Saturday, January 31, 2009

Saturday Afternoon Thread of Consciousness

If Only I Were a Styracosaurus - At work, I have to walk past my co-workers' desks to get to the break-room. One lady's desk is covered in giant stacks of children's dinosaur books. I don't know what her job is, but I want it.

O! Cursed Poseidon! - So how long do you think it will be before we start seeing petitions to ban teaching The Odyssey in our schools because Odysseus is a lecherous wine-o?

But at least our libraries are safe from those who would protect us from ourselves - for the moment.

Thus Spake Zizek:

Words are never “only words.” They matter because they define the outlines of what we can do. In this regard, Obama has already demonstrated an extraordinary ability to change the limits of what one can publicly say. His greatest achievement to date is that he has, in his refined and non-provocative way, introduced into the public speech topics that were once unsayable: the continuing importance of race in politics, the positive role of atheists in public life, the necessity to talk with “enemies” like Iran.

John W. Dean III is about to throw a banana cream pie right at your face.

John Dean III being sworn in by the Watergate committee in 1973. His taped comments are the focus of a fight among scholars.

Here's mud in your eye, Mr. Chairman! Bwa-ha-ha-ha!

Not to beleaguer the point, but... has compiled a list of the 100 Most Beautiful Words in English. The L.A. Times notices:

There does seem to be a definite Francophile (not on the list) bent to the words that made the grade. Is it the pretty, soft sounds? The unusual vowel pairings? The (not on the list) je ne sais quoi?

I'll give you your quoi - Class War. As in: The dignified and aristocratic Normans require a certain eloquence to their parlance that transcends the grumbling sounds that make up Saxon chit-chat. And we still carry that prejudice within our ears to this very day.

On the other hand, #11 on the list is "cockle." As in, "Look, Joel! Cockles!" (And then I duck.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Something Before Bed

A question: What are the five greatest parodies - in any medium - of all time?

Also, I found this blog online today. I think I might like to live in Potironland.

Friday, January 23, 2009

This Doesn't Seem Very Science-y to Me

From the New York Times article, "Study Sees an Obama Effect Lifting Black Test-Takers":

researchers have documented what they call an Obama effect, showing that a performance gap between African-Americans and whites on a 20-question test administered before Mr. Obama’s nomination all but disappeared when the exam was administered after his acceptance speech and again after the presidential election.

Excuse Me? Could you repeat that, please?

Researchers in the last decade assembled university students with identical SAT scores and administered tests to them, discovering that blacks performed significantly poorer when asked at the start to fill out a form identifying themselves by race. The researchers attributed those results to anxiety that caused them to tighten up during exams in which they risked confirming a racial stereotype.

Uh-huh. So... you're saying that the consistent under-performing of Blacks on standardized tests in America is not due to socio-economic conditions like failing urban schools, high unemployment rates, and the prevalence of single-income homes, but rather of "anxiety that causes them to tighten up during exams in which they risked confirming a racial stereotype." Right. If only Black people could learn how to relax and take life so seriously, maybe they could be more successful.

But it's all fixed now! As of Noon, EST, on January 20, 2009, the problem was solved forever!

On the initial test last summer, whites on average correctly answered about 12 of 20 questions, compared with about 8.5 correct answers for blacks, Dr. Friedman said. But on the tests administered immediately after Mr. Obama’s nomination acceptance speech, and just after his election victory, black performance improved, rendering the white-black gap “statistically nonsignificant,” he said.
Thank God, now that African-American problem is taken care of. Now if only women could follow Hillary Clinton's example and start earning higher wages at work.

At least this guy seems to remember his Hume:

“It’s a nice piece of work,” said G. Gage Kingsbury, a testing expert who is a director at the Northwest Evaluation Association, who read the study on Thursday.

But Dr. Kingsbury wondered whether the Obama effect would extend beyond the election, or prove transitory. “I’d want to see another study replicating their results before I get too excited about it,” he said.

I also may name my first-born, "G. Gage Kingsbury".

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sunday Philoso-Blogging: the Salem Concepts vs. the Washington Objects!

Happy Sunday! Today is Conference Championship day in the NFL, with the Arizona Cardinals currently kicking the crap out of the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC (24-6 in the 3rd), and the Pittsburgh Steelers set up to play the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC later tonight. You may have noticed something peculiar about these matchups: Three of the final four are teams named after different species of birds. This is especially strange given that, of the 32 different teams in the NFL, only five are named after birds. (Plus, four of those five made the playoffs this year. The only team not to was the Seahawks. Sorry, Seattle.)

But what about that fourth team? Pittsburgh was originally the "Pittsburgh Pirates," but changed their name in the 40's. An interesting historical note, from Wikipedia:

The Steelers logo was introduced in 1962 and is based on the "Steelmark," originally designed by Pittsburgh's U.S. Steel and now owned by the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI). In fact, it was Cleveland-based Republic Steel that suggested the Steelers adopt the industry logo. It consists of the word "Steelers" surrounded by three astroids (hypocycloids of four cusps). The original meanings behind the astroids were, "Steel lightens your work, brightens your leisure, and widens your world." Later, the colors came to represent the ingredients used in the steel-making process: yellow for coal, orange for iron ore, and blue for scrap steel.[23] While the formal Steelmark logo contains only the word "Steel," the team was given permission to add "ers" in 1963 after a petition to AISI.
The Steelers, of course, are somewhat unique in professional American sports in regards to their connection U.S. Steel. But they're not the only team that gets its nickname from the local industry: Other examples include the Milwaukee Brewers (MLB), the Detroit Pistons (NBA), the Green Bay Packers (NFL), and the Minnesota Vikings.*

Sports teams can get their nicknames from a whole host of different sources. But this makes me wonder about the various significances of these names. Obviously, common sources of inspiration include not only local industries, traditions, and birds, but also mythical beings (Tennessee Titans), cultural icons (San Diego Padres), and beloved racist stereotypes. (I'm looking at you, Chief Wahoo.) (Wow - the Eagles are up 25-24 now. That was fast.) But what about those teams named after not substantive nouns (i.e., shit you find in the world, like Clippers and Athletics and Buccaneers) but more ethereal concepts. The Orlando Magic. The Miami Heat. The Oklahoma City Thunder. (Sorry, Seattle) The WNBA has lots of these types of teams: The Seattle Storm. The Indiana Fever. My personal favorite: The New York Liberty.

And so here is my philosophical hypothesis. I have to make it short, because it's time to go, but I'll come back and develop this idea more later. These sports team names illustrate what I would call the distinction between concepts and objects, and that this distinction is highlighted by those teams that are named in plural and those that are in the singular. That is, a piston is an object, but liberty is a concept. However, this distinction is neither hard nor fast: Can I have a concept of a piston? If so, why can't I have the object that is liberty? (Or say, "He won his freedom.") Is a fever a thing? For that matter, is thunder? What if last year's AFC champs were named the New England Patriotism? Would they sell any tickets?

But this distinction is an ordinary language one. The philosopher Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) would probably say that all of these names are referencing objects - even "Liberty" and "Magic". This is because these names perform the function of the object within the thought. This is difficult material - Frege is one of those philosophers that continues to mystify me - but I think that there is something to this. Sorry to free associate and run, though. Arizona's up 31-25 with less than two minutes to go. More on this story as it develops.

* Pillaging is Minnesota's #1 export.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

An Unexceptional Update on an Exceptionally Cold Day

So, yes, today's high in Chicago was -4 degrees Fahrenheit. But now is the time, ladies and gentlemen, to separate the boys from the men, the wolves from the sheep, the fleece from the cotton, the homeless and cold from the dead and frozen. There is something so... Russian... about putting on our snow boots and our absolutely ridiculous snow-hats and venturing out to brave the sub zero temperatures. (down, forward+A) Broadest shoulders, indeed.

Yeah, it was friggin' freezing today, Mr. Bigglesworth. But, on the plus side, I am finished with my grad school applications. Honestly, I have absolutely no idea what my odds of getting into any schools are. But, they're in. Done. Finito. Now all that there is left to do is lobby to various professors on my behalf. Which is always my least favorite part of the process. Also, I had a job interview on Monday at a marketing research firm in the North Loop. I'm not sure if I am exactly the type of employee that they were looking for, but I don't think I hurt my chances in the interview. Keep your fingers crossed. Sacrifice a cock to Esclepius.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Things I Think at 1.30 in the Morning

L.D.E. Off Broadway Presents

a Joel Production

The Matrix: The Musical!


Neil Patrick Harris as "Neo"

Emma Thompson as "Trinity"

Alan Rickman as "Morpheus"


Hugo Weaving as "Agent Smith"

Featuring the Hit Songs:

"I Guess It Wasn't Real After All!"
"The Stench of Humanity (Gets Me Up in the Morning)"

Winner of seven bajillion Tonys! Run extended through 2012 by popular demand! Get your tickets now!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Just a Downer of a Post

Friday evening was a tough evening. The stars conspired to send me a constant stream of sad and terrifying news items, one after the other. And now, as a public service, I will relate all of these pieces to you, dear reader. Because we're not all kittens and snowflakes over here.

1) The Palestinian death count in Gaza climbed above 900 today, including 275 children and 93 women. 13 Israelis have died. In the past, I would have described myself as being cautiously pro-Israel, if for no other reason than because I respected their ability to dominate their region so totally politically, militarily, and economically. An extreme form of Realpolitik, if you will. But this latest invasion seems to me to be just beyond the pale in terms of its brutality and cynicism as to eliminate what ever sympathy I still had for the Jewish state. I guess that the article that really swung my opinion was the Times piece with the title: "Israel Strikes Before Ally Departs."

But enough about the Middle East. What other sources of misery and suffering can we find in the news? How about something closer to home?

2) Oh, yes. Here is a video of the BART security officers murdering Oscar Grant. And here is another. And another. And another.

It's not like police brutality or institutional racism are anything new. (In either this country or any other. I don't mean to get down on America, specifically. It's just that this is the country that we happen to be living in at the moment.) Not that that's an excuse. But what is particularly crazy about this shooting is how it has been recorded. In some of the above footage, you can see how almost everyone immediately has their cell phones and cameras out, watching the officers of the law. In fact, the first thing the cops did after the murder was try to confiscate everyone's recording devices. And now all those videos are on YouTube. So even when technology is allowing government and corporate entities to track you with ever increasing efficiency, it is also allowing you to survey these institutions, and perhaps be able to form some kind of political force to counteract and balance the primary power structures.

There's an important philosophical treatise hidden here. Probably many - please let me know what you have read about this.

Also, Post-Script, here is today's San Francisco Chronicle article on the developing situation. Officer Johannes Mehserle, 27, has resigned.

And speaking of institutionalized racism:

3) On Friday night, a drive-by shooting at 29th St. and MLK Jr. Drive wounded five boys aged between 15 and 19. The shooting occurred outside of Dunbar Vocational Career Academy, during a basketball game that, at the time, was tied and in double-overtime. As of today, two of the victims remain hospitalized, although they are both in stable condition. Thank God for small favors, huh?

The authorities (see #2, above) believe that the attack was gang-related. But there is something about the fact that it took place outside of a high school during a basketball game - one attended by families and children - that just makes it particularly scary. And I think that it might be incidents like this one that causes people to fall back into habits and routines that make them feel safe and strong and - perhaps above all - not helpless or vulnerable. And then you throw in someone like this guy:


Meet Mark Driscoll, the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, who, according to the NY Times, has "resurrected a particular strain of fire and brimstone, one that most Americans assume died out with the Puritans: Calvinism..."

Don't get me wrong. I appreciate a little fire and brimstone as much as the next guy. I also empathize with Mars Hill's criticism of contemporary evangelical churches, especially those that "play down doctrine in favor of upbeat, practical teachings on the Christian life." I particularly cannot stand these two:

Joel and Victoria

I don't know if Jesus would want me to be happy or not. But I am pretty confident that he really doesn't want me to be rich. So Mars Hill's emphasis (am I the only one frightened by that name?) on wanting to glorify God before man. But why is the perceived alternative to this kind of superficial, materialistic, inauthentic type of Christianity a brutal, stripped down kind of Christianity that targets as its principal enemies homosexuality, feminism, and liberalism in general?

Post-Script: From the Times article:

Most people who attend Mars Hill do not see themselves as theological radicals. Mark Driscoll is just “Pastor Mark,” not the New Calvinist warrior demonized on evangelical and liberal blogs. Yet while some initially come for mundane reasons — their friends attend; they like the music — the Calvinist theology is often the glue that keeps them in their seats. They call the preaching “authentic” and “true to life.”
Now here's your irony. The etymology of "authentic" runs as follows: [authentic: 1340, "authoritative," from O.Fr. autentique (13c.), from M.L. authenticus, from Gk. authentikos "original, genuine, principal," from authentes "one acting on one's own authority," from autos "self" + hentes "doer, being." Sense of "entitled to acceptance as factual" is first recorded 1369. Authentic implies that the contents of the thing in question correspond to the facts and are not fictitious; genuine implies that the reputed author is the real one.]

As Heidegger knew, "authenticy" is connected with the concepts of ownership, author-ity, having control over one's life. That's why the possibility of "authentic Being" is so central to Being and Time. But a lot of (this kind of) Calvinist Theology is a kind of giving up authority and (perhaps above all) autonomy to an angry, angry God. So, in a way, the appeal of this kind of... cult... is the surrendering of responsibly to an external (higher) power.

Like what this group of predominately white, unemployed, working and middle-class men did.

(I feel better now.)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Apparently, I Have Absolutely Horrid Taste

According to Wikipedia, the following 13 films from the '80's, '90's, and '00's (have we settled on the "ooohs" yet?) were all official box-office bombs, meaning that their domestic revenue was less than half of their production costs. They are also all movies that I, at one time or another (including the present), for one reason or another, really, really liked. And have fond memories of:
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
American History X (1998)
Bottle Rocket (1996)
Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
Death To Smoochy (2002)
Ed Wood (1994)
Hudson Hawk (1991)
The Iron Giant (1999)
Mars Attacks! (1996)
The Postman (1997)*
Super Mario Bros (1993)
Titan A.E. (2000)
Zodiac (2007)
The one exception on this list is The Postman. I actually thought that the movie was quite silly - as well as a little morally questionable - but I included it on the list because it was filmed mostly in Central Oregon (around Terrebonne, if I'm not mistaken) and Kevin Costner rented from my grandparents while he was in town. And I guess that he partied with Tiger Woods, too.

But the rest of the movies rock! What's wrong with Americans? Seriously, I'm going to have a film-festival featuring all of these wonderfully weird movies. Maybe make it a traveling feature, moving from college campus to college campus. Call it, "Mr. McQuark's Matinee of Monstrous Movie Misadventures." (Copyright, 2009)

Make a million bucks.


Post-Script: After including the Wikipedia links to each of these films, several things have come to my attention:

Many of these films, especially Bottle Rocket, The Iron Giant, and Zodiac were critically acclaimed, yet still failed at the box office. This, of course, leads us into the age old question of what taste is, and who gets to determine that definition.

Both Mars Attacks! and Zodiac actually made a profit, but that is only after calculating in their foreign revenue.

Joss Whedon was one of the writers for Titan A.E.

Both Robin Williams and Ed Norton are in two of these movies. Tim Burton directed two of these movies.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

28 Days Later (Roughly)

So, yes, it has been awhile since I have written anything here. Call it, say, a "Holiday Sabbatical." In truth, the combination of my internship, completing PhD applications, Christmas preparations, and the horridly soul-sucking reality of Chicago winters made my blogging obligations seem just a little low on my list of priorities. But now it's 2009, and, along with a slew of others, blogging at least twice a week is one of my New Year's Resolutions. Even if one of those entries is a "cheater," like simply posting a link to something awesome that will totally make your day better.

But this isn't one of those.

No, instead, this is an entry about College Football. (If you do not care to spend the next 20 minutes of your life reading about College Football, I strongly suggest that you stop reading right now, and go do something more productive with your precious time. Write a novel, maybe.)

I was in Oregon for New Year's this year, and, at my parent's house, we have a long-held New Year's Day tradition of watching football, drinking beer, and painting Warhammer miniatures. This year was no different. And somewhere in between watching USC crush Penn St. and deciding whether my Orc ought to be painted gnarlog or goblin green, I came to several important conclusions:

1) Thank God that the Pac-10 went 5-0. Hating on the Pac-10 has been extremely in vogue this year, especially here in the Midwest. I even started to buy into the anti-hype a bit, after watching Oregon St. get whooped by Penn St. and then Oregon barely beat mediocre Purdue. There was a lot of regional pride on the line this year, and the West Coast came through with flying colors. That, combined with the various struggles of the other major conferences, (Big Ten: 1-5, Big 12: 3-2, with losses for Oklahoma St. and Texas Tech, SEC: 4-1, but that one loss being Alabama) will probably make the voters think twice before keeping a one-loss Pac-10 team out of the Championship game on the grounds of conference weakness.

2) I am still not convinced about the wisdom or the necessity of installing a playoff system for NCAA football. Here's one reason: If the current BCS format were to evolve into a playoff, that would probably mean that there would be six automatic bids - one for each of the major conferences - plus two at-large bids, making a total of eight. And since the MWC currently does not have major conference status, that means that undefeated Utah would have to compete with Texas and Alabama for those last two spots. And, if it is up to the same voters who pick No. 1 and No. 2, there is no way that Utah gets in. Basically, you would still have the problem of voter bias influencing who gets to play for the championship.

3) Here's another reason: In a playoff, every team's season ends in a loss except for one. That's one of my favorite things about the Bowls: They let half of the teams invited to end their season with a win, usually against a worthy opponent who can match up against them well. So maybe Utah doesn't get to play for the #1 spot, but they do get to end their season 13-0, with an exciting victory against a pompous, bloated program from the South. It's like a Disney movie. In a playoff, they couldn't enjoy that victory for long, because they would have to play 'SC or Texas or Florida next week. And then someone else the next. And so on.

Or take Oregon, for example. I know that they weren't good enough for any kind of national playoff this year, but consider this: They had an up and down season. They finished strong, and qualified for a second-tier bowl game against Oklahoma St. Most people thought that the Cowboys were a better team than the Ducks, but Oregon played hard and beat them, ending the season with a big win against a Top 15 team. That's what I like about the Bowls: They can set up competitve, exciting games. And even if your team isn't in the BCS, they can still come a out with a big win, and end the sason on a high note.

4) On TV, I heard a lot of commentators saying that "We" need a playoff system. But who is "We"? The fans? Sure, viewership of the BCS games has dropped recently, but that has been since the inception of the stand-alone Championship Game, which immediately lowered the importance of the other four. And it's not like the networks or the major bowls are strapped for cash - or, at least, not more than anyone else is these days. College football is the second biggest sport in America, behind the NFL, with some programs netting over $40 mil per year (in 2007.) Even if business has dropped recently, it hasn't been enough to scare away the networks: ESPN just paid $500 million for the rights to air the BCS games for four years. That's a 50 percent hike over the last contract - and it was signed in November, in the midst of the economic collapse. Obviously, someone over at ESPN thinks it's a worthwhile investment.

My point is: Even if the fans have been clamoring for a playoff, they haven't wanted it bad enough to turn off the TV. It's hard to complain about the value of a product if you're still willing to pay asking price (and more) for it.

And what about the players? Don't they deserve to have a shot at No. 1? Maybe, but again, a playoff means that seven of the top eight (or 11 of the top 12, or 15 of the top 16) teams in America will end their season with a loss. And these aren't professionals: they're college kids, ninety-nine percent of whom will never play organized football after they graduate. (citation needed) I think it's hard to argue, then, that a Senior year win in the Rose Bowl or the Sugar Bowl is "meaningless" or a "consolation prize" because it's not the Championship Game. Just look at Pat White.

And that's after winning the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

I think a little bit of the glory fades if, after that win, West Virginia (or whoever) lost the next week to Virginia Tech in the Northeast Regional Semifinal Game. Brought to you by Botox Cosmetic Injections, Inc.

5) I don't like either of the teams in the Championship Game. But I think that I'm rooting for Florida. Because of this. And this:

And this.