world a better or worse place and there are any number of ways that one can participate in political life and other ways that can improve the world.  Vote.  Please vote.  But do it for the right reasons, not just to be able to complain without guilt.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Groucho and Pure Jokes

My Fellow Comedists,

I was unable to get this weekend's comedist post up in time, so let's do it today.  This week marks the 50th anniversary of Groucho's last public performance.  An aging Groucho was slipping into depression, so his nurse arranged to have a one-night-only affair at Carnegie Hall called "An Evening with Groucho" where he told stories and jokes to a packed house of admiring fans.

It seems like a fine time to think about a claim made by Ted Cohen in his book Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters.  Cohen draws a distinction between conditional jokes that would only be understood by a group of people who had specialized knowledge presupposed in the joke and pure jokes that could be understood by everyone.  He then claims that there are no pure jokes.  All jokes, he contends, require some specialized understanding.

Is this true?  Are there any pure jokes? 

I heard Dick Cavett on the radio recounting one of his last dinners with Groucho in which a couple came up to the table and the man asked Groucho to insult his wife to which Groucho replied that "With a wife like that you should be able to think up your own insults."   Is that not a pure joke?  What group is that restricted to?  Or what about the classic line from Animal Crackers "I got up one morning and shot an elephant in my pajamas.  what he was doing in my pajamas, I'll never know."  What is the restrictions on that one?

Are there really no pure jokes?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, May 04, 2012

Dartmouth, Fraternities, and Arguing from (near) Ignorance

If you haven't read the Rolling Stone expose on fraternity life at Dartmouth, do.  It paints a disgusting picture of what goes on in the fraternities of an elite liberal arts college.

You have organizations run by pre-adults with no oversight. The culture convinces the young people that they need to be in such an organization to have a good life -- on and beyond campus -- and thus sets them in a place to be taken advantage of by those in the in-group.  Once inside, the reward structure is based on machismo and having a story beyond those now told.  Because the structure is ossified, this inevitably leads to a ratcheting up where each new class needs to top the last year's class in terms of antisocial behavior.  It gets worse and worse with no external check to keep it in balance.

This structure is not unique to Dartmouth.  So, for those of us who work on campuses with robust Greek organizations that are not Dartmouth, how much can we infer about the workings of our Greek system from this peek into that of another college?  Because of the code of silence within the fraternity world, we know little to nothing about what they do.  We are arguing from a state of ignorance.  We now have a data point from which we can make an argument by analogy.  How much weight can we give to such an argument?  How much can we infer about our non-Dartmouth Greek world from a peek into Dartmouth's?  how unique will these be and how much a function of similar structural elements?

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Mitt Romney and Richard Grennell: Is There an Obligation to Stand Up for Your People?

The Richard Grennell flap has me thinking.  Mitt Romney hired a gay conservative who worked under John Bolton in the George W. Bush administration to be his spokesperson for foreign policy matters.  Grennell is open about his sexual orientation.  It was no secret.  A presidential campaign vets everyone who works for them in significant places, especially as talking heads.  They knew he is gay. 

They also know they are Republicans.  So, when the howls of indignation predictably came from social conservatives that the GOP presumptive nominee had a gay man working for him, they built to the point where Grennell felt the need to step down.

What has me baffled is the handling of the flap by the Romney people.  They knew it was coming and thought that the best idea was to do nothing about it and let it blow over.  They told Grennell not to appear in public to "be quiet and not to speak up until it went away and let it go away" -- which, of course, it didn't.  There was a passive instead of an active defense from the Romney campaign.  They never stood up for their own.  they never showed the backbone that one would expect when a member of the group was being attacked.  I understand that it would be politically difficult to risk alienating the conservatives who already view him suspiciously.  But he hired him.  Isn't defending your people what you are supposed to do for a member of your team?

Feminist ethicists of 70s and 80s drew a distinction between contractual relationships that we find in the marketplace and care-based relationships we find in personal life and worked to differentiate the obligations we have in the different spheres.  Here is a contractual situation -- Grennell was hired as an employee to work for an organization.  But isn't there something more like a care-based duty to stand up and stand behind your people when you are the one who hired them?

Is there a moral obligation to stand up for your people?  Should those hired have the reasonable expectation that they will be defended by the organization they have chosen to accept an invitation to join?  The association isn't accidental, he was selected and courted.  Do those actions come with moral requirements?

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

It's ALIVE!: Einstein's Jewish Science is Available

I've gotten independent confirmation from two sources -- including my friend Mohunch -- that Einstein's Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion is now available.  The first batch has already been shipped to pre-order folks by Amazon (although they ran out of their initial order and Johns Hopkins University Press has sent them more).  It has been seen at brick and mortal retailers, you know, bookstores.  If you are an e-reader person, it is downloadable from Amazon, but not yet at Barnes and Noble (that's for English, the Yiddish language version only works on selected oy-readers like the chai-pad).

I'm tickled with the way it came out and hope that it will be an enjoyable read for everyone.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Einstein's Cosmopolitan Science

The videos of the talks from the first annual Gettysburg TEDx are up.

Here's mine on Einstein's Cosmopolitan Science:

Luke Norris on social change:

John Commito on groups and creativity:

Sarah Calhoun on Red Ants Pants: