On modern humor


A few observations without a conclusion.

1. “College Kids Can’t Take A Joke” by Clarence Page, Chicago Tribune (link)
Clarence Page writes about how Chris Rock doesn’t perform for college audiences any more because they’re too sensitive. Page writes:

I marvel at comedians as varied as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Dick Gregory, Freddie Prinze and Joan Rivers who manage to make us laugh about race, gender, religion, ethnicity and politics while dancing on the edges of our touchiness.

But Rock detects a new uptightness in today’s campus audiences. He blames a social culture that has taken hypersensitivity overboard as we try to protect kids from insults and other painful realities of life — like race relations.

This reminds me of some essay I read a few days ago and can’t find in which a comedian explains how he doesn’t resent having to be more careful about what audiences will tolerate, as often the intolerance comes at the expense of lazy humor aimed at othering people.  I suspect it’s a bit of both.  But I think at the heart of his disdain for ‘over-sensitivity’ is the failure to recognize that sensitivity is a good thing — it’s often tied to empathy.  There’s a difference, of course, between being sensitive to how people feel and being unwilling to discuss difficult things.  I hope it’s the latter Rock is discussing.

2. Clarence Page part 2 – Bill Maher protests

There’s another part of Page’s essay that drives me crazy.  Page connects Rock’s lament about over-sensitive college students to this:

…the issue came up when Rock was asked about a protest that tried to cancel HBO host Bill Maher’s December commencement speech at the University of California at Berkeley.

More than 4,000 people signed an online petition to cancel as a protest against his views on Islam, which, among other indignities, he has called “the only religion that acts like the mafia that will (expletive) kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.”

I strongly disagree with Maher’s smearing of an entire religion for the crimes of its radical fringes. But I also disagree with those who think silencing him would be a sensible response.

As Maher put it, “Whoever told you you only had to hear what didn’t upset you?”

Page calls this censorship, to which I say “Bullshit.”  The proper response to speech we don’t like is more speech.  Among that speech can be “Hey Institution I Like, please don’t pay someone saying odious things to come say them to my face at an event celebrating me.”   One of the results of saying controversial things is that some people will tell you to fuck off, as these 4,000 protesters did.  They aren’t saying “Bill Maher should not be allowed to write or be on tv anymore,” they’re just saying they don’t want to be there when he does it.

As to the snarky reply about hearing things that don’t upset you — they clearly already heard those things, have assessed their value in the give and take of conversation, and told Maher to shove off.

3. Leslie Hall (link)

I like Leslie Hall a lot, particularly for her powerful comedic and musical performances that both revel in and define stereotypes about her body.  I mentioned yesterday liking the song “Tight Pants / Body Rolls,” which is both a powerful claiming of herself as a musician and a self-depreciating look at her own imperfections.  Clearly much of the humor comes from Hall’s stage persona, a cuddly 80s-quaffed power diva, but her self-assured song style (as in “This is How We Go Out”) elevates her act far beyond a gimmick, even as she lovingly infuses many songs with nerdcore aptitudes (as with “Craft Talk”).

4. Jokes about Race

As the issue about Rock brought up, one of the touchiest spaces in modern comedy is in thinking about race.  The “post race” moment we find ourselves in results in an odd experience — the comedic angle that “we’re not racist so we can all laugh together at this racist joke, right?”  It’s this attitude that pushed me away from tosh.0 and makes it less fun than I’d like to play Cards Against Humanity.  I always end up with a hand full of cards playing on race stereotypes because I don’t think they’re funny.

I wonder if Chris Rock would lump me in with those over-sensitive college students he doesn’t want to perform for anymore.


Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: End of the semester grading

Note: I’ll be taking a break from the Dispatches from the Age of Electracy series until after the new year.

An interesting conversation opened up on Facebook last week about grading.  The OP asked “Hypothetically, what should I say to a student who’s unhappy about getting 91/100?”

Grading Conversation Original Post
(click ‘read more’ below to see the full conversation)

The comments were varied and interesting, from snarky answers that few teachers would actually say aloud to serious answers about how to assuage or rebuff the student’s concerns.  But while the two tones seem strikingly different, I would suggest most instructors fall in the middle regarding their attitude about students, grading, and the nuances of it.

  • Frustration with minor grievances – it’s really frustrating when students fixate on small grade grievances.  Boy howdy, I know it is.  But where we see ‘just one assignment,’ some students put a lot of stock or interest or faith.  Plus, they only see one of the assignment, rather than the 20 (or 80) we have.
  • Grading is a weird piece of job performance because it’s very subjective (CAVEAT: I’m writing here about subjectively graded assignments, judgments of quality rather than accuracy.).  Teachers build an instinctual “I know it when I see it” meter that allows us to assess quality of projects quickly, but then we have to, you know, explain the grades.  It’s the gap between the assessment and the explanation that’s at discussion here.  And when the difference between two projects comes down to “good but not great,” that’s a hard line to explain or help a student understand how to improve.
  • That said, even adding in a helping of excuse for the caustic space of the Internet, I find the dismissive tone of some of these comments pretty harsh.  It’s easy, as a teacher, to lose empathy for the student and their efforts to understand grades and grading.  And as instructors, we sometimes forget the power this evaluative tool has for our students, and the weight with which the hammer comes down.

And, I think, many of these effects are amplified by Electracy.  The shifting nature of knowledge acquisition and learning means many of the values and relationships between teacher and student are changing, have changed, and will change; these changes manifest, in some ways, on the grading page.  A few thoughts about this:

  • The shift from “Sage on the Stage” to “Guide on the Side” models of teaching recognize that the modern teacher’s role is to facilitate exploration of the subject as an expert.  I’ve written before that what we’re selling in modern higher education is not knowledge, it’s time with someone who understands the field and is good at explaining it.  The grade itself becomes less important because we’re less important as arbiters of correctness or validity alone.  Instead, it’s our ability to explain why the student’s work earned a particular grade that makes us more valuable than Wikipedia.
  • The flattening of hierarchies urges us to be more approachable and urges students to see us that way.  This alteration of relationship (admittedly, this may be a very subjective point) makes it easier for students to discuss and question their grades than they might have before.  The open lines of communication between student and instructor also facilitate this kind of conversation.  I suspect the professor who decided she’d no longer accept emails was, in part, motivated by the idea that if the problem isn’t big enough to come in to discuss, it’s not important enough to discuss at all.  I’d interpret things a different way.
  • Electronic grading also opens up the system, making it visible to students in ways it just wasn’t when grades were kept entirely on paper.  In the past, students couldn’t really “keep track” of their grade.  The professor could do so, but wasn’t really accountable to students if they didn’t.  Now, with electronic grade books, students expect that grades will be updated and up-to-date, and professors have a reasonable obligation to maintain that visibility.  At the same time, students acquire an obligation to manage their own grade.  If something is a surprise, it’s not our fault.

In these contexts, we’ve come to see a more nuanced idea of grading.  It’s not an arbiter of quality alone, it’s an assessment of achievement.  We use rubrics to communicate our expectations and we evaluate using those guidelines.  There’s still plenty of fuzzy subjectivity in our grading, but the onus is on us to explain ourselves, and then on the students to take more responsibility for the process.


Continue reading Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: End of the semester grading

Archbishop John Nienstedt should be ashamed of himself.

"Hands together" by Danny Hammontree
“Hands Together” by Danny Hammontree
(cc licensed)

Archbishop John Nienstedt asked Jaime Moore, the longtime music director for St. Victoria parish in Victoria, MN, to resign after Moore married his longtime same-sex partner.  Nienstedt should be ashamed of himself.

We’ve long understood that the Bible is a hot mess of contradictions.  Aside from confusions introduced by its translation into other languages, there are clear contradictions between the new and old testament, or in which things we’ve decided are or are not still important to God. (See The Year of Living Biblically for a good discussion of this.)

But over time, as the secular, enlightenment understanding of humanity has evolved, we’ve come to see that the ancient view of “sin” was grounded in the specifics of the time those books were written, and that in order to properly understand why something is or isn’t wrong, we need to continually re-asses and explore that issue.  For a good example of how we’ve come to reinterpret, from a modern perspective, old “sins,” consider slavery.  (The Iron Chariots wiki is a good place to start.)  Miscegenation (the ‘mixing’ of the ‘races’) is another example, something whose position was first defended, then refuted by the religious faith people had.  See The Oatmeal for a scathing and hilarious comic rendering of this idea.

Which brings us to the modern moment.  Gay rights in the U.S. have reached a tipping point where, as John Oliver suggested, it’s not about which state will legalize gay marriage next, but rather which will be the last to do so.  And so even the Catholic church has begun to wake from its slumber, like Smaug hearing Bilbo stumbling around in the gold pile. Last spring, Pope Francis said:

“Rather than quickly condemn them, let’s just ask the questions as to why that has appealed to certain people.” and “We shouldn’t marginalise people for this. They must be integrated into society.”  (The Telegraph)

This seems to me the moment for leaders of the Catholic church to join the rest of us in the 21st century (hell, the last two decades of the 20th century).  They ought to take a deep look at the past issues of human rights (particularly race relations and slavery in the U.S.) and ask themselves how this issue is different.  Even if they still understand homosexual acts to be sinful (but gleefully eat lobster), the supposedly inclusive message of Jesus and the recent comments by the Pope would suggest that this is the opportunity for the church to respond not with shaming or shunning (or marginalizing), but with love.

Instead, Archbishop Nienstedt chose not to stand with right, but to stand with tradition only.  For shame, sir.

Full disclosure — I was raised Catholic but am now Unitarian Universalist. My mother attends St. Victoria parish and our family been lucky enough to count Mr. Moore among our friends for more than a decade.

Privilege and humor – Whose experience is being mocked?

5 Minutes There’s been quite a bit of commentary lately about privilege.  It’s a concept that finally seems to have some mainstream bite, and deserves serious consideration.

In case this is new to you, the basic idea of privilege in this context is the idea that different people have different experiences in society because of factors outside their control such as skin color, sex, economic status, nationality, first language, and many more.  The difficulty of this concept for privileged people to accept is that they don’t see the extra friction involved for the unprivileged, so it can be hard to understand or empathize.  I like John Scalzi’s explanation here.

Four things that have come across my transom in the last couple days.

1. Privilege tournament – YUCK.

The most hurtful thing about Gawker’s “Privilege Tournament” (which invites readers to vote on NCAA-type brackets for who is the least privileged “category” of people, black, Hispanic, gay, etc.) is not its contempt for civil rights discourse, but that the prideful display of a white man’s humor is more important to a large liberal media outlet than compassion for people who suffer the dehumanizing effects of discrimination.  Gawker, of course, presents the Tournament as an above-it-all humor piece, and this is exactly the problem: Gawker believes it is speaking from a place of objective remove, but it is, in fact, acting out emotionally. The site is either willfully naive about the daily pain experienced by people whom society devalues or, worse, resentful that white men are being wrongly denied equal sympathy. Either way there’s nothing objective in this perspective.

Not only is white male humility in discussion of race/gender/sexuality absent here, but in its place is a vicious, sneering resentment at the suggested need to be humble. When a white man decides that a conversation about privilege has gotten out of hand, gone to absurd lengths, and needs some comedic cutting down, he is reestablishing white, male dominance, plain and simple. Who is asking who to laugh? Whose experience is being mocked?… (Salon writing about Gawker)

2. Whitewashing – a term for the overwhelming default use of whites as main characters and the assumption that white male is the default.

Seriously, it surprises me that people still don’t get that “whitewashing” doesn’t just mean “taking a character of color and turning them white,” but also applies to “focusing disproportionately on the stories of white people,” “glossing over or altering parts of a story to make it more palatable or make white people look better,” and “treating ‘white’ as the default race”…

Because that’s the thing. People often assume that when someone’s race isn’t explicitly specified, they’re white. People insist that Katniss Everdeen must be white because it is possible for them to rationalize that idea in their head. People think of white as “raceless” and every other color or ethnicity as “raced,” and that’s what we call “eurocentrism.”

And that’s the thing about whitewashing. It’s this idea that a “person” is white, and a “person of color” is black or asian or arab or latin@ or whatever they might be.

It’s why people call John Stewart the “Black Green Lantern” but just call Hal Jordan the “Green Lantern.” It’s why Miles Morales is called “Black Spider-man” but Peter Parker is just “Spider-man.” If you want to throw gender into the mix, it’s why Jennifer Walters is the “She-Hulk” but Bruce Banner isn’t the “He-Hulk.”

People think “character” is white and “character + black” is black. There is no default race….
(rapteriffic  via Geek Girl Playground via Jeanne)

3. Junot Diaz on men writing female characters, and whites writing minority characters:

If you’re a boy writer, it’s a simple rule: you’ve gotta get used to the fact that you suck at writing women and that the worst women writer can write a better man than the best male writer can write a good woman. And it’s just the minimum. Because the thing about the sort of heteronormative masculine privilege, whether it’s in Santo Domingo, or the United States, is you grow up your entire life being told that women aren’t human beings, and that women have no independent subjectivity. And because you grow up with this, it’s this huge surprise when you go to college and realize that, “Oh, women aren’t people who does my shit and fucks me.”

And I think that this a huge challenge for boys, because they want to pretend they can write girls. Every time I’m teaching boys to write, I read their women to them, and I’m like, “Yo, you think this is good writing?” These motherfuckers attack each other over cliche lines but they won’t attack each other over these toxic representations of women that they have inherited… their sexist shorthand, they think that is observation. They think that their sexist distortions are insight. And if you’re in a writing program and you say to a guy that their characters are sexist, this guy, it’s like you said they fucking love Hitler. They will fight tooth and nail because they want to preserve this really vicious sexism in the art because that is what they have been taught.

And I think the first step is to admit that you, because of your privilege, have a very distorted sense of women’s subjectivity…. (Diaz via Mason Johnson via ofgrammatology and others)

4. Clark at Popehat has been writing a series mocking the overwrought press coverage of the government shutdown.  His pieces document his daily life, the non-trauma of going to the store for some milk and so on.  While there is a bit of truth to them, I also cringe at the ingrained privilege in the pieces, the callow joking idea that if the shutdown isn’t a big deal for him, it must not be that big a deal.  I wasn’t surprised at one piece that makes the point about the apocalyptic tales, but he’s done four as of today, and frankly they’re getting a bit grating.


Should someone’s politics influence your enjoyment of their art? (The Ender’s Game conundrum)

Ender's Game image
In a school full of mostly adolescent boys, you really think there won’t be any experimentation?

I acknowledge up front that nothing I say here will be particularly revelatory if you have been following or thinking about this story for very long.

Books and movies you encounter during your formative years often get a pass on critical thinking, at least they do for me.  I’m fond of a number of movies and books that I enjoyed as a yout (five points if you get that reference) but, on reflection, just aren’t all that good.  In fact, some are worryingly bad.

The biggest of these is Ender’s Game, a book long beloved by me and many of my fellow geeks, but whose quality and reputation have been called into question by the pressure arising from the new movie coming out this fall.  A quick roundup of the commentary that’s affected my thinking about Ender’s Game:

I’ve discussed this issue many times with my students, stemming from the basic question: should a person’s politics influence how you feel about the art they make?  I have a variety of responses

  1. Yes, of course it will influence your enjoyment of the work.  What you know about the author will inevitably color how you receive their books.  You’ll be hyper-alert to the issues they’re associated with.  For example, Watson was particularly bothered by some of the homophobic and racist banter the children used in the book.
  2. But there are innumerable pieces of art (particularly collaborative art like Television or Cinema) made by people with whom we disagree politically.  Are we to research the politics of all our artists before we engage with art?  This sounds, frankly, totalitarian.  It also suggests that people are only their most objectionable views, and their art must come from that place.
  3. What about art you encountered without the external knowledge of the artist?  If you like it first (as I did with Ender’s Game), there can be a sense of loss when you discover the artist’s failings, and it’s distressing to have to reconfigure nostalgia for something you enjoyed as a kid.

The Internet seems mixed about whether friends of LGBQT should boycott the film or not.  On one hand, it’s strongly associated with the author of the novel, so its success is his success, and on some level, his financial reward.  On the other hand, hundreds of people have worked on this film, and to suggest that OSC’s political views ought to decide whether we see the movie or not is to give in to a kind of totalitarianism, especially since Lion’s Gate has denounced Card’s homophobic stance and is holding a benefit for the community.  The Nathan Simpson at Queerlandia brings up a great point — they could short-circuit the boycott by revealing whether Card’s financial connection to the film is a fixed point (as it USUALLY is, particularly on a property this old) or if ticket sales will affect his finances.  Woe be to them if he gets a percentage.

Personally, I plan to see the film.  Ender’s Game was a key book in my childhood — it spoke to me as a nerd and intellectual, it told an exciting story, and it helped shape my thinking about friendship and leadership (though, as PZ Myers points out, it doesn’t provide a good model to think about politics and war). But I will also donate the cost of my ticket to an LGBQT ally organization, preferably one connected to the fight against NOM, as they are the focal point for Card’s activism.

j/k lol

The Joke
The Joke

The Joke by Milan Kundera

I don’t usually read high literature.  I gravitate toward genre fiction (duh) if left to my own devices, and it’s only through the patient prodding of my literary colleagues and my father in law (who reads tons) that I occasionally pick up a book that will challenge my soul or something.  Anyway, The Joke is one of those.

Kundera’s novel turns on a young man’s goofy prank — he has a friend who takes everything too seriously, so he winds her up by saying outrageous things and watching her sputter.  Alas, he sends one of his pranks on a post card through the mail.  Oh yeah, he lives in Communist Czechoslovakia, so his joke gets him tossed out of college and relegated to the Black Brigade, a work platoon for dissenters and suspicious people.  His life spirals downward from there. A few thoughts:

      • Kundera’s careful crafting of characters works well here, as we receive the story of the joke and its ramifications from many folks, each with their own take on the situation and their own misery.
      • I can see why this book has not been received kindly by the Party — it reveals the crushing nature of Communism and the attendant political suspicion that comes with it.  Other novels taking place in Communist countries travel this path as well (examples: Child 44, The Mao Case, The Skull Mantra, The Coroner’s Lunch).  Of particular note was the way “folk music” became emblematic of authentic “people’s” art, and was thus co-opted by the State and altered until it was no longer folk art but propaganda and all the joy drained from it.
      • I love Kundera’s cranky note about the English lanugage editions of the book (the version I read was the 6th, and promised to be the last as he’d checked it himself, line-by-line).

It was fun to read this book during our travels to Europe — seeing Prague while reading about Prague made for a great trip.  (I’ll always remember the pleasant rocking of the night train as I lay in my bunk reading

The Joke

    and listening to the shush of the countryside whisking past the open window, punctuated by the occasional roar of a passing train.)

At its heart, The Joke reminds us that our lives touch our peers intimately, and that simple acts on our part have a huge effect on them.

At one point in the novel, Kundera introduces a painter who loves painting naked ladies. The character, a prisoner in the work camp, paints murals throughout the camp depicting women he’s slept with or imagined, and hides his prurience in elaborate discussions of symbolic embodiment — this woman represents the Czech people, that one the spirit of Communism, and so on.  Kundera reveals both the lie in the interpretation, the fact that the prisoner just likes painting naked ladies, and the amusing weirdness with art criticism.  I read about this character the day before we visited the Kutna Hora Ossuary, a church where the bones of medieval villagers had been used to craft horrifying (and fascinating) decorations.  There were pamphlets about how these sculptures were created to celebrate God and so on.  I couldn’t help but wonder if the main sculptor (a priest from the 1870s) was just making excuses because he liked to play with bones.



It will never get harder to copy things: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 3

This is the third in a four-part blog series taking a snapshot of the current economic, political, and grammatological situation facing the modern American university system.  In part one, I provided a preface for this discussion.  Parts two, three, and four focus specifically on pressures from different quarters challenging us to re-imagine what it is we do.


Monkey with glasses
I couldn’t think of a good image to accompany this post, so here’s a monkey with glasses.

In Part 1 of this series, I offered as object lessons service industries that saw significant upheaval in the Age of Electracy.  In Part 2, I suggested that universities face significant challenges from “above” because of the changing shape of public opinion.  These factors don’t correlate very closely with what happened to travel agents or stock brokers.  By contrast, the rising forces of competition certainly analogize closely.

At its heart, the University faces the same problem Travel Agents and Stock Brokers faced — a shift from information scarcity to information abundance and the emergence of technologies that automate (or scale, at least) key parts of our business model.  I’ll write a bit about three pressures we face, each of which has emerged significantly because of the digital age and each of which challenges our conception of who we are and what we do for students.

1. Lectures, information, and syllabi

For many subjects and much of the history of university study, college professors imparted knowledge to students via what Paolo Freire famously called the “banking model.”  We dispense knowledge via lectures and books, the students store that knowledge in their memory, and deposit it back on tests.  Hopefully some of it sticks.  This model worked for many reasons — first, knowledge itself was relatively rare, and the means to sort it were difficult to find and not easily copied.  Second, the expert who understands and can dispense that knowledge was even more rare, and he (or she, but usually he) could only be reached via classrooms and visits to musty offices.

The internet has, I’m afraid, disrupted that scarcity.  Information is no longer rare.  It’s getting easier to find and index every moment, and smart agents, search engines, and widely available tools mean that less and less do professors hold monopolies on what information is best nor do we limit how it can be accessed.  On top of that, with easy-to-distribute digital recordings, our dispensation of that knowledge need not be rare either.  A lecture given once is no longer ephemeral, but can be captured and placed online where it can be viewed in perpetuity.

As a result, the lecture model of instruction in face-to-face classrooms has dropped out of favor as professors and students alike come to recognize that such one-way interaction does not necessarily make the best use of synchronous classroom time.  For professors rooted in the older culture, though, this challenges us to think about what we ought to be doing.

2. Convenience

It’s become very clear to nearly every professional working in higher education that students want more online offerings available for their study.  They like the convenience, the flexible schedule, and perhaps the ability to thrive under their own intrinsic motivations.

Marginal outfits and for profit schools like Phoenix University colonized a lot of this landscape early, and many traditional universities were slow to join the bandwagon.  And when they do, they often misunderstand such offerings as an economic boon, a way to eschew the ghastly overhead that makes face-to-face classes expensive to offer.

But as brick and mortar universities work to understand the role online offerings should take in their larger environment, many students are opting for those other institutions, and suddenly there’s competition in the marketplace from these venues.

3. Credentialling

The one place traditional universities still hold a strong lead is in credentialling, the purpose for which much of the external world understands us to exist.  By giving someone a degree, we certify that they know what they’re doing, and our reputation as an educational institution (as well as our certification from the credentialling bodies) means that employers and other interested parties can quickly grasp the value of our offerings and our graduates.

But it would be a mistake to imagine that this monopoly will hold for much longer.  As offerings diversify, credentialling will do so as well.  Already, formal networks like LinkedIn allow for users to certify other users, a practice that doesn’t carry much weight now but could easily do so in the future.  Programs like Badges (the idea of earning a mini-certification in a specific skill based on free or open coursework) and initiatives like MOOCs mean that more and more, people will seek alternate means to certify their competence in many fields of endeavor.

These three factors all heavily influence the reasons students choose (or choose NOT) to attend our institutions.  As the costs continue to rise (which they will inevitably do), information abundance, online offerings, and diversified credential schemes will hack away at the underbelly of academia, a surface made weak by our centuries-old monopoly on the training of the middle and upper classes.

In part four, I will explore a bit about what I think we need to do, as educators concerned with the future of higher education, to transition our institutions to meet the needs of the Electrate public.

Read more: We’re surrounded!: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 4

Too long for a bumper sticker, but awesome anyway.

From one of PZ Myers’ recent posts about gender equality:

Here’s the deal, Fox News. The world is changing. It’s not getting worse, it’s getting different, and I know that’s the kind of thing that makes bitter, cranky old conservatives weep into their scotch and water, but deal with it. Besides, you’ll be dead soon and won’t care any more.

And it’s not just getting different, it’s getting better — those women in the workforce are more independent, more free, and living more fulfilling lives that matter. Welcome it. And hey, how about getting off your privileged butts and making sure that they get paid the same as men, so those families and children you’re so fucking concerned about can get by? (Oh no! Equality!)

Damn right.

Worlds collide!

Worlds collide in a bad way
Worlds collide in a bad way

I read blogs for a variety of reasons:

  • humor – cuz’ I like funny stuff
  • academics – cuz’ it’s my job
  • Skepticism and Rationality in sciecne – cuz’ it’s interesting
  • Freedom of speech (particularly on the internet) – cuz it’s interesting AND it’s my job

In skimming my feed today, I discovered an overlap in which these TWO WORLDS ARE COLLIDING…

The Skeptical OB is a blog I read about the homebirth community and movement.  I stumbled over there from Pharyngula and stayed because Dr. Amy Tuteur discusses the homebirth community and their rhetoric in ways I find particularly interesting (though they’re not really germane to my situation, as we’re done having kids).

Over the last couple months, she’s begun a lawsuit seeking damages over a false DMCA claim from a blogger she wrote about.  It’s strange to see these two worlds crossing in this way, but I’m intrigued to see how it plays out.  Tuteur’s  case is important, because it represents a moment where low-stakes writers can be seriously damaged by DMCA claims, and so her ability to recoup costs or impose sanctions on this blogger who mis-used the DMCA will go a long way toward making sure that speech stays free.  We’ll see what happens.

Two thoughts on the Boston bombing and related events

First, the coverage of the Boston bombing on Popehat has been amazing.  The gang over there have been doing a bang-up job writing from new angles about the event.  My two favorite are:

security theater, martial law, and a tale that trumps every cop-and-donut joke you’ve ever heard” in which Clark wrote about the enormous waste involved in shutting Boston down for a whole day (except, apparently, Dunkin Donuts, which was explicitly asked to stay open to provide the police with food).

and “Richard Jewell Cannot Accept Our Apology” which reminds us of the famously maligned hero from the 1996 Atlanta bombing and the way the media and pretty much everyone else blamed him without reasonable proof.  Patrick wrote this the day after the bombing:

If the FBI, and CNN, and NBC, and the New York Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and All Of Us, could get the Atlanta bombing so tragically wrong in 1996, they, and we, can do it today. In the days to come, it would behoove All Of Us to take what the FBI, and CNN, and NBC, and the New York Post, and their ilk, have to say about suspects and motives with a grain of salt.

Lest we find outselves owing someone a Richard Jewell-sized apology.

Perhaps the best apology we, All Of Us, can give to Richard Jewell is to be a little more skeptical of what we’re told by the FBI, and CNN, and NBC, and the New York Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and their ilk.

It will do Richard Jewell no good whatsoever, but it will make All Of Us better citizens.

In the aftermath of the violent gunfights involved in capturing the current suspects, it seems likely that at worst, the Boston PD and FBI have succeeded in getting dangerous people off the streets–people we presume to be the bombers as well.  The father of the boys is claiming they were framed, which seems bizarre given that they shot at the police and threw explosives, but if you were going to frame someone for this kind of attack, it would make sense to pick someone with a cache of guns and homemade explosives.

Second, in a similar sentiment to the one Clark expressed about the bombing, I’m surprised that the Texas fertilizer factory explosion hasn’t gotten FAR more coverage and raised FAR more concern than the bombing.  Because at its core, the bombing is an unavoidable part of living in free society–you cannot prevent bad people from doing bad things if they’re committed enough. It will happen.  But regulating industry so that careless accidents don’t happen? Hell yeah you can prevent that.

But our media seem much more interested in the unavoidable tragedy than the avoidable one.  I would prefer to see the media mania focused on the factory and the ramifications of our gutted regulatory bodies and their inability to enforce strong safety and environmental regulations rather than so much attention on the criminal act and its actor.

Them: Adventures with Extremists

Them by Jon Ronson
Them by Jon Ronson

Them: Adventures with Extremists
by Jon Ronson

It’s a little disconcerting how close Ronson gets to very scary people in this book.  But his point, I think, is that even the very scary people are just people.  Them details Ronson’s journey into the late 1990s and early 2000s subculture of conspiracy theorists, people who believe shadowy cabals of the ultra-rich control the world, and make decisions about the world-controlling process at a secret meeting each winter in a hotel and at a second yearly meeting, a satanic ritual in California.  A few details:

  • Ronson does a very good job of making the terrifying people depicted in his book look more like hapless buffoons that terrorists.  He also highlights how the people on the extreme left of the system are also bonkers.
  • I admire both his persistence and his bravery, to visit places and people who have, in some cases, set themselves up against everything he represents or stands for (or is, in the case of the Anti-Semitic KKK).
  • The blood drinking lizard chapter, about famous crackpot David Icke, is particularly compelling.  Ronson follows Icke when he comes to Toronto to speak about the fact that the world’s leaders are actually seven foot tall blood drinking lizards.  The local Jewish Anti-defamation League orchestrates a shut-down of his talks before learning that his talk of lizards isn’t code for anti-Semitic thought, but actually a fear of giant lizards.
  • I love Ronson’s self-deprecating writing style.  If nothing else, reading the book is worth it for the nervous self-terror that emerges as he wrestles with tricky situations, like “should I try on the KKK hood or not?” — he does.
  • The best part is that he does find a secret cabal of ultra-rich movers and shakers who meet twice a year.  They DO have policy discussions and have a ceremony in front of a giant owl.  The Bilderburg group does, as Ronson lays it out, seem to have a lot of power (at least in terms of their ability to draw together people who will later become important.  But it also functions like a rich old person’s frat party.

For much of the book, I couldn’t help but think of So I Married an Axe Murderer and Charlie’s nutty father.  So I’ll leave you with that.  All in all, Them, is a compelling, striking read with complicated emotional layers and a strong vein of humor.


Bit parts on / Favorite episodes of … the West Wing

Bit Parts: Following up on my post earlier this week… Oh my goodness, I hadn’t realized how many people whom you would later see in more prominent acting roles had bit parts on The West Wing.  I’m not speaking about prominent roles, but rather the occasional one-off role.  Here are a few:

  • Clark Gregg, now known as Agent Coulson in The Avengers, played a Secret Service agent in several episodes.
  • Jane Lynch played a reporter in the press room and asked a single episode
  • Nick Offerman played an environmental advocate trying to save wolves on one of the Giant Block of Cheese episodes.
  • Jason Isaacs, as the photojournalist with whom Donna has a fling
  • Christopher Lloyd as Lawrence Lessig.  How strange that is.
  • Steven Root as one of Alan Alda’s campaign managers.
  • Patricia Richardson as Alan Alda’s other campaign manager.

There are also quite a few notables who took multi-episode arcs.  Among my favorites are:

  • Edward James Olmos, as a nominee to the Supreme Court
  • John Larroquette, as the lead White House Counsel
  • Oliver Platt, the lead White House Counsel who replaces John Larroquette
  • Christian Slater, the dreamy Navy Attache who has a flirtatious moment with Donna
  • Matthew Perry, the replacement for Ainsley Hayes

Favorite Moments / Episodes:

  • Toby gets sent to sit with a progressive protest group and opens up a can of whoop-ass on them for their disorganized rabble politics.
  • C.J.’s first day as Chief of Staff and the way she takes control of the job.
  • The episode where Jed decides whether to run for re-election and we learn the backstory of his relationship with Mrs. Lanningham.
  • The two-part episode when Toby and Josh and Donna get stuck in rural Iowa.
  • Any episode that focuses on Charlie.
  • The Ainsley Hayes episode arc.
  • The slow burn Danny Kincaid sub-plot.


Rewatching The West Wing

The West Wing
The West Wing

I never watched The West Wing when it was airing live.  The first time I watched the show, it was running in syndication and I watched an episode every day with lunch.  I watched through the end of season four which is, I recall, when Aaron Sorkin left the show.  I never returned to see how it all turned out.

If you haven’t seen it, The West Wing is a political melodrama about a progressive Democratic President and his hard-working staff.  The show blends personal drama with political dramatics, often using narratives in one line to augment the other.

When the show became available via streaming I decided to check it out again, and have recently finished re-watching the whole series.  Some thoughts:

  • There’s a distinctive decline in the writing quality after season four.  The last three seasons of the show become less reliant on complex characterization and more reliant on big plot moments to push the narrative forward.  If the first seasons represented Sorkin holding together a group on a centrifuge, the last three show the center failing to hold. That said, the characters are beloved enough to me/us that the last three seasons are enjoyable anyhow, once the new showrunner figures out how to make things work in a new way.  The low point, as my friend Brian Doan pointed out at the time, is when Josh makes a major misstep and stops to shout at the Capital building in the middle of the night.  “You want a piece of me?”
  • My favorite episodes are the ones where the narratives blend nicely.  The best is the one just after Donna has found out a major secret, but most people don’t know yet.  She learns that a Chinese satellite is dropping out of orbit and will fall out of space soon, and spends the whole episode fretting about the shoe about to drop.  The metaphorical parallel between the two works very well.
  • The West Wing was certainly an ensemble show with many strong characters, but toward the end of the series, it became clear that Josh and C.J. were the twin poles of the series.  Each had the strongest development arc and some amazing episodes for character building.
  • I like the way the show complicated things by making people with depth on both sides of the aisle.  There were certainly cartoonish villains, but also many moderates who, with the power of script-writers behind them, made great speeches and argued their case well.
  • I spent much of the show trying to puzzle out when Sorkin’s alternative universe split from our own.  Past Presidents from our own world where mentioned, including Nixon and (I’m pretty sure) Johnson, but we also see James Cromwell, the presumably two-term President Bartlett followed.  (Wikipedia informs me that “Fictional Presidents who served between Nixon and Bartlet include one-term Democrat D. Wire Newman (James Cromwell) and two-term Republican Owen Lassiter.”)  As far as I can tell, the series never mentions LBJ, Carter, or Reagan.  The series holds elections in 2002 and 2006, so there’s a mis-match with reality anyhow, but the twelve years accounted for by the Newman and Lassiter Presidencies leave blank the time between 1980 and 1986.  Perhaps that’s when some time-traveler caused our two timelines to diverge.  The biggest difference in the two timelines is 9/11, which didn’t happen in the West Wing universe.

It was fun to watch this show again.  If you have Netflix and haven’t ever watched before, I encourage you to do so.


Fourteen names

Each week as part of the service at Unity Temple in Oak Park, the ministers read from the book of the prayers of the people — a book you can write requests in for the congregation to include.  They take pains to include three lists each week:

  • Individuals being held in McHenry County Jail awaiting INS hearings.  Usually this list is too long to read the names, so they read the home countries of the individuals on the list.
  • U.S. Military Men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past week (or since they last read the list).
  • People killed by violence in Chicago in the past week (or since they last read the list).

There were two remarkable things about the list yesterday.  First, there were no individuals on the list of those killed in Afghanistan.  It was the first time in the four years I’ve been attending the church that there were no names on that list.  But then…

There were fourteen people listed on the Chicago death list.

While the sermon that emerged later was interesting, I spent most of the service haunted by that number.


Of course, many smarter writers than I have spent a lot of time on this question.  The violence in this country (and in my city, particularly) springs from economic despair, mostly, and is amplified by a robust black market in illegal drugs and a society awash in easily-obtained firearms.  So many of the deaths are accidental — unintended bystanders shot during a drive-by.

One of the fourteen was an unarmed fifteen year old girl standing outside her school.

I can understand the toothpaste argument.  Guns have been legal and available so long that to make rules now making them illegal harms only the people who follow the rules.   On the other hand, more guns means more gun deaths.  The wild west wasn’t safer because everyone had a pistol on their hip.  And statistics have consistently shown that guns in homes are far more likely to kill innocents than criminals.  Erik Larsen’s book Lethal Passage explores this topic very well.

We see lots of protests and discussions demanding to curb this violence, demanding that the city, or the state, or the government DO something about it.  But what are they to do?  An increased police presence seems likely to turn high crime neighborhoods into military zones, locked down with curfews and tyrannies. (See Davis, City of Quartz.)

The systemic solution seems likely to stem from increased funding for police, for schools, for job programs, for opportunities instead of guns.  But these are slow solutions that take the will of politicians who are elected (and defeated) on fast news cycles.

I despair for my city.  I don’t know what to do to help.  There were fourteen people on the list yesterday.

Which god do you listen to?

I don’ t know where this post it going.  I suppose the alternate title could be “Random thoughts on evil, Hell, and the religious questions thereabouts.” Also could be “blogging when I should be doing other things.”

1. Constructing Hells
In Surface Detail, Iain M. Banks imagines a post-singularity future in which digital upload was part of many civilizations.  People have “neural lace” technology that captures their brain state and backs it up regularly, so that if they die, they aren’t truly lost.  Some civilizations then create digital afterlives in which the residents can experience the pleasures of Heaven or the torments of Hell.  Which begs the question — why would you create a Hell?  It’s one thing to believe in Hell, but another thing entirely create one yourself.  In Banks’ book, the one representation of why the society needs a Hell is the idea that they’re sinners, a fallen people.  The Hell then creates an incentive against misbehavior.  But he and its other supporters also argue vehemently against publicly revealing that the Hell exists — presumably because its horrors are not justifiable, which then reinforces the moral argument against Hell.

"Pinky" cc-licensed by swanky; I don't know why this came up in a search for "hell"
“Pinky” cc-licensed by swanky; I don’t know why this came up in a search for “hell”

2. The Moral Argument against Hell
In Christian tradition (the only religious tradition I know well enough to propound on here), Hell is a place you go after you die if you’ve failed to live up to God’s strictures on Earth.  Depending on who you talk to, you could go to Hell for a lifetime of small transgressions, a few major ones (mortal sins), apostasy (denying God), or dying with an unclean soul (hence the Catholic last rites and Hamlet’s restraint at the chapel while Claudius is praying).  But all this begs the question of whether Hell is a moral place to begin with.  I’ll grant that the threat of Hell might serve some good, perhaps, by keeping errant behavior in check, but actual Hell?  Once someone has died, actually punishing them in eternal torment?  How can someone justify such a punishment?  How can any transgression deserve eternal torment?*

It can’t.  That’s why many more liberal religious folk define Hell as “the absence of God,” or suggest that perhaps Heaven is like a bonus life, and that Hell is just non-existence.  If you don’t make the Heaven list, you’re just gone after you die.   But this is hand-waving to get away from point 3.

3. God to be Feared
This is what made the Old Testament God so scary — it was likely that you’d end up in Hell.  But God is also depicted as the architect of the universe, meaning He set up the system in which most people end up in Hell.  How the heck can people call God kind and loving when it’s his game that’s so hard to win?  Or that has such awful consequences for losing?  Even the most heinous crimes one can imagine don’t deserve endless torment.  For what purpose?  When I punish my children, it’s not for vengeance but to teach them.  If they aren’t going to learn from the punishment and be able to change, then it’s not for their benefit, but for mine.

A God that would do that, especially for a “crime” like apostasy, is a petty, vengeful being.  The only reason one could use to justify worshiping such a being would be Pascal’s wager.

4. Pascal’s Wager is a terrible bet
I’ve written about this before. More than once.


5. Euthyphro dilemma*
The simple version of this question goes like this: Is something good because God commands it, or does God command something because it is good?  The follow up is, of course, can God command you to do something that isn’t good?  Like genocide?  While the philosophical mutterings these questions provoke are interesting, I’m more intrigued by the real world application of the question.  If you believe God to be influencing you directly (via a book or through prayer or whatever), then you need to have a direct personal answer to this question.  If God commands something, must it be good and right?

The people who try to justify the Biblical stance on slavery as historical and practical for its day or who try to justify current homophobia in the same way have come down on the “command makes it right” side of things.   But it returns me to the biggest flaw in Pascal’s Wager — how do you know which God to listen to?

* While I’m sure many philosophers have trod this ground before me and in more eloquent ways, I’m influenced a lot here by Matt Dillahunty’s arguments about Hell on The Atheist Experience