Monday, January 28, 2008

Common Sense Philosophy now Less Common, or Dancing Around Architecture

The building pictured to the right is the MIT Stata Center, which houses a couple of Computer Science and AI Laboratories, as well as the Linguistics and Philosophy departments. Designed by a Pritzker-Prize winner, the equivalent of a Nobel in the Architecture world, Frank Gehry is being sued for design and structural flaws. The building once described by Gehry as looking like a drunken robot party (I fail to understand why this would be a reasonable design concept, unless they were of course...girl robots), the flaws have caused such problems as mold appearing in the amphitheater due to a poor drainage system and some masonry cracking. The court papers also complain about sliding ice and snow. Sliding ice and snow, really, is this really a surprise to anyone? Look at the building, seriously, what did they expect in Cambridge? Gehry claims that it's a result of "value engineering," code for "the Luddite Philistines don't appreciate my genius," or more xenophobically, "cheap immigrant labor." The construction company responsible for the $300 million abortion claims innocence and no philosophy professors or other faculty who have offices there, including one, Noam Chomsky, have been injured yet. MIT administrators remain on the insurance hunt warpath, common sense warpath long stopped, sometime after the Scottish Enlightenment. 

The New York Times Tower designed by the 1998 winner of the Pritzker Prize, Renzo Piano, famous for his Georges Pompidou Center, is also suing the architecture firm responsible for this exposed ceramic roded cruciformed phallus. Apparently, ice forming around the rods heat slightly during the day, I know hard to believe, but this heating causes ice to fall from the sky at intense gravity accelerated, skull-damaging velocities. The structure of the building, with its glass facade has also led to two windows shattering and falling to the earth in the span of a week.  This so-called green-building with its reduced environmental footprint and energy-saving features (glass still remains sharp, however) is not without its merit, but they will have to do something about the death icicles.

It is likely true that the amount of planning, testing, and redesigning that must go into these contemporary structures is mind-numbing and tedious at best.  It is also that tediousness, no doubt, which generates the massive price tags on those projects. However, it is equally interesting to encounter the cracks in the foundation (pun most definitely intended), as tiny design issues on paper become massive health and safety issues in life, and legal battles in court. Though these issues are nothing new; they are becoming more common as the desire for invention and creativity quickly outstrips the human capacity to foresee, schematize, and account for every contingency. The first such encounter for me and still one of the most head-shakingly amusing ones I have made note of is Uris Hall (pictured right), which is on the lovely campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. Apparently two graduates back in the 70's from my dear Alma Mater far above Cayuga's waters decided, after making a ton of money, that they wanted to name a building after themselves, a natural impulse I guess if you are rich. In Pittsburgh they saw the U.S. Steel building, which was composed of  Cor-ten steel. This type of steel was particularly resistant to corrosion due to the fact that as the surface oxidized it would develop a brownish-orange patina that would protect the metal alloy. Both impressed by the material and the color its patina produced, they asked the material to be the principle component in the building of this academic facility. Unfortunately for them but fortunately for the students and inhabitants of Cornell and the surrounding town, the air in upstate New York does not contain the sulfuric pollutants that the residents of Western Pennsylvania inhale. As a result, good air, ugly as sin rust. The building is currently a sort of splotched dark brown and black cage-like monstrosity but is in no danger of corroding. In other news: Men more like rodents than previously suspected in detailed planning tasks says a report out of Scotland. As you may have noticed, Scotland has had a long tradition with both Common Sense and the best laid plans of others, I bet their buildings don't look like drunken robot orgies.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Good Loss is Hard to Find or Havant & Waterlooville FC Revisited

 Liverpool 5 - Havant & Waterlooville FC 2. Despite the loss, those part-timers from Hampshire, a coastal county in the Southeast of England, did not come for a jolly-up they came to play and play they did. Taking the lead not once but twice in the first half to a side in which a deal to refinance the team was recently reached for a staggering £350 million.  Playing with resilience through the first half, it was only in the second half did it look like  they were actually playing a team of multi-million dollar earning professionals. While a disappointing game to the 6,000 Hawks fans that made it to Anfield, their team gave them much to cheer about and little to complain. After the game the Liverpool fans gave the team a standing ovation, earning perhaps the next best thing to a victorious result, respect. Though things will no doubt settle down in that coastal town, as the global attention fades; I am sure the players and fans will have much to talk about, including how to keep the website from crashing for the next time, and of course there will be a next time. 

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Heroes for the Night or Why You Must Love the FA Cup

In a great upset last night during a round 3 replay (that is rematch) of FA Cup action, which is a major soccer competition for the British Isles Havant & Waterlooville FC shocked Swansea in 4-2 banger of a game. What makes this upset notable, is that the Hawks are a number of leagues down the huge interconnected pyramid that is the U.K. Football system. There are literally thousands of soccer teams in this system most of which theoretically have a shot at winning the FA cup, though in reality only eight times has a non-premier league team won the whole thing in its 140 year history. To place the difference in supposed quality between the two teams in some perspective, Swansea play in Coca-Cola League One, in fact they sit atop the table, which is one league removed from the Barclay's Premier League, the one that features all your favorites: Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and 16 other major soccer teams.  Havant & Waterlooville FC on the other hand play in the Blue Square Conference South division which is a number of leagues down the chain. This equates to about 83 places away. Most soccer systems around the world have a mechanism known as promotion-regulation, whereby a team that finishes at the top of their table, i.e. top of the league have the opportunity to play in the next higher league. By the same token a team near the bottom of their table, may lose their spot and be regulated to a lower league the next season. Havant & Waterlooville would have to be promoted 3 times to compete in the same league as Swansea. Three times! If they happened to be regulated out of their current table they would be in the Isthmian Premier League, the Isthmian Premier League! The game itself was pretty spectacular, 6 goals is a fairly high scoring affair. Moreover, as the announcers pointedly mentioned, that these guys Heroes for the Night, are probably going to have to call in to work in the morning, along with their reveling fan base.  In another example to elucidate the uncharted territory that this team now finds itself; the website that belongs to the Havant & Waterlooville team broke last night as so many people suddenly became interested in them. Their fourth round match is against the mighty Liverpool, yes that Premier League mainstay Liverpool, on January 26th. It is likely that this somewhat unlikely run will end at Anfield, but lest you think they aren't relishing the occasion to play, you can already purchase a T-shirt for the game which details their road to Liverpool. Moreover, the game will net a significant cash windfall for the team, somewhere on the order of £500,000. If the greatest upset in FA cup history were to occur and the Hawks manage to beat Liverpool, the closest analogy that is available in the United States is if a World Series of Baseball began with all the teams in the MLS plus the Entire Farm League system and the New York Yankees lost to the Tampa Yankees (a single A team). You really never know...but that's why you play the game! Go on Hawks!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The "New" Mysterians...?

 In a recent article from the Guardian, Stuart Jeffries acquaints us with a delightfully rancorous professional squabble between two philosophers of mind, Colin McGinn and Ted Honderich. Though their personal drama is fairly salacious, some nonsense about ex-girlfriends and subsequent ad hominem invective, their philosophical disagreements are no less divisive. Colin McGinn along with public intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Thomas Nagel are proponents of a philosophical stance called the "New Mysterian" position. They suggest rather surprisingly that certain philosophical problems, like the one of consciousness are insoluble. There are varying degrees of insolubility, from: just currently not solvable all the way to a kind of a priori insolubility. The name of the position itself derives from a band called Question Mark and the Mysterians [pictured left with self-denigrating  possibly ironic road sign], whose most recognizable single is the lyrically uninspired but oddly creepy "96 Tears."  Just to follow the ontological suture to its origin, the band name itself is borrowed from a 1959 movie entitled, The Mysterians, which itself was originally a 1957 movie called, Chikyu Boeigun. [Tagline: They come from another World...They want 3 kilometers of land-and...FIVE of your WOMEN!] That's .6 kilometers per woman, frightening.

The central tenet of the new mysterian position holds that the problem of consciousness is either too complex or too "close" to be properly explicated. What is implied by "closeness" is that the degree to which we are imbedded in consciousness either as an individual or as a species restricts our ability to apply the analytical tools required in order to properly parse the phenomenon of consciousness. If this sounds more like an old mysterian position along the lines of a theological doctrine of omniscience and the impenetrability of the mind of God, you are likely not alone. Though it does not explicitly or even implicitly demand a manifested onto-theological structure; such a position is at worst amenable to such a concept. Moreover, those who claim this philosophical stance offer good reasons for believing that this is the case, rather than (as it might be assumed) claiming an epistemic weariness or a psychological unwillingness to go on. The mysterians allow that there is still good work to be done on this most-vexing of phenomena, but the bar of accomplishment must necessarily fall short of a complete solution to the problem of consciousness. The mysterian position as far as can be determined is rather in the minority of the academic world, and immediately a certain sort of repulsion arises at the notion that a lively philosophical position can be promulgated from the stance of necessary failure. One of the most compelling and engaging features of philosophical discourse is that it does not as a matter or course, close itself off to its horizons of possibility. Furthermore, there is a generally accepted and fortifying sense of acknowledgment of the  indefatigability of the human intellect, which serves as a basis of scientific endeavor.Scientists and philosophers are notorious for their singular obsession with what might be considered abstracta  or minutiae; it is that sort of commitment, which has yielded many discoveries about our world, and our experiences. Prima facie this so-called mysterian position seems to undermine that commitment at its very core.

There are those who would claim that there exists a Church of Science and of Philosophy, insofar that these institutions are dependent on certain axiomatic principles or beliefs which cannot be challenged, much like canonical church doctrine, except through major revolutionary processes or "paradigm shifts." If indeed these cathedrals of the intellect do exist, surely we must count these "mysterians" as their most dangerous heretics. [They have come to invade the earth, abduct its women, and level the basic suppositions of a mechanistic observable universe] They are perhaps even more dangerous than those who would carry the banner of "intelligent design." All they want (though, it is admittedly far too much) is to have their books included in the liturgy and set alongside On the Origin of Species. These mysterians would have us believe that science/philosophy does not and cannot have all the answers, that in fact, (ab)solution does not lie within that Church.  Yet, there is a residuum of inquiry that would seem heretofore contradictory to this ostensibly defeatist attitude. The mysterian position does compel its critic to wonder, at least minimally, if in reality there exists a "solution" to the problem of consciousness, how will we know we have found it? More fundamentally, what constitutes a solution to the problem of consciousness? In the typical hypothetico-inductive experimental method, either reproducibility or some other strict method of verification is required in order to establish sufficient confidence about a theory. Is it necessary in order for us to establish the authenticity of a theory of consciousness, must it provide a description sufficiently capable of reproducing the phenomenon? Will a definition of consciousness be able to properly account for every minute and variegated circumstance in which consciousness manifests itself?  From this perspective one might consider including the mysterian position in the "big tent" of Philosophy and Science, because like most other authentic or meaningful philosophical inquiries, what it leaves us with is much like what it starts us with, a....