Wednesday, March 31, 2010

What is it about sports that makes people care so much?

Tonight, the IPPL is showing the latest in its Art & Democracy Film Series: the hockey movie Slap Shot. (The discussion will be broadcast live, on the web, starting between 9 p.m. and 9:15 central if you are interested.) Looking for an eye-catching tag line, I included the phrase "Can a hockey town have a hockey philosophy?" on the poster. (I have no idea what that question means, by the way.) Well, the response has been amazing. Of course, I don't know how many people will actually show up to the event, but there was a big article in The GF Herald about it (that link may require that you register, and here is the comment page in response to the article), and I had spontaneous interviews in KNOX radio and WDAZ television. In fact, the TV cameraman just left my house!

Needless to say, as a non-sports fan, I'm baffled (but not amazed -- I chose the movie precisely because it would gain attention). And forgetting all the subordinate issues we'll discuss tonight, I want to ask you: what is it about sports that gets people so involved? Why, given everything else that is going on in world, is it sports that attracts such interest and energy? And, more so, why hockey? What is it that makes that sport special and why (other than the cold and ice) is the upper mid-west so obsessed with it?

Bonus Moment

My favorite comment so far on the comment board is this:

"March 31, 2010 8:41 AM
C G. Grand Forks, ND  

Wow, talk about sucking all of the fun out of a movie.
I'm sure Weinstein will tell us all what we should think, the way he always does."

I'm wondering who C.G. is. I assume it's not Charles Griswold, my old dissertation advisor. Should I feel better or worse if C.G. is an actual student of mine?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Does using an ad blocker make someone a bad internet citizen?

My mom has been having trouble with internet pop-ups ads so just this morning, I recommended installing ad-block plus for her browser. I used it for years, stopped for some reason, and then just reinstalled it. But my best friend is skeptical of ad blocking. She claims that if advertisements bring websites the necessary money to exist, then users should allow them. (This is a version of the free rider problem, or the problem of the commons.) Furthermore, now that I run the institute and pay for online ads  -- the Art & Democracy film series, for example, incurs a lot of costs every month -- I know personally how blocking ads can impact an endeavor.

So, I am, once again, faced with a dilemma. At first I asked myself whether the question for this post should be whether blocking ads is immoral, but immoral is too strong a word. I do not think preventing ads from coming on one's screen is akin to stealing. (If you do, let us know why... I think it would be an interesting conversation.)  But it may very well be something like not voting, or not filling-out the census, or strolling on grass one is forbidden to walk on. It is part of the citizenship of the internet, and so I ask: does using ad-block make me a bad internet citizen?

Bonus question: 

Does the concept of "citizenship" even make sense in an internet context? I don't know that being an internet user is like being the member of a nation (or city, or state). Sure there are rights and responsibilities, but these come from the land that houses the server (or your terminal) and not from the internet itself. Also, there is no common governance of all the sites I visit. Each one is its own region with its own expectations. So, should I find a different word, or does citizenship apply in this case?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Can everyday objects be transformed into art objects?

So, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has "acquired" the @ for it's collection, meaning not that it purchased it and all of its rights, but rather that it has included it into its collection as a piece of art worthy of display. (Ownership would require, besides a huge overstepping of copyright laws, an immense commitment to German Idealism that even the MOMA might balk at.) The argument is that the symbol is an incredibly interesting act of design that is worth of inclusion as an art object. Details and a very interesting history of the symbol can be found at their blog.

At first blush, I thought this was odd, but I actually think its kind of cool. @ is a marvelously interesting symbol and reminds us of the efforts put into the creation of letters, fonts and typefaces, and other linguistic elements. (Michael Beard, a colleague of mine in UND's English Department is working on a book about the Arabic alphabet focusing, I believe, on the same historical and design issues that the MOMA has in mind.)

This acquisition brings many of the same issues as my previous post especially asking what art is in the first place. But this also necessitates a different set of questions, including whether an object's ubiquity -- whether the fact that something is every-present in our field of vision -- disqualifies it as an art object. Andy Warhol thought it didn't, of course, hence the soup can, and neither did Marcel Duchamp who went so far as to place a urinal in a museum exhibit. Others however think these two pieces are not at at all. What do you think? And, what other everyday objects do you think ought to be added to the MOMA collection as outstanding examples of design? (Added difficulty level: no Apple products.)

Monday, March 22, 2010

The body as art -- how far is too far?

I'm reeling from news of a high school friend's death. We lost touch after graduation so I didn't know until today that she died in 2007. Just as I am shocked by her passing, I am also trying to process her life -- she became a famous artist, working to meld her identity with her husband's by creating one person, plastic surgery enhanced twins. It's very complex.

This is worth reading, and worth thinking about, not just to remember Jackie (or Lady Jaye as she was apparently known), but to muse about the ever-more plastic nature of our lives. Is surgery for art's sake somehow more significant than surgery for vanity? Is adding breast implants to examine gender, sex, and identity of more worth than having them just to be more buxom? As usual, I don't have an answer to any of these question, but this time I'm overcome not only by the philosophical implications, but by the personal sense of loss -- of saying goodbye to a friend whome I hadn't even said hello to in twenty years.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Does the news tell us what's important or do we tell the news what we want to hear?

I had occasion today to watch about a half hour of CNN. I very rarely watch television and almost never see the cable news networks (except for the clips on The Daily Show, which I watch online). So, frankly, I found it shocking. Not because of bias or hostility -- this was the headline news stuff -- but because of the utter lack of news in the programming of the supposed news channel. There was talk about Tiger Woods and his (ex?) wife, there were discussions of the mother of John Edwards's out-of-wedlock child (and feigned shock at some photos she posed for in GQ magazine), there was a mention of Corey Haim's death, and a lot of stuff about the weather. There was a several-minute story about ecnomic recovery in Alabama that said absolutely nothing and a brief mention in passing of Obama's desire to rethink No Child Left Behind, but there was no mention of the two wars we are in, no mention of the battle for health care reform, and no detailed focus on anything remotely important or meaningful at all.

Now, the folks at CNN who are all driven by advertising dollars would likely say that they show what people want to see, but I find this hard to believe. If this morass of titillating hearsay is what people do claim they want to see, is this because we actually desire to see it or because we don't know the alternative? I know it sounds like I'm condemning the whole American public (I don't mean to), but if this is what America chooses to know about then we have given up all pretense of being a democracy. We cannot self govern if we are ignorant of the world. We cannot make choices if we don't know our options. But frankly, I don't think that this is what the American people want; I think we are smarter and more sophisticated than that. I think, instead, that the American viewer watches the best among lousy options and they are not given the choice to observe quality news programming at all. (Except on PBS -- sometimes -- but that brings up class issues that I will put aside for the moment.) Given the choice, would Americans watch (or maybe even read) real news? I don't know.

I suspect that part of the lousy programming comes from the lack of money spent on investigating the news. Most of the reports were taken straight off of websites; interns find that stuff for free. But if the websites are the source of news and the news just reports what the websites say, then the websites are going to continue to report just this stuff this because it is what the news corporations identify as important. I think we might be trapped?

So, the question I pose to you today is simple: are the news networks really responding to what American viewers want, or is the deck stacked against us and are our real feelings are hidden under the morass of low-quality options that get labeled choice? As for me, I really have no idea.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Why? Radio Thread -- Should the humanities be publicly funded?

Today at 5 p.m. (central) Why? Radio features a discussion on whether or not the humanities should be publicly funded. If you would like to comment before, during, or after the show, please do so here. Let's start a conversation.

To listen to the show life, go to (or Prairie Public radio if you are in ND).

To listen to it after we post it on the archive (hopefully by 7 p.m.), click here: Episode 14: archive.

Episode Description

March 14, 5 p.m. central:
"The Humanities in America: The Case for Public Funding"
Guest: Brenna Daugherty
What are the humanities and why are they important? How can the National Endowment for the Humanities claim that their activities are “critical to our common civic life as a nation?” And most controversially, should the U.S. government fund such cultural endeavors? In this episode of Why? we examine the philosophical issues related to what has come to be called the public humanities: the effort of both private and governmental organizations to create and supports events that disseminate philosophy, history, literature, and other arts to the general public.

A North Dakota native, Brenna Daugherty is currently the executive director of the North Dakota Humanities Council, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. She received a master's degree in Theological Studies from the Harvard Divinity School in June 2005. Brenna has been awarded the Prudential Spirit of Community Award Bronze medal, a STAND Leader Americorp Education Award, and the Concordia College Servant Leadership Award for her work with early intervention for college attendance.  At Concordia, her undergraduate alma mater, she was a founding member of TOCAR, a tri-college anti-racism initiative, and while at Harvard she was a founding member of Equitas, a social justice think tank.

Why?'s host Jack Russell Weinstein says, "I can think of no single person who is more intrinsic to the dissemination of the humanities in North Dakota. It is exciting to get the chance to talk theory with Brenna. Why should the community support what she does? Why are the humanities key to the development of citizenship? This discussion is going to be more controversial than one might otherwise think.”

Have a question you want to ask Brenna in advance, or don’t want your voice on the air? Send it to us at:

Saturday, March 13, 2010

What forms of community are most worthwhile?

So, our garbage disposal got stuck; all it did was hum. It was clear that something was jammed in it but I couldn't find anything to pull out. I really didn't want to have to pay a plumber to fix it, so I did some very quick research on the web and found a site that gave some advice. The most important bit was this:
If you find a very small item, such as a staple or other non-metallic object that just won't go through and defies all attempts at removal, there is a trick I learned from my middle daughter.  Load the disposal with ice cubes and turn it on while running cold water through it.  The ice stops the small object from jumping away from the grinders so they can pulverize it.  Again, this is only good for smallish objects, not for little stones or coins! 

It worked like a charm. (It was also very satisfying and I needed to crow. And since we try not to endorse traditional gender roles too much in our house -- notice that the origin of the tip was a "middle daughter" -- I instead declared to my family that "I am a God!" Hyperbolic, perhaps. But fulfilling nonetheless.)

This minor incident got me to thinking about Plato's critique of writing. In his dialogue Phaedrus, he argues, among other things, that writing will make the younger generations rely less on their memories. That writing will, in essence, make people dumber. It is a complaint that anticipated virtually every fear of new technology throughout history.

But Plato was wrong. Written knowledge is what helps human beings progress. I do not discredit orality -- my wife, the literacy scholar would never let me get away with that -- but writing certainly does allow us to record techniques and details that would otherwise get lost or distorted in the history-long game of telephone that human beings have played for millennia. It also allowed me to get advice from someone I never met and someone who I will likely never meet. I read the post in about 30 seconds, ran downstairs, tried it, and the rest is history.

I would also argue that this incident emphasized the community-based nature of the internet. Someone wants to help and puts up a website. People write to that person to have their questions answered. The discussion is archived for future use and people like me find it. I'm not very handy. The house we live in is not only the first house we ever owned, it is also the first house I ever lived in. I grew up with landlords and superintendents and owning our house has been a crash course in fixing things. (I can't say I like it, but I can say I feel good about the skills I acquire.) So, when I needed help, I contacted the digital community, the people who complement my neighbors, the group that plays the role of village elders, so to speak. Kim makes fun of me because I once looked up how to split wood. (I was a boy scout, but it didn't take.) Yes, the internet can be anti-social, but it does not have to be.

The questions before us, therefore, are two-fold. First, are critics correct that new technology harms more than helps us? And second, Is an internet community somehow less valuable, or less real perhaps, than those we create with face-to-face interactions?

Friday, March 12, 2010

We're fiddling with the blog ... please be patient

really don't like the blog layout, so I'm working on making it nicer. I know that some of the sidebars are difficult to read. Please be patient as I work to improve it all. Thanks!!!! - Jack

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A question for Grand Forkers

We held our event last night in the Campbell library in East Grand Forks. For a variety of reasons, it didn't work out, and we're looking for a new venue. Any suggestions as to where we might hold our next discussion? It has to be a place with internet access, and ideally, since we are webcasting live, it would be a place where we can plug into the wall rather than attach wireless. (Audio and video are better that way.) We would prefer not to have it on campus since we are trying to be in the community. And it can't be a religious or partisan site. Any thoughts as to a good, accessible, and (preferably) free place to go? We thought about coffee shops, but we can't go anywhere where the drink machines are louder than the speaker... so they might not work out.

Why do we condemn successful people for "selling out"?

I'm a big Kevin Smith fan (link may be NSFW). I understand his limitations -- the childish bathroom humor, the penchant for jokes about oral sex, the somewhat obvious philosophical/religious points he makes when he's being serious  -- but I think his jokes are funny, and I enjoy his films. I even thought Jersey Girl was "good enough," which is more than many thought of it. (Full disclosure requires that I admit the only Smith film I haven't seen is Zach and Miri, but that is not a conscious decisions -- I just haven't gotten to it yet.) So, this weekend Kim and I saw Cop Out and it was fine. It was funny and escapist. Tracy Morgan is a lunatic. Some of the direction was sloppy and there were moments of terrible acting, but it was perfectly acceptable for a Friday night and the people in the theater were laughing really hard. All good.

I recognize that there will be people who don't like it and critics will attack it for a variety of reasons. This is also fine. But at least one critic has obliquely attacked him for taking a "studio paycheck" and others have chided him for selling out. Smith himself tells us that he took a tremendous pay cut to do the film but that doesn't concern me here. Instead what bothers me is the notion that once someone gets successful they are suddenly deemed unworthy of artistic respect. Lots of people claim to have known a rock band "before they were big," and others get infuriated when their favorite musician, or in this case, favorite director, does a project "for the money." But we all do things mostly for the money all the time. Most people don't dream of working everyday in cubicles filling out TPS reports, and most kids don't fantasize about being dental assistants. But we all do it anyway because money is a good thing to have. Furthermore, the job of an artist is not just to create art. It is to make sure that one's art is seen (or heard, or read...). The larger the audience, the more people experience the art, the more impact the art has, and the more influential the art can be. Being successful is good and is so for almost every reason.

Now, we can have a discussion about whether or not Cop Out constitutes art. If it does, it's certainly not "high art." (In my mind, the two candidates for films that look like low art but might actually be high art are South Park: The Movie and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, the latter of which is certainly high art in a different sense as well.) But that debate misses the point. If Kevin Smith wants a project because it's fun or because it's something different, or simply because it makes him some money, why should he be condemned for it? Why do we want our artists to be pure? Why do we only think art for art sake (and for no other result) is the only kind of art that is inherently valuable? This seems an odd position to hold and largely the only time we, in our culture, expect this kind of purity.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

IPPL Breaking News: Live Webcast this evening.

On March 10 at 6 p.m. central, during David Dillard-Wright’s discussion “Why Should We Care? Disaster and Ethics,” IPPL will be testing new technology that will allow us to broadcast all of our events live on the web. This means that wherever you are, as long as you have internet access and up-to-date software, you too can watch the event. Write us via e-mail at or on twitter @theIPPL to ask your own question during the Q&A!
Click here to find the link to the live stream:
We hope this will work, but since it is the first time, it might not. So, if it isn’t working at first, stay tuned or come back periodically. And, if it isn’t working, write us and tell us so we can try to fix it. We want this to work and we hope that in time, all of our events will reach a world-wide audience.
Tune in tomorrow and help us begin the next chapter of the IPPL adventure. And, as always, thanks for your support.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

When are we adults and are there things we shouldn't talk about even if we are?

Last night at the Delta Gamma house, we had a wonderful conversation about our "true selves," and when we are most authentically ourselves. It started out as a discussion about My Space vs. Facebook (one of my favorite discussions to start with), and morphed into asking whether the person we are when we're drunk is who we really want to be. (A distinction was made between being buzzed and being very drunk, as well.) I attended the event with an older woman (I refuse to speculate on her age) who remarked afterward about how uncomfortable she got when I started discussing drinking. She was both laughing at herself and being impressively self-aware, explaining that while she knew the women of the house drank, it still made her uncomfortable to talk about it. Drinking is bad, she said, and she didn't like acknowledging it (the implication being that talking about it was endorsing it). Of course, she admitted that drinking isn't bad but that she instinctively reacts as if it is. She attributes this reaction to being of an older generation; I think it might be that but cultural/religious stuff as well. For the record, I at least don't think there's anything wrong with being drunk either, but I can't attest to her views on the more extreme activities.

I had an interesting parallel conversation with my 4-year old daughter Adina while driving her to school today. She is very interested in watching Hannah Montana videos but her mom and I are reluctant. Getting her involved in all those story lines about dating and the traditional gender stuff tat they are packaged in makes us uncomfortable, not because we won't talk with her about sex or dating when she's older (there's pretty much nothing I am uncomfortable talking about) but because its way too early to sexualize her social experience that way. The pressures on even a four-year old to dress and act like a mini-Hannah Montana are immense. The wolves are at the door. (Or at least the Cyruses). Some of her female friends watch the show and she's very interested, and in her conversations with me, she is hyper aware that it is the girls who watch it. That's part of the issue too. But her mom has agreed to let her watch one episode if they watch it together so they can talk about it. Forbidden fruit is of course the most dangerous thing of all.

Thus, the question I pose today is whether talking about things is ever dangerous. Is it better to keep things hidden, or is it better to risk unintended consequences of exposure in order to try to help people neutralize threats through knowledge. Of course, the main difference between the two examples are the relative ages; Adina is still a little kid and the sonority sisters are college students. However, the most interesting moment of the night came when one of the Delta Gammas remarked that they all behave better and more formally when they are around adults and I responded that I found it worth noting that she thought that people between the ages of 18 - 22 were not, in fact, adults. This led to laughter but also a short but very powerful tangent. So, I leave you all with this question: when do we become adults?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Is targeting your audience sexist or just good rhetoric?

Today is International Women's Day and coincidentally, I will be having dinner at the Delta Gamma sorority house. They have asked me to help them raise $100k for an invited lecture series on "ethics and values." My job tonight is to get the women of the sorority fired-up about their fund raising efforts by helping them better understand what ethics and values are. I have a half hour after dinner to engage them in exciting conversation about issues that relate to them. So, on the one hand, there is a whole list of questions that pop into mind: stuff related to Greek life, questions about things of "women's interest," in general. But suppose I choose the latter -- suppose as a whole the sisters are genuinely interested in meanings of beauty, or the nature of love, or philosophical assumptions about relationships -- and not interested in astrophysics, boxing, the Three Stooges and other things traditionally gendered as male. Do I cater to those interests? Do I assume those interests? Is doing so sexist even if it turns out to be true? (I think about a related scenario: what if you have a black friend who really loves watermelon and fried chicken, is it racist not to serve it because it's stereotypical? What if you have a Jewish friend who is a greedy banker who wants to control the world? Do you not call him or her on it because you might sound anti-Semitic?)

So, the question before us is whether or not assuming interest in a topic when you have demographic reasons to do so is sexist or just responding to the odds. What do you think?

An interesting side note:

When I googled the link for the article about NBC and the Black History Month menu, I was reluctant to link to the Huffington Post because I didn't want to suggest political partisanship on the blog. But why should I not post a relevant article if it serves my purpose?

Some reading suggestions:

If you are looking for some good reading for International Women's Day, might I recommend Martha Nussbaum's Women and Human Development and Amartya Sen's More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing. Both outstanding reads. Sen was on Why? a few months ago, and Nussbaum will be on in May.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Are audiobooks making me a liar?

I've been reading a wonderful book: Spark by John J. Ratey. It's about the effect exercise has on the brain. It's revolutionary and pretty much eviscerates the mind/body problem. But that's a topic for another time. My concern at the moment is that I haven't really been reading it. I've been listening to it on my iPod.  And I wonder, does that count as reading? Last year I listened to Julia Child's autobiography My Life In France (loved it!), and now I tell people I've read it. Am I lying? Is it the same thing to hear and to read? Do I have an obligation to tell people that it was an audiobook? I feel this compulsion for full disclosure, but maybe I'm just obsessing. So, I ask all of you, should I be specific of how I got through the book, or are the "reading" and "listening" interchangeable in this context?

Universal access or accountability? Do I moderate comments?

I am torn as to whether or not I should moderate all the comments on this blog. On the one hand, I want to encourage as many people as possible to participate. If this blog does not inspire conversation than it's really a pointless exercise. On the other hand, people seem to be at their worst when they can post anonymously. Free speech demands accountability and anonymity seems to preclude accountability. What do you think and why? Should blogs allow anonymous posts?

Are blogs still relevant?

Welcome everybody to IPPL's blog. I've been deliberating as to whether we need one, but more and more I read articles or have thoughts that I want to pass on to the IPPL/Why? community. So, we'll call this an experiment, and I ask you: do you still read blogs? Do you post comments on blogs, and most importantly, can you imagine a blog being a place where the general public can do philosophy?

I am betting yes, but time will tell.