Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Evolution, Philosophy, and Metcalf

I have been slightly puzzled to find Stephen Metcalf, of the Slate Culture Gabfest, consorting with anti-evolutionists, or at least taking them seriously. For some background, you can read an article co-written by philosopher Jerry Fodor, and recently endorsed by Metcalf, as well as a discussion of the article, in which I participated. The upshot is that Fodor, et al, make philosophical arguments against Darwinian natural selection. Few philosophers, and no serious scientists of which I am aware, give these arguments much credence, but they appear to have a hold on the minds of some very bright and well educated people, and I find this troubling.

With today's podcast, suddenly I think get it. I judge that Metcalf's real goal is to defend the study of English literature, and of the humanities generally, as a worthy endeavor in its own right, and to reject the notion, apparently fashionable in some circles, that we should try to interpret literature, for example, in the context of evolutionary psychology. With this goal, I am in complete accord, and would not have it otherwise. But the flirtation with the work of Fodor and like-minded folk is the intellectual equivalent of "forward leaning," preemptive warfare. Fight the terrorists in their homeland so we don't have to fight them here! But this is a grave error.

This attempt of certain humanities partisans to sally forth and strike at evolution in the heart of the sciences recalls the Army of Northern Virginia's ill-begotten venture into the Pennsylvania countryside, and will surely share its fate. What may seem, initially, like a bold and brilliant tactical stroke will ultimately bring them only to ruin. Traipsing around out there, their supply lines are long and vulnerable, they don't know the territory, and sooner or later, they are going to engage with an army that is far larger and better equipped. And this Fodor fellow is no Lee, either. He's more like J.E.B. Stuart, flashily racing about, showily making a lot of fuss, and achieving nothing substantive, leaving the cause worse off than before.

When they keep their argument grounded in the humanities, and advocate the study of literature, and its rightful place as an essential part of the intellectual heritage of Western civilization, they will find that they have allies. They are, in fact, fighting a two-front battle here, and in today's podcast, Metcalf spends some worthy energy going after their true, main opponents--the internal ones. These are the people that drank the Kool-Aid of all the deconstructionist, identity studies, and Marxist/capitalist theorizing, and destroyed the meaningful discussion of great texts on their own merits, as all three Culture Gabfesters appear to lament. Hear, hear! I could not agree more, and I think that is where the cause is truly to be won or lost. To rescue English departments, they need get back to talking about the ideas and passions of great books, stories, and poems. This is, in one sense then, an internal civil war within the humanities, or at least English departments. Having studied science (though I minored in the humanities) at an engineering school, my own resources to help them in the internal humanities fight are limited.

But as to second front, the lesser, but real, encroachments from certain overreaching science types who are trying to aggressively push concepts like evolutionary psychology into the study of literature, I am happy to help man the barricades. A caveat: Ultimately, of course, there will be some things to be gained from the nascent field of evolutionary psychology. Since the brain most assuredly evolved, then the things that our brains are capable of are likewise the product of evolution, QED. However, to suggest that we are today at a state where we can begin to discuss literature within the context of brain scans is absurd in the extreme. We do not, as yet, have a remotely coherent theory of how intelligence arises from the firing of neurons, and so talking about literature in those terms is a tad, um, premature, to say the least. It is as if, having discovered quantum mechanics, we immediately began trying to describe the preparation of a seven course gourmet meal in terms of quarks and leptons. Sure the quarks and leptons are down there, but they tell us precious little about the taste of butter on the tongue. Generally, the application of brain scans to interpretation of literature is, today, about as scientific as phrenology, and should be treated similarly.

So let us not waste time and precious mental energy disputing the rather ironclad evidence of the evolutionary origins of the human body, including our marvelously intricate brains. Instead, let us use those brains to wrestle with ideas, great and small, in the realms of great literature, and film, and music, and... podcasts!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Republicans and "Conservative" Establishment to Libertarians: Drop Dead (Again)

So Ron Paul wins an essentially uncontested straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and is not only roundly booed for his troubles, but a conference spokesman "rushed over to reporters after the announcement to make sure they had heard the unmistakable boos." So, the small government people show up, are the only ones with the discipline and coherent vision to actually vote for someone who represents their views, and the organizers run away from them as quickly as possible.

I will repeat myself (again): Attention, people who actually believe in small government (classical liberals and libertarians), the Republicans don't WANT you. Quit hanging around, hoping they'll let you sit at the cool kids' table. They don't fucking want you. Take a clue from the Kid here: I never cared about sitting at the cool kids' table. When you're comfortable in your own skin, come join us at the freaks and geeks table.

Note: They don't want, or respect, your VIEWS, that is. They will be happy, of course, to take your votes and money, as long as you are stupid enough to give them.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Open Letter to the Woman Lighting Up While Pumping Gas


I just missed an important and teachable moment, because I was too chicken to approach you, but let me throw my thoughts into the ether, on the chance that someone, somewhere might run across this and think.

While filling my gas tank here in Decatur, GA, I just watched you light and begin smoking your cigar, while filling your own tank, with a child (presumably yours, but at the very least in your care) in your car. I watched the whole event with shock and no small amount of fear, as I and my own son were not entirely out of harm's way, should that very reckless behavior have caused the worst case scenario. There was a narrow window, where you had completed the pumping and capped the tank, but before you got into your car, when I should have approached you, but found myself too socially inept and cowardly to do so.

Here is a quick primer, since you may not realize why it is illegal to smoke while pumping gas. It is not necessary for the flame to contact the actual, liquid gasoline that you are pumping. Gasoline, like most liquids,  is constantly evaporating, producing a vapor.  (Think of it like water evaporating.) Gasoline vapor is actually far more volatile and dangerous than the liquid form. By this I mean it is highly flammable. It is also heavier than air, which means it does not quickly disperse and float away, but can linger in the area for some time after it spills out into the environment. Although cars don't actually explode like the cars on TV, it is entirely possible for a large and rapidly spreading fire to break out in the area where gas is being pumped, if it come into contact with an open flame. A fire at the gas station, started by your cigar, or the match that you stuck to light it, could easily have consumed yourself, your car, and the child within, in a matter of seconds.

Although I am also personally disturbed by the thought of your smoking in the car with the child, which can cause harm, that does not, at the very least, pose an immediate threat of horrible injury or death to yourself, the child, and even unrelated bystanders. Since you were smoking in the car anyway, I would hope that in the future, you could at least wait until you are finished pumping gas and are "safely" back in the car, before lighting up.

Your Fellow Citizen

Friday, January 15, 2010

Bigger Than Jesus

Friends, colleagues, and other acquaintances may be surprised to learn I have written practically nothing on The Simpsons. One does not have to know me for long to learn I'm one of THOSE geeks who has a vast array of quotes ready for any occasion, but, other than making a couple of minor edits to the Wikipedia entry, my contribution to online Simpsons communities has been nil. The recent 20th anniversary celebration, and a shout out on my favorite podcast, the Slate Culture Gabfest, have prodded me to action. Also, my friend Barry recently asked his Facebook community to list their all time favorite quotes from television, and I realized when considering his question that I would really have to do two lists. That is, I would need to make a separate, non-Simpsons list, because otherwise...

At any rate, "quotes" would end up being a slight misnomer, since most of these examples require at least a bit of context. There may be, in each, a perfect line, but the context is generally needed, to support the brilliance of the line. If I can find the clips, I will provide them. [Looks like I only found a couple of actual clips, so I will try to give some written context for the rest.]

So, in countdown form, these are some of my favorite moments, or quotes (not necessarily favorite episodes, although a couple of them are):

#6 - All in the Family Intro

#5 - "Just, just say 'slavery'" [3F20]

#4 - From "Homer and Apu" [1F10]

At an airport in India, several people departing a plane are (by appearance) Hare Krishnas. Some Western-looking people, dressed in suits, are singing at them, very Flanders-like, "If you're saved and you know it, clap your hands!"

Hare Krishna traveler [annoyed, rolling eyes]: Oh, great, Christians.

#3 - From "The Bart of War" [EABF16]

Bart and Milhouse have discovered (and damaged) a vast cache of Beatles memorabilia in the Flanders basement. Homer arrives.

Homer: Gee Ned, I had no idea you were such a Beatles fan.
Ned: They were bigger than Jesus!

#2 - From "Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish" [7F01]

Burns has just lost the election, after being served the three-eyed fish.

Burns: Ironic isn't it, Smithers? This anonymous clan of slack-jawed troglodytes has cost me the election, yet if I were to have them killed, I would be the one to go to jail! That's democracy for you.

#1 - Sacrilicious

A couple of quick observations. Yes, there does appear to be a religious, or even Christian, theme, to my favorite quotable moments. I think it may have to do with the fundamental spirit of irreverence, of truly holding nothing sacred.

And while I honestly cannot choose a favorite episode, two referenced above are among the greatest: "Two Cars in Every Garage, and Three Eyes on Every Fish" and "Much Apu About Nothing." Here too, I notice a theme of sorts--both episodes are sharp, cynical, political satire. Combined with the aforementioned irreverence, yet also ultimately with a deep, abiding love for America, in all its flawed excess, these episodes capture the show at its greatest. In particular, I still find the opening segment of "Much Apu About Nothing" to be the most brilliant piece of American political satire I have yet seen. (Starting with a bear wandering into Springfield, and closing with Quimby blaming illegal immigrants.) And this I say with all due respect to SNL, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, the Smothers Brothers, et al. If you haven't seen it in a while, it is very much worth it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Slow, Steady March of the Nanny State

Step by step, inch by inch, they are coming for my cheeseburger. If you enjoy deciding what you will eat, instead of, you know, having daddy decide for you, you might want to say something. Just a thought.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Thought for the Day

Dumbasses make smartasses.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Ingredients & Preparations Mixer

You may edit the lists. Simply separate your desired items with a comma. A preparation style will be paired up with an ingredient. The "Many" button will generate a list of 7 combinations in a popup window, suitable for printing. (You may, of course, need to tell your browser to allow the popup. Or not.)