Saturday, December 06, 2008

half of a memory

At one point, long ago, Thomas and I were at a party, or something. The person we were taking to was trying to show off a connection to hipster fame. Thomas interrupted her with a question that was something like "Ok, which member of Big Black is your cousin?"

She replied with the story of Dave Riley (who is described on the back of the album Atomizer as a 'bitch magnet'). I didn't know that the bass player for Big Black was at the time in a coma. It was all unsettling.

So just now I get the Cheap Trick song "Surrender" in my head. Which leads me to Big Black's cover of He's a Whore. Which leads me to find out that at least as of April 23 2008, Dave Riley, is healthy enough to rail against his substandard treatment by the medical establishment.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Why not bring back the EV1?

The Yes Men's New York Times parody is not only funny and loaded of emotionally satisfying fantasies. It is a source of thought provoking ideas.

One of the fake ads that keeps popping up is for a re-released EV1 from GM. (New slogan: Because we have toTM.) My first thought was, "You know, re-releasing the EV1 should be a condition for a bailout!" But wait, why doesn't the EV1 play a big role in anyone's scenario for a revived GM? Bringing back the EV1 would instantly give GM the drop on Honda and Toyota, who are planning to introduce their plug in hybrids in the Spring. It would give GM a high profile entry into the new car market, and announce to the world that they plan to change the way they do business. What's stopping them?

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The heart has got to open in a fundamental way

In the lead up to the election and the days following, I've had two songs in my head: Patti Smith "People have the Power" and Leonard Cohen "Democracy." I spent two afternoons a week canvassing for Barack the past month, and I've become emotionally invested in an election and a single candidate (a mere human being! a politician!) in a way I haven't ever before.

Those two songs have brought me to the verge of tears. I've always been somewhat puzzled at the things that make me cry and the things that leave me dry. I generally cry at the scene in Casablanca when The Marseillaise drowns out the Nazis. (Although I've mentioned this often enough as a scene that makes me weep that I may be immune to it now.) The biggest cry I've had in the last ten years came when we were living in Canton. Molly and the kids had gone to sleep, and I was still awake, washing dishes and listening to Neil Young's *Living With War*. Joey woke up and started crying, and Molly came down to pass him off to me just as as the line "Today's the day, our younger son is going off to war" came on. I managed to hold back the deluge until Molly was back upstairs. In my head, I could only think, "Those fuckers aren't going to take my son."

I guess I'm just a sucker for communal hope, is what it is. The above video is via Andrew Sullivan, a conservative British/Irish gay Catholic person. In the video I'm struck by how old Cohen looks. Its been a while for all of us. He also gets a lot of profile shots where he looks very Jewish, but nothing in the video reveals him as Canadian.

So many identities, but we are one.

Friday, October 31, 2008

"In the face of Armageddon, I will not compromise in this"

Bush Makes Last Push to Deregulate.

Its always impressive to see people stick by their core values in the face of adversity, even when the adversity includes overwhelming empirical evidence and common sense. Allan Greenspan himself may have conceded that deregulation caused the banking crises, but Bushco stands firm in their belief in radically unfettered markets. I'd say there was a certain nobility to their doggedness, except for the fact that shit like this could get us all killed.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The parable of the gift

Imagine a dude gives you a gift. I dunno what the gift is. Just imagine the most awesomest gift you can imagine. And the dude says "You totally deserve this man. Some chic gave it to me. I dunno why she gave it to me, but she said I totally deserved it."

Are you thankful to the dude? Are you thankful to the chic? Do you think, "there must be some first giver who started the chain"?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Am I Late to This Party?

Gogol Bordello is my new favorite band.

see also.

A while back I scored a bunch of good cds for a dollar each from sale by the SLU college station. Along with the CDs I bought I got like 20 free promos that people had sent to the radio station that they had no use for. I've just started listening to them now, 2 years later, and I've found some gems, including a compilation with the song "When the Trickster Starts A-poking." Now I'm all about Gogol Bordello.

Also this.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Google introduces new tool for making people look stupid

In honor of their 10th birthday, Google is letting you search their 2001 index. Fun game: Search for housing bubble. First two hits assert that the rise in home prices is sound and sustainable.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Much Coveted Helpy-Chalk Endorsements, Nov 2008 Edition.

The national offices are easy: Barack! Dennis!

State offices

Attorney General: Richard Cordray (D)

Current state treasurer. Five time Jeopardy! champion. Website full of platitudes. But I'm voting party line here. Also has union endorsements and Strickland's backing.

State Senator, 24th district: Gary Kucinich (D)

Brother of Dennis. Webpage says "Coming Soon". Leading hits for him include nearly empty entries at Dkosopedia, VoteSmart, and Political Base.

Another party line vote.

State Representative: Jennifer Brady

We get fliers about this race delivered to our door almost every day. Most are attacks on Brady's opponent, Nan Baker, using hot button accusations like "She voted for tax people for ambulance rides!" The political attacks were so generic that the only way I could figure out who was the Democrat and who was the Republican in the race was by looking at the fine print on the sponsorship of the anti-Baker fliers. Turns out they were from the SIEU, so they are on our side. The Obama campaign has also been asking us volunteers to give little shout outs to Brady. So basically Brady wins on these and other endorsements.

But what are the issues here? Brady has been behind a lot of the educational initiatives that have been shaping my worklife, including the Seniors to Sophomores program and the state tuition freeze. I have mixed feeling about those. The intent is good, but they do require my institution to do more work for less money. Quick google searches are not getting me to the bottom of the ambulance tax story.

County Level Elections

I'm going to vote party line on these. Given the paucity of quick information to be found on the statewide candidates, I don't think I'm going to do well here either.

Now for the nonpartisan offices

State board of education: Richard Javorek

Endorsed by teachers unions and the Progressive Majority. Denounces overemphasis on testing on his website. The other candidate Robin C. Hovis is an "investment representative" originally appointed to the Board of Educaiton by Republican Governor Bob Taft.

State Supreme Court Justice, race 1: Joseph Russo

Check out the issue in this race. Russo, the Democrat,
proposes that judges be required to recuse themselves from cases involving people who donated to their campaign. What, this isn't required now? Nope. Not only that, but Russo's Republican opponent is against the recusal rule. The only justification she gives for her opposition in the article sited is that such measures have not passed in other states. The NYT has reported that the entirely Republican state Supreme Court generally sides with campaign donors.

State Supreme Court Justice race 2: Peter M. Sikora

The issue here is the same as in the race above. The Republican in this race, Evelyn Stratton, is quoted in the NYT article above as saying donations from business interests are there to counterbalance the big influence of trial lawyers. She also attended more that 50 fundraisers in her last campaign. This is a judicial system? Christ electing judges is a dumb idea.

Ohio 8th District Court of Appeals: Sean Gallagher, Larry Jones, Patricia Blackmon, Kenneth Rocco.

Party line vote.

Court of Common Pleas: Micheal Russo, Nancy Fuerst, Nancy McDonnell, Brenden Sheehan, Eileen Gallagher, Nancy Russo, Timothy Flanagan, Leslie Celebreze, Anthony Russo.

These are all Democratic candidates in uncontested elections. I voted against Sheehan, Jones, and Celebreze in the primary election, that
I previously liveblogged

The website that I used for the primary judicial elections does not have guides to the general election yet. Am I voting too early?

Ok, the contested Court of Common Pleas elections

Court of Common Pleas, contested race 1: Steven J. Terry

Terry is the Democrat and gets a nice write up from the Plain Dealer.

Court of Common Pleas, contested race 2, 3,4: Lynn McClaughlin Murray, Deena R. Calabrese, and Laura J. Gallagher

Party line votes. I went against Calabrese in the primary. Looking at my decisions for these two elections, I wonder if I depend too much on endorsements for downticket races. But what other resources do I have?

Court of Common Pleas, contested race 3: Lance Mason

Mason is currently a state senator, so there is a lot of information about him out there. He gets a 100% rating for his votes the past few years from from NARAL, Ohio Conservation Voters, and PIRG. He gets an F from the NRA. A few years back the Sierra Club only gave him a 50%. His ratings from business groups vary from 42 to 100%. He used to work for Stephanie Tubbs-Jones. Meh.

Ballot initiative #1: A constitutional amendment tightening rules on getting initiatives on the ballot: Yes

This was placed on the ballot by a democratic state representative, who said he was motivated by problems the elections board had verifying signatures. Can't find much else on this. The ability of citizens to put issues on the ballot is great when handled well (Oregon) and terrible when handled badly (California). Lets go with yes.

Ballot Initiative 2: Issue bonds to conserve and revitalize lands: Yes. Ohio needs more green space.

Ballot Initiative 3: Introduce language enshrining property rights in the constitution, specifically giving landowners more control over groundwater and access to adjoining waterways: No.

As a dirty fucking hippie, I am always wary of increasing property rights. Turns out Ohio Republicans introduced this amendment in exchange for support for the Great Lakes Compact. The Great Lakes Compact is a deal between all the states and provinces around the Great Lakes not to tap any of the lakes and sell the water to Southern California or Arizona, or other uninhabitable desert when the residents there realize that whole cities are not environmentally sustainable.

In any case, property rights over groundwater usually involves someone's right to shit in the drinking supply. No to this one.

Initiative 5: To shut down the slavemaster ghetto banks payday lenders. Yes.

Initiative 6: Build a casino: No

Casino economies generate cash quick, but they aren't equitable or sustainable.

Initiative 127: Bonds for the Library: Yes.

Ta da! Democracy.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

When are the electric cars rumored to come out?

These are really just notes to myself and Molly

The new Honda Insight: April 2009

The plug in Toyota Prius: 2009

Electric Mini Cooper Summer 2009

VW Golf 2010

Chevy Volt 2011

Friday, October 03, 2008

The solution to the credit crisis

Plenty of economists can brag that they saw our current financial crisis coming, but how many can say that they saw it coming in 2002 and proposed a solution at the time? Dsquared can.

In 2002 people were still worried about the bust of the dotcom stocks that had boomed in the 90s. D^2 realized that Alan Greenspan had the solution:
Basically, the solution's pretty simple and it involves screwing interest rates down to the floor until mortgage rates follow them down to Low Low Prices levels, and pointing out to the Great American Consumer that it's "Bye-Bye, Magic Stock Market Bubble Money!" but "Hello, Magic Housing Market Bubble Money!". Marvellous.
Now you might think that D^2 is here mocking Greenspan, and anticipating the current bubble bursting, but you would be wrong. D^2 sees how to take Greenspan's genius to the next level.
The problem with those curmudgeons who rant on about the "unsustainability" of asset market bubbles is that they're just not imaginative enough in thinking about what might count as an asset. So house prices might crash? So what, if 1977 Chevvy Blazers start selling for $25,000 a wheel, half of middle America will suddenly feel rich rich rich. It wouldn't even be that difficult to trigger a "classic" second hand car bubble with the right mix of tax breaks to the auto loan industry (I'm even thinking about political feasibility here!). When that one runs out of steam, we can have a bubble in baseball memorabilia! Or parking spaces! Basically anything that Americans have lots of and might be prepared to pay over the odds for. Guns, probably (particularly as in this case, intervention in the market would redistribute wealth to urban blacks and rural whites, while leaving the Fed with an armoury that it's probably going to need unless the economy gets better).

The whole fucking Beanie Baby thing proved beyond doubt that Americans have no real qualms about being manipulated into ludicrously undignified speculative bubbles if they think they might be able to get out at the top. We ought to harness this tendency for good. I'm not saying that this is a solution for the long term, but if we reckon on five years per bubble, then cars, guns, baseball and Beanies ought to last long enough for me personally to be either retired to the sunshine with a stack of gold and canned goods, or converted to pure energy and living forever on the Internet. Depending on my market timing, of course.
The man has us pegged. To honor the fact that D^2 is a genius on par with Alan Greenspan, I think we should name him an honorary "Person who has fucked Ayn Rand"

Friday, September 26, 2008

The word collaboration is used frequently, but no collaborations are described.

Every week, the administration sends everyone a single page newsletter from an organization called the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD). This week the headline is
The body of the article is an inspiring story of Hazard Community and Technical College and how they rose the tide of excellence by scheduling more frequent meetings and organizational development days. In describing a typical event, they mention that
The first 80% of the conversation focussed on answering the following exciting questions.
  • Who are we as an organization
  • What have we been that is excellent
etc etc.

The result
The senior leadership team responded with a progressive approach designed to maximize resources. Unwanted by necessary workforce reductions were tough on moral.
Etc. Etc.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Police crackdown on protestors at the Republican National Convention.

Various law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, have launched a series of outrageous attacks on potential protesters at the Republican National Convention. A sample, from the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
The raids began Friday night when Ramsey County sheriff's deputies, guns drawn, used a battering ram to get through a door and into the former Smith Theater on St. Paul's West Side that was being used as a gathering space by a protest group. About 60 people were inside 627 Smith Av. S. watching a movie and eating when the raid began. No one was arrested, but everyone inside was handcuffed and interviewed.
The police raided a movie theater with a battering ram and guns drawn, where they found people...watching a movie and eating. Everyone was handcuffed, then released.

The most important fact, which Greenwald is highlighting, is that the FBI was involved with these raids. This is what happens when you give the Federal government total surveillance power. They use it to go after their domestic political enemies, not terrorists.

Lotsa links from John Emerson at Seeing the Forest.

Minneapolis Star Tribune story.

Glenn Greenwald at Salon.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Online teaching materials from George McDonald Ross

George McDonald Ross has some very nice, but sadly incomplete electronic philosophy teaching materials online. The highlight are interactive reading tools for difficult philosophical texts. This is a sample of an interactive Kant reading. The reader is given a passage from Kant and then asked to select the best interpretation of it. Better yet, after that, she has to select the best reason to think that this is the best interpretation. After selecting both an interpretation and a reason, she gets a response. My only complaint is that the responses are too vague. Almost all of them boil down to "Yes, that is a reason."

George also has a very elaborate page for a Kant course which I have only poked around in a little. The nice thing about it is that you can get, in side-by-side frames, George's translation of the first critique and his commentary on it.

Also cool: lots of free online translations of historical texts in philosophy. He's got some Boethius in there, but not the Consolation. If there was a free student-friendly translations of the Consolation out there, I would be able to get through three-quarters of my intro class using free texts. (Right now I am using a nice translation of Plato for students by Cathal Woods and Ryan Pack made available under the creative commons license. I also use this nice free version of Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. which has been annotated for students by Jonathan Bennett.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

TED video classroom success

I showed this video by Daniel Goleman on sympathy to my ethics class Friday, and it was a smashing success. People who did not talk before volunteered comments early in the discussion. Links were drawn to the textbook. People demonstrated quick comprehension of Goleman's underlying themes and thesis. Way cool.

I also showed this, since we were talking about sympathy.

saakashvili eats his own tie.

Via majikthise

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Georgia-Russia War Explained in 5 Year Old Terms

Apparently I feel like blogging today.

Caroline sometimes plays this "game" with me called "Does this bother you?" It begins with her touching my knee and saying "Does this bother you?"

"No, of course not sweetie."

"Does this bother you?" She starts tickling my knee.

"Mmm, can I finish reading this please?"

"Does this bother you?" She tickles my side.

"Seriously, let me read this."

"Does this bother you?" She pinches my armpit in a way that she calls tickling but really hurts like hell.


Ok, now imagine that Caroline is Georgia, I'm Russia, and "WILL YOU FUCKING STOP THAT" is a column of tanks followed by paramilitary Ossetian thugs committing war crimes with impunity.

Dan Gilbert on how we are bad at predicting what will make us happy

Well the last Ted video got quick responses. Here's another one I'm going to use (in conjunction with Boethius)> I'm also going to make "natural happiness" and "synthetic happiness" vocab terms that might appear on the test.

Bonobo learns the secret of fire

The primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has been living with bonobos at a facility in Georgia where they are attempting to forge a hybrid human-bonobo culture. Each species learns the language, tools and culture of the other. Among the technologies the bonobos have learned: the fine art of gathering wood & kindling, taking a lighter from Savage-Rumbaugh's pocket, and starting a fire.

The video is long, and also shows the bonobo making stone tools, producing written symbols, and playing pac man. Clearly this ape would be jealous

I got the Savage-Rumbaugh video from Ted, which was recommended to me at the AAPT as a source for short videos for classroom use. You can show about 10 minutes of video and then have a discussion. It isn't like simply turning the class over to the TV screen--you need to be there to help discussion. But it does allow you to bring a different voice into the classroom. And of course, the kids love a light show. I'm going to use this video in the last section of my intro class on animal and machine personhood. I'll probably grab a couple others, too.

Ted itself seems to be one of these expensive, multi-industry retreat/conferences. Sort of like the Renaissance Weekend, but for silicon valley types, rather than Washington power brokers. Since they are techies, though, they give away all their content via the creative commons license. Free ideas for everyone!

"Local Idiot To Post Comment On Internet"

I've been collecting resources for my new online teaching project "How not to look like a moron on the internet" which I will use in conjunction with all my online classes. After careful consideration, I've decided not to use this. It is very funny and contains many teachable moments, but I think the part about a video of a man being sodomized by a horse means that it is not good teaching material for many parts of my audience.

I am, however, using Stupid Filter.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Wendy Turgeon: pedagogy of the unimpressed

I. Why do students find philosophy dull?
II. Philosophy for Children
III. Using techniques from philosophy for Children on undergraduates.

I. Why do students find philosophy dull?
A. Not useful for jobs.
B. precollege experience is passive. Test oriented.
C. Odd relation to questions: questions are factual, procedural. Questions are a sign of weakness.
D. Lack of cultural knowledge. "what's an atheist?"

When your students were five they were wonderful philosophers.

Philosophers working here: gareth matthews, Lippmann has a curriculum starting in preK.

Lipmann: Philosophy is Socratic inquiry into aspects of the human experience that are important.

[it looks like Lipmann is just transferring good undergrad pedagogy (as the AAPTers would define it) to the kids level, complete with new books and exercises.]

III. Three elements from Lipmann applied back to undergrads

A. Philosophy is a process
B. Students need to be actively engaged.
C. Community of inquiry involves a live matrix for engaging students.

[all standard rules for good teaching.]

Invite children to rethink childhood [now this is new]

She has a nice photo movie for class use.

Ok, small groups now.

"Online teaching at my institution is a scam"

One thing I really like about the AAPT is that people use all of the classroom techniques that they are discussing in their presentations. So the session on teaching online, the always engaging Andrew Carpenter, featured small group work. In my group a gentleman in a blue shirt opened by voicing the exact concern that I have had about online teaching at a huge number of institutions, including perhaps LCCC: (paraphrasing) "You need to have some mechanisms to insure that people who take online courses are actually self motivated enough to finish them. Online at my institution is a scam. We have a fifty to sixty percent dropout rate. Students seek out these courses because they think they will be easier, and then they can't get their act together enough to finish the course."

This is a big deal. Right now students in online courses as self selected to be the exact kind of students who would do badly in them. They are signing up because they have time management issues. Either they are too unmotivated or too busy. Further, since online teaching is marketed to lower income and returning students, you are targeting people who are on the other side of the digital divide. I really the boosters of online teaching in administration and IT would address this issue.

ok, to the next talk.

presentation on having students write dialogues

plain type = presenter [] = me "" = commenter.

Students don't see writing as a communicating exercise--writing for an audience.

[he's doing this because he's giving up on getting anyone to write a good essay??]

his research is on Plato and genres of philosophical writing.

We assign essays because our academic communication is in essay form.

Leibniz has dialogues.

He tells students to think of dialogues as a scene in a play.

"I work with young children. and they respond very well to dialogue"

"Stephen Law writes for youngsters on philosophy in dialogue form."

"Matt Lippmann writes in effect dialogues for children"

George: "I've had trouble with students who simply turn their essays into dialogues with one character per paragraph"

"How do you handle citations in the dialogue?"

They don't have to make references, but if they want to they can do that anyway they want. [that's what I do.]

Georege: "I require my students to refer to the text. They can have the characters be students talking about a text."

I tell my students they can't quote, they have to paraphrase.

"I have my student write in FAQ format and then have them turn the FAQ into an essay"

"I hear students own voice better in dialogues than essays"

"Do they pick characters from the reading and have those be characters" Yes.

George: "This is a great way to teach sympathy for different viewpoints."

[He has students writing dialogues about the Critique of Pure Reason!!!]

George: "I used to have them write dialogues as preparation to writing essays. But now I drop the last step of turning it into essay form"

Speaker: I used to to essay, then dialogue. now I start with dialogue.

This is an unplagiarizable assignment. Assignments more fun to mark.

[Everyone agrees students are more open about their believes and selves in dialogue form]

I tell my students not to have characters badger each other with several questions all at once.

[I should write a bunch of short, student length dialogues on subjects in the course, to distribute during the class, to present models of a wider variety of dialogue styles. Also, it would be really fun.]

"What criteria do you use in grading dialogues"

First of all, truth to the characters from the readings. Second, grammar and punctuation. [This is limited as hell][he always has the characters being famous phils from the reading]

"Faithfulness to the dialogue format, the strengths of it."

"Dialectic vs. heuristic dialogue (colabrative vs combative) in the ancient tradition"

I tell students this is a debate, not a discussion.

I ask students to be conscious of how they end the dialogue.

I tell students to be more flexible with realism and character in order to conform to the needs of argument and debate.

[for him a short dialogue is 600-800 words, longer is 1000-1200 words]

I tell them minimize scene setting and introductory part of the dialogue

He doesn't like the Simpsons and Philosophy.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Other notes

McAvoy had an earlier talk on teaching using pop culture, and she noted that the shelf live of the Blackwell/Open Court books is about six months. After that, the bit of pop is out of student consciousness. Students today were 10 when the Matrix came out, and their parents didn't let them see it. This means that if I want to teach using essays from Watchmen and Philosophy, I'd have to do it fall 2009, about the time the DVD of the movie comes out.

I have repeatedly heard people here praise The Institute for Critical Thinking. I ordered some of their material a couple-three years ago, when I was at SLU, and was quickly turned off by it. My immediate reactions were (1) this is aimed at high school students and teachers of high school students, (2) this has the same cheesy style of presentation of a management seminar (3) like a management seminar, it might be a scam.

Now I am at an institution where high-school level material would be useful, and people are telling me that there is some significant theory behind what Paul and Elder do. (It is a completely formal, content-neutral definition of critical thinking. This goes against the trend that says total content neutrality is for formal logic only.) Perhaps I should take a look at their stuff again. It may, in particular, be good for the assessment people at LCCC who need to assess critical thinking learning outcomes.

Adrianne McAvoy: Freedom to Learn

Notes from McAvoy's talk

[plain text = McAvoy, [] = me, "" = questioner]

Her main source is a guy named Rogers.

Niel Postman *Teaching as a subversive act*

Models for teaching from psychotherapy. Fully student centered. Robert Frost: Tobe a teacher is to be ale listen to anything without loosing composure."

This technique is easiest to implement in upper division stuff.

Let students choose what they read and how they will be assessed. [No way this would work for less advanced students]

you are asking them to make a choice that they are not qualified to make, and that is problematic.

"What if they set the bar low for themselves?" You have to be cool with that, but ...[it looks like their own criteria of success are measured against her explicit meta-level criteria]

At the lower level you don't give them total freedom, you give them little pieces of freedom [now this just sounds like ordinary teaching]

When students fail they choose to fail.

[Fall 2009 intro syllabus: I. The reacting the past game on Socrates. II. Watchmen III. Freedom to learn?????]

I don't give them any grades at all until the end of the semester. There are some checkboxes in a matrix of [meta level?] goals.

[Ack, computer crashed.]

[If you spent the first half of the course emphasizing again and again what skills different exercises develop, and how different evaluations measure levels of competency, and maybe talk about Bloom's taxonomy, they would have skills to design curricula for themselves for the second half of the course.]

liveblogging the American Association of Philosophy Teachers Conference

This event is always so fun and useful. I go to register last night and I run into someone who turns me on to this: a five week long in class role playing game based on historical situations. The game my colleague was talking up was a recreation of Athens in 403 BCE culminating in the trial of Socrates with The Republic entered as evidence. Students are assigned roles like Alcibiades, and they have to research the character and present speeches on their behalf. Great stuff.

More soon.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Inept super-villain wanna be spills evil plan on blog

We've watched the first two acts of Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog and are totally in love with Joss all over again. In some ways Joss is in familiar territory, here. Dr. Horrible is half Jonathan (geeky supervillain wanna be) and half Mal (decent person made into a bad guy because the existing moral order is corrupt). But there's singing! And funny! The letters Dr. Horrible receives after applying to be in a supervillain group are hysterical. They're like the letters you get when you apply to college, except they're sung. By cowboys. And they exhort you to murder. Oh yeah, and the cowboys are poking their heads in from the edge of the camera frame. Great stuff.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Watchmen News

The trailer for the movie is up. It looks nice, but we'll see what they do with the characters, plot, and theme. The trailer also focuses on the parts of the book that make for Summer Action Thrill Rides, especially Dr. Manhattan, the only real supernatural character. They certainly made Laurie Juspeczyk hella sexy. I want to see how Zach Snyder handles the visuals for the parts of the book that happen in the 30s. It is fairly important that the superheroes of the 30s look really cheesy. From the way Snyder's been talking, he will use visual feel of 30s serial movies for those parts. That should work.

My big fear, really is that they will take all the nuance out of the politics. If they made it a simple story about power corrupting, it would fit well with Hollywood norms about the moral content of movies: A movie should have a bland message that everyone will find uplifting. That's what they did to V for Vendetta. One of the things that makes Watchmen interesting, though, is that we see different kinds of power represented and according different ways it gets corrupted. Hurm.

In other news, the final version of my Watchmen paper has been accepted. So at least I have accomplished one thing this summer.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Greening of Religion in India.

Via the ISEE list, this Time article about green technologies being adopted at Hindu temples and Ashrams. Indian religion has always had environmentalist undercurrents, often largely rhetorical, but it looks like we are now seeing the mainstream of the religion engaged in real environmentalist practice.

It is interesting to compare the greening of Indian religion with the greening of evangelical Christianity. India is just as religious, if not more religious, than the US. The Time piece asserts that 99% of Indians profess some faith. The major indigenous religions--Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism--all have strong environmental tendencies. They make welcome allies.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Buy n Large Corporate Homepage


My favorite press release so far: "Anarchist groups responsible for trying to persuade people from exercising their right to spend have been labeled "opportunities" by the Buy n Large Consumer Groups today"

The real genius of the page: It's only purpose is to get you to watch a damn movie.

The golden age of long-form televised storytelling.

It is entirely possible that by this January there will be three(3) TV shows that Molly and I will be watching every week, plus this cool online thing over the summer.

Joss's online project

Teaser from Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog on Vimeo.

John Rogers' new project

via Kung-Fu Monkey

Saturday, July 12, 2008

2008 Reith Lectures on China

The great British historian of China Jonathan Spence gave this year's Reith Lectures. The first lecture is on Confucius and the alterations of Confucian thought through history in China and later the world. As with a lot of lectures, the question period is the most fun.

Following the question from Ram Mehta in the lecture, I think I'm going to make the opening graphic for the China portion of my Asian class will be a triptych of Confucius, Mao, and Adam Smith.

In general, Spence's capsule history of Confucian and Confucianism would be a fine model for an opening lecture for the Asian class on Confucius, particularly the emphasis on the man's own nobility and then the baggage his thought was saddled with starting around the 12 century.

Spence on the earthquake
I was very, very struck at the New Year's holidays in China with over a hundred million people on the move when these huge blizzards brought a standstill to the train service and people were in a kind of desperation with their children, they were freezing, they had no food, there was no trace of a toilet, people were sick, had no trace of a hospital. The government seemed to be totally incompetent. And I as a historian, my mind was racing back to moments in 1813, 1797, 1642, 1585 and so on when some kind of conjunction of extraordinary incompetence by an autocratic regime linked to manifestation of nature as a force being really angry and out of kilter. These had been catastrophic for tens of thousands of people and in at least three cases had nearly brought down the government.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Did you know

Did you know that kale, collard greens, broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, and Chinese cabbage are all cultivars of the same species?

but not Bok Choi?

Do you find this as interesting as I do?

More fun, all via

Friday, July 04, 2008

An outstanding example of the banality of evil

The Guardian is reporting that a secret World Bank report attributes 75% of the recent rise in food prices to the push for biofuels in the US and EU (via). The use of sugar-cane based ethanol in Brazil was exonerated as a factor, however. The report contradicts the Bush administration claim that biofuels are responsible for less than 3% of the rise in food prices. The Guardian further claims that the World Bank has suppressed the report to avoid embarrassing the Bush administration.

Rising food prices have pushed 100,000,000 people below the global poverty line, leading one UN expert to call the push for biofuels a "crime against humanity". If that's true, it is an outstanding example of the banality of evil. The worst crimes in the world today? Genocide in Darfur, Torture in Gitmo, and politicians wooing Iowa voters with ethanol subsidies. It's like finding out that kissing babies at campaign stops gives the tots cancer.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The slippery slope with euthanasia

In Germany, a right-to-die activist has assisted in the suicide of a healthy 79 year old woman. The woman wanted to kill herself to avoid being placed in a nursing home.

This post and the previous one are cross-posted from my online bioethics classes. I try to emphasize to all my classes that slipper slope arguments are sometimes legitimate. They are legitimate if the slope really is slippery and the bottom of the slope really is unacceptable. These are questions you really need to ask yourself when it comes to the euthanasia debate.

More women citing the economy as a reason for abortion

Check out this ABC story about a recent survey of women who had abortions in Minnesota in 2007. A record number of them, 40%, cited economic reasons, such as being unable to afford another child, as a motivation for abortion.

The overall number of abortions was down, however. This matches the general trend of the last few decades, minus a statistical blip in 2006.

It is probably wrong to say that the worsening economy has caused more abortions. Women who have abortions do so for very complicated reasons that are often hard to articulate to pollsters. The more likely explanation is that more women, when asked to justify their abortion to a strange person with a clipboard, latch on to economic concerns as a publicly acceptable reason, because the economy has been in the news so much recently.

Catherine Price at Salon agrees that women may be citing economics to justify a decision they feel guilty about. But she also points out that all the factors women cite in having an abortion--"not wanting to have children at this time, already being a single parent and unfulfilled educational goals"--are tied to economics. She also has some funny things to say about the strange graphic ABC chose to include with the story.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Stump the Yoo!

From the studios of Amygdala, as seen on Pharyngula and The Sideshow, it is America's new hit game show Stump the Yoo!

You see, torture memo author John Yoo has had some trouble answering straightforward questions about presidential power. John Conyers of the House Judiciary Committee asked him
"Is there anything, Professor Yoo, that the president could not order to be done to a suspect, if he believed it necessary for national defense?...Could the president order a suspect buried alive?"
Yoo couldn't come up with a straight answer.

Yoo has trouble with questions like this all the time. When he does give a straight answer, it is pretty alarming. Law Professor Doug Cassel asked
"If the President deems that he’s got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person’s child, there is no law that can stop him?"
The answer? Well no treaty stops him, and US law might not stop him, depending on what his reasons for ordering a child's testicles crushed were.

So Amygdala's Gary Farber has issued a challenge: What other tricky questions can we use to flummox John Yoo. Farber's entry:
Can the president order the arms of a suspect eaten by wolves while still attached?
Pharyngula suggests:
"Can the president order a suspect to be impaled for his lunchtime entertainment?"
The Sideshow:
"Is there anything Hitler did that a president of the United States can't do?"
Pharyngula's commentators
  • Can a president order a person to eat his own foot?
  • Can the President order a person to shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die?
  • Could the president order you, Mr. Yoo, to be renditioned to Saudi Arabia to be interrogated, then decapitated? And if not, why not?
  • Can a president have a man's hands removed and surgically replaced with the tentacles of an octopus just to see what would happen?
  • Could the president order me to turn myself inside-out?
  • Could the president order that the suspect must travel in time to save Lincoln?
  • Could the President make you, John Yoo, answer my questions with a simple "Yes" or "No" response?
  • Can the president order a suspect to eat a booger sandwich?
These are really fun. When Boredom Strikes asks if the president can order someone be drowned in Splenda? My contribution:
Can the President order his enemies to be crushed and driven before him so he may hear the lamentations of their women?
I think people who take Yoo's constitutional law class should ask him questions like these after every lecture.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

US Torture Techniques Made in China

Instructions for Guantanamo interrogators on how to treat prisoners were copied verbatim from a 1957 description of how Chinese interrogators go false confessions out of our boys during the Korean War.

via unfogged, including joke.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

department of bread, department of circuses

I haven't been posting much, so I'm going to try to get back in the groove with more sweeping, weird generalizations.

Government should have two branches, the department of bread and the department of circuses. "Bread" would include Health and Human Services, Interior, Treasury, etc. "Circuses" would include the Pentagon, the FCC, NASA, and Congress.

All this fits with my theory that the invasion of Grenada was the best of all possible wars.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Monday, June 16, 2008


I submitted my draft of the Watchmen paper and felt a huge relief. The paper was good: it hit all the points I wanted to hit and was fun to read. I knew it was a little long but...the editor took one look at the file was promptly told to cut it by 25%. He also noted that I probably couldn't cut that much just by tightening the prose. I would need to lose a section. My first thought: "not the section on authoritarianism!" I am certain one reason I have never succeeded as a writer is that I haven't learned basic lessons about cutting one's own work. I get emotionally invested even in little throw away pieces like this. Damn. Well, for posterity's sake, here is the original, long version.

Means, Ends, and the Critique of Pure Superheroes
J. Robert Loftis

So Rorschach and Nite Owl meet Ozymandias in his Antarctic fortress, and Ozymandias starts explaining his insane plan, which will kill millions but perhaps save the world. While the smartest man in the world is offering up the last crucial bit of plot exposition, Rorschach looks for a weapon. He can only find a fork, but he tries to stab Veidt with it anyway. Ozymandias blocks the blow and sends Rorschach to the floor, all the while continuing his monologue. After he gets up, Rorschach tries to make another move on Ozymandias, but is blocked by Bubastis, the genetically engineered super-cat. Ozymandias doesn’t even need to turn to face Rorschach, let alone miss a beat of his exposition. Not sure what else to do, Rorschach tries talking: “Veidt, get rid of the cat.” “No I don’t think so,” Ozymandias replies magnanimously, “After all her presence saves you the humiliation of another beating” (Ch. 12 p.9). For Ozymandias, on the other hand, talking isn’t a last resort. It’s generally one of the first things he tries, and something he is always open to. He’s good at it, too. He gives extended orations, while Rorschach seems to have lost his ability to use definite articles or start sentences with a subject. And when Veidt is finally confronted by someone more powerful than he—Dr. Manhattan, the comic’s only true superhero—Veidt keeps talking and quickly turns to the one option Rorschach would never consider: compromise. If the others stay silent, they can enjoy the benefit of Veidt’s new world. Everyone takes it—after all, they can’t undo the attack on New York—except Rorschach, even though it means his certain death.

The last fight between Ozymandias and Rorschach gives a little bit of humor to an otherwise terrifying revelation. It also highlights how much the characters are foils for each other, not just in their politics and personalities, but their underlying ethical worldviews. The cosmopolitan, liberal Ozymandias is what philosophers call a consequentialist: he believes that all actions should be judged by their consequences, so that the ends will sometimes justify the means. This is a feature of his personality that is separate from his political stances, his vast worldly experience, and his overwhelming ego. He is the kind of guy who, when he has to make a decision carefully, lists the pros and cons and goes with the option that has the most pros on balance, even if it defies basic humanity and common sense. Thus we get the bizarre, murderous scheme revealed in the Antarctic fight.

Rorschach, on the other hand, isn’t just a right-wing loon. He is what philosophers call a deontologist. Rorschach’s deontology is separate from his politics, his misogyny, and his sexual hang-ups. It is even separate from his fixation on revenge as the most important sort of “right thing to do.” The deontologist says that we should not think of morality in terms of ends and means at all; instead we should only act in ways that express moral rules. Thus we see him stabbing away at Veidt, using anything he can find, even though he knows he can’t succeed. The outcome doesn’t matter; what matters is doing the right thing. Further, the fact that some things are “the right thing to do” is completely unrelated to whether those things actually help anyone. Thus, later we see Rorschach trying to reveal Veidt’s secret, not only knowing he can’t succeed, but knowing if he did succeed, it would only make the world worse, by destroying the good Ozymandias did without undoing the harm.

Watchmen is an intensely philosophical comic. Big ideas like consequentialism and deontology were clearly on Moore’s and Gibbons’s minds as they made this. I hope to show that the attitude toward both consequentialism and deontology is profoundly negative. But these are really only stepping stones to the real point of the comic. The ultimate target of the comic’s critique is authoritarianism: the idea that anyone should set themselves up as a guardian of society, an idea captured by the image of the superhero. The critiques of consequentialism and deontology, and indeed of liberalism and conservatism, support this antiauthoritarianism, which is a more central theme throughout Moore’s work, if not Gibbons’s.

This chapter will highlight the critiques of consequentialism and deontology in the comic, focusing on the parallels to the classical philosophical arguments from people like Mill and Kant. The main focus of the chapter, however, will be seeing these themes as steps toward the broader critique of authoritarianism in this book and in other works by Alan Moore.

“‘In the end’? Nothing ends, Adrian, nothing ever ends.”

When Ozymandias is being chased by Dr. Manhattan, he lures Manhattan into an intrinsic field gizmo (like the one that first created the big blue man to begin with) and activates it, seeming to zap Manhattan into vapor, and disintegrating his beloved cat Bubastis in the process. Afterward, he says offhandedly “Hm, you know, I wasn’t really sure that would work.” (Actually, it didn’t.) (ch.12, p.14) This is a great Veidt moment in a couple ways. First, it demonstrates, again, his willingness to sacrifice things he values for higher ends, second it shows his willingness to gamble on probabilities. He doesn’t deal with a world of black and white, of evil and good, like Rorschach. Everything is gray, but some gray areas are darker than others. To do the right thing, Ozymandias simply looks for the lightest shade of gray, and chooses it.

In the history of philosophy, this sort of weighing, calculating consequentialism is most associated with the doctrine of utilitarianism. Although the basic idea behind utilitarianism has been around forever, the doctrine didn’t really begin to flourish until the work of the English philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873). The core idea is simple: “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Utilitarianism begins with consequentialism: actions are judged by the amount of good consequences they produce. It adds to this two other important ideas. The first is a kind of hedonism: the good that one is trying to maximize in the world is happiness. The utilitarian is not worried, like Rorschach, about being sure that every criminal is punished. In fact, punishment is bad in a way, because it makes the punished person unhappy. It only becomes good if a larger good comes from it, like deterring future crime. This larger good, too, must be something that makes people happy. Simply seeing that justice is done is not a good enough consequence for the utilitarian. There must be some people out there who are happier now than they would have been if a crime had been committed against them. The other important feature utilitarianism adds to consequentialism is a belief in equality. Everybody’s happiness is weighed equally. Thus, if an action will make five people happy, and one person unhappy, you should do it, even if the one unhappy person is your mom. Or your favorite genetically engineered cat.

Ozymandias might be a full-blown utilitarian, and not just a consequentialist. An emphasis on equality can be seen in his self-help program. Anyone can be a superhero if they believe in themselves, study, and discipline the mind and the body. “There’s a notion I’d like to see buried: the ordinary person,” Veidt tells Nova Express, “Ridiculous, there is no ordinary person” (ch. 11, supp.). Veidt’s philosophy of self-actualization may not seem compatible with the hedonistic part of utilitarianism, but it actually fits quite well with Mill’s more sophisticated understanding of the doctrine. Mill very famously differed from Bentham because he thought that some pleasures were better than others. Thus the goal of utilitarianism wasn’t just to maximize pleasure for all, but to maximize the higher pleasures. One thing that is less often appreciated is that for Mill the higher pleasures come from self-development and self-growth. It is the capacity for self-improvement that largely distinguishes us from the animals, and the joy of self-improvement that largely distinguishes higher from lower pleasures. “He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties. ...Among the works of man, which human life is rightly employed in perfecting and beautifying, the first in importance surely is man himself.”

Utilitarianism has had many critics, and it looks like Moore and Gibbons are among those critics. We can see this first of all in the structure of the story. According to comic book formula, Rorschach is the hero of the story and Ozymandias is the villain. Rorschach is the first person we see, and the plot is structured around his investigation of some killings. The audience uncovers the truth behind the killings as Rorschach does. Ozymandias, on the other hand, is the one who is revealed to be behind the killings, and when he is found out, he reveals his elaborate plot involving the death of millions and a plan to take over the world.

A lot of the comic falls into place if you see Rorschach as the hero and Ozymandias as the villain. The book is about the corruption of the self-appointed guardians of society. Utilitarianism can be seen as the doctrine that enables that corruption. Once one starts in sacrificing one thing for another, it gets easy to make the sacrifices that will serve one’s own interest. Ozymandias obviously falls into this trap. He may say that the purpose of his plan is to “usher in an age of illumination so dazzling that humanity will reject the darkness in its heart” (Chapter XII, page 17). But we know the first thing he thinks about when he sees his crazy scheme succeed was his own glory: “I did it!” he shouts, fists in the air. And he immediately begins planning his own grand role in this utopia.

If Ozymandias is the villain, utilitarianism brought him to that point by allowing him to rationalize his self-serving ends. It also brought him to villainy by giving him a way to ignore the monstrosity of his own acts. One very effective way, rhetorically, to argue that the ends can never justify the means is to simply emphasize the horrific nature of some sacrifices. Moore and Gibbons do this well. For 11 issues of the comic we have been peering into the lives of some ordinary New Yorkers around Bernard’s newsstand. We’ve grown to like them and sympathize with them. Then at the beginning of chapter 12, we get six full page panels of carnage, and among the bodies we can make out all the characters we have been following for the last 11 issues. It’s devastating, especially with Gibbon’s lurid use of greens and yellows.

While these moments make for powerful points in the comic, they do not do very well as philosophical objections to utilitarianism. They have come up, but they don’t get very far. Mill was at pains to emphasize that utilitarianism is the very opposite of a theory that would let you rationalize doing what is in your own interest: “I must again repeat, what the assailants of utilitarianism seldom have the justice to acknowledge, that the happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent’s own happiness, but that of all concerned.” Now Mill is well aware that one cannot in advance know which things will really maximize happiness for all. We cannot predict the future, and are easily tempted by all sorts of things. To this end, Mill recommended that we do not simply try to calculate the best possible outcome each time we make a decision. Instead we should rely on the rules and instincts that the human race has developed over time for acting morally. Since Mill’s time the idea that utilitarianism should focus on rules has developed into the doctrine of rule utilitarianism, which says that one should live by the rules that would maximize happiness for everyone if they were followed consistently. Thus Veidt might adopt a rule for himself like “never kill,” not because killing never brings more happiness than unhappiness, but because a person who lives by such a rule would bring more happiness than unhappiness. Certainly Veidt would have never done what he did if he adopted such a rule.

A lot of the time, though, Mill seems less interested in rule utilitarianism and more interested in what gets called virtue utilitarianism: develop for yourself the personal characteristics that are likely to maximize happiness for all if you really made them a part of you. To this end, programs of self-development must instill in people the habit of associating their own happiness with the happiness of others. “Education and opinion...should so use that power as to establish in the mind of every individual an indissoluble association between his own happiness and the good of the whole; especially between his own happiness and the practice of such modes of conduct, negative and positive, as regard for the universal happiness prescribes.” Interestingly, Veidt’s self-help program does seem to do this: “When you are strong and healthy in the mind and body, you will want to react in a healthy way to the world around you, changing it for the better if you are able” (ch. 10, supp)

Thus, if Veidt’s ego has corrupted him, utilitarianism is not to blame. It does everything in its power to prevent such an occurrence. If Veidt’s education program had done what it was supposed to, if Veidt had adopted better rules for himself, none of this would have happened. Any moral system can go awry if used improperly, or, as Mill puts it, “There is no difficulty in proving any ethical standard whatever to work ill, if we suppose universal idiocy to be conjoined with it.”

But what about the sheer horror of what Veidt has done? Surely no system that would accept, let alone mandate, such behavior is truly moral. The idea that it is wrong to force people to sacrifice their well-being for the greater good is generally considered to be a part of justice. For philosophers, justice is typically thought to be a matter of fairness. Is it fair that the citizens of New York are forced to sacrifice their lives and sanity to end the Cold War, when no one else is asked to make such a sacrifice? The means for preventing this kind of unfairness is typically the doctrine of human rights. Rights tell us that there are some things the individual cannot be asked to do against her will, even if it is for the greater good. Mill basically accounts for justice and rights using the tools of rule utilitarianism. A society needs to recognize rights, because a society that recognizes rights is more likely to maximize happiness than one that doesn’t. In fact, Mill was a staunch defender of personal liberty, arguing for his famous harm principle: that the only time one can coercively intervene in another person’s life is to prevent that person from harming others. If Veidt had taken the harm principle to heart, he would never have followed through on his scheme, since he was coercively ending the lives of millions of New Yorkers who were not trying to harm anyone else. Again, the fact that he didn’t do this is no fault of utilitarianism. Any moral system will yield bad results when conjoined to an egotistical madman with near superhuman powers.

The most trenchant critique of consequentialism in Watchmen does not come from Rorschach or from the effects of Veidt’s scheme. It comes from the perspective and explicit statements of Dr. Manhattan. In one of the most moving sequences in the book, Veidt asks Manhattan, with unexpected plaintiveness and insecurity, if he’s really the good guy he thinks he is: “Jon, before you leave...I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.” In the next panel we see Dr. Manhattan from Veidt’s point of view. The blue man, standing inside a model of the solar system, arms down, palms out, smiles and says “‘In the end?’ Nothing ends, Adrian, nothing ever ends.” Then he leaves the Earth for good. Dr. Manhattan’s warning is borne out four pages later, when we see Seymour, the inept assistant at the New Frontiersman, reaching toward Rorschach’s journal looking for something to fill up space in the next issue. If he grabs it, Veidt’s scheme could be ruined, and all that suffering would be for nothing.

This is a deep objection to consequentialist theories. We are asked to look to the future and calculate, to sum up the consequences of our actions, but the future is infinite, and you can’t crunch the numbers when every one of them turns to infinity. Perhaps in five years something will happen that undoes the good that Veidt did. Then, ten years after that, something good will happen that only could have happened given Veidt’s actions. Then something bad, and so on. The problem here isn’t just that we can’t know the future, but that there is too much of it. Even if we had an infinite mind to encompass the infinite future, what would we see? An infinity of happiness and an infinity of suffering? We can’t do anything to change a ratio of infinity to infinity.

And even if we could, what of it? Utilitarianism gets its motivation from the basic instinct that pain is bad and pleasure is good. Individually, you and I seek pleasure and avoid pain. Utilitarianism tries to remove the selfishness of this by asking us to seek pleasure for everyone. In doing so, it tries to make ethics a little more objective: less about what you want and more about what is good in itself. But if we keep going with this impulse to objectivity, everything loses its meaning. What does it matter if there is more pain or more pleasure in the world? We are now in the perspective of Jon Osterman after his accident: if you take too abstract a perspective, nothing seems valuable at all. The reader doesn’t know if the Shelley poem “Ozymandias” exists in the world of Watchmen, or only as the epitaph to one of its chapters. Either way he has missed its message that all achievements fade over time.

This is a defect in Ozymandias’s worldview. Unlike other characters—Rorschach, or The Comedian—he has never really confronted the question of the meaning of life, or the possibility that life is meaningless. Walter Kovacks, staring “though smoke heavy with human fat” decided that “existence was random” but chose to project on that randomness a meaning, which allowed him to become Rorschach. The Comedian, too, had this kind of moment, and all the other characters assert that it led him to a brutal nihilism. Ozymandias didn’t have an existential moment like this. All of his personal revelations are about the source of suffering in the world, not the possibility of morality. He learns that evil is not just a matter of crime, but comes from geopolitical forces. But he never questions the nature of evil and good itself. He takes a bigger view, but never the biggest view.

“Evil must be punished. Even in the face of Armageddon I shall not compromise in this”

So Ozymandias is the villain, a tragic figure, whose flaw was to think the end can sometimes justify the means, a mistake brought on by his overwhelming ego and failure to appreciate the tragic nature of life. And that means Rorschach is the hero, right? Well, no. Rorschach is a foil for Veidt in every respect: the unkempt, taciturn, right-wing outsider against the slick, eloquent, liberal celebrity. Most importantly for us, Rorschach is the deontologist to Veidt’s consequentialist. But just being a mirror to the villain doesn’t make you the hero.

Rorschach is a deontologist. We see this in his constant mantra “In the face of Armageddon I shall not compromise” (Ch.1, p. 24, ch.12 p.20, etc) The mantra is an echo of the deontologists’ slogan: “Fiat justitia ruat coelum”: “Let justice be done, though heaven should fall.” Deontology goes beyond saying that the ends never justify the means. It actually says you shouldn’t think in terms of ends and means at all. Once you start thinking about means and ends, you’ve actually left the realm of morality altogether. You are only thinking about how to get something you want, either for yourself or someone else. The most famous deontologist in Western philosophy was Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). For Kant, morality begins with the good will. Anything else you might value in life—intelligence, strength, even happiness itself—can be used for evil. Think about the sicko Rorschach confronts in the chapter “Symmetries,” the one who butchered the girl and fed her to her dogs. (You don’t have to think about it too hard.) He took pleasure in what he did, but is his happiness good? Can’t be. Even happiness can be evil. So the only thing good, really, is the will to do good, the mental act that says “I am going to do the right thing.”

The importance of the good will is enough to establish deontology for Kant. If you are doing something for an end, you are not doing it because it is the right thing to do. This applies both to ends that we think of as moral and those we think of as immoral or selfish. Think about another cruel and selfish act (Watchmen is full of them), like The Comedian shooting his pregnant Vietnamese girlfriend at the end of the war. A consequentialist would think this is wrong because of harm to the woman: the pain of betrayal, the life cut short. For Kant, the wrong comes with The Comedian’s motivation. He is not trying to do what is right, he is merely trying to accomplish an end that is convenient for him, getting rid of a person as if she were extra baggage. But this impure will can be present for altruistic actions as well as selfish ones. Think about the redemptive moment at Bernard’s newsstand when so many passersby intervene to break up the fight between Joey and her girlfriend Aline. If one of them were jumping in for the sake of helping Aline, that would be acting for an end, and would really be no different than acting for the sake of helping yourself. Interestingly, the people who intervene do not explain what they are doing by appealing to pity for Aline. They all give more deontological explanations: “I’m still me,” “it’s all that means anything.” (ch 11, pp.20, 23) The people who jump in are saying that given who they are, as moral people, and what the world is, a dark place that can be lit only by the good will, they have to act. They are doing the right thing because it is the right thing. Kant would be proud.

For all this, Rorschach is not the hero, and deontology is not the hero’s ideology. I wish I could show this simply by pointing out that Rorschach is a psychotic killer. For some people, being a psycho-killer might be enough to rule someone out as a hero, but in comics, as in Hollywood, crazy vigilantes have a certain cachet. Watchmen came out at about the same time as Frank Miller’s hugely successful Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, which depicted the superhero’s obsession with violent revenge as the only human response to a decaying, decadent, crime-riddled society, in need of what Billy Bragg called “a strong dose of law and order, and a touch of the short, sharp, shock.” The fascist overtones and the parallels to Rorschach’s worldview are unmistakable: a society in decline can only be redeemed by violence and exaggerated masculinity. Not surprisingly, Rorschach had a lot of fans when the book came out and still does today.

Still, there is something dangerously naive about these fans. Rorschach is a hypocrite and his ideology is far from Alan Moore’s, if not Dave Gibbons’s. Despite his “never compromise” mantra, Rorschach easily makes exceptions, for himself and for powerful people he admires. Although he delivered the announcement that he would retire under the Keane Act on the body of a dead serial rapist, he repeatedly confesses to admiring another serial rapist, The Comedian, even apologizing for The Comedian’s lapses (Ch.6, p.15). After trashing Moloch’s apartment, he says “sorry about the mess, can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs,” a classic bit of consequentialist reasoning (ch. 5, p. 6). He also professes admiration for President Truman, both as an adult (ch. 1, p. 1), and as an adolescent at the Charlton Home for Problem Children. As a boy, at least, he professed to admiring Truman precisely because Truman was willing to sacrifice the lives of millions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to avoid even bigger losses in the war—basically the same trade-off Ozymandias makes (ch. 6 p. 31). Significantly, in all these cases, Rorschach lapses into consequentialist reasoning so that someone can play the tough guy, the strong father figure he never had. For Rorschach, commitment to deontology takes a back seat to the need to project strength in the face of moral decline. In general, Rorschach’s simplified vision of justice—with two categories, right and wrong, and one penalty, death—makes hypocrisy inevitable. If you tried to follow that code to the letter, you would have to kill everyone. If you rule out compromise, the only alternative is hypocrisy.

There is also no escaping the fact that Rorschach overtly embodies the far right politics that Alan Moore, at least publically, disdains. Rorschach was based on the Charlton Comics character The Question, who was used by Charlton artist Steve Ditko as a mouthpiece for right-wing diatribes, particularly ideas stemming from the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. This all comes out for Rorschach right on the first page of the book, where we see him ranting in his journal against liberals, communists, and the decline of society (ch. 1, p. 1). There is also another parallel to Frank Miller’s version of Batman here, since Miller is a professed fan of objectivism. Moore, on the other hand, has described objectivism as “laughable,” and his own politics as “180° away from Steve Ditko’s” There’s simply no way we can call Rorschach the hero of the book.

Rorschach’s hypocrisy and his roots in objectivism are enough to show that he is not the hero. But they don’t count as objections to deontology. Just as Veidt’s personal failings didn’t besmirch utilitarianism, Rorschach’s failings don’t besmirch deontology. Any moral system is going to look bad when attached to a misogynist psychopath. Nevertheless, there is a deep critique of deontology embedded in the comic. You can see this in little moments, like when Rorschach spares his landlady, even though by his deranged moral code, he is supposed to kill her (ch. 10 p. 6). This is a moment of growth for him, but it is entirely motivated by compassion, and not the Kantian will to do the right thing. He sees that the landlady has done something his own mother never did, she has tried to spare her children the knowledge that she is a prostitute. He feels for her, and for her sake, he abandons the right thing. I take it the reader is meant to see this both as admirable and as a violation of Rorschach’s moral code, thus giving us a bit of a counterexample to deontology.

The book has more to say against deontology than this one counterexample, though. To see the real critique, we have to go back to that final moment, where Rorschach refuses to make a deal with Ozymandias. In this case, Rorschach’s deontology is not just futile, it is counterproductive. If he succeeded in breaking Veidt’s secret, he could restart the Cold War, bringing with it the possibility of nuclear apocalypse. It is one thing to say “let justice be done, though heaven may fall” and another to actually cause heaven to fall by doing justice. The latter simply can’t be the right thing to do. This is a powerful counterexample to deontology. If you have an ethic that genuinely ignores all consequences, it would be possible for an action to both be ethically mandatory, and bring about the end of the world. What kind of ethic is that?

“Who watches the watchmen?”

Neither consequentialism nor deontology—or for that matter political liberalism and conservatism—come off well in Watchmen. But critiquing these ideas is not the leading item on the agenda of Moore and Gibbons. Their deepest concern is obviously expressed in the aphorism “Who watches the watchmen?” which gives the comic its name and appears in fragmentary form throughout the book. There is a lot of heavy philosophy and important politics packed into this aphorism, though, so we need to look at it closely.

The full quotation does not appear until the very end of the book, and it does so in a weird way. Moore and Gibbons gives the original source for the line, Juvenal’s Satires, but then mentions that it is quoted as the epigraph of the Tower Commission Report. This is a detail many would pass over, if only because the work of the Tower Commission and the scandal it investigated occurred before many readers of Watchmen were even born. Perhaps this obscure bit of 80s history only appears because Moore and Gibbons were reading the newspapers, rather than Latin poetry. But the poem in which the line originally appears is about the difficulty men have keeping their women in line—a bit of patriarchy that is not a big concern for the comic. The Tower Commission, on the other hand, is exactly the sort of thing the comic is about.

The Tower Commission was established by President Reagan to investigate the Iran-Contra affair. The affair was a strange scheme in which members of the Reagan administration secretly and illegally provided arms and funding to two military groups with totalitarian impulses and appalling human rights records: the theocratic government of Iran and a guerrilla army known as the Contras, which sought to overthrow the Nicaraguan Sandinista socialist government. The scheme was complicated, and the motivations of the players were sometimes unclear, given that the groups the administration was arming were doing things that were actively opposed to U.S. interests, such as smuggling drugs and taking Americans hostage. The bottom line, though, was that administration officials were trying to circumvent our democracy by running a secret government apparatus that worked against the stated policies of the United States.

The Iran-Contra affair does not occur in the world of Watchmen. It was also an echo of another affair that does not occur in Watchmen, Watergate. Watergate, like Iran-Contra, was an elaborate scheme to circumvent democracy and centralize power in the president’s office. Indeed, the two scandals, along with the current scandal about faked intelligence leading up to the Iraq war, involve overlapping sets of players. These scandals do not happen in the world of Watchmen because Nixon gets away with Watergate in Watchmen. The book implies that The Comedian assassinated Woodward and Bernstein, the journalists who uncovered the Watergate scandal. It also hints that The Comedian, perhaps working with Nixon, assassinated Kennedy in this version of history. Secret dealings like these, combined with the superhero-aided victory in Vietnam, allow Nixon to consolidate extraordinary power, changing the constitution to allow him to serve five terms.

Moore and Gibbon’s alternate history is a warning about how a democracy can collapse into authoritarianism. This is something Moore had done before in V for Vendetta. In that comic, he imaged England sliding into fascism after limited nuclear exchanges in Africa and the European continent followed by environmental and economic collapse. In the introduction to the first DC Comics release of V, Moore laments some of the simplistic mistakes he made in that book
Naiveté can also be detected in my supposition that it would take something as melodramatic as a near-miss nuclear conflict to nudge England toward Fascism...It is 1988 now. Margaret Thatcher is entering her third term of office and talking confidently about unbroken conservative leadership well into the next century...the tabloid press are circulating the idea of concentration camps for persons with AIDS. The new riot police wear black visors, as do their horses.
Moore was not satisfied with the picture of a decline of a democracy into authoritarianism in V, and Watchmen is in part a correction of this. The reference to the Tower Commission is not accidental, nor is the depiction of the Nixon administration that emphasizes shady characters like G. Gordon Liddy and Al Haig. It
is all part of his picture of an authoritarian takeover.

The pairing of Ozymandias and Rorschach is a crucial part of this picture, and one that keeps it from being a petty rant against some contemporary political figures. We see in these characters that anyone can be corrupted. The real lesson is that no one, no matter what their political orientation, should be entrusted with too much power. Speaking in 2000 about the fascist takeover depicted in V, Moore remarked “As far I’m concerned, the two poles of politics were not Left Wing or Right Wing. In fact they’re just two ways of ordering an industrial society and we’re fast moving beyond the industrial societies of the 19th and 20th centuries. It seemed to me the two more absolute extremes were anarchy and fascism.” For Moore it really doesn’t matter if those who seek to control society are liberals like Ozymandias or reactionaries like Rorschach. They are still basically working the engines of control in an industrialized society. Further elaborations of the ruling ideology—as consequentialist or deontological, cosmopolitan or nationalist—are similarly irrelevant.

Moore calls the two real poles at work in society anarchy and fascism, and he actually describes himself as an anarchist, although he is sure to distance himself from the actions of his anarchist protagonist V. Anarchism literally means belief in living without leaders. As a political ideology it refers to any social system that doesn’t require government to function. Actually an incredibly diverse range of ideologies have gone under the name “anarchism.” In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was largely a labor movement, which basically sought to replace the workings of government with class solidarity. In the later 20th century, a primitivist version of anarchism, with the incredibly idealistic goal of returning humankind to a hunter-gatherer system where government is unnecessary, has grown in popularity. There are even followers of Ayn Rand who call themselves anarchists, who wish to replace government with the functioning of a free market. However, Moore’s anarchism isn’t so much about utopian schemes as it is a general tendency to reject human relationships that are coercive or manipulative. Moore has commented “It’s funny with fascism or anarchy, yes, they are the two poles of politics but neither of them are actually, strictly speaking, a political system. Fascism is a kind of weird mystical system and anarchy is an attempt to move beyond the need to be politic, the need to manipulate large masses of people.”

This sort of open-ended attempt to move beyond authority is the real bottom line of Watchmen. The superheroes like Ozymandias and Rorschach represent different kinds of authority. They are people who set themselves up as different from the rest, with different costumes and different rules, for the sake of controlling others’ destiny. Moore and Gibbons want us to rid ourselves of such people.

"and if you film him from strange angles, he looks quite sinister"

Interview with Alan Moore about his decision to worship a Roman snake god.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Caroline's Father's Day Card

Caroline's Father's Day Card
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

Caroline: Daddy, what is your favorite thing?

Me: Oh, you, Mom, and Joey, of course.

Caroline: Ok, I'm going to make you a father's day present.

(Runs into bedroom)

(Pokes her head out of bedroom)

Caroline: What is your favorite animal?

Me: Dogs.

Caroline: Ok.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

a nice multi-dimensional chart

a nice multi-dimensional chart
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

This chart is from a new NYT editorial about older women and harder drugs. The chart doesn't entirely back up the editorial, but it is a nice example of the sort of chart Ed Tufte likes. It includes many dimensions of data in a single view.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The very best in high art internet collaboration

sink 036
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

thanks to frykitty

Help understanding how we know the mechanisms for emergency contraception

For my bioethics course, I want to present information about how Plan B and similar drugs work, and I want to get into some detail about the actual evidence here. I don't want to simply state dogmatically that plan B is contraception, like my dear friend Bitch. I don't even want to make the dogmatic statement alongside a capsule description of the causal mechanism, like PZ. I want discuss the methods by which this mechanism was verified.

So far, I've been looking at this review article, which I got via this nice post at the Well-Timed Period. (I'm slightly stymied here because I don't have access to a research library for the next two months(1).) The review article leaves me with questions, though. I don't know if I have readers who will answer them, but I'm listing them here at least for my own sake.

The review article covers Mifepristone and levonorgestrel, and lists seven targets they might effect:
  • Sperm transport and function
  • follicular development,
  • ovulation,
  • fertilization,
  • embryo development and transport,
  • endometrial receptivity and implantation,
  • the effects of the corpus luteum.
It basically organizes its discussion around this list but, it lumps ovulation and fertilization under the different heading "Oocyte maturation and fertilization."(2) The most important sections are on follicular development--which is the confirmed mode of action--and endometrial receptivity and implantation, and corpus luteum--which are potential modes of action that might get called "abortion". For each of these possible modes of action, you need to consider the effects of various dosages of the two drugs being considered and the timing of those doses. There are a lot of possible cases here, and I'd really like to see a big chart with all the possible combinations. As it is, it seems a lot of cases aren't covered. I can't find the data for the effects of levonorgestrel on the corpus luteum.

Follicular development

The authors write: Administration of mifepristone during the pre-ovulatory phase of the menstrual cycle either disrupts follicular development or inhibits ovulation(4).T he evidence for this seems to be that low doses administered at this time :
  • don't effect the endometrium, as measured by implantation rates
  • does effect the LH surge, as measured by blood tests
  • does inhibit the growth of which seem to be measured directly.

Question 1: How do the measure follicle growth in humans? Ultrasound?

With Levonorgestrel, similar evidence is given, except this time they explicitly say that they use ultrasound to measure follicle development and don't talk about the effect on the endometrium in humans, but do assert that "treatment with levonorgestrel in the rat and monkey does not effect fertilization or implantation"

Ok, The evidence here looks good. Both the existence of the mechanism and the effect are confirmed directly.

Endometrial development and implantation

This is where I start to get confused.(5) In the pre-ovulatory treatment section they assert
  • A standard dose of Mifepristone has a slight effect on endometrium development.
  • A larger than standard dose has a stronger effect, and also puts something I can't identify out of synch.
  • Levonorgestrel has no effect on endometrial development.

Question 2: Are the effects of pre-ovulatory use of mifepristone on endometrial development part of the evidence used to assert that RU486 used as EC can cause abortion

Question 3: Are these effects strong enough to effect implantation if the ovulation inhibiting effect failed?

Question 4: How is endometrial development being measured here? Is it using implantation rates, as before?

In the post ovulatory treatment section they assert:
  • "Treatment with a single does of 200mg of mifepristone on day LH +2 has been shown to be an effective contraception method. Early luteal phase treatment causes changes in [a bunch of processes] at the expected time of implantation"

Q5: Isn't this the famed blocking of implantation? Does this not count because the dose is too large?
  • "when a single does of 10 mg mifepristone was administered on day LH +2, the observed effect on the endometrium was less pronounced than after treatment with 200 mg or repeated low doses."
  • "In Bonnet monkeys, treatment with onapistrone in low doses ranging from 2.5 to 10 mg every day did not inhibit ovulation and had only a minor effect on endometrial morphology, but it was shown to be highly effective in inhibiting endometrial receptivity and implantation"

Q6: Are these points used to argue that Plan B is abortion? Is the reply here that the effect in the first study was too low, and the animal model involves the wrong dose and timing?

In that section they also assert
  • Post-ovulatory use of levonorgestrel has no effect on the endometrium. This sites the same study as the pre-ovulatory use of levonorgestrel.
Actually, now that I've worked through that, the questions don't seem to be as pressing as I thought they would be. I deleted a lot of them after I wrote them because I figured it out.

(1) This is not entirely true. I am staying in the small village where I used to be employed so that my kids can spend time with their old friends. I could go to the research library of my old university, and they might even let me in, but I feel weird slinking around my old place of employment.

(2) I find this irritating. Also the second sentence of the whole article is "The use of emergency contraception is largely under-utilized worldwide." This is even more irritating. Perhaps you think this is an example of why humanities people should not look at scientific journal articles. But look, this is scientific *communication* people. You are supposed to be clear, even when talking to each other. Every grammatical mistake, every pair of lists that is not parallel, makes it a little harder to follow what you are talking about. Sheesh.

(3) In this section they consider evidence that mifepristone blocks ovulation. Shouldn't this be discussed in the next section, "oocyte maturation and fertilization" which is supposed to correspond to "ovulation" and "fertilization" on their previous list? See note (2).

(4) One irritating thing, rather than being broken down by mifepristone and levongestrel, like the previous sections, this one is divided into pre-ovulatory and post-ovulatory treatment. See note (2)