Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Back After a Long Hiatus (Dennis)

Although it might seem inexplicable to you all that we missed the opportunity by not commenting on the closing days of the presidential election and subsequent inauguration of one Barack H. Obama, I think I can (and should!) explain our absence. Here's my take:

As thrilling as the election was, after the nomination was wrapped up I ceased being an independent rational being and became part of the Democratic group-think. That is, I had this crushing fear that McCain and Ms. Palin would win, which totally colored any opinion I might have had about the various controversies affecting the campaign. And I, like other liberals at the time, kind of subconsciously closed ranks so that my opinions became not much different than just about every other pro Obama person writing about the '08 campaign. Similarly, I think the good feelings that surrounded the win and inauguration made me feel the same wonderful way as everyone else. I sensed this, gradually got less excited to write about things and drifted away.

The other problem was that this blog became 99% about horse racy politics, which really discouraged me. I didn't want that at the beginning, because, as much as I love politics, it can get tedious when you're rehashing the back and forth going on between the parties. I didn't feel like I could meaningfully talk about policies because everything being put out by the two sides was being put out to influence the election, and had to be analyzed in that context. There wasn't a ton to comment on outside of politics because the '08 election just sucked up all of the proverbial oxygen in the room.

But, anyway, let's get this blog moving again! What do you say, Jon?

Friday, September 12, 2008

Exempting Abortion (JM)

So I am concerned about tackling an issue this controversial, but I think there is an underdiscussed aspect of the abortion issue that deserves discussion. As a quick preamble, I think abortion is a deeply personal decision, one the can only be reached by the potential mother and the other people involved in the matter. I think choice is the right way to deal with such an issue, but it is neither an easy, nor a clear cut choice. That said, a lot of people take issue with Sarah Palin's unwilling to support exemptions in the case of either rape or incest. There are many things I don't like about Palin, many many things, but this is not one of them. Let me explain.

When one takes a position that abortion ought to be outlawed it is already a fairly extreme position in the sense that we are superseding a person's right to make decisions about their body and health. The reason they would take this position is that they genuinely believe that this a question of protecting a life and the rights of that child. Everything that follows is a consequence of that position. Now I recognize just how dreadful a situation might be where one is called upon to make a decision about a child created in either rape or incest. However, at the point that a person thinks that this is a being worth absolute protection I actually think it's morally inconsistent to support any sort of exemption based on the potential future of the child. Once we are willing to do that, then it seems to me that we should revert back to the position of choice.

So to the extent that not having such exemption is unpalatable, I agree and I understand. However, I think such exemptions seems like political expediencies rather than genuinely consistent positions. If the child were born we certainly would never consent to killing him or her, yet for the most part the pro-life position is held up on the conceit that a conceived child is life and that life is simply our highest value. So I don't agree with Palin's position on abortion, but I do think she is at least consistent in the regard and respect that.

As a final aside, I think there needs to be more respect in this debate on both sides. On the pro-life side I think there is a fundamental failure to respect that fact that this is still and always a tremendously difficult decision and that the fight is for real personal choice (something for which Republicans are supposed to be top advocates). At the same time, I think people who are pro-choice need to realize that, for the most part, pro-lifers are not on a personal crusade against women and rights. Many firmly believe that they are trying to save lives, and to the extent one believes that, it is hard not to respect such a fight. These are deeply personal issues and ones that will never be resolved with hectoring, violence, yelling or name calling. I think a dialogue about these issues would do the country some real good, and it's my fervent hope we will have one, but my sincere doubt that we actually will.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Stupid Microsoft Ad (Dennis)

So you're Microsoft, and you've been getting your ass kicked in the ad wars with Mac (well, OK, they target PCs, but it's really about you isn't it?) and now Google has stepped up with a much hyped browser as a direct challenge to your dominance in that area. So you need to fight back fast.

How do you do it?

You can't really go at your competition too hard, you're the frontrunner after all and are already perceived as a big meanie. The first step is to remake your image. That makes sense. Right now, you're looked at as a fading 90s powerhouse who was once on the cutting edge but now is the very image of the tired boring establishment abhorred by younger consumers you're hoping to attract.

So, to help you change this image you bring in....Jerry Seinfeld?


Isn't he the Microsoft of the comedy, sitting on his vast piles of money while not having done anything worth noting since 1998?

OK OK, so maybe these things don't always work according to that kind of logic, I can buy that. But why spend the gazillions of dollars it must have taken to sign Jerry Seinfeld to produce this commercial:

I mean that's atrocious. Jerry still can't act and is tossing out half-hearted lines from Seinfeld (except, bizzarely, he's playing Kramer in this commercial). Bill Gates isn't even that funny, and seems like an old retired guy puttering around a mall in Palm Beach. At the end they say something about the future, but the commercial feels like you're watching two has-beens, away from the exciting places that made them famous, with nothing better to do than screw around in a mall for a few hous.

Look, if they were going to go for nostalgia humor, how much more would it have cost to get George, err, I mean, Jason Alexander and pair him with Jerry for the commercial? (And how much more memorable would that commercial have been?) But really, don't you think they needed to go somewhere different with this?

Look at the hugely successful Mac advertisements. On the one hand there's the cute Mac vs. PC ads, which manage to be vicious without seeming vicious:

And then there's the brilliant ITunes/IPod ads:

How much better are those than the crap Microsoft put out? Microsoft is a company that is worth billions and billions of dollars, and I think what literally happened when they considered remaking their image was a 15 minute board meeting where they talked about golf for 14 minutes, and at the end said, "Hey! Let's pay 5 million dollars to get Jerry Seinfeld, we'll send him and Bill out together. Let's see what happens!"

If they wanted to soften Bill Gates, and, therefore, Microsoft why not just have him tell a story about something important that happened early on at Microsoft, something about the joy of discovery or innovation? If they wanted a nostalgic commercial, why not do something like showing someone someone who is now like 30 using Microsoft over the years as he gets older? If you really wanted to do a "future" commercial, why not do something in the same "cool" vein as Apple's stuff? Their choice just made no sense. Corporations can be so silly sometimes.

Monday, September 8, 2008

What will we do without Tom? (Dennis)

For those that have lived with watching football without rooting for Tom Brady, it’s difficult to describe the shock that many Patriots fans, especially the recently minted ones, will go through these next few weeks as they realize that all of their old assumptions about how to feel, act, and think during a football game will be shaken. During the Tom Brady era, to watch all but the most important playoff games was a sedate, reassuring activity. Every time Brady dropped back to pass, you knew that if there was way to find the open receiver, he would somehow do it. If there was an important third down to convert, the pass would get to the open man past the yellow line and the drive would go on, until, almost inevitably, a ball would sail into the hands of a receiver in the end zone. It happened so often that success became an expectation. And when the big play wasn’t made, it was jarring. I actually remember thinking, when an important third down wasn’t converted late in the game, “that must not have been the real important one,” as if Brady had some Tralfamadorian ability to see through time and sense which play was really critical for him to convert and which would simply have ruined the suspense.

For this season, at least, things will be different. Our quarterback will be some schlub who will hopefully throw more touchdowns than interceptions. Games will be tense, and whenever the quarterback drops back to pass on a big play, we’ll get that same feeling in our stomach we always used to get during Red Sox playoff games. You know, that tortuous mix of dread and excitement, where you don’t know if something very good or very bad is about to happen.

And I’m not sure that's a bad thing.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t very excited for this upcoming season. The whole air around the team was extremely deflated, and I wasn’t looking forward to another season of them with so much pressure to win on each game, and so many talking heads pontificating about what their success meant to society. Last season was fun for a while, but all the resentment and bitterness at the end from all other corners of the league ruined it for me, and I spent much of the summer dreading the start of the NFL season. How could you possibly top the 19-0 season that they let slip away? Would even a Super Bowl victory feel like an anti-climax?

Now, however, the Patriots suddenly find themselves in the role of underdog once again. Uncertainty and perhaps even dysfunction are on the horizon. Columns on the Patriots, which have recently become tiresome odes to their greatness, will be flush with drama. There will be questioning of the quarterback, of the coach’s strategy, and of whether the Patriots have the juice to get into the postseason. When the Patriots beat a pretty good team the fans will all go crazy again, rather than letting out a muted “yay” as they get back to the Sunday paper.

It will, in short, be kind of like the old days. That long ago time when we had the great Bledsoe at quarterback. He was a true tragic hero, who had a rocket arm but always seemed to make exactly the wrong decision at the wrong time. Strange as it may seem, even as I reveled in their greatness last season, I secretly wished we could give it one more go with Bledsoe. Back when he was around, I at least had someone to defend, and even more importantly, someone who needed defending. The Patriots of Belichick and Brady almost made me feel like they didn’t need me. They attracted the cheap love that rock stars get, where people admire them for their accomplishments and talents. With Bledsoe, I felt like I was on a journey with him, I shared his hopes and dreams and, most importantly, his disappointments. While Brady is an iconic figure, Bledsoe was one of us. And the one real advantage that that long ago unsuccessful era had on this successful one, is that while today fans root for the Patriots, it seemed like back them we rooted with the Patriots.

And so, it is that promise of the return of that familiar foxhole mentality that has me somewhat interested in this season again, despite the bad news. I’m excited for next week’s game against the Jets, where, doubtless, the Patriots will be declared hopeless underdogs by the media, and the fat, loathsome Jets fans will make their reappearance, like front-running swallows returning to Capastrano. I will yell at people to defend the competence of the Patriots and the quarterbacking skills of Matt Cassel, and, if it isn’t as good as thrashing the Jets by 89 points, it will, at least, be fun.

And who knows what will come out of this season? We still have Belichick, a great receiving corps, and at least a few players who have done the impossible before. After all, the last time the Patriots lost their starting quarterback to a horrible injury, they won the Super Bowl. And wouldn’t it be just perfect, if, after being counted out, the Patriots won their fourth Super Bowl just like they won their first? Except this time, the image of the Super Bowl celebration will not be the exuberant Brady raising his arms at the unexpected triumph, but the sly cynical Belichick, smiling like Voltaire, and saying, with a note of condescension: “nobody believed in us but ourselves.”

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Friday, September 5, 2008

Debating Life (JM)

So I wanted to pull out a comment that regular reader and commenter "g thomas" had on my piece about the media and empiricism. He engages me on the issue of whether we can discuss life and abortion empirically in a political setting without reference to values or first premises. He thinks we can, in a well-thoughout line of argumentation, but one I will quarrel a bit with after his comments:

I agree with all of your analysis and conclusions, and feel similarly enraged by the Republican's egregious attempt to disconnect the folk from reality. What's most enraging to me and maybe to all of us is that it works. Like Dennis, i deliberately avoided watching the RNC, but inadvertantly caught a snippet of Palin, which succeeded in zero time to piss me off.

My only issue is with your point that we can't debate whether life begins at conception or not. I believe we can debate this issue, but it requires a more sophisticated set of argumentative tools than those available for public debate and a knowledge of neuroscience to do so.

In a practical sense only, I agree that that argument is not something that could possibly take place in a political forum, but an argument exists, if only in my head at the moment.

The basic structure of the argument is that life ought to measured not only in terms of alive versus dead, and some philosophers of science have pointed out that "life" isn't even well defined still, but also in terms of degrees of consciousness.

I think we all implicitly act on the belief, empirically based, that consciousness increases with experience. For example, male infants are routinely circumsized without asking if this is okay with them, while an adult would never be subjected to such an involuntary procedure in most societies. One could argue that this is because the infant can't answer meaningfully, but I think the reason we think it's okay lies more in the sense that infantile amnesia will remove the consciousness of the deed within a short time.

Since there's almost no possibility that an embryo has consciousness of self, there is a far smaller degree of the aspects of life that we value in any being, which renders it less alive than a newborn or an adult. The lack of any meaningful mental life or awareness I believe is the heart of the issue.

For example, we sympathize with dolphins and find their capture along with tuna to be abhorrent. Why?

Of course, there's a slippery slope here, but then "slippery slope" is the name of a type of fallacy, not that of a valid argument.

There are some gaps in the argument, of course, as I don't want to go on all day about this, and it's somewhat repellent to frame things this way, but life happens and I think most of the objections only stand up if we suppose that we're able to obtain an ideal transcendence of the realities of life at this very moment.

Also, if there isn't some valid argument that makes, say, the morning after pill okay, then we'd all have to agree with the most rabid right-to-lifers, at least implicitly.

Of course, you also say that we can't make the empirical argument, and I admit that would require my additional premise, a more refined definition of life, including degrees of consciousness, to make adequately.

I think the problem here is actually specified in your final paragraph when you mention a "more refined definition of life". I agree completely that as cognitive science gets better we will be able to codify consciousness and awareness to a much more accurate degree. But even as we do, this still leaves us with the Peter Singer problem; the role of the brain-dead or mentally handicapped. Does human life become less valuable because of cognitive capacity? I think intuitive we all feel, to some greater or lesser degree that it doesn't, at least not completely. There is probably no normative reason why this is the case (no more than there is a normative reason for most things). We have a value system where our identities as human has been fundamental to our place in the ecosystem. Even when we criticize our role in the Earth's environment all but the fringiest of activists still couch the problem in terms of future generations of humans. And that's probably alright (though I have a hard time seen the distinction between humanocentrism and ethnocentrism, at least completely).

The point of all of this is that our valuation of life is based entirely on the groups of which we are a part and the values derived from such groups. Thus, no matter how specific our categorizations get, that definition of life will always be debatable. Life is an emergent reality, a social concept, rather than an actual category. Even if science moved to specify its definition, the concept itself has become so socialized and politicized that it would face far more rabid opposition than even evolution or global warming. We live in fascinating times, we have come to the point where we problematize and question what we once considered objective knowledge. And that is great. However, it comes with a deep downside, because now everything can be politicized and idealized, and structures of knowledge become arenas for contestations of power. So now, more than ever, it is important to have empiricism and facts on our side, but merely asserting these things as factually true will never win the day or prove the point. This is where many of our political battles will be fought in the future and it's a ground we have not yet started to defend.