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Television Killed The Film Star

The past few months I have been watching television shows to no end. I used to prefer film to television but I think it’s the other way around now. Films tend to get more money for production which consequentially results in higher quality productions. They also don’t take as much dedication as television shows: you can watch a film in one to two hours whereas shows consist of entire seasons (which are usually 12 + hours long).

Those are the reasons for why I used to prefer films. But now I find the dedication that shows demand to be exceedingly rewarding. Character development and plot lines can be so much more thoroughly developed in shows than in films. I love “getting to know” the characters over a long period of time. It makes for a more enjoyable experience. The production quality of shows has also went way up in the past number of years. This is especially true of shows produced by the likes of Showtime and Starz. Most of the shows I enjoy come from those companies. Television shows on cable and the major networks suffer from content restrictions. Showtime and Starz (and others like HBO) do not. I like my shows to include some blood, profanity, and sex jokes. Not because they are preferable in and of themselves necessarily (although that may be the case with sex jokes) but because they make for a more adult-oriented experience (darker and more complex themes and characters and so on). The only current show that I regularly watch that is produced by a major network is The Office (US). Interestingly enough, it may be my favorite show ever made, although I admit that shows of different colors and stripes can be difficult to compare. My other favorites are not for the faint of heart:

Dexter: a show about a serial killer who hunts other serial kills and murderers.

Spartacus: historical epic about the trials and tribulations of, well, Spartacus and company and the events leading to the Third Servile War.

Californication: a sex comedy about a man whose romantic troubles lead him to drown himself in alcohol and sex.

Shameless: a comedy-drama about a poor Chicago suburban family that tries to survive without parental guidance or parental help of any kind.

Condensed Thoughts

1) According to one thinker, the best evidence we have that our current understanding of space and matter are incomplete is the existence of consciousness. Consciousness is somehow non-spatial yet it must be contained in space (unless we propose that it exists is some other dimension). Contrary to current thought then, perhaps consciousness is not non-spatial. We only think that it is because our current understanding of space is incomplete. Matter is also a problem. Somehow matter has the power to produce consciousness: it has certain conscious-causing properties. But we haven’t the slightest idea how this is possible. Hearts and kidneys are also organs that are made up of cellular material but they don’t produce consciousness. Only brains, as far as we know, have this power. But brains are just as material as anything else. So we must not fully understand what matter is if our current understanding of it cannot explain how it has this power.

2) “Certainty” seems to have at least two meanings: one psychological and one philosophical. In some contexts certainty is but a mere psychological state, one that bears no relation to what one knows or a thing’s truth-value. For instance, two thinkers can be equally certain about mutually exclusive claims (the sun will rise tomorrow vs. two suns will rise tomorrow). Here certainty is just a confidence level in the truth of some claim. One can be more or less certain.

Certainty also plays a role in some theories of knowledge. These theories hold that knowledge can be obtained if and only if there are arguments that logically rule out all possible alternatives except one. On this account, certainty about some proposition is just another way of saying that that proposition cannot possibly be false. If some proposition cannot be false, then one is certain about the truth of that proposition. And on some accounts, only if one is certain can one have knowledge. Here certainty cannot be more or less. Having certainty is just being able to logically rule out all the alternatives.

3) One of the reasons why I cannot frequently watch and listen to political media is because at least ninety percent of what is said is spent attacking or defending against the outrageous claims made by others from across the spectrum. This is how it goes. Mike makes some overly harsh or unjustified claim. Rather than ignoring the claim, Rachel from the rival news organization feels compelled to comment on it–most likely because it serves as an easy target and thus as easy political points by straw-manning the opposition–but possibly because she wants to stand up for what she sees as the morally right thing to do. Twenty minutes of that particular show is then spent on demonstrating the obvious falsity or inappropriateness of said claim (which usually involves hiring a guest commentator to help further spell out the obvious). Mike has a few ways he could respond: by (1)  rescinding or apologizing for his claim, (2)  clarifying his claim, or (3) ignoring Rachel’s comments entirely, awaiting for the day when Rachel (or someone of her political party) makes an outrageous claim for him to trash. Usually the last option is taken.

Given that there are a limited number of profit-producing news stories–and given that the political media is now a ferocious animal that never sleeps–the resort to this pattern of commenting on the outrageous is  more than frequent. What else, after all, could they focus on? Well, lots of things. But again, those things don’t earn them ratings. So the political media ends up propagating the same vicious cycle, the result being that political discussion becomes linked in the minds of the ordinary viewer with something akin to religious warfare.

Rant of the Moment: War and Taxes

11/13/2010 1 comment

I don’t always have an essays worth of thoughts on a particular topic. Even if I do, I don’t always have the time or effort to write long, thought-out, sometimes drawn-out essays. Sometimes this is due to laziness and sometimes this is due to the fact that I would rather write short soundbites about multiple topics than a long exposé on one. The rant of the moment serves that purpose. I call it a “rant” because I plan on focusing my attention on arguments or positions that annoy me or that I think are wrong or misguided in some way and because the briefness of these comments will not usually allow for comprehensive analysis. Whether or not this will actually end up being a weekly thing, a monthly thing, or a one-time thing, remains to be seen. So let me begin with:

1) The War Tax: why exactly is there no war tax in the United States? What is a war tax? It is as it sounds: a tax that is placed upon the people of a particular society when they are at war. The purpose of a war tax is, I would argue, threefold. First, to pay for the war. Wars cost billions of dollars in today’s currency and the money needs to come from somewhere. To be sure, some of the taxpayer dollars already goes to pay for military research, personnel, and so on. But that money is meant to cover the cost of a standing army at peacetime. The second purpose for a war tax is a matter of civil responsibility: a tax will ensure that the entire society plays its part in the war. Wars are fought by countries–or so one would think–not by distant so-called “volunteer” armies. This leads to the third reason: complacency. It becomes too easy for the citizens of a nation to not only start a war but let it drag on indefinitely if the war has no tangible influence on their lives (out of sight, out of mind). This is a recipe for mass injustice. I suspect that the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would either never have started or would have already seen their end if a war tax would have been in place. At the very least, there would certainly be a much greater call, from both sides of the political spectrum, to end these wars and a much greater hesitancy when contemplating new ones. My proposal: 10% increase to all income taxes during wartime (and perhaps an increase in or implementation of a federal sales tax) .

2) While I’m on the topic, let me address one more issue relating to the military. As insinuated above, is there, and has there ever been, such a thing as a volunteer military? We certainly like to think so. It makes us feel good when we think those killed and those injured in war were not coerced into serving but acted freely. But how free is it when the majority of those serving are from poor backgrounds? How free is it when someone sees military service as their only legitimate chance at a college education? Why aren’t the rich, preppy Harvard graduates signing up? If it was truly voluntary, shouldn’t we expect a roughly equal demographic distribution?

3) Why does it seem that when the public hears the word “philosophy” they either hear Socrates, Nietzsche, or Ayn Rand? WTF? I like Socrates, but guess what, he wrote nothing. Nietzsche seems to be talking nonsense most the time. And while I don’t know much about Rand (other than her atheistic libertarianism and the mysterious linkage between her and Objectivism, which seems to me to break down to views accepted and made famous by those long before her) I will bow to the satirical, yet very insightful Philosophical Lexicon: 

rand, n. An angry tirade occasioned by mistaking philosophical disagreement for a personal attack and/or evidence of unspeakable moral corruption. “When I questioned his second premise, he flew into a rand.” Also, to attack or stigmatise through a rand. “When I defended socialised medicine, I was randed as a communist.”

4) I recently learned that Sam Harris, famed atheist author, released a book entitled The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Without having read the book, but having read about it, I want to make a few tentative comments. First, I am a big fan of making philosophy accessible to the masses, so I praise Harris for that. Second, and less praiseworthy, the moment I read the subtitle, an uncontrollable “ugh” or more like a “guh” came out. Why do these atheistic thinkers have to be so scientistic, by which I mean an adherence to the idea that all phenomena are reducible to science? Two problems immediately stand out (and have always stood out since this type of project was attempted). (1) Science can’t answer why one ought to act morally in the first place, but perhaps even more importantly (2) it can’t, by itself, determine the moral worth of an action (it can’t determine the rightness or wrongness of any given action). From my understanding, Harris is a utilitarian, which helps him address (2). But even then it’s not science that determines human values but science + utilitarianism (an ethical theory that is itself not grounded in science).

Consider the following scenario: a young woman was kidnapped and tortured by some monstrous villain last week. Fortunately, she was saved recently and is now in the hospital just about to undergo physical and psychological examination. Now, I think we can agree that the villain’s actions were evil, immoral, wrong,  morally impermissible, and so on. But how can we tell? Well, let’s bring in the scientists. They examine her. They determine that while undergoing torture she was in immense physical pain. They also determine that she is likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. So was the villain’s action wrong? Yes, they say. So no need for the  moralists to come in? Not at all. Bedazzled by their confidence, I pose to them the following question: You were able to determine, by knowledge of what happened, that she underwent immense physical and emotional pain, but where in your analysis was the wrongness? I then go on to explain to them the Is-Ought Problem, about how empirical facts are not sufficient in determining the rightness or wrongness of an action. I then ask them one more question: why did you think the villain had committed a wrong action? Well, they say, because he harmed her and its wrong to harm someone in that way. Their response was rather vague but I left it at that.

So what did these scientists mean by saying that it was wrong to harm someone in that way? Being scientists who enjoy quantification, I suspect that they meant that the villainous actions were wrong because they caused the women immense pain and suffering. And when you act in such a way so as to create more pain than pleasure (or happiness or desire-satisfaction), you act wrongly. But they could have meant something else. They could have meant that  the young woman’s rights were violated and that, in itself, is what made the action wrong. Or perhaps they were focusing less on what happened to the woman and more on the negative character of the villain: his actions were wrong because they were produced by a malevolent character. Or perhaps they had more than one of these responses in mind. These responses are all derived from moral theories: utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics, respectively. So while science could potentially help determine the moral worth of an action–by measuring pain states for instance–determining which theory is ultimately correct/incorrect or most plausible/implausible does not seem to be within science’s grasp. To think so is to make a categorical mistake. It is to make a false reduction. But ethics is no more reducible to science than history (think World War II) is to quantum mechanics.

There are other types of value as well, like epistemological values and aesthetic values, which certainly can’t be determined by science either. In fact, it has long been argued by some 20th century thinkers that science is guided and even grounded in our values. Reason and observation is not sufficient in determining theory choice, so the argument goes. What ultimately determines theory choice once the data is in is our values, values like simplicity, coherence, and what some have called the elegance or beauty of a theory. It is these values that allow us to choose between two theories that are otherwise consistent with the data.

Facebook Facade

10/14/2010 2 comments

I have too many Facebook friends. Not in number but in diversity. I have too many friends from too many different backgrounds who know me in such vastly different ways that I can no longer honestly and enjoyably partake in the social networking extravaganza. I own many masks and rarely do I show them all to any one person. Rarely do I even show a few. With every friend added, the limitations on what is appropriate to say become tighter and tighter. Now the box is closed so tight I can hardly say anything worth mentioning. I could join in with the “Just finished my homework” club or the “Just got back from Taco Bell” groupies and all the other one-hundred thousand unenlightening, uninteresting, yet uncontroversial bull-crap messages that people feel the need to share. Or I could just remain silent, waiting for that rare thought to seep through the many filters I am now forced to put them through. Facebook was fun once, back when the only friends I had were those that knew my darker side, those that would not be offended or surprised to hear what wretched beliefs I hold. Oh well, I guess that’s why I have this blog.

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Dust In The Wind

On September 1st, my friend and sister-in-law passed away from cancer at the age of 28. I don’t have many of my own sentiments to report. It is saddening and surreal at the same time. My sister and I both agreed that this is probably the worst thing that has happened to our family. That is both a blessing and a curse, or to put it in my own terms, good fortune and bad. Bad for the obvious reasons, but good because it probably means that my family has been able to avoid the struggles that many others have faced. I had never been to a funeral until a week ago: not for any uncle, aunt, cousin, brother, sister, parent, or even grandparent. I didn’t expect that to last very long, but I certainly never expected that streak to end with someone so young.

Here is my tribute to Lindsey. Ideally I would choose just one song but I couldn’t help myself. The first song was written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon and was recently ranked the fifth greatest Beatles song of all time by Rolling Stones Magazine. The second song was written by Dave Matthews for his sister. Here’s to you girl.

Thought of the Day: Being Angry With God

Many people who believe in God sometimes say they are angry with God, usually as a result of something bad happening in their lives. This seems like an odd sentiment given that most of these same people also believe that God has their best interests in mind, that his grand over-arching plans are sometimes hidden to us, and that eventually everything will work out for the good (at least for believers). So I sometimes wonder if being “angry with God” should not be understood as anger directed at some divine being out there, but as anger directed at society (or those immediately surrounding us) for leading one to believe in a conception of God that is inconsistent with one’s experiences.

The Phoenix Effect

It turns out that the Phoenix exists. Although it’s not a creature of the air but of the sea.

Turritopsis nutricula Jellyfish
(Photo: Peter Schuchert)

The turritopsis nutricula species of jellyfish may be the only animal in the world to have truly discovered the fountain of youth.

Since it is capable of cycling from a mature adult stage to an immature polyp stage and back again, there may be no natural limit to its life span. Scientists say the hydrozoan jellyfish is the only known animal that can repeatedly turn back the hands of time and revert to its polyp state (its first stage of life).

The key lies in a process called transdifferentiation, where one type of cell is transformed into another type of cell. Some animals can undergo limited transdifferentiation and regenerate organs, such as salamanders, which can regrow limbs. Turritopsi nutricula, on the other hand, can regenerate its entire body over and over again. Researchers are studying the jellyfish to discover how it is able to reverse its aging process.

Because they are able to bypass death, the number of individuals is spiking. They’re now found in oceans around the globe rather than just in their native Caribbean waters.  “We are looking at a worldwide silent invasion,” says Dr. Maria Miglietta of the Smithsonian Tropical Marine Institute.

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