30 September 2011

The Tragedy of You're a Dick

So... I made my argument yesterday about the difference between being rational and being reasonable.

Today's xkcd comic
, coincidentally, covers in some respects the same territory.

...okay, so it's almost certainly just a coincidence. I'm reasonably sure that the few dozen hits I get a day don't include the greatness that is Randall Monroe. Could confirm or deny with an IP trace, but I'm feeling a little bit lazy this morning. Too lazy to webstalk.

Anyways, here's the comic (sans mouseover text, since I can only embed the image).

Same starting point, though played for laughs rather than philosophy.

29 September 2011

The GOP is Right

Pedantic little language post today for y'all.

Let's think about two words: rational and reasonable.

Do they mean the same thing? I'm not speaking mathematically here, since as far as I know there is no such thing as a "reasonable" number (ha! see what I did there?).

So they are not in all circumstances identical. In their common usages, though, they tend often to be used as synonyms - or, at least, as terms which are logically linked. Not the same thing, but, confusingly (deliberately so?) deployed, they become allied in the common imagination.

1. To act unreasonably, one is encouraged to think, is to act irrationally.

As irrational acts have been conflated with irrational identities (a person who acts irrationally is regarded as an irrational person), we see a further development of this first idea.

2. To act unreasonably, one is encouraged to think, is to be irrational - that is, to be defined by one's irrationality.

But "irrational" is not a morally neutral term. Irrationality is the defining characteristic of mental illness (as, at least, it is popularly defined, which is the arena with which we are concerned here), which is conflated (again, in the popular imagination) with an active danger to society, either (though to create the following distinction is problematic) of morals or of health.

3. To act unreasonably, one is encouraged to think, is to be defined by being morally wrong and a danger to society.

Put more simply:

3. To act unreasonably is to be a bad person.

and, tied to that:

3a. Unreasonableness is morally wrong.

Fun, right?

Here's the thing, though: if we return to our very first proposition - that, in the common view, reasonableness and rationality are linked - we can say:

This should not be the case.

Linking "reasonable" and "rational" - as well as "unreasonable" and "irrational" - leads us in all sorts of morally problematic directions and, almost more importantly, puts us at a functional disadvantage against anyone who does not create such a link (or operate under the assumption that such a link exists).

Put another way: If you behave reasonably, it is rational for your competitor to behave unreasonably.

This fact can be easily illustrated with a number of scenarios. The most obvious might be the classic Prisoner's Dilemma. The "reasonable" thing to do is to keep silent, right? Each serve a sentence, but a relatively light one, and the total sentence time is diminished. If, however, one prisoner is reasonable, the other knows it, and the other is concerned with his own self-interest (i.e. behaving like a good Smithian capitalist), then it is entirely rational to behave unreasonably and fuck the first prisoner over.

If you are acting (putting concerns about the legitimacy of the US republic aside for the moment) on the behalf of your constituents, then this becomes not just a practical but a moral problem: by acting "reasonably" when faced with unreasonable opponents, you are fucking over not just yourself but also the people with whose best interests you have been entrusted. In other words:

For a representative to continue acting reasonably when faced with unreasonable opponents is not just irrational but morally wrong.

When a governmental system is predicated on the ability of representatives to act reasonably together in order to Get Things Done and avoid going off the rails, this is a problematic formulation. Why? Returning to the prisoner's dilemma: if you assume the other player is acting rationally but not reasonably (i.e. fucking you over), then the only rational move is to fuck him over right back in an attempt to lessen the damage to yourself. Expanding this back to politics:

If every representative acts rationally (that is to say, unreasonably) in a system of entrenched two-party opposition, every constituent gets fucked over, but less than they would if their representatives were attempting to act reasonably in the face of an unreasonable opposition.

From this perspective, then, the GOP is actually doing a far better job of representing their constituents than is the Democratic party. By acting unreasonably - by focusing all of their efforts on sabotaging their opposition - they are acting quite rationally, especially since Democrats are operating under the impression that rationality and reasonableness are the same thing.

If we suppose that the primary good for an elected official is to represent his or her constituents, then the Republican members of congress right now are acting in a way that is far more morally praiseworthy than their Democratic opponents.


27 September 2011

Let em come

If the bad times are coming? Let 'em come.

Okay, that's a pretty wonderful video.

On an only slightly related note, classes start tomorrow. Got my syllabi ready to hand out, got my lesson plans done. Time to start educating these kids. Many thanks to MJH for turning me on to this music.

25 September 2011

Either/Or (The Colbert Report)

So... a poster derived from this clip has been making the rounds on Facebook today, and I figured it was worth throwing the clip on here for folks who might not be on the Zuckerberg train.

Key quote in this, and the one that's on the poster that's been going around, from the very ending of the clip (sorry for spoiling it for you, but it's not like it's a M. Night Shyamalan movie) -
"if this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition, and then admit that we just don't want to do it."

I completely agree. This is something I've brought up before (in my post on Mike Lofgren and Ayn Rand), and it's something I'll bring up again.

Y'all have a nice day.

Headline Writing 101 - Occupy Wall Street (part 2)

Not to pick on CBS... okay, to pick on CBS.

Here's another one:

‘Occupy Wall Street’ YouTube Videos Show Clash Between Police, Protesters

Except, no, the videos don't show a "clash," and the article beneath the headline doesn't suggest that they do.

From early in the article:
Dozens of videos from the week-long protest have surfaced on YouTube. Many show the hundreds of protestors marching through the streets of lower Manhattan. Others show protestors being arrested, demonstrators yelling or chanting at police and officers trying to barricade streets.

One of the YouTube videos appears to show officers using pepper spray on women who were already cordoned off. Another shows officers handcuffing a man after pulling him up off the ground, blood trickling down his face.

Does that sound like a clash to you? Pepper spraying women who are "already cordoned off"? Unless you define "yelling or chanting" as a clash, this isn't a "clash" - this is repression.

From later in the article:

On Saturday, demonstrators said they were protesting against bank bailouts and the mortgage crisis. The march proceeded uptown along Broadway toward Washington Square Park before moving farther to Union Square Park.

That’s where demonstrators and officers clashed. Police moved in with large rolls of orange mesh, corralling some of the participants and binding hands with plastic zip ties.

So... the "clash" they're talking about is... a mass arrest of a group of people who are walking peacefully down the street.

Even if we accept that the police have a right to intervene in the situation, calling this a "clash between police, protesters" is, once again, a significant distortion of what your own article says is going on. The total number of arrests is now over 100, including arrests for loitering, wearing masks, and (I'm guessing, and please pardon my snark) "being a dirty hippie" (which is, I think, only a criminal offense on the east coast.

The point, though: this is not a clash. This is not an equitable police response to violent protestors. This is violent police repression of peaceful people who are attempting to make their voices heard.

Headlines which suggest otherwise are inaccurate, irresponsible, and incommensurate with any kind of legitimate journalistic enterprise.

Headline Writing 101 - Occupy Wall Street

Let's talk about this article.

The headline, if you haven't clicked through yet, is

'Occupy Wall Street' Protests Turn Violent; Video Shows Police Macing Women

Oh noes! Rampaging mobs of rioters are terrorizing New York City! Those crazy lefties are at it again!

...except, if you actually read the article rather than just scanning the headline on Google, the headline has very little to do with the article. The police are mass arresting people (80+ yesterday), but there are no reports of anyone other than the police getting violent (with one exception that I'll deal with momentarily).

From the article:
A New York Police Department spokeswoman today confirmed the group’s claim that approximately 80 people were arrested Saturday, mainly for disorderly conduct and obstructing vehicular and pedestrian traffic.

“One person was arrested for assaulting a police officer,” she said.

She added that no arrests have been made today.

The spokeswoman could not confirm whether police officers are using mace, Tasers or netting against protesters.

Among the video clips on the Occupy Wall Street website is one that shows a police officer macing a group of young women penned in by orange netting.

Another video has circulated of a police officer throwing a protester to the ground, though it is not clear why. The video shows the man standing in what seems to be a non-threatening manner before the incident.

Another video shows police officers pushing male and female protesters off the street, and using a large orange net to move the crowd.

So... one person arrested for assaulting a police officer. Violence! Except... "Assaulting a Police Officer" is completely meaningless. I'll copy the entire statute:
S 120.08 Assault on a peace officer, police officer, fireman or
emergency medical services professional.
A person is guilty of assault on a peace officer, police officer,
fireman or emergency medical services professional when, with intent to
prevent a peace officer, police officer, a fireman, including a fireman
acting as a paramedic or emergency medical technician administering
first aid in the course of performance of duty as such fireman, or an
emergency medical service paramedic or emergency medical service
technician, from performing a lawful duty, he causes serious physical
injury to such peace officer, police officer, fireman, paramedic or
Assault on a peace officer, police officer, fireman or emergency
medical services professional is a class C felony.

Quite literally: if a cop throws his shoulder out, or bruises his fist, while beating you down, congratulations, you've just assaulted a police officer. That'll be a felony. If you (in DC, but the same principle) refuse to remove your hands from your pockets when a cop, for any reason, orders you to, you've just assaulted a police officer, that'll be a misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail.

So... back to my main point... I'm going to go ahead and call this an irresponsible headline on ABC's part. The protests, as far as we know, aren't turning violent - the police response to them is. There's a difference, and blurring that is going to lead people to the wrong conclusion.

Get it right.


I should add: what I said before may have given the impression that charges were being leveled seriously, rather than as simple intimidation tactics or means to separate people from the protest. In my continuing quest for clarity in my writing, I'm posting now to point this oversight out.

23 September 2011

At least I won't be unoriginal...

Remember this scene? It's (obviously) from Good Will Hunting, which (awkward psychiatry aside) is one of my favorite movies. This is one of my favorite parts. Here's why:

When I was growing up, I knew I was smart. That might make me sound arrogant (and, at times, I have in fact been arrogant... even though I fight it, it still pops up every once in a while), but it's true; if you know me, this has probably come across at some point. If you've taken a class with me, it's definitely come across - I apologize to all the folks I took Honors classes with for my occasional toolhood.

A partner of mine once said, "you feel like you and your sisters are superior to everyone else." In some ways, that's accurate. Being homeschooled, being in an enclosed environment with them for much of my childhood, they were the people who felt real to me, who I was attached to, and of whose intelligence I had constant evidence, whose motivations I - to some extent, at least - felt like I understood; and, obviously, if I couldn't understand someone's motivations, it was because I either didn't have enough information to create a good model, or because they were too dumb to act rationally.

Did I mention that I was a determinist for a long time? Free will has never made sense to me. Ask me about my operant conditioning experiments sometime...

Anyways: I was always (or, okay, after I started college, post-homeschool) the guy who gave other people his notes in an attempt to fit in - partly because I didn't feel that there was any other way I could do so, partly because I was confident that, even on an artificially leveled playing field, I would come out on top. Obviously handicapping myself relative to my peers was part of that.

Heroes of my childhood:
Harrison Bergeron

This scene, though... this scene always made me smile. Granted, I wasn't allowed to see the whole film (there's sex! oh, dear God, no!), but here was a guy (Matt Damon, in case you couldn't guess) who was smart, who was handicapping himself, but who was, every once in a while, completely happy to use his brain as a weapon, completely happy cutting outsiders down to protect his family, and completely able to do so.

What I'm saying there, I guess, is that this scene captures a lot of what I've always wanted to be, what I felt I should be. For a number of reasons, when I was growing up, I never thought I would "get out" - I never figured I would be rich, or famous, or any of that stuff, I just thought that I'd wind up working some nothing job until my back and my knees gave out, if I even made it that far. Here was a guy doing that, working that nothing job, but living in a way that I could see myself living, living in a way that I could admire.

Did I mention that I hate the ending of this movie?

Off to work.

20 September 2011

Taylor Branch - The Shame of College Sports

So... this is a long article, but it's definitely, definitely worth the read if you've got even the slightest interest in college athletics, the NCAA, or the United States' educational system.

I'll confess to a certain personal attachment here, since the NCAA's current capo (or "president") is also the former CEO of the university at which I currently study and work.

From early in the essay:

“Why,” asked Bryce Jordan, the president emeritus of Penn State, “should a university be an advertising medium for your industry?”

Vaccaro did not blink. “They shouldn’t, sir,” he replied. “You sold your souls, and you’re going to continue selling them. You can be very moral and righteous in asking me that question, sir,” Vaccaro added with irrepressible good cheer, “but there’s not one of you in this room that’s going to turn down any of our money. You’re going to take it. I can only offer it.”

Branch, in this article, does a stellar job of laying out the history of the NCAA's battle for profit. In all, or at least a lot, of its sordid detail. Disinterest in the welfare of players - the term "student-athlete" originated as a way to deny worker's compensation claims - is only the top layer.

Now, I love me some college sports. My autumn Saturdays for as long as I can remember have been defined by NCAA football, I've participated in more than one March Madness [tm] pool (sorry, Neuheisel), and, heck, I wrote about them (albeit at a smallish D-1 school) through most of undergrad. But this article, coupled with continual evidence of the venality and inhumanity of the NCAA, is enough to make me a little unsettled the next time I settle in with a plate of wings and an IPA.

17 September 2011

Brown eyes, I'll hold you near...

Sorry, sorry, sorry... I usually try not to be mushy on here, but I couldn't help it tonight. For one, I heard Soul Meets Body today for the first time in probably a year, and it's just a beautiful, beautiful love song (probably in my personal top five or so).

I do believe it's true
That there are roads left in both of our shoes
But if the silence takes you
Then I hope it takes me too
So, brown eyes, I'll hold you near
Because you're the only song I want to hear
A melody softly soaring through my atmosphere

For another, this is the kind of day that lends itself to thinking about romance. It's starting to get cold again, and Seattle's starting to (once again) leave its summer sun behind in favor of the damp gray of winter. There was a restless haze over the skyline this morning as I was walking to the office, it started drizzling as I walked home, and the light queered itself all day, making everything unfamiliar, making the air a little bit sharper.

This is the kind of weather that inspires wishes to lie next to a lover under a warm blanket, not moving except for breath and whispers, until the alarm sends me, cursing, across the cold floor to make coffee.

More: this is the kind of weather that inspires wishes for a lover at whose side I could ignore alarms and drift blissfully back to sleep.

Oh, well.

16 September 2011

New Office

So this is the first day in my new office!

I spent a little chunk of yesterday moving my stuff from my old office - which I shared with 20 other UW English TAs - into this one - which I share with two others, one of whom I've met before. I haven't seen either of them around since I got down here.

And... I do mean down here. I'm two floors down from the first floor of my building, in not just the basement but the sub-basement. Luckily, since the building hovers on the side of a very steep hill (which I'm sure won't pose any problems at all in the event of the inevitable cataclysmic earthquake), I've got a window!

Picture of my desk:

Some things you might notice:

Yes, that is a whiteboard drawing of xkcd's Black Hat Guy.

The postcard above and to the right of the whiteboard - which you can barely see because it's red on a red background - has a picture of a pencil and the slogan "This machine kills fascists." Many thanks to JM for that.

The flag in the top right-hand corner, the edge of which you can kind of see in this picture, bears a black star, a silhouette of a cannon, and the slogan "Come and Take It." Props if you know where it's from.

I need more shelves. I'll be acquiring them soon, I hope. Might make a scrounging run through the building after I finish this post, see if I can find anything lying around.

Overall, I think I'll do okay here. It's not glamorous, but, then again, neither am I. Great work is done in humble conditions, right?

Off to scrounge and study, then. Have a great day!

14 September 2011

"Some Real Shock and Awe: Racially Profiled in Detroit"

This is a link to a blogpost that came out on the 12th.

In the post, Shoshana Hebshi, a half-Arab, half-Jewish woman who was flying on 9/11 (of this year), details her experience: she was handcuffed, taken off the plane, put into a cell, strip-searched, and interrogated for several hours because of an anonymous tip that two men in her row were spending too much time in the bathroom.

Her post is worth a read; it's beautifully written and quite thought-provoking.

All y'all have a good day.

12 September 2011

September 11 (the day after)

So yesterday was September 11.


As you might expect if you know me at all, I have mixed feelings about the massive outpouring of commemorations, memorials, moments of silence, etcetera that marked the event's ten year anniversary.

On the one hand: 2996 people died. That's a lot of people. It was also a truly spectacular event, one that left behind indelible images - the smoking towers, the falling bodies, the hole in the Pentagon.

On the other: the memory of loss tends, here, to be used to justify the infliction of loss on others. The grief felt over the death of 2996 has been, and continues to be, manipulated and used to continue violence that has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of innocent people in many countries around the world.

So how do we deal with that coupling?

I don't have an answer here.

09 September 2011

David Foster Wallace - Federer as Religious Experience

This article is from Grantland.

No, it's not new/posthumous David Foster Wallace. That would be awesome, but this is just a reprint - with a new introduction and conclusion by Michael MacCambridge - of DFW's 2006 article about Federer/Nadal at Wimbledon.

As with most of DFW's stuff, this piece is endlessly quotable, rhetorically memorable, and intensely contemplative.

Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men's tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you're O.K.

If you like tennis, or you love good writing, you should read this article. Really. Do it.

07 September 2011

Robert Fulford - When Words Die

This article is from The Afterword, and it's a quick read - a nice, brief musing on some of the reasons why words pass out of common usage, as well as the author's fondness for the adjective "pusillanimous." Not much weight to it, but that's not such a bad thing every once in a while.

Y'all have a great day.

05 September 2011

In other news

Saw these guys at Bumbershoot on Saturday, and they completely rocked out. The crowd was disappointing (sparse and kind of low-energy), but the music and the performance were quite stellar.

Mike Lofgren - Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult

This article is from Truthout.org

Here, Mike Lofgren does a lovely job of vocalizing some of the most significant critiques of the GOP, as well as the way that those critiques get reappropriated and used for the GOP's ends, both directly:
A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

and indirectly:

Ever since the bifurcation of electronic media into a more or less respectable "hard news" segment and a rabidly ideological talk radio and cable TV political propaganda arm, the "respectable" media have been terrified of any criticism for perceived bias. Hence, they hew to the practice of false evenhandedness. Paul Krugman has skewered this tactic as being the "centrist cop-out." "I joked long ago," he says, "that if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read 'Views Differ on Shape of Planet.'"

So there's a lot of interesting stuff in this article, and the whole piece is worth sitting down for 10 or 15 minutes to read through. What I want to zero in on here, though, is the very last footnote. I'll cut and paste it in its entirety:

The GOP cult of Ayn Rand is both revealing and mystifying. On the one hand, Rand's tough guy, every-man-for-himself posturing is a natural fit because it puts a philosophical gloss on the latent sociopathy so prevalent among the hard right. On the other, Rand exclaimed at every opportunity that she was a militant atheist who felt nothing but contempt for Christianity. Apparently, the ignorance of most fundamentalist "values voters" means that GOP candidates who enthuse over Rand at the same time they thump their Bibles never have to explain this stark contradiction. And I imagine a Democratic officeholder would have a harder time explaining why he named his offspring "Marx" than a GOP incumbent would in rationalizing naming his kid "Rand."

This is something that I've talked to friends and family about repeatedly, and it ties (along other factors) into my whole "why I'm not a Christian" reasoning (I'll write a longer post on this subject at some point). The essential point: Christianity as it exists in contemporary America is a sick, contradiction-riddled joke.

A philosophy of "love your neighbor as yourself" is fundamentally incompatible with a philosophy of "greed is good". At some point, "I got mine, so fuck all y'all" - or, perhaps, "I got mine, so God loves me," (health and wealth, anyone?) replaced "go and sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven" (pardon any imperfections in my quoting, I'm working from memory, but I think it's Matthew 19, the whole "eye of a needle" story).

Thomas Paine said of the fledgling USA that "our plan is commerce." That was the founding principle of the country, the justification for the whole project. It seems to be the primary reasoning behind religion these days. Remember "no man can serve two masters"?

Anyways... I'll organize some of my own thoughts on the topic soon, but Lofgren's article is definitely worth a read; there's a lot there that's worth thinking about beyond my own narrow interests.

02 September 2011

James Piereson - What's Wrong with our Universities?

This article is from The New Criterion.

Seems like critiques of American education are everywhere these days. This is a fairly comprehensive, and certainly wide-ranging, one. While I don't agree with all of Piereson's conclusions, or even most of them - his suggestion that "positions like “babysitting coordinator,” “spouse-partner employment counselor,” and “queer-life coordinator” (a real position)" are "superfluous" is certainly and obviously flawed insofar as it closely follows a suggestionless bemoaning of college dropout rates - he does do a nice job of making some of the issues facing the university readable and approachable (unlike, say, the block of text I just wrote out).

If you feel like bringing your critical mind to an article (which, granted, you always should do anyways), give this one a read. It's worth discussion.