Archive for June, 2012


Obamacare opinion

I read through the Obamacare opinion and wrote this little diddy.


My Theory of Humor

I’ve written a lot about humor on this blog, and I’ll reference some of those writings when they’re appropriate, but here’s a list of posts on this topic (humor and illusion, some general reflections and self-deprecating humor, humor as sympathetic social critique, musings on racial humor)

Humor is a hard topic to find hard and fast data points that need to be incorporated into a theory on the subject, but I’ve come to the belief that humor is a type of perception. It’s similar to having depth perception or the ability to have all areas of the visual field in focus at once. There are several things that I think powerfully support this account of humor.

1. Finding something funny is direct and immediate. You never “believe” that something is funny except in the loosest sense of that word. Rather, something STRIKES you as funny in a way that you cannot submit to judgment. This is similar to how a room STRIKES you when you open your eyes to look at it. The funniness of a joke is THERE for you in the same way that a familiar face is just there.

2. Humor also appears to be conceptually permeable in the way that ordinary perception is. Ambiguous images are seen differently depending on what the person is asked to think about at the time (binocular rivalry experiments). There are other examples about how one’s past experiences and beliefs influence what one sees. For example, your mind will see whole worlds in a page even when the words are obscured when you know the language that the words are written in. Same thing goes for hearing. You will hear words even when they are produced very softly or very strangely if that word makes sense in the sentence (and of course, you speak the language under consideration). The same goes for humor. What you find humorous is hugely influence by the language you speak, the culture you grew up with, your mood, and what you’re thinking about at the time. Here’s an example I read in Palmer’s Taking Humour Seriously. Apparently, there is a joke in which a coyote takes shelter from a storm in a cave; he then turns around and finds that a human is already in the cave. The coyote drops dead. This joke is likely not funny to you and it REMAINS not funny even when I tell you that the coyote is the trickster in this particular culture’s mythology. The coyote is supposed to be in control and poised, but here he’s surprised by a mere human. I could go on explaining the joke ALL DAY, but you would never laugh an the reason is that you don’t get it. You don’t have access to all the cultural nuances that are absorbed by you below consciousness that would form this into a funny joke.

So, the phenomenon of “getting it” is a critical part of a theory of humor, I believe.

A further implication is lurking here. Jokes that are explained are not funny. Conceptual elaboration of a joke that one is trying to get will never work. This is very similar to the way that no amount of explanation can relate the color purple to someone. You just have to see it. The same thing with humor. If you don’t “see” the humor in a joke, no amount of explanation will get you to enjoy the joke. You have to see it.

3. Humor is not like seeing any one thing (like a chair) but rather is analogous to a WAY of seeing. What I mean is that the mind automatically organizes light from the world into DEPTH. Objects “seem” closer or further from you, regardless of their absolute size. When you hold up a dime next to a mountain and the dime takes up more space in your visual field, you still see the mountain as bigger, partially because of the compensation your brain automatically dials in for the depth that is at work.

Thus humor is a kind of global sensitivity to the world. It is a mode of perceiving someone who falls down after missing his taxi, or the way that a boring professor sounds when he’s elaborating something he thinks is very somber. People with good senses of humor are attuned to these experiences. They see the humor in things before other people do, or they see ways to make jokes, just as some people see the way through a maze or around an obstacle. To someone with a sharp sense of humor, certain alterations to the world stand out as things that would make the world more funny.

4. The “in virtue of” issue. It’s very common, when asked why one believes something, to give an elaboration in terms of some type of reasoning. You believe  many things in virtue of believing something else. If someone tells you that exactly three birds in a room of five birds are blue, then you can surmize that 2 are non-blue. But not usually with basic beliefs relating to the external world. If you’re looking at a lamp on a table and someone asks you why you think there is a lamp on the table, you’re likely to think they’re insane or are trying to be funny. You will say “I just see them there.” Same thing with humor. If someone asks you why you think something is funny, what can you say? Other than that it just SEEMS funny. This is related to point #1.

Also entailments. If I believe that the earth is round and most blue, then I believe it’s round (that’s entailed by my conjunctive belief before). But if I find something funny, that does not entail anything about related jokes, or anything else. There are no entailments between jokes as there are between beliefs, which makes me thing that humor is a type of perception.


Why did Europe become so powerful?

Niall Ferguson has written and spoken many times on what he believes is a central question that historians should help us answer: why did Europe become so awesome. I saw Ferguson speak, and he revels in the politically incorrect interpretations that can be teased out of what he considers to be a purely scholarly question.

He has really thought about the issue, and he notes that cynical explanations are not really that convincing. Yes, Europe made heavy use of slavery and exploitation, but it was hard to find an established political entity during the years of Europe’s rise that DIDN’T make use of those tools. Instead, Ferguson, thinks that western europe exploded in power because of the institutions that it developed, such as systems of property as well as legal codes enforced by judges.

Now that I’m reading through European history, I’m in a position to think more seriously about his claims. I’m barely scratching the surface, but one thing that stands out to me is the organization of European politics as a group. In the 1300s and 1400s Italy was divided into small city states, and this lead to an explosion of thinking about art, sociality, and politics. This trend continued when after around 1555, the germanic area of Europe was filled again with small, relatively internally cohesive, provinces, baronies, or whatever you want to call them. What this says to me is that an explanation of European growth might be due to the concentration of political bodies in a such a small area which forced innovation across a range of institutions as well as social development towards identities as citizens.

The trick in these sorts of debates is to find what is basic. Did Europe just strike upon institutions that helped shape its populace in certain ways (toward being patriotic, and relatively scientific, and capitalistic?). Or did social changes create people who wanted the revolutionary institutions that were later created. It’s very hard to know because the effects of “culture” or living in this society as opposed to that society is very poorly understood.

In my mind, there is something about competition that creates attitudes that are very useful for growing economically and militarily. Economists often talk about the effect of competition in how one creates goods, but I’m thinking more philosophically about competition in sports or just among individuals to ACHIEVE some goal (not necessarily just to make something). For me, competition is the cooperative production of excellence. Competition makes us consider ourselves critically (what can I do to be better?, why can’t I do what that person did?) while also forming a unique type of relationship with those we are competing with as well as those who are helping us compete. I think something like this may have been responsible for the strong national identities that were in place after 1648.

One thing I need to figure out is the best date or time period to say when Europe started outdistancing other regions in terms of economic growth and military power.



A pet area of mine is thinking about why people hate coldplay. I don’t know why so many people hate them. It’s just a small puzzle that has grown on me over the years.

I’ve asked three of four people now why they hate them or why the band is hated. No one has a really good answer other than to say something about how they carry themselves. That’s not too revealing though, because you can always insist that you don’t like the cut of another person’s jib. If you ask why and the other person says “I just do,” there’s not too much further to explore.

This article I think does a really good job of summarizing the relevant points. They aren’t bad musically (not awesome, but not bad), they are nice people (give a fair amount to charity from what I understand), and they don’t seem to be arrogant or anything like that. They’ve even admitted a kind of humble place in pop history. Also, I like quite a few of their songs. Some I would even say have made me think or moved me.

Is it like the hate for LeBron James? It would be really interested to get a list of examples in which collective hate-o-rade is drunk by a group of people regarding an otherwise unobjectionable public figure. Is it freudian? Is it something else?

I’m still accepting explanations if you have a really good feel for why you don’t like this band. Some have suggested that the band wants to be like too much, and I kind of get that, but think about that for a second. Is the right response to someone who wants to be liked to hate them for it? To be liked is a completely natural impulse, ESPECIALLY for a pop band. That can’t be the reason to hate them…unless one wants to admit that it is completely arbitrary to dislike them, as I mentioned above.


What is killing us?

This is interactive graph put together by a study in the NEJM is really cool. It shows that the percentage of yearly total deaths arising from heart attacks and cancer has risen and that they have also risen in absolute numbers, I think because population has increased (right?).

As many have noted, the fact that more people die now from cancer and heart attacks (as a percentage of all deaths) is progress because people are living long enough to die from these diseases rathe than childhood killers like the flu, pneumonia, and smallpox.

What I found particularly interesting though was that heart disease was killing the largest percentage of people who were dying in the 60s and 70s. Medical advancement has moved that number down, but it likely would be having an even greater effect if we were able to improve diets at a society wide level and to reduce obesity. In fact, percentage of deaths from heart disease is close to the rates they were at at the turn of the century.

Cancer death percentages grew since the turn of the century, but there is an apparent inflection point around 1995.

Also, future rates might change again. Since kids are obese at a greater rate than ever before, we may witness a bumper crop of heart-disease related deaths in twenty or thirty years.

Of course, as medical technology improves again and we get rid of what ails us now, the future causes of death could be dominated by homicide (as natural causes become almost unheard of). Not saying that’s likely, but it could happen. Also, if the earth becomes really crowded and no one is dying from anything, will there be increased pressure to removed medical care from people and to “allow” them to die?


What Counts as Normal?

Society has a huge number of rules and practices that it maintains as normal. For those who fall on the “normal” side of any one category, it’s very hard to appreciate the other side as well as the arbitrariness of such distinctions. It’s also hard to appreciate how such automatic judgments are a pain the in ass for people who have to deal with them.

I’ll skip examples of racism and sexism because they have become connected to so many other struggles and issues that people cannot think about them cleanly without significant effort (I mean that on both sides, left and right). People have become so psychologically invested in these categories and the fate of debates about who and what is more or less racist and sexist that it’s not a good place to begin theorizing about these topics, but rather a place to conclude, after some insight has been developed in a different sphere.

I’ll give one general example of what I’m talking about and then one from my life.

One example involves being single in one’s old age (or just, past 35). FIrst, think back to 200 years ago when a girl who wasn’t married by her 18th birthday would be barraged with questions that are all based on theme of “why aren’t you married yet?” In this way, “normalcy” is a way that society legitimizes an endless series of requests for justification. In every social situation, one must stand ready to justify oneself. “I haven’t found the right person yet,” “I want to build my career a little bit first,” and etc. This is true, in today’s world, for both men and women. Someone who is not married, after a certain time, is believed to be defective in any number of ways, emotionally, physically, etc. Social situations evolve to tip-toe around this subtle difference while continuously re-investigating it as one probes an open wound. At a wedding for an example, you’re likely to hear this remark, said in innocence, but nevertheless backed by a whole battery of societal interest: “O Jim, I didn’t know where to seat you since you’re single, so I put you with the young people.” Or, faux concern, “Jim, since you’re single, I made sure to rearrange all the tables to accommodate you.”

The key though is to note that the single person constantly needs to justify themselves whereas the married person DOES NOT. Why? Many people leap into marriage mistakenly, or endure abusive relationships, or plain just get bored with each other. I think there is a lot of value to being married, but there is ALSO a lot of value to being single.

In my personal life, I hear people ask me why I’ve decided to get a Ph.D. in philosophy and further, why I’ve also decided to get a law degree. They say “that’s so much school!” Others are harsher still, taking whatever cracks they have stored up about academia or law. I let them say their comments them out and then politely try to explain why I’m interested in these things that I’ve made enormous sacrifice to pursue.

Philosophy especially is ABnormal, just as many other possible professions are, but certain careers are not seen as abnormal and do not stand in need of justification, because society shelters these activities and protects challenges to them with an arsenal of propaganda, subtle pressure, and just blindness to the diversity of human pursuits. For example, someone who is trying to get a job in finance or is working in business doesn’t need to justify themselves in any typical conversation that I’ve been in. I think business is very valuable and I’m always very impressed with people who have the skills to succeed at it. But the question is: why is business in any less need of justification than philosophy or something else? Someone might say something like “wow 8 years of school is a lot of time to delay before going to the real world.” But one could just as easily ask “8 years of working at a company? That’s a long time taking orders before becoming more fully independent or free-thinking.” I don’t actually believe that criticism of business, but there are costs and benefits to all professions. Why does taking on the burdens and benefits of a corporate career get a free pass in terms of justification? The answer I think is that people think that it’s natural and proper to try and get money, whereas thinking deeply about obscure questions has no value.

The trickiest thing about it all is that a request for justification need not be hostile. One of the nicest things you can say to someone, I believe, is to honestly ask someone why they are interested in something. “Why do you want to be botanist?” said with an honest curiosity is one way of expressing respect for the choices that people make and the dedication that’s needed to do just about anything of consequence.

But, and this is the key, societal judgments of normalcy ask for justification in a hostile and dismissive manner. There is nothing genuine about some of the people I’ve met casually at different events who mouth the words “why are you interested in that,” but they have no interest in the answer and it is understood in the conversation at large (especially if the convo involves several other people) common way that no answer would make very much sense.

But that’s the way of things. People are interested in what they’re interested and have VERY LITTLE capacity to entertain alternative viewpoints, interests, or ideas.


Nietzsche and Red Bull

Nietzsche predicted that European / Western culture was on the verge of losing its energy and dynamism because of the way that it related to pain and to the experience of life. He predicted a wide-ranging decline in the politics, art, and leadership of european life due to the acceptance of pleasure as the leading principle guiding society combined with a stultifying egalitarianism.

Given this prediction, I think it’s interesting to think about energy drinks. Coffee has existed since time immemorial, but a more recent phenomenon is energy drinks. Looking at this short update shows that the market for highly caffeinated beverages is growing by a lot each year.

But why do people need so much energy though? Historically, it seems very out of place. Think about the brutality of medieval europe or the industrial revolution. People sometime worked 20 hour shifts in cramped conditions with little light or air and of course no safety regulations. Shouldn’t it be the case that THOSE people needed “energy” more than the modern person.

What this leads me to wonder is a conjecture that I think fits with some other transitions in modern life, which is that perhaps we are just becoming more bored with things. Our search for more wealth, more luxury, and more entertainment…does it betray that in a deep sense we might be boring our collective culture to death. How many times will Hollywood reboot the same movie franchise before we start to seriously consider the possibility that as life becomes more easier, healthier, and more secure, it also becomes more boring? Do we need energy to get through our days because though we have easily available water, air conditioning, and cars, we are fatter, less focused, and more easily distracted?

Is it fair to think of our time in history as one in which we need energy, quite literally, just to get through our days.