Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

When Is A Door Not A Door…

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

Alright, it’s been way too long. I haven’t posted since June. And I’ve missed it. The process of putting together or trying to put together a coherent blog post on some thought-provoking philosophical subject is one I find very rewarding.

When is a door not a door? When it’s ajar.

Top story popularity wise in the NY Times today - “Shouting Is The New Spanking” - appears in the “Fashion and Style” section but seems not to be recommending shouting as a fashionable nor stylish alternative to spanking. Shouting, we learn, is the recourse of those parents who wouldn’t let themselves spank or don’t want to spank or have no inclination to spank, but nevertheless get so frustrated with their plight as parents from time to time that they boil over and yell.

I’m one of those parents. I fall into the category of “no inclination to spank.” So, I read the piece, hoping to find out that it was perfectly OK to shout at your child from time to time (not so) or that there was an easy remedy to the shouting impulse (not so either).

I was struck by this quote from Amy McCready, the founder of Positive Parenting Solutions: “As parents understand that it’s not socially acceptable to spank children, they are at a loss for what they can do. They resort to reminding, nagging, timeout, counting 1-2-3 and quickly realize that those strategies don’t work to change behavior.”

(Ah, hem. Does spanking work to change behavior? Many of its advocates believe it does. And the sad truth is it quite likely affects behavior. Even a young child has enough impulse control or cunning to want to strive to avoid a physical injury. But, of course, at what cost.)

I learned that shouting is a problem I should be concerned about.

Next I found out that parents can be a problem that we might want to do something about. In the Mind section of the Times “When Parents Are Too Toxic To Tolerate” puts forth the argument that our relationship with our parents, those people who brought us into being and raised us in some form or another, might not be worth trying to salvage or put up with.

These two stories are, of course, connected. As a parent we cannot take for granted that we have a right to expect our child’s trust and love. And as a child we needn’t feel obligated to give our parents respect and love. The definition of parent and child imply these things but don’t require them.

Even a couple of generations ago, the preceding paragraph would have been familial heresy. Parents demanded and expected respect. Children believed it was their duty to respect.

And so to the economy. Op Ed columnist Thomas Friedman points to the educational system as a root cause of the current economic crisis (/ crises). Here’s the premise: American workers, in general, aren’t competitive enough because they haven’t been schooled to be creative and innovative. A quote: those who succeed in a tough economy are “actively engaged in developing new ideas or recombining existing technologies or thinking about what new customers want.”

So, the educational system has a problem. It’s not teaching some core skills. And recent national educational policy (no child left behind) seems bent on a different tack - ensuring that children pass basic competency tests.

Here we have three conceptually-related problems: These three issues that haven’t been sufficiently brought to light. In each, old thinking presents an obstacle to a solution.

Which brings me back to the subject line - When Is A Door Not A Door. I like this question because it forces us to reexamine our preconceptions. To challenge notions we hold onto to see whether they’ve been too easily come by. It encourages us to make uncertainty a daily habit. (more…)

Small Town Values And The Political Ruin of America

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

John McCain on The Daily Show with John Stewart

John McCain on The Daily Show with John Stewart

Last night, as I watched a TiVo’d John Stewart skewering delegates on the last day of the Republican convention, I wondered what it is about small town values that the Republicans love (but can’t define) and that seems to keep America stuck in the mire of bad politics.

If you didn’t see it, Stewart’s convention crew walked around with microphones asking Republican delegates what ’small town values’ meant to them. With big smiles on their faces and earnest willingness to answer the delegates came up with such laughable answers as “real people, real values,” “traditional marriage,” “fishing,” “church.” (The video is posted on the Daily Show website - highly recommended.)

But even those of us who distrust and disagree with the sentiment with which republicans freight the term, we all seem to understand that the essence of ’small town values’ might mean something genuinely appealing and good. So what is this essence, and how has it become distorted and misused.

Block Island, Rhode Island

Block Island, Rhode Island

I spent the bulk of the summer on Block Island with my family. Block Island is essentially a small town with a lot of tourists. (And these are mostly east-coast tourists from New York and Connecticut.) It’s easy to distinguish the tourists from the islanders. The tourists are in a hurry. They’re often nervous and rude. They lock their cars. They expect to get screwed over. They complain about stuff. The islanders understand that there aren’t that many places to go on the island, and everywhere is pretty close. You can trust people because for the most part, there’s nowhere for them to escape to. You couldn’t steal a car and get it off the island (which is car-accessible only by ferry.)

Block Island is a great lens through which to observe that the essence of small town values means enforced responsibility through enforced community.

It’s a lot easier to be rude or unfair to someone if you don’t know them and if you’ll never see them again and don’t have to rely upon their personal contribution to the community you live in. In a small town, people do know one another and rely upon one another and society functions very much as it has done for millions of years. The inherent rules of small social groups therefore tend to operate without the need for too much overt oversight and enforcement. What’s not to like about that?

But this is the problem: The rest of the country is made up of places where that kind of reinforcement can’t be relied upon. And this is the other part of the problem: Conservative Republicans wrap a whole lot of crap into the concept of small town values that has nothing to do with the core function of a mutually-reliant community (such as traditional marriage, fishing and church.)

And this is why ’small town values’ have become the political ruin of America. So much hog-swill passes for the reasonable subject of informed debate under the auspices of what small town folk care about. Every Republican candidate dives in or gets sucked in to the vortex of endless political distraction of the conservative agenda. And this means the every Democratic candidate gets sucked in, too, for fear of committing political suicide.

Other advanced Western nations don’t waste political time endlessly rehashing abortion statutes, gun control, separation of church and state, the teaching of creationism. ‘Small town values’ are the concrete boots of American politics, and until we lose them we won’t have an effective political process that will allow the nation to move forward and solve the very real problems of war, alternative fuel sources, and climate change.

Related Posts from Around the Web:

Small Town Values? I Gotz ‘Em - I’m from a small town in New Jersey, and I’m politically progressive in every possible way. Watch this clip from The Daily Show, in which people attending the Republican National Convention spoke about their views on small-town values. …

The Small-Town Values Palin Didn’t Mention - From The Seattle PI By John Kelso Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s touting of the wonders of small-town values in her acceptance speech reminded me of my ride in a red convertible a few weeks ago while serving as the …

Small Town Values? - You can’t cherry pick values. If you claim to be the party of small town values, you have to take the good and the bad. (more…)

Solving Problems - Where There’s Smoke There’s Cash And Mirrors

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

Billionaires stubbing out smoking, brains logging on to solve problems, and mirrors as healing devices.

“I bid him look into the lives of men as though into a mirror, and from others to take an example for himself.”

- Terence

Roman comic dramatist (185 BC - 159 BC)

philosophy blog: mike bloomberg bill gates anti-smokingBusinessman, philanthropist, and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been joined by Bill and Melinda Gates in his $500M anti-smoking campaign fund. This may not seem like a whole lot of money when compared to the billions that cigarette companies make selling cigarettes around the world, but it dwarfs the WHO estimate of $20M per year currently being spent to combat smoking in low to middle income countries. The fund is expected to save hundreds of millions of lives over the next couple of generations. Yet another reason to shake our heads over the spending priorities of our elected administration (such as the decision to airlift $12B cash into Iraq without keeping track of where it all went…)

Pinky Dinky Doo

Pinky Dinky Doo

Not yet a potential target of big tobacco, my four-year old son fortunately wouldn’t know the Marlboro man if he rode in on his horse. One of my son’s favorite shows of the moment is Noggin’s Pinky Dinky Doo (parents take note — no ads on Noggin!!) Pinky, the show’s heroine, engages her little brother, Tyler, with stories related to a problem he’s encountering. At some point in every story, Pinky’s fictional self “thinks big” in order to solve a problem. Thinking big means thinking laterally, or outside the box. Very entertaining. And now I read that there’s a whole network of Pinkies (not to be confused with pinkoes) who can sign up to compete to solve problems and win cash prizes. “InnoCentive,” reports the Times, has “solved 250 challenges, for prizes typically in the $10,000 to $25,000 range. According to the Web site (, the achievements include a compound for skin tanning, a method of preventing snack chip breakage and a mini-extruder in brick-making.” Cool.

Philosophy blog: elephant looking in mirror self reflection medical benefitsAnd all of this relates to mirrors how? I’m getting there.

It’s a little all over the place and fluffy, but Natalie Angiers piece on mirrors has some interesting moments. (I scurried off to research her claims about mirror images, thinking she’d got something wrong, but for the moment I have to admit she’s right and I’m feeling a little chagrined.) Here are the pertinent nuggets:

1. Scientists have been “applying mirrors in medicine, to create reflected images of patients’ limbs or other body parts and thus trick the brain into healing itself. Mirror therapy has been successful in treating disorders like phantom limb syndrome, chronic pain and post-stroke paralysis.” Wow!

2. “Subjects … in a room with a mirror have been found to work harder, to be more helpful and to be less inclined to cheat, compared with control groups performing the same exercises in nonmirrored settings. … people in a room with a mirror were comparatively less likely to judge others based on social stereotypes about, for example, sex, race or religion. ‘When people are made to be self-aware, they are likelier to stop and think about what they are doing,’ Dr. Bodenhausen said. ‘A byproduct of that awareness may be a shift away from acting on autopilot toward more desirable ways of behaving.’ Physical self-reflection, in other words, encourages philosophical self-reflection.”

smoker in mirror anti-smoking bloomberg gates fundSo if I imagine for a moment that I’m Pinky Dinky Doo and that Mike Bloomberg is offering a prize for the person who can come up with a device that would help people quit smoking, I’d say that he should use some of the fund to distribute hand mirrors to smokers or their loved ones so that they can watch themselves puffing away day and night and hacking up gunk first thing in the morning. Just an idea.

(I would say that he should send a big old mirror to George Bush, but the researchers have also found that not all conscious animals recognize themselves in their reflection. “‘Tellingly,’ said Diana Reiss, a professor of psychology at Hunter College who has studied mirror self-recognition in elephants and dolphins, ‘animals raised in [or preferring?] isolation do not seem to show mirror self-recognition.’”)

Related posts from around the web…

Gates, Bloomberg pool riches to fight smoking - Microsoft founder Bill Gates, left, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg walk on stage to announce their $375 million global anti-smoking campaign at a press conference in New York, Wednesday, July 23, 2008. …

What does an elephant see when it looks in the mirror? - But on further inspection it is thought that they may realise they are seeing themselves as they will repeatedly touch a mark painted on their heads which they wouldn’t be able to see if it were not for the mirror. … (more…)

Human Potential

Friday, July 11th, 2008

On human potential, personal development, and the philosophy of growth.

“Everyone is as God has made him, and oftentimes a great deal worse.”
- Miguel de Cervantes

“The beginning of knowledge is the discovery of something we do not understand.”
- Frank Herbert

US science fiction novelist (1920 - 1986)

Rational philosophy blog: Miguel de Cervantes SaavedraWithout reading too much into the respective literary ouevres of these two authors, we may not be surprised that Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, observer and recorder of human failings and doomed repetitions, takes an essentially pessimistic view of human nature, while Frank Herbert, a creator of alternative realities, perceives unlimited boundaries for knowledge and achievement. (Herbert spoke with enthusiasm about the positive power of science fiction to point to possibilities, including potholes or chasms that we should avoid.)

Biographers describe Cervantes the young man as brash and idealistic. He fits Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s model of a person with a “fixed mind-set.”   “If You’re Open to Growth, You Tend to Grow”, in this week’s NY Times, discusses Dweck’s theory of fixed versus flexible mind-sets. In Dweck’s own words: “People who believe in the power of talent tend not to fulfill their potential because they’re so concerned with looking smart and not making mistakes. But people who believe that talent can be developed tend to push, stretch, confront their own mistakes and learn from them.”

Dweck believes that society’s obsession with natural ability thwarts our capacity for growth.

Don Quixote’s imaginary battles against windmills and flocks of sheep speak to me of his creator’s struggle with the idea of fixed potential. That Quixote’s engagements, won or lost, are illusory magnifies the futility of these attempts to conquer fabricated enemies and prove himself worthy of his love. As he grew up, Cervantes’ family moved from town to town, never settling. It’s easy to imagine Cervantes the brash, idealistic, talented young man wanting to achieve something real, but unable to stand long enough on firm ground to be sure of what was real, each move to a new place confirming the isolated and unchangeable nature of his self.

Rational philosophy blog: Frank Herbert Author of Dune Science Fiction novelContrast this with the assertion of Frank Herbert’s son that his father didn’t finish college because he took only to the courses that interested him, forgoing required classes. Herbert worked at writing for many years before achieving success, relying on his wife’s income to support them. He submitted his landmark science fiction work — Dune — to 20 publishers before it was picked up for publication by a smallish press.

Obviously, even within Dweck’s postulate, talented people can achieve success (Cervantes may be a prime example), but she claims that people can achieve more success if they maintain a flexible mind-set. (She cites several mighty examples from the business world — John F. Welch Jr. of General Electric, for his emphasis on teamwork over individual genius; Louis V. Gerstner Jr. of I.B.M., who praised ‘the thousands of I.B.M.’ers who never gave up on their company’; and Anne M. Mulcahy of Xerox, who turned an eye to morale and staff development even as she made tough cuts.)

If you’re reading this and thinking “jeez that sucks, I’m one of those people with a fixed mind-set;” I’d hold out a little branch of hope, attached to a big old tree of potential. To begin the conversion from a fixed mind-set to a flexible mind-set we need only accept the concept of self doubt. What if we aren’t born fully formed and unchangeable? What if we accept that growth is possible but takes work…

Related posts from around the web…

Mindset, it will profoundly affect everything. - If you answer yes, your thinking about learning is aligned with a key quiet leader principle and you likely have a “growth mindset,” a personal characteristic that Professor Carol Dweck says will “profoundly affect all aspect of a …

Fixed Mind-Set vs. Growth Mind-Set - The article describes the implications of the research of Stanford University Psychology Professor Carol Dweck. In an interview of Carol Dweck by Coert Visser, Dweck said:. People who believe in the power of talent tend not to fulfill …

On failure pt. 2 - Rae-Dupree sums up thoughts from a 2006 book by Carol Dweck, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” that describes two views one holds about oneself. We can think we’re born with talent or not. Whether we think we’re Picasso or a dolt …


On Patriotism: Its Character, Purpose, And Poison

Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

Barack Obama vs. John McCain, Robert Mugabe vs. Zimbabwe, Abu Ghraib detainees vs. US interrogation contractors.Philosophy blog: George Bernard Shaw

“We don’t bother much about dress and manners in England, because as a nation we don’t dress well and we’ve no manners.”

- George Bernard Shaw

Philosophy blog: Barack Obama defends his patriotismAs the presidential campaign continues, the exchanges between the Obama and McCain camps have honed in on the relative patriotism of the two candidates. Retired General Wesley Clark, speaking on CBS’ Face The Nation and acting, we are told, as a mouthpiece of the Obama campaign opined that “I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.” Meanwhile, over on ABC’s This Week, Minnesota Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty said, “I think Barack Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope perhaps should be retitled ‘The Audacity of Hypocrisy.’ ”

Philosophy blog: John McCain returns from vietnam after release from hanoi POW campNot surprisingly, Obama wishes to steer the campaign away from a contest over who is the more patriotic. He’s smart enough to know that patriotism is a double-edged sword, and principled enough to want to avoid hollow pledges of undying allegiance to the idea of a country. McCain, the ultimate ironist, knows that he will always win any such contest, not just because of his war record, but also because he can claim undying patriotism with sufficient earnestness to convince those who care.

But it seems that we have some philosophical distinctions to make before we can decide whether Obama or McCain is the better patriot. The media loves the stereotypical definition of patriotism, the flag-waving, ’til-death, America-the-greatest kind of patriotism. McCain understands this and allows himself to be adorned by that mantle.  Privately he understands that the people who inhabit the rest of the world might beg to differ. Nevertheless one can imagine that if he had to choose a preferred country, McCain wouldn’t hesitate to choose America.

Obama’s patriotism comes from a different bottle. Obama believes that we can and should put our allegiance somewhere; that we should invest our hope in the potential of a thing or place or person. Obama’s patriotism acknowledges and mourns the shame, faults and frailties of the country, past and present, and he resolves that we can and should do better. America, the land of freedom, Obama understands, is the land of slavery, segregation, rendition, invasion and torture. McCain understands this, too, but he’s not about to ruin his chances of election by pointing it out. For the many millions of Americans who believe in America the way that an apple believes in gravity — as something inevitable and unswervingly sure — Obama’s patriotism inspires suspicion, ridicule, and fear.

Philosophy blog: Robert Mugabe violence and intimidation in electionsIs Robert Mugabe patriotic for defining Zimbabwe and constraining it to his definition? Morgan Tsvangirai, who withdrew as the opposition candidate because of violence and intimidation by Mugabe’s thugs, would doubtless argue he’s not.

Unfortunately the conceptual ground of patriotism rests in the drawing of distinctions between ourselves and others. We measure the qualities of our own country in opposition to those of other countries. The aim and end of patriotism must be to inspire in us the assurance that we live in the best country there is. As soon as it moves beyond a benign, feel-good, group hug (and it always does) patriotism becomes corrosive and dangerous.

Today several Abu Ghraib detainees filed suit (here in the US) against the government contractors they say tortured them. Surely we won’t find a better example of patriotism’s failures and illusions. The Bush administration, the face and fist of American foreign policy for the past seven years, repeatedly ignored, twisted and refashioned international conventions and US law in its treatment of the detainees. Official investigations naturally failed to find and attribute fault to any but the most lowly and least culpable offenders. And now the detainees have turned to the American civil justice system to seek recompense.

Philosophy blog: Abu Ghraib detainees sue US military contractors claim tortureContorting our national pride to find a silver lining even in this sad cloud, Susan L. Burke, of the Philadelphia law firm Burke O’Neil, had this to say about the suit: “These men came to U.S. courts because our laws, as they have for generations, allow their claims to be heard here.”

Related posts from around the web…

Thought for the Day, from George Bernard Shaw - “Liberty means responsibilty. That is why most men dread it.” George Bernard Shaw.

On Patriotism to counteract Fourth of July rhetoric - George Bernard Shaw, [Irish dramatist (1856 - 1950)]. Patriotism is often an arbitrary veneration of real estate [or perhaps oil] above principles. George Jean Nathan, US drama critic & editor (1882 - 1958)

John Lumea: The Conspicuous Silence At The Heart Of Obama’s … - Indeed, the attempt to cast Obama himself as a closet Muslim — as if being a Muslim were somehow un-American — lies at the deepest, darkest heart of the most persistent attacks on his patriotism. Whatever else Obama did with his …

Text of Obama’s Patriotism Speech - “The America We Love” - And at the beginning of a week when we celebrate the birth of our nation, I think it is fitting to pause for a moment and reflect on the meaning of patriotism – theirs, and ours. We do so in part because we are in the midst of war …

Asked If He Questions Obama’s Patriotism, McCain Doesn’t Directly … - This is noteworthy: Asked directly at today’s presser whether he questioned Obama’s patriotism, McCain actually didn’t give a direct answer. Here’s the exchange:. Question: “Do you question at all his patriotism and secondly do you …

Mugabe: The Anti-Mandela - South Africa’s leaders remain shamefully silent and impotent regarding their northern neighbor’s recent ruthless power grab.

MUGABE IN OUTBURST, SWEARS AT UK JOURNALISTS - The amazing scenes came on the first day of the two-day gathering of African leaders who are under pressure to find a solution to Zimbabwe’s political stand-off after Mugabe was sworn in for a sixth term last Sunday following a disputed …

Ex-Abu Ghraib detainees sue military contractors for torture - [JURIST] Four former Abu Ghraib detainees filed lawsuits Monday against two private US military contractors and three of their employees, alleging torture, war crimes and civil conspiracy. The former detainees said that employees of …

Abu Ghraib Detainees Sue Contractors - Attorney Katherine Gallagher, stated bluntly: “Private military contractors and the individuals they employ cannot act with impunity. Contractors must act within the bounds of law and must be held accountable.” …

Former Abu Ghraib Detainees File Lawsuits … Thank You, SCOTUS - Former Iraqi detainees sue US military contractors. By Daren Butler. ISTANBUL - Four Iraqi men are suing US military contractors who they say tortured them while they were detained in Abu Ghraib prison, according to lawsuits being filed … (more…)

Knowing Your Brain: Memory Mechanisms & IQ Training

Friday, June 27th, 2008

Philosophy blog: Oliver Wendell Holmes“The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market,” Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1919).

Nearly 90 years after Oliver Wendell Holmes cast the fortunes of truth onto the open market, Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt write that the processes by which we form memories aren’t as egalitarian as Holmes would have liked to think.

Deposited first in the hippocampus, pieces of information get drawn down and reprocessed each time we recall them. Once we’ve recalled them several times, the brain has written them to the cerebral cortex, weakening or severing the connection to the source of the information. And so, as researchers have now shown, we have ’source amnesia,’ an explanation (apart from stupidity) for why people still believe falsehoods to be true even after those falsehoods have been debunked. (Kerry and the Swift Boat smears, Obama and his religion…)

I’m intrigued as to why memory functions in this way:

As the human mind evolved it needed to be able to process and recall information. Some of this information would have been ultimately disposable, but very important and highly context sensitive (’I should stay clear of this part of the forest because I heard a bear growling here five minutes ago.’) Having a holding area like the hippocampus would allow us to store a lot of temporary data, much of which would be used briefly in a focused way, then let go.

Then there would be another class of information that we would need to recall over and again (’Red berries make you sick,’) without the fuss of recalling the context — this becomes the ‘rule set’ by which we live.

This second class of information can help us live safely and effectively. We build up our rule set and stick to it. And, if we’ve processed the original information correctly, the rule set will tend to do well by us. But, as Wang and Aamodt point out, when we’re misinformed or when we don’t process the original information correctly, or when lies get repeated often enough without a conscious internal effort to contradict or doubt, we end up believing falsehoods. Their advice: to be conscious about what we believe and contemplate the reverse.

And giving new hope to those who want to be able to process any information more effectively, researchers have found new evidence that we can change the way our brains work for the better. Back in April, several journalists (see below) wrote about research by a team from the Universities of Michigan and Bern that showed that memory training can increase fluid intelligence. The research adds to the growing body of data that the structure and makeup of the brain is more plastic than we used to think.

Philosophy blog: Training Working Memory Improves Fluid Intelligence IQ SAT GMAT GRE Test ScoresAlthough there are already several products on the market that purport to sharpen or improve brain power, the research results of the team from Michigan and Bern seemed so exciting and compelling that I decided to produce an affordable commercial software program that would allow anyone to benefit from the training at home. So today I’m blogging about my own news… You can now subscribe to the IQ Training program for the paltry (in comparison to its value) sum of $19.95 per month.

Brain Training Research In The News…


Forget Brain Age: Researchers Develop Software That Makes You Smarter

“…a method for improving the general problem-solving ability scientists call fluid intelligence, otherwise known as “smarts.”

Science News…

Smarten Up

“If you’re looking for an intellectual picker-upper that doesn’t come in a pill, remember this: A relatively brief memory-training program jump-starts general reasoning skills and problem-solving proficiency…”

New York Times…

Memory Training Shown to Turn Up Brain Power

“A new study has found that it may be possible to train people to be more intelligent, increasing the brainpower they had at birth.”

Related posts from around the web…

Executive function training - does it transfer? - Post regarding reported transfer effects (to Gf) from working memory training tasks generated a number of posted comments (go to link and see original post plus comments). Today Developing Intelligence has a nice critique …

ScienceDaily Links - … stuck with IQs set by their genes at birth? Until recently, nature seemed to be the clear winner over nurture. But new research suggests that at least one aspect of a person’s IQ can be improved by training a certain type of memory.

Music & Intelligence: Will Listening to Music Make You Smarter? - In a study conducted by Dr. Timo Krings and reported in Neuroscience Letters in 2000, pianists and non-musicians of the same age and sex were required to perform complex sequences of finger movements. The non-musicians were able to make …

ScienceDaily Health Headlines — for Friday, June 27, 2008 - Low Childhood IQ Linked To Type Of Dementia (June 26, 2008) — Children with lower IQs are more likely decades later to develop vascular dementia than children with high IQs, according to new research in Neurology.

The Brain Improvement & IQ Newsletter – June 1-2, 2008 from http … - Dr. Simon Evans holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology with 15 years research and teaching experience in neuroscience, and is a current faculty position in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Michigan. … (more…)

Sex In The Courtroom And Many Other Places

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

Philosophy blog: Lawyers who filed suit against sex scenes in grand theft auto san andreas stand to gain $1.3M in legal feesLawyers who filed a class action on behalf of those who purchased the computer game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas have been surprised and disappointed that the class of those offended by the hidden sex scenes is very small. The scenes themselves, a legacy of pre-release versions of the game, weren’t even completed, and could only be accessed with special hardware or software. Of the many millions who bought the game only a couple of thousand have expressed interest in the settlement. The lawyers, on the other hand, stand to recoup fees of $1.3M if the settlement is approved by the court. Makers of the game should perhaps consider recouping these fees in turn by designing a new game called Grand Theft Lawyer.

This odd situation of the lawyers so misjudging the shrug factor of the game players when it came to the hidden sex scenes seems to highlight a curious matter of our perspectives on sex in general.

Philosophy blog: Safe Sex New Yorkers not having itA new report on the safe, or unsafe, sex practices of New Yorkers tells us that people in the city have a fair bit of sex and that many of them don’t wear a condom when common sense would say they should. But it’s the comments on this story that quickly become provocative. Alongside people talking frankly and straightforwardly about the difficulties of dealing with desire and pleasure and the practicality of condoms, we have this creepy and passionate post: “burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful and receiving their dues… ”

Sex is something we’re set up to do, something that comes naturally, something that non-conscious creatures have no hang-ups about. So how and why did sex become such a tricky topic when humans developed consciousness?

I’ll hypothesize that there may be several reasons:

1. We realized that sex is a high-stakes activity — It can end up with children and long term responsibility, and it decides the future of our group.

So, when people figured these things out it became important to establish social rules and conventions that would prevent problems in the coupling business and ensure the best survival rate for the society.

2. We became aware that the act of sex and the state of desire change our perception of ourselves and the world around us. We became conscious of a diminishing sense of self control when we were aroused, of the strength of the sex impulse, and of the tug of certain stimuli (erotic triggers).

Being conscious of these things tended to bring us into conflict with another gross effect of consciousness — self-control. The tension between the two led inevitably to self-consciousness about sex, and, in the extreme, feelings of shame and embarrassment.

(These ideas are supported by the varying degree of openness about sex in different cultures.)

Philosophy blog: Grand Theft Auto sexually explicit hot coffee controversyOne woman who purchased the Grand Theft game for her fifteen year old son had this to say when asked whether she would have bought the game if she’d known that it allowed players to kill police officers: “Well, I think he does have games with violence,” adding that she would have “possibly” bought such a game — though not one that contained sex scenes like those in San Andreas.

And the beat goes on… (more…)

Debt, Division of Labor, And The Human Condition

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

On the conditions and cures of the personal debt culture, and the inevitability of the division of labor.

Philosophy blog: debt culture specializationWhy is it that I invariably disagree with David Brooks? He seems like a nice enough guy, smart, sensitive… But I just can’t help thinking that he is mostly wrong-headed. Today, he writes an impassioned piece about the problems with our “values,” government policies, and economic institutions that have led to an exponential growth in personal debt over the past thirty years.

Brooks hangs his argument the idea that those who founded the country embodied traditions of “hard work, temperance and frugality.” He then niftily declares that these early traditions resulted in the country’s prosperity. (Thereby overlooking any other reasons why the country might have been prosperous — such as an abundance of natural resources, the absence of any incumbent public or private institutions that in Europe complicated and inhibited growth over the same period, and the immigration of millions of people who had the drive and ambition to up and travel thousands of miles by boat to seek their fortunes.)

Central to Brook’s theme is thrift. He points out that while we’re smoking less and trying to protect the environment, we’re ever more reckless with money. I’m grateful for these problematic comparisons because they give us an insight into where Brooks is going wrong.

People tend to smoke less these days because they realize it’s bad for them. People tend to care more about the environment because they realize that if they don’t we’ll destroy it. Brooks could have also mentioned the curtailing of promiscuity (primarily because of AIDS).

My point is that our behavior is influenced by perceived cause and effect as much as it is by our values. Or, put another way, values are nothing more than nebulous, intangible codifications of cause and effect that have become untethered from their origins. The reason that some people get into debt or anything else that’s “bad” for them is very simple — they haven’t realized how harmful it can be, or they can’t help themselves.

Citing history as a finger to wag at the present, as Brooks does, seems to be a sure sign of sloppy reasoning. People are people, after all, and we’ve been making the same mistakes and smart decisions for thousands of years.

In his Freakonomics column Stephen Dubner points to a similar example about specialization. Dubner makes a pint of ice cream at home for $12, exemplifying some of the problems with small scale, local production — it’s wasteful, inefficient and uncompetitive. Dubner points out that there has been specialization of trades in society for thousands of years — long before conglomerates, and mass farming.

Dubner’s in pursuit of a rational discussion about sound environmental decision making. But his train of thought also says something about the way that society naturally and inevitably reflects human instincts, reasons and choices. There will always be some people who want to make their own ice cream. And there will always be plenty of people who don’t. And just so long as there’s a profit to be made in mass production, it will continue to exist.

Related posts from around the web…

Have We Lost the Moral Values That Undergird a Commercial Society … - “At the same time, now that we have efficient debt instruments that in former times did not exist or were extremely costly, the role of personal debt (Brooks does not criticize corporate or government debt) in human welfare is more …”

How Do We Change Values? - “On Tuesday of this week, David Brooks had a very good column called “The Great Seduction” about the America’s epidemic of personal debt. The article is based on a new report issued jointly by the Institute for American Values (which …”

An argument against the perceived benefits of locavore behavior - “While industrialization of the food system has brought about the specialization Dubner praises, deadly tomatoes from Conecticut to California underscore that it’s long past time for food reform. There is clearly room for real and needed …”

The Pros of Eating Locally - “I understand Dubner’s point that specialization is useful, and I agree that it can be useful to have someone else who is much more skilled and efficient than you grow your food. However, there are two problems with his argument: first …”

Freakonomics and the Local Food Debate - “Written by Steven Dubner and Stephen Leavitt, two of the leaders of a new breed of economist, the book seeks to dispel common myths and investigate the difference between correlation and causation. For people who like to “think …”



Letting Go: Clinton, Polanski, Creationism and Red Wine

Wednesday, June 4th, 2008

Clinton (Hillary), Polanski (Roman), Young Earth (In Texas), and red wine.

philosophy blog: hillary clinton barack obama red wine health longevity letting go roman polanskiThe Times reports that ‘Hillary Rosen, one of Mrs. Clinton’s most prominent women supporters, wrote on the Huffington Post Web site. “I am sure I was not alone in privately urging the campaign over the last two weeks to use the moment to take her due, pass the torch and cement her grace.”’

Philosophy blog: Hillary Clinton letting goAh, yes, the cementing of one’s grace; the trowel’s slap against the wet lime. For Clinton, one can imagine, this is the sound of the bricks being laid for her mausoleum. To let go of this campaign, once an inevitable victory, and to accept its loss, her oblivion. How long must it have been since Clinton defined herself in anything but political terms?

philosophy blog: roman polanski sex thirteen movies director art artistRoman Polanski has suffered tragedy (the murder of his family) and inflicted harm and misery (by having sex with a thirteen year-old girl). He’s also imbued the world with grace through his artistic endeavors. His victim, 30 years on, expresses her desire to let go of his crime. That crime has defined him these past thirty years, but has also defined her, to some extent, as its victim. If she can let go, she will be free of that definition. Whereas oddly, and rightly one feels, he will remain attached to his.

Dr. Don McLeroy, a dentist in Central Texas, chairs the state’s education board. As the Times reports, Dr. McLeroy believes that ‘Earth’s appearance is a recent geologic event — thousands of years old, not 4.5 billion. “I believe a lot of incredible things,” he said, “The most incredible thing I believe is the Christmas story. That little baby born in the manger was the god that created the universe.”’

philosophy blog: texas board of education don mcleroy dentist intelligent design‘“I just don’t think [evolution is] true or it’s ever happened” … when he considers the case for evolution, Dr. McLeroy said, “it’s just not there.”’

I feel the same way about dentists. After all, before a dentist looks in your mouth, your teeth are fine, they’ve been getting along quite well. But as soon as a dentist pokes around in there all of a sudden you’ve got all of these problems that have been lurking for years.

And, come to think of it, I feel that way about Texas, too. The idea that such a state exists is just so preposterous. Sure, you can make a compelling case for Austin, but what about the rest? Naah. It’s just some left wing conspiracy to scare the rest of us into voting Democrat.

But if the Texas state education board succeeds in having schools teach the weaknesses of evolutionary theory, as it is dangerously close to doing, I may have to let go of the conviction that Texas and its dentists don’t exist.

Which brings me to today’s philosophic conundrum:

Should I drown my days of sorrow in red wine if it will only serve to extend them?


Slacking Off, Slagging Off

Monday, June 2nd, 2008

On avoiding work and making false distinctions.

After I swam this morning, I got into a locker room discussion about the supreme wastefulness and poor management of the NY City Transit system. (Coincidentally, the subject of a recent post.) There we were, a former Transit employee (me), a current Transit employee, and a contractor to the Transit Authority, quickly finding common ground on the subjects of inefficiency and ineptness. The discussion began when the current transit employee joked that his job required him just to show up.

philosophy blog: barack obama wesleyan commencementBarack Obama showed up when Ted Kennedy couldn’t (because of his brain tumor) to make the commencement address at Wesleyan University. Obama took the opportunity to urge the graduating class to consider the call of public service. William Kristol chastises Obama for omitting from his list of worthy public services that the Weslyan grads might consider a career in the armed forces .

Um, William, who in his right mind would encourage young people to join the armed forces right now? And particularly Obama, who opposed the war, and who wants out of the war, and who probably believes that drawing down on military spending is a good long term goal.

The report of another commencement address underscores the weakness of Kristol’s unconvincing piece. We read that President Bush gave the commencement address at Furman University in South Carolina. Bush also called for students to consider public service… and also left out the military from his list.

Philosophy blog: President decider George Bush speaks commencement furman alcohol drugs promiscuity public serviceAt the pinnacle of his rhetorical powers, Bush exhorted the Furman graduating class to adopt a “culture of responsibility” avoiding the inevitably un-fulfilling temptations of “alcohol, drugs and promiscuity.” (A bit late for that advice probably, Mr. President.)

And, speaking of alcohol, whenever I read Stanley Fish’s column it makes me want to tackle a shaker of Martinis. There’s something so depressingly negative about Fish’s way of thinking. He’s the worst kind of academic, it seems, seeking out reasons to accept the inevitability of problems rather than find ways to see past them.

Philosophy blog: stanley fishThis week Fish writes about “norms and deviations.” In a nutshell he argues that any group can be defined as a deviation from a norm, and that that group can legitimately claim that the norm is artificially determined. Deaf people, once defined as disabled, now seeks recognition as a community that rejects the term disabled. Fish rattles through the spectrum of differences from sex distinctions to the distinction between serial killers and non-serial killers. He concludes, rather smugly, that there’s no better way of looking at the endless recursive meaninglessness of these situations than to accept its endlessness and meaninglessness.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to do any work in rebutting Mr. Fish — someone else had already done it for me. A poster called malnicore added this comment, which cannot be improved upon (or, maybe it can, but I’m not going to try):

“All we can be sure of is that the struggle between the impulse to normalize — to specify a center and then police deviations from it — and the impulse to repel the normalizing gaze and live securely in a community of one’s own will never be resolved.”

‘Perhaps, Dr. Fish, this is true. On the other hand, it is contingent upon how “a community of one’s own” is defined. If, for example, one defines one’s own community as all of humanity, neither the autistic human nor the pedophiliac human, nor the serially murderous human can engender the impulse to normalize. They are inescapably normalized from cradle to grave. Divergences are what humanity consists of: autistic and non-autistic persons; pedaphiles and non-pedaphiles; serial killers and serial non-killers, and so forth. Conflicts between these divergences will always be resolved in the same way that you have illustrated for us in “Interpreting the Variorum,” i.e., by interpretive communities.

‘So it is not the divergencies that occur in one’s own community that are theoretically problematic, but rather the failure to define one’s own community in a sufficiently broad context. The broad context of all of humanity permits sub-contexts of interpretive communities to function without an impulse to normalize divergencies in terms of the broad context. This idea is only functionally viable if one believes, as I do, that universal compassion will always accompany a genuine experience of universally shared humanity. Western thought has not, for the most part been able to comprehend the connection between universal humanity and compassion. East Asian non-centric forms of thought (e.g. Mahayana Buddhism) are better equipped to do so. Deconstruction has the potential to lead to this sort of comprehension, but often goes awry at the crucial nexus of aporia, deteriorating into reification of the very process that might have engendered releasement from attachment to all things.’

— Posted by malnicore

Oddly, I now notice that malnicore’s last sentence echoes Bush’s call to release ourselves from any attachment to “alcohol, drugs and promiscuity.” To which list he might usefully have added “abuse of power.” (more…)