Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A Qualified Defense of Standardized Testing in Higher Education

The New York Times recently ran a story about a Bush administration commission examining instituting standardized testing in higher education. The response from academe was predictable. Coturnix catalogued a few of them in his last teaching carnival (scroll about halfway down). Academic bloggers immediately point out that the No Child Left Behind act was disastrous for primary and secondary education, and that this looks simply like an attempt to do the same thing for colleges and universities. Many people also thought this was a clampdown on academic freedom and a part of the Republican war on science. This is all probably true.

But people also insisted that you cannot use standardized tests to measure critical thinking. Daniel at A Concerned Scientist says "We already know that standardized testing is very biased, and a poor indicator of meaningful learning and critical thinking, doing anything BUT contributing to learning and skill-building." Zandperl at Modern Science says "Someone needs to explain to him that all that standardized tests actually determine is whether (1) the student comes from a rich family, (2) the teacher was teaching to the test, and (3) the students are capable of memorizing."

Wait a minute. I teach a course on critical thinking almost every semester. I use a lot of tests in that course, more than any other I teach. These tests are standardized: every student gets the same one, and I use the same kinds of tests every semester. This is not something weird that I do: my tests are like those of almost every other critical thinking teacher in the English speaking world. My tests are not based on memorization. They measure whether the student is able to apply the skills we have been practicing to a novel situation. Nor do I teach to the test. Instead, I designed the test around what I teach. My tests are not direct measures of class background either. Students' scores do probably correlate with socioeconomic status, but this is only because high SES students are more likely to have the study skills that will enable them to learn the skills I am teaching. I am not bragging when I make these claims for my tests. I use the same textbooks and tests that everyone else does.

In other words, it is simply bullshit to say that you can’t test critical thinking. The disingenuousness of this claim comes out especially when people try to argue that standardized testing isn’t necessary because it is already done. Somehow critical thinking is both something that you can’t test and we are already testing for.

Moreover, those of us who teach critical thinking would benefit a lot from formally coordinating our tests. It would make it a lot easier both to identify best practices inculcating the skills we already teach and to determine which skills best transfer to nonacademic situations. (My personal hobby horse is the need to teach argument from authority as something other than a simple fallacy and to explain how to evaluate authorities.)

The UK offers standardized critical thinking A-level (advanced level) tests to students in the final two years of high school. One result of this seems to be a large amount of high quality material on teaching and testing critical thinking coming out of the UK, including some good organizations and textbooks. This leads me to think that a well executed program for evaluating critical thinking at the national level would be a good thing for teachers of critical thinking, and philosophers in general. It would be a chance to get sorely needed serious thinking about epistemology deeper into the standard curriculum.

This is not to say that I trust the current administration to deliver a well executed program of testing, driven by serious thinking about epistemology. Experience suggests that they will do the reverse. But this hardly means we can dismiss standardized testing for critical thinking out of hand.

Update: I removed a link from the sentence on good organizations in the UK when examination revealed that the organization I linked to was neither in the UK, nor very good.

Rifle Jesus

Pharyngula linked to this. I have no idea where it came from or what it means.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Becoming a hack

So I'm thinking about switching careers and becoming a hack. Churning out large quantities of formulaic prose purely for profit seems entertaining.

Given my current skill set, I should probably be a non-fiction hack, producing the sort of rewritten encyclopedia entries Isaac Asimov wrote in the middle period of his life. I've already got a good sense of the major tropes in the hack nonfiction formula. First there's the title, which should be something like
Magnesium: the Secret History of the Element that Created the Modern World.
Your topic is boring; to make it interesting, relate it to everything else on earth. An important variation of this in the environmental literature is based on using your boring thing to explain human history
The Yellow Turnip of the Patriarchy: How the Domestication of the Rutabaga brought the Downfall of Humanity.
The key to writing that book would be to argue that by domesticated the rutabaga, one takes an unprecedented level of control over one's environment that humanity simply doesn't deserve. The other important tactic I'll need to learn to write hack nonfiction is putting all the explication in direct quotes.
To learn more about the global rutabaga trade, I went to Professor Amelia Kindlybuttocks, handsome woman with a warm smile and a strange green growth on her forehead. "By putting the explication in the mouth of an expert," she explained, "the writer casts himself in the role of a student, thus getting the sympathy of the reader. The expert character cannot be too distracting, though. Otherwise the reader will lose the narrative thread. For instance, what the hell is this thing on my forehead? How does it explain the way rutabagas work as commodities?"
I'm fairly sure I could write thousands of words every day in this vein. The question is, what should I write about?

UPDATE: I completely forgot the best nonfiction hack trope, the Totally Bogus Personal Revealation (TBPR). This is actually a trick used by a popular nature writer I really like, Michael Pollan. Even in his hands, though, this rhetorical move is a sin. It goes something like this:
After leaving Professor Kindlybuttock's office, I drove to Pasta Bende, the world's largest magnesium mining operation. As I looked over the network of conveyer belts delivering precious magnesium to the hungry masses, I realized a profound truth: The nation that controls magnesium controls the world.
But you didn't have this revelation halfway through writing the book, now, did you. In fact, this point was your whole reason for writing the book, and the centerpiece of your book proposal. Of course, it is uncouth in popular nonfiction to simply have a thesis, so you have to have these artificial stories of personal revelations. These stories can get positively pernicious too, for instance when Bjorn Lomborg presents himself as an earnest environmentalist who in the course of writing his book just happened to come to believe in every major talking point put forward by big business.

What is preventing civil war in Iraq?

Not, it seems, U.S. troops. Supporters of the occupation have been saying that we need to keep our troops in Iraq to prevent the country from plunging into civil war. But during the recent violence, our troops have kept a low profile. The Sunnis have been drawn back to the negotiating table partially by diplomatic pressure, but mostly it seems by the simple realization that civil war would really suck. Really suck as in this picture from the New York Times article on the recent violence.
The Times' caption: "In Baquba, a father helped his wounded son Sunday after gunmen fired on boys playing soccer, killing two."

It's going to take a lot of talking to avert civil war, but its clear that the occupation, the nightime raids, and the secret prisons are at best superfluous in healing the country.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

All bow before Heather Havrilesky

Of course, we can't learn from our mistakes if we don't recognize them as mistakes in the first place. If we see our mistakes as odd mixtures of circumstance and unfortunate luck, if we see them as twists of fate, or as insignificant side effects of a greater good, or worse yet, if we embrace our mistakes as beautiful creations filled with accidental grace that were simply interpreted by onlookers or by the media as mistakes, then we won't learn anything at all. That means we'll be doomed to repeat history, which means that big hair and boy bands and "Three's Company" will come back to haunt us, but instead of recognizing them as the colossal mistakes that they were, we'll thoughtlessly embrace them, putting the free world at great risk. That's right, Gavin MacLeod could rise to power once again, if we don't straighten up and fly right. --This week's "I Like to Watch"

Such wisdom from a T.V. review column.

Friday, February 24, 2006

The Quaker Menace

The administration and its allies are only trying to fight terrorism, except of course when they are fighting those who take a principled stand against violence altogether. This is something I've been noticing more and more of: the right is targeting not just people who might be sympathetic to Islamic causes (because of, say, their last name) and not just people who are opposed to the current war, but people who criticize militarism and violence altogether.

The Bush defense department has created a agency called Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) which is designed to gather information on threats to the US military and US military contractors. The agency has a system called TALON ("Threat and Local Observation Notice") which gathers unverified reports on possible threats. (Is it just me, or were they really stretching to get an acronym that spelled "talon"?) Among the threats to national security is a Quaker meeting house in Lake Worth, Fla. The meeting lent their house out to an organization called the Truth Project, which tries to counter military recruiting of high school students. A member of the Quaker meeting attended the Truth Project meeting to learn more and found that their activities were very much in keeping with (Quaker) principles."

The administration's defense of this program seems to be that the information gathered by TALON is supposed to include a lot of false positives that analysts will weed out later. According to a pentagon spokesman the data collected by TALON "are unfiltered dots of information about perceived threats. An analyst will look at that information. And what we are trying to do is connect the dots before the next major attack." But this is only an attempt to raise the bar on what constituted domestic spying. Now it is ok for the government to keep records on you, so long as they don't use those records improperly. This is bullshit. The government shouldn't be keeping a file on anyone unless they can show the person to be a threat. The government shouldn't be spying on us "just in case." (For more on the Bush administration spying on its political enemies, see the resources Majikthise catalogued here)

In other news, David Horowitz believes
that a professor of peace studies at a Quaker university named Caroline Higgins is one of the one hundred worst professors in America. The criteria for being on the list are purely political. The academics aren't being judged on their scholarship--otherwise how could Chomsky be on the list? Nor do they seem to be judged by their teaching. At least, no effort is made to judge classroom performance, even in a Ratemyprofessor.com sort of way. No, Higgins' crime seems to be that she teaches courses with names like Methods of Peacemaking. Clearly this woman is dangerous. The last thing we want is for people to learn how to resolve conflicts without bloodshed, and perhaps even develop skills for harmonious living.

Now the neat thing about Horowitz enemies list is that you can vote on who you think is the biggest threat to the established order. Michael Bérubé has been campaigning quite successfully to raise his rating. Caroline Higgins meanwhile is languishing at the bottom of the list. I took the time to vote for her, assuming she'd recognize it as a compliment.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

An intense sutta

I commend to you, the internet, this site which contains English translations of large swaths of the Pali Canon, the oldest Buddhist suttas, generally thought to be truest to the teachings of the Buddha's original order. The site began in 1993 as a BBS offering resources for Buddhist practitioners. Most of the translations I have seen so far are in fluid, idiomatic English, which is a breath of fresh air for me, since my library mostly stocks the old Pali Text Society translations, which were written in a deliberately anachronistic, King James style. I especially like the work of Andrew Olendzki, for instance this translation of 522 to 526 of the Theragāthā.

But what I really wanted to share is this story, from the Therigāthā of a nun who is pursued by an attractive young man, who asks her not to go forth into the contemplative life. (Scriptural spoilers follow, you may want to read the original first). The young man's opening line is fairly blunt.
You are young & not bad-looking,
what need do you have for going forth?
Throw off your ochre robe —
Come, let's delight in the flowering grove.
Well, "Not bad looking" isn't much of a come on line, but the young man goes on to praise her beauty quite extensively, especially her eyes. Sadly for our hopeful paramour, this is one of those texts that remind you that Gotama Buddha's middle path is substantially more ascetic that Aristotle's mean. Why are you so enamored of my body, the nun asks
What do you assume of any essence,
here in this cemetery grower, filled with corpses,
this body destined to break up?
What do you see when you look at me,
you who are out of your mind?'
Her equation on the composite nature of the body as the source of its impermanence and unworthiness is almost Platonic. But when she pulls away from the flux of the body, she takes a path far from Plato’s
Knowing the unattractiveness
of things compounded,
my mind cleaves to nothing at all.
A genuine lover is undeterred, so the young man continues to woo her, offering her riches and again praising her eyes. So he gets this response
Plucking out her lovely eye,
with mind unattached
she felt no regret.

'Here, take this eye. It's yours.'

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Our symbiotes, ourselves

A couple months ago Steve sent me this short, enjoyable piece about the history of wheat from The Economist (Motto: "Oooh, Look At Me, I Read The Economist!"). The article gives you a portion of the conventional story of the role of agriculture in history: a happy tale of rising yields, rising standards of living, and increasing sustainable populations. It is also a story of how we worked ourselves into the tiny interstices of our environment, reworking the genomes of plants to turn them into symbiotes. Common wheat is a hexaploidal plant, bearing six copies of each chromosome, an exuberance due to the origin of common wheat as a hybrid of a diploid grass and tetraploid emmer or durum wheat. Emmer wheat apparently received its superabundance in the wild, though, and from emmer comes all domesticated tetraploidal wheat. The result of all of this crossing and recrossing, doubling and redoubling, is a plant that cannot reproduce without us, whose seed pod is shaped by human needs and not the function of dispersal. For our part, we could exist without wheat, but not in our current numbers. Hence, symbiosis. Because the conventional story of wheat is so uplifting—comedic in the older sense of the term—it gives us a happy, optimistic moral: we should embrace new genetic technologies and not worry about population growth. Everything is always getting better.

There is a counter narrative to the conventional happy picture of agriculture. (In the link, the counter narrative is told by Richard Manning, but it has many incarnations.) As we worked ourselves into the small parts of nature, we rolled over the large parts of nature. Manning describes wheat growing as catastrophe agriculture. Wheat is a plant that thrives on land that has cleared and flooded. When we grow wheat we have to remove the existing ecosystem, leaving a blank, nutrient rich slate for our symbiotes to spread. The domestication of wheat meant the clearing of the forest. This transformation of the surface of the earth by agriculture grounds the counter-narrative of agriculture, a story where human kind falls out of balance with nature and with itself, thus bringing about war, government, and inequality. Agriculture, although probably invented by women, was also a big step forward for the patriarchy. While this counter narrative is often told by those who oppose new genetic technologies and worry about population growth, the story itself has little in the way of a moral. Like all stories of humanity’s fall, it really just says humanity is shit outta luck. Everything is always getting worse.

I’m glad I have both these articles now. I have been assigning Manning’s version of the counter narrative for some time now, as if students actually knew the common story, which they do not. I now have two easy-to-read articles to assign together.

What I don’t have, sadly, is the truth. We need to tell a moral story of our tenure as a species here on earth, a story that can orient and vivify us. Darwin has blessed us with a tale of life on earth as a whole. There is a grandeur in this view of life, as well as a large dose of the truth, so I share a picture book version of it with my children. But our species is a minor character in the last act of this story. We need a smaller story to explain ourselves to ourselves.

I don’t like either the common story or the counter narrative I described above. They are starting points though, because they tell the story of our species together with the story of our symbiotes, and we would be fools to ignore how our successes and failures are bound up with the fate of the life forms we have surrounded ourselves with. (I am also convinced that the story of our species must include the story of dogs, and am fascinated by the possibility that the domestication of dogs began before our branch of the genus homo appeared.) Our symbiotes, ourselves.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Aloof professors complain about student email

The NY Times has an article up that quotes a bunch of professors complaining about "inappropriate" student email, where "inappropriate" means "not showing enough deference" “asking questions the professor thinks is stupid” or “providing feedback on the instructors performance.”

Most of the emails teachers complain about are notes I’d be happy to get. An email that says "I think you're covering the material too fast” is listed with messages that “go to far.” That’s silly. I’d love to know if any of my students thought I was going to fast, or too slow, or whatever.

Another professor complains about this email: "Should I buy a binder or a subject notebook? Since I'm a freshman, I'm not sure how to shop for school supplies. Would you let me know your recommendations? Thank you!" Apparently the teacher believed this was inappropriate because it wasn’t about the content of the course. But the kid is a new to college for God’s sake, and one of the things we are supposed to do with new students is teach them study skills. (The correct answer, by the way, is to get a large spiral notebook with pouches that you can put class handouts in and perforated pages so that you can turn in handwritten work without those irritating dangling fringe things.)

I can think of a few problems with student expectations of email, but most are simply extensions of other common student mistakes. No, I’m not going to be able to read 50 rough drafts the night before the paper is due. No, I’m not going to do your work for you: you will have to think this through yourself. None of these things really bother me: they certainly aren’t newsworthy. They just come with the territory.

I do have one question: how come students never use the subject line? Most student email says “(no subject.)” Is this because students are used to IMing?

Monday, February 20, 2006

Models of teaching

The literature on college teaching says we should move from being a "sage on the stage" to being a "guide on the side." What other models of teaching are there in higher education?

the bore at the door
the pest on your desk
the creep in your seat
the maniac in your backpack
the lodestone on your cell phone.

As a follower of Socrates, I prefer the "pest on your desk" mode of teaching. How do you teach? Do you know of other good teaching models that rhyme?

Reader services

Looking at sitemeter, I see that a lot of people are aparantly coming here looking for information that I do not provide. In an effort to serve you better, I will begin to try to answer some of your questions, or at least refer you to people who can.

1. Christian Women Help with Orgasms. Oh honey, stop thinking about Jesus and just relax. Jesus will understand.

2. Prophet Mohammed Cartons. If you drop an "o" from cartoon, you wind up finding a post I wrote, which linked to Fafblog's post about the Prophet Mohammed appearing on milk cartons. The information you want is really here, at wikipedia. It includes, for now, a small reproduction of the cartoons, along with this interesting paragraph on the role of pictures of the Prophet in Islam:
The Qur'an, Islam's holiest book, condemns idolatry, but has no direct condemnations of pictorial art. Direct prohibitions of pictorial art, or any depiction of sacred figures, are found in certain hadiths, or recorded oral traditions.

Views regarding pictorial representation within several religious communities have varied from group to group, and from time to time. Among Muslims, the Shi'a Muslims have been generally tolerant of pictorial representation of human figures including Muhammad. Indeed a fatwa exists given by Ali al-Sistani, the Shi'a marja of Iraq, stating that it is permissible to make pictures of Muhammad, if done with the highest respect. [58] Sunni Muslims are considered less tolerant. However, the Sunni Ottomans, the last dynasty to claim the caliphate, were not only tolerant but even patrons of miniaturist art, some of which depicted Muhammad. These depictions usually show Muhammad's face covered with a veil or as a featureless void emanating light (depicted as flames). Pictorial surveys of Muhammad can be found on the internet.[59][60][61]

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Recent searches the brought people here

9-11 Bombing for kids

Christian Women help with orgasms

buddhism is evangelism practiced

really ugly fish

Female Monkey Clitoris

John Rawls Kristen Hersh

Salon on why they are holding back

Salon editor Joan Walsh has a piece up replying to some criticisms of their release of more Abu Ghraib pictures. Most of it deals with the total red herring issue of whether they should have also published the offensive Prophet Mohammed cartoons. (Isn't it enough that they linked to them?)

She also has a word to day about why they didn't publish everything they have. Fifty one words, to be precise.
But we have also rejected the notion of a quick and dirty dump of the contents to the Web. Some significant portion of the documents we possess does not appear to relate at all to prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, and we can see no public interest served by publishing it.
There is also a general tone to the article which says, "We need to research this material more carefully--Be sure it is what it looks like, find out what we can about context--before putting it out there."

Fair enough. But I still have questions. First, who else have they shared these with? The ACLU sued for access to these. Do they have a copy now? (I get the impression that all of this fits on a single DVD.) How about the International Criminal Court? Second, can you confirm Seymour Hersh's description of the contents of some of these videos.

No, Madam Press Secretary, I didn't really think you would answer those questions. I just thought they needed to be asked.

Friday, February 17, 2006


Caroline: I wanna hear the Gramma Take Me Home song!

Molly: What do you want?

I put in With the Lights Out disc 2, which has an acoustic demo of Sliver, which Caroline has become enamored of.

Caroline: It’s a song about a boy who doesn’t want to go to his gramma’s house, and he says gramma take me home, and then he falls asleep in his mother’s arms and wakes up in her tummy.

Me: Actually, this version doesn’t have the nice ending verse I was telling her about, [singing] “after dinner I had ice cream/I fell asleep and watched TV/I woke up in my mothers arms.”

Caroline [Singing]: gramma take me home, gramma take me home, gramma take me home.

Me: Actually, lets listen to the rock out version of this song (*)

Caroline [Singing]: gramma take me home, gramma take me home, gramma take me home.

Getting the electric version takes a little time, because I have to make a copy of it first. We have a rule to never put original copies where the kids can get them.



Caroline: Why is he yelling?

Me: He’s upset.

Caroline: It’s not nice to yell at your gramma.

(*) in our house any song with electric guitars is called a “rock out song”

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Apparently I am alone

Apparently I am alone, or at least in a minority, in thinking that the new Abu Ghraib photos are newsworthy. These pictures are over three years old! The only reason Salon could have for publishing them is to get more hits!

Well, perhaps you are right. Looking again at the sodomy picture, I see that what I thought was blood was part of the pattern on the sheet. Also, it is less clear to me now what exactly the person has in his anus.

Still, we know that prisoners at Abu Ghraib were forced to perform sexual acts. Combine that information with this photograph and you have pretty good evidence that this man was forced to sodomize himself.

So suppose you came across photos that indicated that your neighbor was kidnapping people and raping them in his basement. Would you give them to the police, or publicize them in some other way to people who could do somehting about it? Would you say "Why bother, these photos are almost three years old. I'm sure there is no one being sodomized there now." Would say, "I can't let anyone see these photos, it might reflect badly on my neighbor's family. His nephews might get attacked at school?" Would you be satisfied with a note from your neighbor saying "I have looked in to the matter and concluded that no one is being tortured in my basement." Would you say, "They guy tied up in my neighbors basement looks like a Unitarian, and a Unitarian killed my cousin." Would you say, "I can't let anyone else see these photos. The other day my roommate called his insane mother a cunt, and I refused to call her a cunt too, because I was afraid she would go ballistic again" (see also here)

Aparantly, it's not just the jingoists writing letters to Salon who think this way. the NYT, the BBC, CNN, WaPo, all think there is no reason to publish these photos. NPR has been talking about them, and has even put photos on their web site. Autralian media is running this story. But that's it.

On the personal front, today I fell down on my pledge to write a page of real live scholarly research every day.

Dear Joan Walsh

The note added to my last entry just grew into a letter to Salon, which I reprint here.

If Salon has a complete set of all the Pentagon Abu Ghraib documents, why not release all of them? The justification seems to be "well, if we release these photos, the US will look bad, and it won't actually undo any of the crimes." This makes about as much sense as hiding evidence of a murder because it would make the murderer look bad, without being able to bring the dead back to life. In fact, the murder analogy isn't an analogy at all. It is just a description of what is going on.

You might object that keeping the full file to yourselves is not like covering up a murder, because the files are already in the hands of the relevant law enforcement agency, the Pentagon itself. But it is obvious that the Pentagon cannot be counted on to police itself. You basically acknowledge this fact in your justification of the partial release of photographs.

At the very least, I hope the International Criminal Court has complete access to the file. Given the difficulty establishing jurisdiction, though, it would be best if whole world had complete access.

Don't turn your face away

I'm betting most of you know that Salon has more Abu Ghraib photos. While I was brushing my teeth this morning, NPR told me they contained nothing new, but if you look for yourself you can see this isn't true. One of the pictures shows a man with his hands cuffed behind his back, apparantly sodomizing himself with a dildo. Given the way his hands are bound, however, I'm not sure he could have inserted the dildo all by himself. Also, there is blood on the sheet near his posterior, indicating that he may be bleeding from the anus. This would happen if the dildo was jammed in with great force. I believe this is the first photographic evidence of rape at Abu Ghraib.

Added: Although this story was featured prominently on Morning Edition, the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN do not seem to be carrying it. Nor does it appear in on the Google news front page. I suppose this is an effect of the claim that there is nothing new here. It may also just be cowardice.

Added added: Body and Soul points to a odd discrepancy. Salon says they have a complete set of the Pentagon’s Abu Ghraib photos. Seymour Hersh claims that the Pentagon has video of children being raped. Was Hersh wrong? Does Salon have worse photos it is holding back? Is Salon’s set actually incomplete?
Also, the Post has a story (in the Style section!) in part about why they are not running the photos that they have, but mostly about how the blood stained walls remind the author of Jackson Pollack and our common humanity. Body and Soul comments on it. I just think its a weird to avoid horror and a call to action by intellectualizing it.

Also also, apparently over the Summer The Post released video of Charles Granger making human pyramids that I missed.

Frankly, the failure of journalists to release absolutely everything they have makes zero sense to me. None. The justification seems to be "well, if we release these photos, the US will look bad, and it won't actually undo any of the crimes." This makes about as much sense as hiding evidence of a murder because it would make the murderer look bad, without being able to bring the dead back to life. In fact, the murder analogy isn't an analogy at all. It is just a description of what is going on.

What an astonishingly shitty day.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Parable of a Roommate Named Evil

I once shared an apartment with Evil, and that experience has given me a rich store of anecdotes I can use in teaching. The most common one I use explains the difference between what you have the right to do, and what you ought to do.

Evil was on the phone with his mother, when he found out that she was selling her car in the paper. Evil did not like this. Evil thought that his mother should give him her old car for free. When she said that she needed the money for the down payment on the new car, Evil became quite mad. Then he called his mother a rude name that rhymes with “runt” (*)

Now it is clear that Evil had a right to call his own mother a rude name that rhymes with “runt.” Any government that tried to prescribe how you should address your mother is absurdly intrusive. I was not entitled to use any force to prevent Evil from calling his own mother a rude name that rhymes with “runt”, other than to simply say “Dude, I can’t believe you called your own mother a rude name that rhymes with ‘runt’” In fact, I didn’t even do that, because by this point I was so used to Evil’s evil that I didn’t even bother.

Nevertheless it was wrong for Evil to call his own mother a rude name that rhymes with “runt.” And even though I support Evil’s right to call his own mother such names, reminding the world of this fact was not the first thing on my mind when I heard evil call his own mother a rude name that rhymes with “runt.” If I were still speaking to him, I would have focussed all my energy on getting him to apologize, and wouldn't really think about the free speech issue at all.

I certainly would not phone Evil’s mother myself and call her a rude name that rhymes with “runt”, as an act of solidarity in support of Evil’s right to free speech.

Now suppose that Evil’s mother was really sensitive about being called a rude name that rhymes with “runt.” So sensitive, in fact, that when she is insulted this way, she completely flips out, setting fire to her house, and marching in the street protesting the injustice of the rude name that rhymes with “runt.” Well then I really wouldn’t call her on the phone and call her a rude name that rhymes with “runt” simply to show my support for free speech. Especially if I thought that this sensitivity was actually the product of years of being called rude names by her vicious, ungrateful child.

While I'm on this topic, I would also like to endorse Majikthise' comments on the Danish cartoons.
(*) when I tell this story in class, I always say “a rude name that rhymes with ‘runt’, because I’m trying to cut down on swearing in class. Once I just said that he called her a rude name, but my students assumed it was a rude name that rhymes with “rich”, and couldn’t see what the big deal was. Also, I just like saying “a rude name that rhymes with ‘runt’”

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

What I learned today about S. Fred Singer.

So I'm writing up an answer sheet for my Reasoning class, and I see that the students were asked to analyze a long and fairly odd argument about building a manned base on the moons of Mars. The author is one S. Fred Singer, and I think "is that S. Fred Singer, the guy who runs around denying global warming?" And low and behold it is. He is allegedly paid by Exxon to do this although he denied this in a letter to the Washington Post.

But there's more. Before he was a global warming skeptic, he was paid by The Tobacco Institute to be a skeptic about the risks of second hand smoke. The Tobacco Institute, in turn, was run by the major cigarette manufacturers.

And then there's the really weird thing about him. In 1960, he apparantly claimed that the Martian moon Phobos was actually a giant space station, operated by Martians, perhaps used to "sweep up radiation in Mars' atmosphere." The link for this, though, is a google cached page by some UFO group that has "nutcase" written all over it. Wikipedia claims that the UFO group's source is an article in a magazine called Astronautics.

I believe that all of this evidence, put together, places S. Fred Singer squarely in the category "Crazy Whore"

In other news, I also wrote a page today, so I'm basically still good on my pledge.

Well, it's not a CIA sponsored coup, but...

The US and Israel are considering how to destabilize the new Palestinian government. Because we believe in democracy so much.

Of course the US and Israel have the right to refuse to trade with hostile nations. Of course Hamas should recognize Israel, renounce violence, etc. I'll go father, even: if the Palestinians had embraced nonviolence at the outset, they would have their own stable and prosperous nation by now, within the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capitol.

But to refuse to negotiate with the elected leaders of your enemies is to refuse to negotiate in good faith. The Palestinians have said that they feel that Hamas is the best honest broker of their interests. And really, given the corruption of Fatah and the PA, who can blame them? Hamas has been taking care of their own people: running schools, taking care of the elderly, finding people jobs. Is it any wonder that they are recognized as leaders?

By refusing to recognize the will of the Palestinians, the US and Israel are effectively saying: “You are not people. We do not have to take you or your desires seriously.” This makes peace negotiations impossible.

Ok, I haven't written my page today. I need to get to work.

Monday, February 13, 2006


This is now the third successful weekday of my "write a page every weekday pledge." I've been thinking of things I could write in this space, but I've restrained myself. Mostly today I've been thinking about

  1. The possibility of a morally upright sociopath.
  2. The desirability of having the ventromedial area of your prefrontal cortex removed, so that sympathetic reactions to other's suffering does not affect one's higher order decision making.
  3. The desirability, conversely, of having the same area of the brain augmented by a large dose of neural stem cells, or perhaps simply by an injection of the milk of human kindness itself.
  4. Whether sociopaths can be said to "feel" the pain of others if sympathetic reactions effect every part of their brain except higher level decision making.
  5. Whether someone whose sociopathy is expressed in the endless quest to seduce women as a way of “conquering” them can make up for the low quality of sex in sheer quantity, thus attaining some semblance of the good life.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Friday Poetry Blogging: Dominion Wide Mouth

Jo(e) recommends that we put up poetry on Fridays.

Wallace Stevens
“Anecdote of the Jar”

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Apparantly, Stevens was inspired by a jar called the "Dominion Wide Mouth Special" like the one pictured above.

I think it worth noting that Stevens as he wrote the poem must have had in mind a specific fruit jar, the "Dominion Wide Mouth Special."... Although manufactured in Canada, the jar has been widely distributed in the United States from 1913 to the present, The exemplar photographed dates ca. 1918; Stevens was in fact traveling in Tennessee in April and May 1918. ... As a "wide mouth special," the jar is particularly notable, of its kind, as "tall and of a port in air." And its glass, compared to that of other fruit jars, is especially "gray and bare." Whether in Tennessee in 1918 fruit jars were used as containers for "moonshine," I have not been able to establish definitively. Surely, granting Stevens’ penchant for "moon" and "shine," the matter is worth investigating.
--From Roy Harvey Pearce, "’Anecdote of the Jar’": An Iconological Note," The Wallace Stevens Journal 1:2 (Summer 1977), 65

Text and photo from here.

"His thing was the blinky lights. He was like, the king of blinky lights."

Homegirl Pippy is quoted in the Chicago Journal about the death of a fellow freak biker. She is mad they misspelled Pippy. I would just be excited to see newspapers pick up my blogging pseudonym.

I wrote a page yesterday and another one today. This could be a good regime. My old strategy was to have "big research day" every Friday. But that didn't really get at my problem. I have no trouble reading, taking notes, outlining, diagramming, or any other part of research. The thing I need to do is *write*. A page a day of writing should make the process much more fluid.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

A new self-improvement challenge

From now on, I am going to write a page a day, every weekday, on a publishable project. I will not blog, or even read blogs, until that page is written. So help me god.

Thursday Indeed Blogging


Secondary Dependency and the Nuclear Family

In my ethics class we are reading Love's Labor, by Eva Feder Kittay. Her central claim is that liberal notions of equality have not taken into account the importance of care for dependents in human society. At any time, a large portion of any society consists of children, the elderly, and the infirm, who cannot really be thought of as autonomous, rational, self interested individuals. They are entirely physically dependent on others and are often not competent decision makers. Not only does every society contain many dependents, but each individual at some point in her life is a dependent. Thus Kittay talks of “inevitable dependency”: dependency is truly something no theory of human society can ignore.

But the existence of dependency is not the core of Kittay's critique. She is really interested in a phenomenon she labels secondary dependency. The dependents require full time caregivers, whom Kittay calls “dependency workers,” to emphasize that what they do is labor. Dependency workers must themselves depend on third parties to meet their needs, since they are too occupied caring for the needs of another. The dependency worker thus acquires what Kittay calls “secondary dependency” on a person labeled “the provider.” Dependency workers are typically women and their work is typically unpaid, lying entirely outside of the monetary economy. This much is feminism 101. Kittay uses it, though, to mount a critique of Rawls and present what I would call a caring relationship theory of moral status.

Right now, though, I’m trying to evaluate her presuppositions. Her paradigm of a dependent, dependency worker, and provider is a child, stay at home mom and working father. She of course acknowledges that there are many other sorts of dependents and dependency workers. Another prominent trio these days is the elderly person, the paid, immigrant nursing home staff person, and the giant HMO who runs the home. But Kittay wants to see these as variations on the primary theme of child, unpaid mom, and paid dad.

I’m happy enough other current dependency relations as variations on the family theme, but I’m wondering how this applies to families over time. Kittay’s family is very much a nuclear family, which she describes as the “favored ‘social technology’” in societies where “economic productivity is concentrated outside the home” (43). Something is amiss here. The locus of economic productivity moved outside the home in the West over the course of the 19th century. For instance, around 1810 most stockings in England were still produced on small looms in cottages by families working together under a patriarch. By the end of the 1800s, all clothing was made in giant textile mills featuring enormous power looms. The Luddite movement was an attempt by the small family patriarchs to resist this industrial take-over.

But the nuclear family is of more recent vintage than the workplace that is separate from the home. The nuclear family was a product of the post war economic boom in the US, which for the first time meant that families could survive with a single outside breadwinner (Dad), and could afford to live in suburbs isolated from their extended family.

So I’m having trouble fitting Kittay’s model of dependency labor to any pre-fifties family. She doesn’t pretend to model early 19th century families who worked cottage industries, so that’s fine. But how do you understand the pre-Fifties extended family on this model? The family contains more than parents and children—it includes grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins all in the immediate mutual support network. Both men and women are working outside the home, although men have more earning power and authority. It doesn’t seem as easy to talk about full time dependency workers and the secondary dependency they exhibit. This is important, because the pre-WWII situation is really the situation we are in now. Despite iconic status of the nuclear family, no one has the affluence to live that way. Economic necessity both requires women to work and requires deep reliance on the extended family.

So I’m wondering if Kittay’s starting place isn’t too rooted in fifties fantasies. Although she recognizes the injustices in those fantasies, she doesn’t seem to recognize how historically anomalous they are.

My question to you, the internet hivemind: do I have my history right, and am I right to think that this undermines Kittay’s model of dependency labor?

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Unexpected Savagery at the North Country Academy for the Excruciatingly Fine Arts

Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

It is well known that styles of art are influenced by the availability of different kinds of materials. According to this page "Impressionism would have been impossible without this full spectrum of pigments packaged for the first time as oil colors in tubes."

The work of the North Country Academy for the Excruciatingly Fine Arts was affected dramatically by the introduction of Colorix Silky Crayons which we received from our Grandma Mimi for Christmas. These Crayons apply very smoothly and leave thick, saturated colors, ideal for the expression of powerful emotions. Shockingly, the artist C. Loftis gravitated immediately to the black crayon, and, appropriating some scrap paper from a printer, produced this dark, savage work.

The violence of it--on Christmas day no less--amazes, as does the interplay between the animal scribbles and the cool logic of the appropriated computer waste product. The work seems to say, "We who live on the fringes of post industrial society, who survive on scrap paper and bile, we can only spit upon your off-center menu options."

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Form follows frustration

While looking for a CV or list of publications by Yuriko Saito, I discovered the wonder of functionality that is the Rhode Island School of Design homepage. Check it out: all the links slowly swim past you from left to right. How do you know what to click on? If you wait long enough, will the desired link eventually find its way to the screen? Generally departmental homepages are put under the heading "academics" on university homepages. I sat waiting for "academics" to swim by for a while before I realized that the fish I was looking for was actually "degree programs." The website basically admits that this design is useless, because the all important "admissions" link, the link used by prospective students and their tuition paying parents sits still, like a rock, at the bottom of the page.

By the way, if anyone knows where I can get a complete list of Saito's publications on Japanese aesthetics of nature and nature-related stuff, I'd appreciate it.

Added: If anyone knows of an online version of Yuriko Saito, "The Japanese Appreciation of Nature," British Journal of Aesthetics 23 (no. 3, 1985):239-251. I would appreciate not having to walk to the library. I find that the internet can actually slow down the process of getting scholarly materials, because I keep thinking that one more google search will turn up what I want, so that I don't have to actually leave my office.

More about Caroline's Gender Awareness

When you live with a three year old, you tend to have the same conversation over and over. Recently, I've been having the following variation on the "grow up to be a daddy" conversation, which I mentioned yesterday.

Caroline: When I grow up, I'm going to be a daddy like you.
Me: Well, maybe, but...
Caroline: And when Joseph grows up, he will be a daddy.
Me: That's more...
Caroline: And when Mommy grows up, she'll be a daddy.
Me: No, we've been over this...
Caroline: That makes one, two, three, four daddies.

About the only variation is that sometimes she counts five daddies.

"When Mohammed goes missin his mom can't put his face on a milk carton"

Of course, it is blasphemy to depict the Prophet Mohammad in any fashion, positive or negative. Fafblog explains some of the important theological ramifications of this.

Wait, there's more fun with blasphemy and the nature of representation out there.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Caroline’s Incipient Gender Awareness

Conversation 1:

Caroline: When I grow up, I want to be a daddy like you.
Me: I suppose that's possible [imagining sex change surgery] but more likely you will grow up to be a mommy.
Caroline: With boobs?
Me: With boobs.

Conversation 2:

Caroline: Daddy, you and Joseph rhyme.
Me: No we don’t. Rhymes are words that sound alike.
Caroline: No, you and Joseph rhyme because you are boys. And me and mommy rhyme because we are girls.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The parable of the two guys on the train track

So these two guys are standing around on a train track when they hear a train in the distance. Guy one says, "Uh-oh, my foot is caught in between the rail and the ground. I should get it out, in case that train is on this track. Can you help me?"

Guy two: You know, We've been standing on railways for years now, and historically, We've always gotten out of the way before the train came. I think I'm going to sit down.

Guy one: Sit down? You've got to help me with my foot."

Guy two: You know, last time I heard a train, it wasn't even on this track. I think I'm going to lie down.

Guy one: Yes, but I can see the train now. It is clearly coming for us.

Guy two: Look we aren't stupid people. When the train comes we'll find a way to free your foot and then get off the tracks.

Guy one: So why don't we get off the tracks now?

Guy two: I don't understand all this crying wolf. I'm sure we will get off the tracks before the train comes.

Guy one: I'm sure we will too. I am quite certain we will get off the tracks as soon as you help me free my foot.

Guy two: I don't need to try to free your foot, because every time we've been in this situation in the past, your foot has come free. I think I'm going to wedge my foot between the rail and the ground, too.

Guy one: What the hell are you doing? The last time I got my foot out from under the rail because you helped me pull. Now you are...what the hell are you doing?

Guy two: I'm trying to wedge my head between the rail and the ground. Don't worry, I'm not stupid, I'm sure I'll manage to pull it out before the train gets too close. You are always underestimating human ingenuity. If there were a real incentive to get off the railroad tracks, like a train barreling down on us, I'm sure we would find a way to get off the tracks. I think I'm going to superglue my tongue to the rail.

link via steve h.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.

Since about that time, war had been literally continuous, though strictly speaking it had not always been the same war. For several months during his childhood there had been confused street fighting in London itself, some of which he remembered vividly. But to trace out the history of the whole period, to say who was fighting whom at any given moment, would have been utterly impossible, since no written record, and no spoken word, ever made mention of any other alignment than the existing one. At this moment, for example, in 1984 (if it was 1984), Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. In no public or private utterance was it ever admitted that the three powers had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible. --George Orwell, 1984, via B.Ph.D.

"At no point are we not going to value the sanctity of life,"

Via Dale Jamieson on the ISEE listserv
Having suffered a heart attack in September, 76 year old, legally blind and wheelchair-bound Clarence Ray Allen had asked prison authorities to let him die if he went into cardiac arrest before his execution, a request prison officials said they would not honor. "At no point are we not going to value the sanctity of life," said prison spokesman Vernell Crittendon, "We would resuscitate him, then execute him."--Houston Chronicle, January 12, 2006

Update: It looks like the "then execute him" part of the quotation was added as this tidbit has been passed around. In the original quote, here, it is implied but not stated by the prison spokesman.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Kudos, Iraq and Palestine! You are a credit to purple-fingered invasion mascots everywhere!

You should read Giblets State of the Universe Address. It includes this:
There are those of you who have said that Giblets doesn't have a plan for victory. Well Giblets has a plan, and his plan is to tell you that you don't have a plan, because your plan was to point out that Giblets didn't have a plan before Giblets went and implemented his plan - which totally would've worked if Giblets actually had a plan! Being right is not a plan! Being wrong with resolve is a plan!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

And by "achieve energy independence" I meant "collapse into complete helplessness"

Bush's advisors are now stressing that when he pledged to cut US dependence on Mideast Oil by 75%, he didn't mean it literally.

Because oil is traded on a global market, it doesn't really matter where oil comes from. As it happens, most of our oil physically comes from places like Venezuela and Mexico. But we are still dependent on Mideast oil because the Middle Eastern countries dominate the market, and hence set the prices. That's why in my last post on oil, I said that "trading in a market based on Brazilian products is better than trading in a market based on products from Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia." This is a big deal: everyone has to admit that wars have been fought over the price of oil, if only because Saddam decided to invade Kuwait in 1990 because Kuwait was under pricing him.

So now Bush's advisors are explaining that when he said "reduce middle eastern oil imports 75% by 2025" he really meant "replace an amount of our oil consumption equivalent to 75% of what we currently import from the Middle East with consumption of local energy by 2025." Since the actual physical amount of oil we get from the region is quite small, the amount of consumption he is planning on replacing is quite small. This does not mean that we will be 75% less beholden to the Saudis, because they will still control the market where we buy all our oil. In fact, we will be more beholden to them, because their share of the global market will have increased, because their oil fields will run out last.

So basically, Bush's underlings are now simply announcing that his only substantial statements on energy policy during the State of the Union address were deliberately misleading.

His promise to carry on with the war, though, was completely sincere.

Big Monkey Word Cloud

Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

Via coffee breath get yours here.

The thing, it shakes itself.

MT asks an important philosophical question: Does James Brown shake my thing? And suggests the following answer: "No. James Brown does not shake my thing. I shake my thing."

Murky begins by giving the appropriate credit to The Hardest Working Man in Show Business: "Indeed, while short of stature and weird of hair, Mr. Brown may be the funkiest person ever to have walked the Earth."

But then, while reflecting on some shower dancing that he had performed, MT realizes how absent Soul Brother Number 1 was from the scene: "Mr. Brown was far away, ...he and his band hadn't created or even ever performed that music with me in mind. In an important and overlooked sense, I alone was shaking my thing."

I understand MT's desire to assert his thing shaking autonomy. No matter how funky The Godfather of Soul is, no thing would be shaken if the audience, MT, were not funky as well.

Nevertheless, I must assert that neither MT nor Mr. Dynamite shake his thing. The thing shakes itself. It is simply hubris for any person to take credit the thing shaking. How can you own the thing shaking, when you do not even own yourself? The thing shakes, and for pragmatic reasons we attribute it sometimes to someone in the shower, and sometimes to the man Look Magazine in 1969 named “The Most Important Black Man in America”. We have good reasons to make these attibutions, but the deepest reality is simply that the thing shakes itself.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Crack dealer advises addict on how to quit

At the end of a long speech devoted to marshalling support for a war largely over oil, our dear leader managed to say a few words about dependence on oil. Here are his remarks on oil in full
Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. And here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology. Since 2001, we have spent nearly $10 billion to develop cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable alternative energy sources -- and we are on the threshold of incredible advances.

So tonight, I announce the Advanced Energy Initiative -- a 22- percent increase in clean-energy research -- at the Department of Energy, to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas. To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero- emission coal-fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies, and clean, safe nuclear energy. (Applause.)

We must also change how we power our automobiles. We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars, and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen. We'll also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn, but from wood chips and stalks, or switch grass. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years. (Applause.)

Breakthroughs on this and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025. (Applause.) By applying the talent and technology of America, this country can dramatically improve our environment, move beyond a petroleum- based economy, and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past. (Applause.)
Hey look, he used the word “addiction”! Maybe he’s getting real about our situation. Or not. Maybe instead he's proposing to do in the long term stuff that should be done right now, give meager lip service to the stuff we should be doing in the long term, and ignoring whole swaths of things that could be done, but offend important constituencies.

It is awfully odd for a man giving advice to an addict not to mention actually quitting, or even cutting back. As the New York Times points out, there is no mention here about increasing fuel efficiency standards or taxing gasoline, the two surest ways to reduce consumption, and hence dependency. In fact, he doesn’t call on the energy industry, the car industry, or consumers to do anything at all, even, as we shall see, when the cooperation of these groups is needed to implement the solutions he gives lip service to. Refusing to talk about any form of conservation, or demand any changes from people’s current habits amounts to ignoring the policies that must be a pillar in any sustainable energy policy.

So a swath of any reasonable policy is missing. What has he talked about? Essentially, Bush has promised an incremental increase in research budgets, and mostly, he is interested in researching ethanol and other biofuels. This is not entirely stupid. Brazil has managed to attain energy independence using a combination of ethanol from sugarcane and conservation. We could actually do the same right now using off the shelf technology putting development costs mostly on car manufacturers.

First up, we need to face a basic fact: ethanol as it is produced in the US now is a net energy looser. One study by Tad W. Patzek in the Critical Reviews in Plant Science suggests that we use six times as much energy growing the corn we use to make ethanol as we get out of it. (write up here) Ethanol is also a net money loser. It wouldn’t be profitable for anyone to buy the energy equivalent of six gallons of gas to make one gallon of gas without federal subsidies. There are, however, ways to make ethanol and other biofuels energy gainers. That is how the Brazilians managed to attain energy independence using this technology.* From what I can tell, the main difference between Brazil and the U.S. is really that they have a lot of cheap labor. More of the energy input to the process just comes from muscle power. The Brazilians were also willing to make two other expenses for energy independence. They demanded that auto makers produce cars that would run on their sugarcane based ethanol, and, well, they chopped down a fuck of a lot of rainforest.

Right now in the US ethanol is just a handout to corn growers. It doesn’t have to be. It could be a useful, stop-gap measure that will keep us out of costly wars until long term solutions are in place. The first step would be to start importing ethanol from a country that has found a way to grow ethanol without a net energy loss, Brazil. I know that this undercuts the rhetoric of energy independence, and I know that there is no love lost between presidents Lula and W., but honestly, trading in a market based on Brazilian products is better than trading in a market based on products from Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Importing Brazilian ethanol would also mean that we have an instant supply of biofuel. The second step would simply be to demand that car makers produce cars that can run on the fuel.

There are a lot of drawbacks to this strategy, not least of which is the clearing of rainforest. I’m not actually sure we should do it. But it is a way to more or less immediately implement the solution Bush is proposing to spend the next six years researching.

But no biofuel can be a long term solution. They are at best a little better in tailpipe emission than gasoline. And, as Paul Roberts points out, “Climate change is emerging as the only real driver for an entirely new energy economy.” Actually only ten words in the speech addressed the long term energy needs of our species: “we will invest more … revolutionary solar and wind technologies” As far as I can tell, we didn’t even get a dollar figure.

Update: The Oil Drum has dollar figures. Perhaps there were parts of the address that weren't on the transcript I saw?
* I know, the second law of thermodynamics says there is not really such a thing as a net energy gainer in a closed system. But the Earth is not a closed system, thanks to the profound generosity of the sun. An energy source counts as a net energy gainer if it releases more of the solar energy sent to the earth than it uses up.

"I love the idea of my wife"

The Onion gives us "I love the idea of my wife", which includes this
On the one hand, of course I love her. Don't get me wrong—we're talking about my wife. This is the mother of my children, the woman I plan to grow old with, the woman for whom I purchased a fine and beautiful home. But then again, if she happened to be some other, similar woman, it probably wouldn't be that much different. We'd still live in the same type of neighborhood, own the same cars, and have the same children. Well, they'd be genetically different children by 50 percent, but they'd probably serve basically the same function in my life.
I don't think this would be quite as funny with the genders reversed. It would still make sense, but it wouldn't be quite as funny, which says something about gender roles in our society.