Friday, June 29, 2012

The Real Analytic/Continental Divide: Fashion

We wrap up Turing Week with one of my favorite all-time posts:

There is a civil war in philosophy. On one side you have the continental philosophers -- think cigarette-smoking, angst-ridden souls who try to impress you by randomly lapsing into French, German, and Greek -- and on the other you have analytic philosophers -- think science-worshipping logic techno-geeks. Aspazia, a few days ago, set out the distinction in terms of the respective rhetorical bad habits of each side. I've always thought the real difference is that the continentals got dates.

Then I realized the real dividing Walk into a meeting of the American Philosophical Association and without saying a word to anyone, you could easily partition the crowd into continental and analytic classes by just looking at the clothes. (The third group of philosophers -- Americanists -- can also be easily spotted: they're the ones in front of the hall with big pleading eyes and signs that say, "Will talk about Dewey for food.") Analytics and continentals dress differently...and that's putting it nicely. Continentals dress themselves to the nines whereas it is hard to find nine analytics who can dress themselves. So, being a science-worshipping logic techno-geek, I started to think about what accounted for this difference...and I believe I have an answer:

The nature of fashion is predicated upon the satisfaction of the "goes with" relation, G. An outfit meets the conditions of fashion acceptability only if it is comprised of a bottom covering, b, and a top covering, t, such that it is true that Gtb.

While the satisfaction of the "goes with" relation for top and bottom coverings is a necessary condition for an outfit to be categorized as "sharp," it is not sufficient for sharpness as the if-clause requires accessorization.

Initially, it was thought that accessories would require the "goes with" relation to be expanded from a binary to an arbitrary n-ary relation, but it was shown possible to group accessorization constants into a single variable which have been determined to satisfy the relation themselves. That is, one can show that shoes and a belt go together independent of the outfit and that if a given bottom covering, say a particular pair of pants P, and given top covering, say a given shirt S, have been demonstrated to go together, that is for which GPS has already been demonstrated, then for a pair of shoes, h, to be fashion acceptable they must satisfy the "goes with" relation G(PS)h. Such iterations must be repeated until a complete outfit has been assembled.

The reason why analytic philosophers (and similarly mathematicians and cognitive scientists) have a difficult time dressing themselves or dress poorly is that the satisfaction of any sentence involving the "goes with" relation is not finitely decidable. There is no algorithm by which one can in a finite amount of time, much less in the morning before you are too late for class, decide with deductive certainty whether an outfit is sharp and properly accessorized. Now, there are rules which by which we can rule out entire classes of ordered pairs, e.g., let x be a member of the class of checked clothing and y be a member of the class of striped clothing, it is fairly trivial to show that for all such x and all such y, Gxy must be false (I leave it as an exercise to the reader to provide a proof). But for the general case there is no finitely executable decision procedure such that for any two arbitrary articles of clothing one may determine the satisfaction of G.

There were, of course, hopes in the 40s and 50s for such a breakthrough. But the dream of a "Cou-turing machine" faded with the suicide of Alan Turing. "Not only did he have the greatest mind in history for devising formal solutions to problems like this, but as a snazzy dressing gay man himself, he was the only one who could bring all the elements together -- the Carson Kressley of the post-war computation theory set. Bloody MI-5, with their homophobic poppycock," a former colleague was reported to have said, "They doomed all of us geeks to a series of lonely Saturday nights."

While that explains the lack of fashion sense on the analytic side of the aisle, the continental fashion phenomenon is also easily saved because we are dealing only with an infinitely more simple limiting case. For continental philosophers, the "goes with" relationship is trivially true because it can be shown as a direct result of a basic lemma (the Klein theorem -- that's Calvin, not Felix) that for all pieces of apparel x and y which are proper subsets of the class B of black clothing, the sentence Gxy must be true.

So, what is to be done with this initial working through of fashion logic? My suggestion is that work be directed at developing theorems which hold for non-black clothing. The place to start would be with a possible generalization of the simplest lemmas which are known in the field as the "Garanimal postulates." Unfortunately, little work has been done finding a material instantiation since the initial work in the mid-70's with various forms of corduroy, but with new techniques there is hope that the work could be revived in a new, more mature form. If anyone out there is looking for a dissertation topic...

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Gender Genie, Artificial Intelligence, and Irony

More Turing. This one from 2007:

I've been thinking about writing something on definitions of artificial intelligence since Christmas when my niece received a "toy" called 20Q. If you have not seen it, it is stunning. Seriously, check it out, it IS that weird. About the size of a tennis ball, it is a computerized version of the game twenty questions. You think of something and after twenty "yes or no" questions, it takes a guess.

My reactions to the toy were probably pretty standard. It went through three phases: (1) Hey, pretty cool, (2) oh my god, (3) this is eerie. When it guessed moustache, I was impressed. When it guessed head of lettuce, I was knocked out. But when it guessed electrical outlet, I was worried that it was some sort of NSA bugging device. This thing is unbelievable.

It is the result of an experiment in neural nets which the designer put on the web, so that it could play for 24 hours a day. Every game, it learns, making new connections. It makes "neural connections" in much the same way the human brain does and establishes a web of beliefs. As a result -- and this is what really impressed me -- it will guess correctly even if fed some wrong information. A portion of the resulting network of connections is put on a chip and forms the "mind" of the toy.

My niece was describing the way she and her friends at school reacted to the thing. They started making disguised hand gestures so that the toy couldn't see them or hear them in case there was a microphone or camera inside of it. At that point, an image of Alan Turning popped into my head. The machine had passed his test.

In 1950, Alan Turing published a paper in Mind called "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" in which he sets out the first definition of artificial intelligence. It is a phenomenological definition, that is to say, a definition based on human experience. The idea is that if a person interacts with the machine and after a significant amount of time mistakes it for a human interaction, then the machine is intelligent. These kids knew it was a machine -- they put in the batteries -- but still thought it had to be connected to a human mind in order to do what it did.

I was reminded of this last week when Lindsay and Aspazia both linked to the gender genie. It is a program designed to take a bit of text and determine whether the author is a male or a female. Amusing and cool, I'll grant you, but the real joke is somewhat obscure.

You see, in the 1950 paper, when Turing sets out to describe the test, he motivates the discussion by sketching out what he calls the "imitation game," something that could be played at parties.

The new form of the problem can be described in terms of a game which we call the 'imitation game'. It is played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart from the other two. The object of the game is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman.
In other words, you take a man and a woman and put them in a room with a typewriter. One of the people, but you don't know whom, sits at the typewriter and types out responses to written questions slipped under the door. (The typewriter keeps you from being able to identify handwriting.) It might go something like this, according to Turing,
Q: Please write me a sonnet on the subject of the Forth Bridge.
A: Count me out on this one. I never could write poetry.
Q: Add 34957 to 70764
A: (Pause about 30 seconds and then give as answer) 105621.
Q: Do you play chess?
A: Yes.
Q: I have K at my K1, and no other pieces. You have only K at K6 and R at R1. It is your move. What do you play?
A: (After a pause of 15 seconds) R-R8 mate.

What the gender genie is, is a reverse Turing test built around exactly the example Turing uses to set up the Turing test. You are playing the "imitation game" with a computer, but now, instead of the computer being in the room, the computer takes over the role of the interrogator, trying to guess who is at the typewriter. In essence, artificial intelligence has come far enough that it has now gotten you to invite IT to the party.

If that wasn't weird enough, it's not only coming to the party, but getting picked up and taken home afterwards...

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Institutional Apologies

The Nature Channel has SharkWeek, Philosophers' Playground has Turing Week. Here's one from 2009:

The British government has apologized for its treatment of Alan turing, the genius who created the machine that allowed the British to crack the German Enigma code during WWII, the most complex that had ever been developed at the time and was considered completely secure. He was an intellectual giant working at the intersection of logic, philosophy, mathematics, and computer science before there were computers. He ought to be a point of great national pride, yet he is, in fact, a subject of great national embarrassment. When the government found out he was gay, they treated him abominably, the MI6, the U.K.'s version of the CIA hounding him and the court declaring that he would need to be chemically sterilized, it led him to suicide.

After a popular movement calling for an apology gained momentum, garnering both publicity and celebrity support -- yes, the British actually have intellectual celebrities, imagine that -- the Prime Minister made the apology on behalf of the government.

While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair, and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted, as he was convicted, under homophobic laws, were treated terribly. Over the years, millions more lived in fear in conviction. I am proud that those days are gone and that in the past 12 years this Government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality, and long overdue.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind's darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices – that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years.

It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe's history and not Europe's present. So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work, I am very proud to say: we're sorry. You deserved so much better.
The question is what it means for an institution to apologize. When an individual apologizes to another person whom s/he has wronged, the apology does four things: (1) it takes responsibility for the action, you cannot apologize for something if you do not claim ownership of the wrong, (2) it empathizes, an apology requires an acknowledgement of the suffering of the other and a sense that you understand the harm you have done, (3) it expresses regret, the sense that right now you wish you could turn back the clock and chosen to have done differently, and (4) it promises, it makes the forward looking claim that in similar circumstances, you will act differently.

But what about cases like this one, or apologizing for slavery where the person doing the apologizing on behalf of an institution was not the one to have committed the act and those who were directly harmed are no longer alive? Can such an apologizing act really apologize?

The key here is that it is the institution, not the individual, that apologizes. For an institution to say it acted wrongly, it must be the case that an individual can act. This is a live question in the world of business ethics. Thinkers like Manual Velasquez argues that corporations do not act, individuals only act since only individuals have bodies. But others like Peter French argue that corporations make decisions, decisions that may not be identical to those of any one individual -- take corporate board decisions, for example. These decisions are then put into action using the means of the corporation. Just as someone who has been paralyzed would be guilty of murder for paying a hitman, so too the corporation may be held responsible for its acts for paying individuals in its employ to carry out its will.

So, we can say that governments act. This means that governments can act wrongly. But what does it mean for a govenrment to apologize? It can accept blame, that seems clear. It cannot express empathy or regret, though, as while it may make decisions, surely institutions do not emote. We can talk of the morale of a group, but that does not seem the same as having extra-personal emotions. It can say that the current people occupying spaces in the organization are individually unanimous in empathizing and regretting the actions of the institution at a previous time, but that seems different in important ways.

What it can do, though, and this seems to be where these sorts of public apologies on behalf of institutions are meaningful, is make the claim that lessons have been learned and decisions and behavior will change. Demonstrate that safeguards and procedures have been put in place to make sure that horrors of that sort will never again be possible and that the institution is now on the other side of guarding those who were harmed instead of further harming them or abandoning them.

As such, these apologies seem to be half apologies. They accept responsibility and offer reasons to believe that they have changed. This makes them valuable acts even if they are not full apologies.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Turing's Biographer's Dilemma: How Much Are You Required To Tell When You Are Required To Tell It?

Continuing our Turing Week theme, here's a post originally up in 2006:

I'm writing on Descartes for a series of biographies of famous mathematicians designed for the middle and high school reader. Before I accepted the assignment, I was given a list of figures still needing authors and one that piqued my interest was Alan Turning. not only is Turing a fascinating and underappreciated figure, but the complications of his life lead to interesting moral conundrums for whomever writes that book.

Alan Turing was a British mathematician. His work on computational algorithms and their foundations set the stage for modern computing. His conceptual philosophical work is the foundation for contemporary discussions of artificial intelligence. His work for British Intelligence during WWII including conceiving of, designing and operating the machine that broke the German enigma code, the most complex encryption method that had ever been designed, a task that would have been impossible if it had to be attempted using pre-Turing methods. It is an overstatement to say that he single-handedly won WWII for the Allies, but the claim that Nazism ended sooner because of Alan Turing's brain and the things he thought about is true.

You would think that the life of such a revolutionary who altered history in more than one way would be well known, but, no. Part of the reason is Alan Turning was gay.

This is where the biographer's moral issues come up. Alan Turning wasn't coincidentally gay, like, say Isaac Newton may have been. There is some reason to suspect that Newton was homosexual, but whether he was or not, you could tell the story of Newton just fine without this tidbit. For Turing, on the other hand, his sexuality really is an important thread in making sense of what he thought, what he did, and how he died.

Turing's first love Christopher Morcom died of tuberculosis two years after they had met. The death left Turing more than distraught and to comfort himself, he believed deeply in the existence of the mind apart from the body, a mind that could transcend death. He became obsessed with being able to contact his dead lover's immaterial mind. This led the brilliant young man to think hard about what is was to be and have a mind.

He began to think about thinking and at the time questions of computability were all the rage in mathematics. Questions about the nature of mathematics had led people to wonder which problems could be solved using strict computational means in finite numbers of steps and Turing was drawn to them because this sort of computation seemed to mirror actual thinking.

But the computations could be done mechanically. Calculating machines had been built as early as the 17th century, but Turing began to consider the possibility of being able to translate the solving of any mathematics problem into something a machine could do if we could come up with an algorithm, a set of clearly definable steps, for its solution. the question then became which problems could be solved in a finite number of steps and which problems would never finish.

The ability for machines to solve complex mathematical problems that required the capacity to work through complex instructions raised the question of whether such machines could think. To answer this, of course, some definition would be required for what it means to think. For this purpose, Turing developed what has come to be known as the "Turing test": suppose you were corresponding with someone/something such that you could type messages and received typed replies, if you are unable to tell whether your respondent is human or not then the respondent is thinking. The test is based on a game where a man and woman are placed in a room with a typewriter, questions are passed under the door, typed responses come back, and those not in the room have to guess whether it was the man or the woman who was answering the questions. Judy Genova, a philosopher from Colorado College, has a wonderful paper called "Gender and Thought in Turing's Imitation Game," examining the foundations of the Turing test and why it would be that a gay man would find the game so interesting that he would use it as a model.

In his later years, Turing was arrested for being gay and forced to undergo hormone therapy, receiving doses of estrogen and losing his security clearance, thereby destroying his occupational opportunities. Having been stripped of his ability to do intelligence work, but having been a deep part of the intelligence community he was someone the authorities wanted to keep an eye on. As a known homosexual, law enforcement saw him as a degenerate and a menace. He was not only dangerous to society in their eyes for who he was, but incredibly dangerous for what he knew. The pressure became unbearable and at age 42 he ate a poisoned apple and killed himself.

Turing's homosexuality and gay relationships are a crucial part of the story. Many pieces simply don't make sense without the fact. Do you include it in the book? Is it put in its central place? On the one hand, if you do, the book will have much less of a market and Turing will not receive his due as a hero, especially to gay young adults who would no doubt find out on their own who he was. By including the fact that Turing was gay would keep some schools from purchasing the book and destroy what is beautiful about exposing middle and high school students to the history of mathematics and getting them more excited to study it. Their math classes are often taught in dry boring ways that dehumanize the subject and kill any passion that could be generated. Here's an attempt to rehumanize it and it seems that if compromises have to be made to make some progress, then so be it. The perfect is the enemy of the good.

On the other hand, to omit the fact is to fail to do the biographer's job. If you ignore one of the central operative facts of your subject, you haven't really told the story. but worse, you have let the homophobes win. If you "cleanse" the story to make it acceptable to them, you are aiding and abetting immoral bigotry and hatred.

What would do you do?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Turing Week: Poker and AI: I'll See Your Turing Test and Raise You an Algorithm

In honor of the 100th anniversary of Alan Turing's birth and because I'm having a devil of a time reclaiming comments from some of my older posts, I'll be reposting my favorite posts about Turing from the last six years this week (Friday's is my absolute favorite).  

 Alan Turing came up with the first standard criterion for artificial intelligence. According to the Turing test, if you were to interact with the computer and not know it was a computer, say by asking it questions and having it answer, then we could say that we had achieved artificial intelligence as conversational interactivity is a hallmark of intelligence.

This started a long and intricate discussion among philosophers, cognitive scientists, computer scientists, and whoever else cared to weigh in. Other criteria were floated as lines in the sand to differentiate thinking from mere calculating and among those was strategic planning. Consider games in which one could outwit one's opponent, surely if we could get a computer to do that, it would be significant. And so chess was taken as the quintessential strategic game and Grandmaster Garry Kasparov was taken as the pinnacle of human achievement against which to pit our best computer.

In a recent edition of The New York Review of Books, Kasparov muses about the meaning (or lack thereof) of his much heralded match with the IBM computer Deep Blue. Chess, he contends, is a different case than checkers. In checkers, the number of possible games (each game is a string of moves) is small enough that someone has developed a program that has solved it. That is, it knows every possible game and will always makes moves so that it never loses. For a simpler example, think of tic-tac-toe, a game that becomes boring quickly because we learn the secret to never losing. A computer can play checkers in that way.

But chess is much more complex. The number of games is so large that this cannot at present be done. But what can be done -- and this is how chess programs work -- is that you can translate the chess board into scores, with more advantageous positions given higher scores and less advantageous positions given lower scores. One can then make sure that one's program always maximizes the the score, making it more likely to win. The better this algorithm, the better the program and it can be developed to compete with the best rained human players. that this is possible, Kasparov argues, is interesting, but not THAT interesting. The ability to translate chess into a number crunching exercise turns it from a strategic enterprise into something less "human."

The real place to put the line we thought was drawn with chess, he argues, is poker. Poker, Kasparov contends, is different from chess in two key ways: (1) in chess there is no chance, all the pieces are on the board, but in poker you are operating with only partial information, and (2) the most rational move is not always the best move. It would be easy enough to develop an effective poker playing program in terms of hands won, but the goal in poker is not to maximize your wins, but rather to maximize your winnings. If one always made the maximally logical move, one could be easily read and when you do win, you don't win much.

So, could we see a similar event to the one in the 90s with Kasparov and Deep Blue? Could we design a new IBM machine across the table from Daniel Negreanu that would consistently take all his money?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Are Nobel Prizes Obsolete?

Had lunch with a colleague who is a neuro guy yesterday and one of the things we discussed was the nature of science as an enterprise. Time was that Newton or Darwin wrote a book or Einstein or Planck wrote a paper. But now, scientific articles are almost as long as the list of authors of the article. Science is a corporate endeavor. Not that corporations control it, but that doing science requires a complex community of people doing different jobs that serve a central knowledge producing end. Persons don't do science anymore, people do. So, does it make sense then to give awards to individuals for their work? Sure, there is a head of the research program, but he or she is as much or more of a manager than a visionary. Since science has changed, shouldn't the reward structure change as well?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Moving Comments

Everyone, I'm in the process of migrating my comments from the last six years out of JS-Kit and into Disqus.  I've had a number of regulars tell me that have been shut out of commenting recently, so I'm trying to fix it.  Please hang with me as I try to get this set up today.

The Nature of Genius

What does it mean for one to be a genius?  Is genius just the upper end of the really smart continuum? Is there a difference between genius and really, really, really, smart?  Is it a difference of kind or degree?  Is genius a matter of smart plus something?  creativity?  insight?  an ability to see things differently?  Can you be a genius, but not be smart at all?  Is smart a propensity and genius a judgment of results?  Can you be a genius, but not have done anything with it?  Is there a difference between being a genius and a prodigy other than age?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Summer Solstice and the Cultural Meaning of "Pagan"

Today is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year and a holiday for Pagans.  The term "pagan" has both a denotation -- it refers to pre-Christian religions which tended to be polytheistic and to contemporary religious views that are more nature-based in their view of the Divine -- and a connotation -- it is associated with heathens who lack moral sensibilities and live an all too bodily existence.  But with so many people identifying themselves as "spiritual, but not religious" and with the increase understanding of our inter-relatedness with the larger world, it seems that foundation for the longstanding cultural meaning of pagan which was largely a marketing tool of early Christianity is coming to resemble an old Chesterfield ad that explains the healthiness of smoking cigarettes as an aid to digestion. 

Has the term changed its connotation in the common vernacular?  The Pagan motorcycle club clearly uses the term in its old sense -- it is meant to give an edginess to its members. Are there other ways in which the word maintains its sense or is used in new and different ways?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Library of Congress and the Future of Archives

Took the short people to DC yesterday and we visited the Library of Congress. For a couple of centuries, it has been a central repository of research materials for scholars from all over the world. But with items being scanned, archives are electronically accessible. This means that expensive travel can be eliminated. Does it also mean that the archives themselves can be eliminated?

While there we saw one of the three complete Gutenberg Bibles in existence. The shorter of the short people asked if he could download a copy from Project Gutenberg and print it off so there would be four. We explained why it wouldn't be the same. Is THAT reason also a reason to maintain traval to research archives?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Learning Useless Rules

This weekend, the shorter of the short people had his first baseball tournament in which the infield fly rule was part of the game. If there are base runners on first and second base with less than two outs and the ball is popped to the infield, the batter is automatically out. This is because it is a situation in which the runners find themselves in a dilemma. If they run, then the ball gets caught and the player who caught the ball can throw to the vacated base for a double play; but if they don't run the infielder can intentionally drop the ball, pick it up and throw it to the base to which the runner would have advanced and start a double play that way. To stop this sort of double play by cute strategy instead of skilled play, the rule was created calling the batter out and allowing the runners to maintain their positions.

On the one hand, no nine year old will understand the situation well enough and have sufficiently skilled fellow infielders to turn the intentionally dropped pop-up into a double or triple play. The rule does not serve its purpose in this game. On the other hand, the rule will be part of the game in years to come, so the kids need to understand it as they grow in the game.

Does it make sense to have the infield fly rule for nine years olds for whom it is a useless rule?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Bullshit or Not: Erik Erikson Edition

There's an old sketch film called Amazon Women on the Moon which contained a spoof of Leonard Nemoy's old program In Search Of that had the tagline, "Bullshit or not, you decide." We use it as a basis for an occasional series of posts where we assess a passage from a prominent writer.

Today is the 110th anniversary of Erik Erikson's birth.  A post-Freudian Freudian, Erikson was born out of wedlock and not told who his father was.  Questions of alienation and identity in childhood development became the center of his research.  Seems a great place to launch another episode of "Bullshit or not." 

From Erikson's Identity and the Lifecycle:

"Therapeutic efforts as well as attempts at social reform verify the sad truth that in any system based on suppression, exclusion, and exploitation, the suppressed, excluded, and exploited unconsciously believe in the evil image which they are made to represent by those who are dominant."
 Is self-hatred a necessary result of oppression?  Do out-group members really internalize the picture of themselves painted by the in-group?  Bullshit or not?  You decide.  As usual, responses may be a single word or a dissertation.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Do You Find It More Difficult to Read Books?

Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains has the thesis that pervasive computer use is rewiring our brains in such a way that we are made less able to concentrate for long periods of time, formulate and comprehend long, intricate arguments, and to engage in sustained deep reading. His argument hinges on experiments in neuroplasticity, the nature of on-line writing and web site design, and the ways in which we engage with text we are reading. He motivates the argument with a couple of anecdotes, people we would think do serious deep reading who claim that they no longer do or can now that they use on-line sources as primary modes of information gathering.

I'm curious about the selection of such anecdotes. Are they representative. So, you, reader of at least one blog, most likely more, do you find that since you have begun using electronic means of information collecting that your ability to engage in deep reading of longer texts has been affected? Is it harder to concentrate on books?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Responsibility of Leading

I was carpooling with Joe Lynch, our alumni guy, to a book event with Gettysburg alums in the DC area last night, but we decided to drop my car in between. He agreed to follow me to the lot and a question occurred to me. Now, I drive slowly (so slowly that I've been flipped off by the Amish), but I realized that the agreement to follow someone to a place you do not know requires a surrendering of autonomy to some degree. Suppose I had decided to speed. He would be lost without me, so he would have to keep pace. If he got pulled over, how much of the responsibility would be mine? Should he expect me to pick up some or all of the fine?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Bookstore Censorship?

Crispin Sartwell plays with a good one concerning a commercial form of censorship.  In Tunisia, the wife of the deposed dictator -- both of whom are rightly despised -- has written a memoir.  Bookstores labored under state-sponsored censorship and while everyone hates this woman, those dealing with written material have special cause.  So now there's a book that would likely sell well since folks would be interested in her side of the story and the supposed juicy bits, but then she gets royalties and attention, just what she wants.  Crispin, in his usual anarchist way, suggests distributing pirated copies to undermine the market.  Let's assume that this is not an option.  Should bookstores carry the book?  Would you if it was your bookstore?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Does God Think Corporations are People?

One of the big theoretical questions in business ethics is the metaphysical status of corporations. They make decisions, they have assets, they exist as things...but what kind of things. On the one hand, is the view that a corporation is just shorthand for the people who make it up. On this view the corporation itself is not morally responsible for anything, just the people inside of it. On the other hand are those who argue that the corporation is more than the sum of its parts, that a corporate board, for example, is capable of making a decision that none of its members individually agree with if it was a necessary decision that required consensus. As such, it is not just the members of the corporation that are morally responsible, but the entity itself as well.

Years ago, I realized that this discussion is in deep ways similar to another one that philosophers of biology were having about the metaphysical status of species. We say that individuals do not evolve, species evolve. Does that mean that the species is more than the organisms classified under it? But it is the organisms that have the genome and the anatomical properties. It is the organisms that interact with the environment. What are we talking about, we we speak at the species level?

A few weeks ago a Gettysburg grad with whom I've been corresponding because of Einstein's Jewish Science, sent me a play he's been working on wherein God has to explain his acts to a board of inquiry. We get to the discussion of the Flood and suddenly these two cases seemed to come together. God saves animals, including humans, by saving the species. By having Noah collect breeding pairs of each species, the animals are saved. Hence it is not the individuals, but the species that seem to have value. The same seems to hold for moral considerability. A group of men rape an angel in Sodom and boom, the whole city is condemned as morally unsustainable. We hold the corporate body responsible for the action. When Job is rewarded for remaining faithful, he is compensated for the death of his children by getting ten times that number in new kids. Kids, on this view, work like currency. It doesn't matter that the one dollar bill you had was shredded, here's a nice new ten dollar bill, so you have that dollar back plus nine more.

So, it seems that there is textual evidence that God considers the whole to be as -- if not more -- real than the individual. So, would that mean that the view that corporations are people has theological sanction? Do they have souls? When Enron or Bear Stearns ceased to be, did their souls go to be judged? Are there failed companies in heaven and hell? Wouldn't there have to be, if we understand the stories of the Flood, Sodom, and Job?

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Dewey, Cheatam, and Howe Are We Going to Live Without Them?

My Fellow Comedists,

It is a sad week indeed. After 35 years, Tom and Ray Maglozzi have decided to hang it up. Car Talk will continue in a rerun type format, but in a few months, no new craziness will emerge from atop of Car Talk Plaza in Cambridge. It has lasted this long because it is a funny show, improbably funny. Tom and Ray are not comedians, they have great timing and make the obvious jokes, but they are just a couple of smart goofballs who -- no matter what you are doing -- are having a better time than you.

In part, it is sympathetic humor. Just as we can mirror the heavier emotions of others, so too we can find humor in something simply because we are seeing or hearing someone else having a good time. In India, laughter yoga is being investigated for its health effects. Being around people who are laughing makes you laugh. Every comedian knows about humorous inertia. Once the laughter is rolling, it is much easier to keep it going than it was to start. Tom and Ray start their own laughter yoga class each week.

As a punster myself, however, my favorite part is the end (because it's almost over, the boys would say). The ending credits are always magnificent:

"The Accounts Payable Clerk, Moscow Office is Dasha Chekhov. The Complaint Line Operator is Xavier Breath. The Exercise Guru is Liza Round. The Marine Biologist is Frieda Wales..."

Great stuff. Tom and Ray, thank you for years and years of laughs.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, June 08, 2012

Editing on Paper

I read Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and have a number of questions about it to bring up here. The thesis is that on-line activity causes alterations in brain structure that limits our ability to read deeply for long periods of time, an ability that developed originally because of our interactions with books. I don't want to talk about the thesis itself today, but something he uses to motivate the notion. He speaks of not being able to edit on the computer, but having to print work out and edit on paper and then go back and make changes. He wonders whether those who will be brought up on screens will have the same preference, thinking the answer will be no.

I, too, always edit on paper. Is this common? Do those of your in college or grad school edit on screen or on paper? Is there, in fact, a generational split here?

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Won't You Take Me to Funkytown?

We love visiting funky towns, places that are off-beat with their own personality. We've been to Woodstock, NY, Boulder, CO, Shepherdstown, WV, Berkeley and Santa Cruz, CA, Key West, FL, and Burlington, VT. We're trying to find chances to go to Ashville, NC, Eugene and Portland, OR, and Austin, TX. What other towns should be on the list?

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Free and Fair Elections

Whenever an aspiring democracy sends its citizens to the polls, we hear that monitors are on the ground to determine if the election was free and fair. Now, an election could certainly be free without being fair, say, if there was no intimidation of voters and everyone who wanted access to a ballot received it but afterwards if ballot boxes were stuffed. But could an election be fair and not free? Wouldn't the action which restricted the freedom also by definition be an insult to fairness? But then we would only need to say "fair elections," not "free and fair elections." How does fairness differ from freedom in this case?

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Unnecessary Noise

I was up in New York for a book event yesterday and walking through the neighborhood adjacent to Washington Square, I saw a sign that read "Unnecessary Noise Prohibited." You can't have a sign like that near a philosopher and not expect to be asked what it means for noise to be necessary. When philosophers use the term necessary, it is in contrast to that which is contingent. Surely, they don't mean to disallow any sound which is not physically or logically predetermined or is noisy in all possible worlds. I could choose not to walk there, so the soft plodding of my footsteps there are unnecessary, but surely that's not what they mean.

The use of necessary here seems to mean something along the lines of justifiable. Noise is necessary when you have a good reason for making. But now we've taken one word we don't know the meaning of and replaced it with a phrase that is stunningly vague. What would count as a good reason? Good for the community? That would seem reasonable given that it is a rule of the community. But we could imagine personal emergencies that would count if they were dire enough. How would you draw that line? Given that tickets could be given and fines assessed for the necessity or non-necessity of a given noise, what conditions would be reasonable for determining when a noise would be unnecessary?

Monday, June 04, 2012

New Florida Voter Roll Purge Conditions

Florida is determined to violate federal law and purge their voter rolls too close to an election. They say they are protecting the election by making sure those who cannot legally vote do not. They do this by coming up with a set of conditions they believe are met by many non-voters, finding everyone who meets them and sending them a letter. Upon receipt of the letter, the person has 30 days to provide material proof that he or she would be a legal voter in order to remain one. These lists are notoriously flawed with many, many people wrongly identified and at risk of being disenfranchised...not that that would be the point of it. I mean, Florida would never try to use partisan shenanigans to influence an election, a Presidential election no less. That would be absurd.

My interest is in the conditions they use. Clearly the problem is not with the process, just with the way they are going about identifying the likely non-eligible voters. Maybe we could figure out better, more reasonable conditions by which to construct the list.

My suggestions:

Dead people should be purged from the list. The older a voter was at the last election, the more likely that voter is to have died between then and now. Ownership of Cadillacs and membership in country clubs clearly skews older. Therefore, anyone who satisfies either of these conditions should be removed from the voter rolls unless they produce evidence that they are on the rolls legitimately.

Felons need to have their voting rights restored and many do not. Our economy crashed in part because of tremendous levels of white collar crime. Wall Street is festering with corruption and where do wealthy financial types retire? Florida. White collar criminals will have made huge sums of money and would be living off of investments made from them. Living off of investment income means (at least for now) paying capital gains taxes. So, anyone who made more than $100 in capital gains in the last year can be suspected of being a felon and should be placed on the purge list unless they provide proof they should not be.

Other suggestions for Florida voter purge conditions that would be more fair and selective than the ones used now?

Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Admiral Fell Inn

My Fellow Comedists,

Taking advantage of one of the days when my semester is over but the short people are still in school, TheWife and I went down to Fells Point.  At its heart is an establishment named after the namesake of the neighborhood, a business with one of the best names ever -- the Admiral Fell Inn.  Seems like a good excuse for a comedist post.

What are other great business names?  My inner-3rd grader has always chuckled at Johnson Controls.  I can understand the need to contract that out.


Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, June 01, 2012

Can You Really Own a Position?

I've been thinking about the use of the verb to own with respect to an intellectual view.  When a student is being wishy-washy about a proposition he or she is arguing for and clearly believes, I'll tell the student to "own the position."  The command is to really make the claim and stand by it.  When you own a claim it becomes your position.  The grammatical use of the possessive there is what is fascinating.  Does that imply real ownership in some sense? 

Certainly, it is not exclusivity in the right to use.  Anyone else could own the position also in the same way.  But then anyone else could own a CD of "Kind of Blue" also, it doesn't mean you don't own your copy.  Since a view is an intellectual kind of thing, the ownership relation should have different attributes.

But is it ownership at all?  Is it a metaphorical use?  Is it a completely different sense of the word making "to own" ambiguous in the way that "bank" could mean a financial institution or the side of a river?  Or is it real ownership in the same sense?  Is it the same meaning as when we say to "own up to" some action, thereby giving it a moral connotation?  Can you really own a position?