Monday, June 22, 2009

Let Me Be Honest

By Standard * Other Standard Posts

I went to a memorial service yesterday. My uncle died in December after suffering from Alzheimer’s for years, but the six month gap between the event and the service allowed us to spend more time remembering his brilliant, charismatic, and wonderful life rather than lamenting the disease that took him from us far too soon.

During the service, the minister said something that stuck with me. “Let us be honest with death,” she said: “it is sorrow, but it is not annihilation.”

My father died on a cold Monday night in December of 1996, and I have never once considered being honest with death. I’ve thought plenty of other things: I’ve been resentful of death; I’ve cursed death; I’ve said impolite things about death’s mother. In my more generous moods I have been indifferent towards death, but mostly—despite the obvious impossibility of such an idea, considering the enormous impact my father’s death has had on my life—I have just tried to ignore death. That’s always difficult to do on Father’s Day, but it’s especially difficult this year.

It strikes me that honesty is a more mature, more grown-up, more politic way to go, so today I would like to try to be honest with death.

First, death is an asshole. My father missed out on so many things in his kids' lives—attending our high school and college graduations, tailgating with me before Bills’ games, walking my sister down the aisle when she gets married this fall—and he missed out on so many things in his own life—sailing, endlessly remodeling our house, retirement.

I’m also terrified of death. Nothing about death seems pleasant. I’m not scared of being dead; non-being doesn’t strike me as any more awful than pre-being. It’s the transition to non-being that’s intimidating. But it’s more than that: I’m so terrified of death that I’m not sure if I’ll have a family. What happens if I too die young? Could I take the risk of putting my family through that?

To say that death is sorrow is like saying that a hurricane is a rainstorm. It’s kind of an understatement.

And I’m never completely sure that death isn’t annihilation. I remember less and less of my father every year. I depend more and more on pictures and home movies. As Paul Auster says, remembered things have a tendency to subvert the things remembered.

But if I’m being honest, I have to say that death has made me appreciate the people in my life in a completely different way than I could have before.

Death also makes me appreciate the type of person my father was when he was still alive. He was funny, generous, loyal, handy, and supportive. He loved his family as much as any man ever has, and he asked for nothing in return. He had a dry sense of humor and an infectious belly laugh. He had an admirable amount of common sense. He was relatively unathletic and had little musical ability of his own, but he was an accomplished chauffeur to music lessons and sporting events, a master of videotaping band concerts, and a pithy motivational speaker. (Here’s an example of the last: when he learned that my sister sang songs in her head while she was swimming, he told her to sing a faster song.)

If I’m being completely honest with death, I have to say I’m glad death waited as long as he did. I learned a lot from my father in the thirteen years I knew him. I learned what it means to be a responsible human being, I learned to think before I speak, and I learned that shit happens.

There’s something, finally, that death can’t touch: my father still makes me want to be a better person. And I'll always love him for that.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The GRE: Reflections on Academic Irrelevance

By RTTF * Others by RTTF

I recently began preparing to take the GRE, the great standard-bearer of graduate admissions. I was buzzing haplessly along when I stumbled upon the following analogy:


a) terminus: voyage

b) guerdon: repetition

c) accolade: campaign

d) epitome: culture

e) anomaly: puzzle

Now, I imagine many of you – like me – thought that 'quarry' was a stone pit, and so may be having difficulties solving this particular analogy. If not, bear with me as I enlighten my fellow philistines as to the more sophisticated definition of this fine word.

Quarry (kwor-ee)

Etymology: Middle English quirre, querre entrails of game given to the hounds, from Anglo-French cureie, quereie, from quir, cuir skin, hide (on which the entrails were placed), from Latin corium

Date:14th century

1: obsolete: a heap of the game killed in a hunt

2: game; specifically : game hunted with hawks

3: one that is sought or pursued : prey

Now, maybe I’m just bitter, but when did academic excellence require me to know about hawk- hunting? Is this the Graduate Record Exam -- or the Germanic Regent’s Exam? Am I applying to be an 18th-century Duke?

Granted, a person may know this word from reading Jane Austen novels or adventure books. And granted, I am now indebted to the GRE for enlightening me to an interesting double-meaning in the title of Morissey’s album You Are the Quarry which had hitherto gone unnoticed. But, while gleaning vocabulary from novels about landed gentry may be a contingent indicator of education, it seems absurd to presume any direct relationship between your general level of intelligence and knowing obscure -- and specialized --vocabulary. If we’re going Jane Austen, why not science fiction? Can we just have a whole section on words Kurt Vonnegut made up? Chrono-synclastic infundibulum, anyone?

More to the point, if we’re going to test for specialized knowledge, couldn’t it at least be knowledge that is relevant to today’s society? Why not test a person’s knowledge of slang, or street culture? May I suggest:


a) quart: milk

b) salary: money

c) forty: olde english

d) box: barrel

Now this is a good analogy. In order to get this right, you have to make the connection that not only is a ‘dub sack’ something that contains an amount of pot, but that the certain amount is not fixed by volume or quantity. Rather, it depends on the quality of weed, and current market conditions. Similarly, while a quart always contains the same amount of milk, the amount of money that is contained in a person’s salary is not fixed, but depends on the quality of the worker and the conditions of the market.

As a prospective candidate for a Sociology degree, I’m pretty sure the knowledge tested in this analogy will help me a little more than the word for the prey sought by hawk-hunters. And yes, Educational Testing Service, I am currently accepting job offers.

The sad part of this is that the specialization and disconnectedness from everyday life that is reflected in the GREs is an all-too-accurate indicator of the state of academia. Anyone who’s spent much time on the websites of our premier academic institutions knows that the bios of faculty and the curricula of courses can read like a catalogue of sub-fields and jargon. Which strikes me as self-defeating. The principle of specialization, just like comparative advantage, works on the assumption that people are working on what they're best at and then sharing it. A company divides its work among specialists and then puts it all together. But when the very language in which our 'knowledge specialists' are learning to express themselves is meaningless to anyone who doesn't share their specialty, interdisciplinary work becomes impossible. And here's a stoner thought if you ever need one: isn't, like, life interdisciplinary, man?

A few months ago the New York Times ran an op-ed in which a professor at Columbia suggested that academic departments be reorganized not around disciplines but around fundamental problems such as Time, Work, Media, Water, Mind, and Money. Then economists, philosophers, biologists, literary critics, psychologists and all the rest could teach and gain multiple perspectives on central problems in our lives. This professor points out that from a practical, problem-solving perspective, this is necessary. He notes for example that those who study religion and those who study international relations haven't really worked together before, and now might be the time to start.

The use of varying methodologies and sensibilities could make the humanities a little more rigorous, and the 'practical' subjects a little more, well, human. The first step in this is that academics learn to express themselves in ways that communicate their ideas, not just show off how terribly well-read they are. So if we want a society that makes decisions with its brain and not with its guts, we might want to start by getting its institutional head out of the hawk-hunting clouds.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

You Kant Do That on a Blog, Part II of III

By Observation Deck * Other Observation Desk Posts

For You Kant Do That on a Blog, Part I, please go here.

When we last left our hero – Kant – he was stuck…

A murderer had asked him for the whereabouts of his next innocent victim. Kant knew that if he told the murderer where the victim was hiding, the victim would certainly be killed and he – Kant – would in effect be sending this victim to her death. But at the same time, if he did not tell the murder the victim’s hiding place, he would be lying.

Kant, as we know, draws his superpowers from the categorical imperative and the categorical imperative states BOTH that we should not murder AND that we should not lie.

Faced with this cosmic conundrum, what is our intrepid hero to do? Find out in this episode of You Kant Do That on a Blog, Part II…

Just when Kant finds himself trapped between the proverbial rock and a hard place – murder and lying – Kant’s super friend Captain Obvious arrives.

Captain Obvious argues: Not telling the murderer where the victim is hiding is not technically lying – it is merely withholding information (namely the whereabouts of the victim). There is a distinction between the two and therefore, Kant is saved from the challenge to his categorical imperative.

But Kant isn’t out of the woods – like in so many times in the past, Captain Obvious is half baked. The difference between lying and withholding information is only semantics (no matter how much Bill Clinton would like you to believe otherwise) and Kant would make no distinction between their moral content. In addition, the categorical imperative against lying would, when rigorously applied, also extend to a prohibition against the withholding of information.

Just then, Plausible Man shows up. He argues that telling the murderer where the victim is hiding does not amount to murder (in legal parlance this would be considered “accessory to murder” rather than murder itself) and therefore, the categorical imperative actually allows Kant to tell the murderer where the victim is hiding.

Close Plausible Man, but this is neither horseshoes nor hand grenades. This still doesn’t get Kant out of his jam because it is once again a technicality and not a substantive argument. We can easily tweak our hypothetical so that the result of Kant telling the truth would be the active killing of another.

For example, we could imagine a scenario in which a person with a terrible heart condition asks Kant to tell her the truth about his family who was just killed in a car crash. The truth would cause her such emotional stress that she would certainly die from the news. This scenario would make Kant the “proximate cause” of another’s death and remove Plausible Man’s technicality argument.

No, the only person who can save Kant is himself; but does the categorical imperative give him enough power to get out of this jam? Interestingly, the scenario presented above – a murderer asking for the whereabouts of his next victim (aka “the inquiring murderer hypothetical”) – was actually posed to Kant by Swiss philosopher Benjamin Constant while Kant was still alive (albeit a 73-year-old curmudgeon). As you can imagine, it was a major philosophical challenge – as close as you’re ever going to get to a modern-day throw down between two 18th Century European philosophers.

To defend his moral philosophy against Constant’s attack, Kant actually wrote an essay called On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives in which he actually argues that the categorical imperative requires us to tell the hypothetical murderer the whereabouts of his next victim.

But this seems to run counter to everything our intuitions tell us – most people would probably rationally argue that, in the hypothetical of the inquiring murderer, the moral obligation is for us to NOT tell the truth. I guess a Kant defender would say that our intuitions are wrong and that the categorical imperative sometimes forces us to make moral decisions that run counter to our intuitions. But this seems like a cop out.

So how do we reconcile Kant’s moral framework with our intuitive belief that we ought to not tell the murderer the truth?

I believe the way to do this is to go back to Kant’s own writings in the Groundwork and look at what he says about the difference between perfect duties and imperfect duties.

According to the Groundwork, Kant defines perfect duties as those actions that, when evaluated according to the First Maxim, produce inherent contradictions. In other words, these are actions that cause inherent contradictions when they are rationally applied as universal laws.

For example, the murder is a perfect duty. If we ever tried to apply murder as a universal law, it would lead to an inherent contradiction. Murder presupposes life – namely that there are humans alive to murder and to be murdered. Yet if murder were applied as a universal law, then everyone would be dead and there would be nobody left to murder or to be murdered. It would be inherently contradictory to apply murder as a universal law because we cannot rationally conceive of a world where murder is universally allowed. Because we cannot rationally apply murder as a universal law, it is not permissible under the First Maxim.

Imperfect duties, on the other hand, are actions that, when evaluated according to the First Maxim, DO NOT produce inherent contradictions. Put it another way, these are actions that DO NOT cause inherent contradictions when they are rationally applied as universal laws.

Lying is an imperfect duty. If we tried to apply lying as a universal law, it would NOT lead to an inherent contradiction. Lying DOES NOT presuppose truth-telling – if everybody lied, one could still lie and not produce an untenable position. In fact, we can rationally conceive of a world where lying is universally allowed – it would be a world where everyone lied to everyone else.

But we might ask – if lying is an imperfect duty, then why should we not lie? The answer is – although we can rationally conceive of a world where lying is universally allowed, no one would rationally want to live in such a world. Despite the fact that universalizing lying is not inherently contradictory, lying still cannot be rationally applied as a universal law and therefore is still not permissible under the First Maxim.

The difference between perfect and imperfect duties is very, very subtle. Both of these duties are not permissible under the First Maxim because they cannot be rationally applied as universal laws. The difference is how we arrive at the conclusion that they cannot be rationally applied as universal laws.

In the case of a perfect duty (such as murder), we cannot even rationally conceive of a world where such an action were universally allowed because it would produce an inherent contradiction. And because we cannot even rationally conceive of a world where such an action were universally allowed, we cannot rationally apply it as a universal law. In the case of imperfect duties (such as lying), we CAN rationally conceive of a world where such an action were universally allowed. But because we would not rationally want to live in a world where such actions were universally allowed, we still cannot rationally apply it as a universal law.

The distance between perfect and imperfect duties may be very small, but there might just be enough space there for Kant to squeeze through to get of his predicament. Let us suppose that perfect duties take precedence over imperfect duties. Since the prohibition against murder is a perfect duty and the prohibition against lying is an imperfect duty, Kant would be allowed to lie in order to avoid committing murder.

Unfortunately, Kant is silent about all of this. His discussion of perfect and imperfect duties in the Groundwork does not cover whether one type of duty can supersede the other so there is no way of knowing if the exhaustive (and probably also exhausting) explanation above would actually sit well with Kant.

I would think that Kant would probably hesitate to endorse such an explanation, even if it succeeds in getting him out of the inquiring murderer hypothetical. Kant’s whole purpose in conceiving of the categorical imperative is to construct an absolute rather than framework for morality (such as the utilitarians). To then bring in the possibility – even the possibility – of certain duties trumping others would create a slippery slope which threatens to destroy the absolutist moral framework that Kant has so carefully constructed.

Constant’s inquiring murderer hypothetical is a real poison pill that presents a potentially lethal problem for Kant’s moral philosophy. The explanation that Kant gives in On a Supposed Right – that the categorical imperative requires us to tell the murderer the whereabouts of his victim – doesn’t seem to agree with our intuitive understanding of morality. I have tried to present a way of reconciling Kant’s moral framework with our intuitive morality – by separating murder and lying into perfect and imperfect duties, respectively. But even this leads to potential problems in that it fundamentally relies on a prioritization of perfect vis-à-vis imperfect duties that could plant a relativist seed that could threaten to take down Kant’s entire absolutist moral framework.

A sticky wicket to be sure, but we all knew that nothing about Kant was ever going to be easy or clear.

Alright, I am exhausted by all this heavy philosophical lifting. In the next installment, I will redirect attention to a simpler matter – applying Kant’s moral philosophy in the real world. This will probably be a feat somewhat akin to trying to hit a bullet with a smaller bullet whilst wearing a blindfold, riding a horse.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Lost Script Notes to Everybody Loves Raymond

By Doug Lieblich * Other Doug Lieblich Posts

As a hip professional working in the entertainment industry, or as we insiders call it, “the biz,,” I have had the privilege of obtaining all sorts of juicy industry gossip. One of my favorite tidbits of Hollywood lore arrived in my collection a few years ago. It was a set of script notes that CBS emailed to the showrunners of Everybody Loves Raymond. Now, for you non-industry people (read: morons), script notes are the comments and revisions a script endures before it “goes into production.” Usually these notes stifle the creativity of the writer. Let us now observe the secret battle of censorship over the late great CBS sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond.

Episode #137: Beer Today, Gone Tomorrow

Lns 1-5: We would really prefer to open up with Ray walking on set and announcing that he’s home rather than a fade in on him waking up in a puddle of his own vomit.

Ln 9: Error: It’s more in Debra’s character to pour Ray a glass of lemonade rather than a glass of DRAINO.

Lns 17-20 : The sex scene between Ray’s parents is a bit gratuitous. You can omit it.

Ln 18: Having Ray’s brother, Robert, watch the sex while eating pudding and making farm animal noises is not a believable B-story.

Ln 35: We only have enough in the budget to rent one cow. Maybe instead of a milking competition the family can put some oversized sunglasses on it. Now that’s funny, the CBS way.

Ln 39: We also don’t have the budget to pull Jonathon Taylor Thomas out of rehab for a guest appearance.

Ln 41: As mentioned before, we’re renting the cow, not buying it. Therefore, the slaughtering scene must be removed.

Lns 60-80: The dialogue does not really explain Ray’s motivation for burning down that gay bar.

Ln 94: Ray should address his father as “Dad” not “thundercunt.”

Ln 160: We absolutely love the idea of a ghost haunting the Barone household, but can we make it a black ghost?

Ln 175: Once again, sex scene between the parents = unnecessary.

Ln 190: Please change “horse cock” to “thank you.”

Lns 203-218: The flashback to Vietnam does not set as an adequate pretext to Robert’s irrational fear for blind dates in the B-Story.

Ln 220: typo: “your’e” should be “you’re”

Ln 230: typo: “goddamn-it-i-hate-my-life-as-a-writer-for-this-show-please-kill-me-to-end-this-hell” should be “fruit”

Ln 249: We cannot replace the live studio audience with a burlap sack full of geese and large dogs.

Ln 252: The third sex scene between the parents and the writer of the episode should also be removed.

Ln 264: It might be a little early in the season for Ray to lose a finger.

Ln 288: Standards and Practices has a problem with Ray blaming the fact that he lost his job because of “conniving Jews.”

Lns 300-307: Please add a rap song scene with the black ghost.

Ln 315: It is fine if you want Ray to adopt two kids from an orphanage, but you can’t have him return them at the end of the episode.

Ln 333: No one can survive a monster truck impact at that speed.

Ln 345: Please change the ghost’s line from “oooooooh” to “I’mma gonna haunt yo ass.”

Ln 356: It is not in Ray’s character to beat his wife.

Ln 387: Remove wife beating scene

Ln 390: Remove wife beating scene

Ln 410: Remove wife beating scene.

Ln 411: Probably better to use a steel pipe rather than a chunk of dry wall.

Lns 412-449: Remove wife beating scene.

Ln 450: Please add closing joke: “I guess we better get some sunny weather tomorrow.”