Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Logic Lessons Pt 12 - Kinds of Definitions

Once we have established the rules for definitions, it important to list the kinds of definitions.

1.  Nominal.
     This is a definition of a word rather than the thing that the word designates.  This means that it the definition is in reference to how a word is used rather than what it is.  A nominal definition is something that Webster is interested in when giving the different ways that word "soul" is used in the English language.  But a real definition is what Plato is interested in when asking question in through his dialogues to discover what is the soul's essence.

Nominal definitions are not true or false.  It is simply a matter of their usage.

Of nominal definitions, they are men to convey
a. Conventional Meanings - this refers what is commonly held as the definition, whether or not it is accurate.  The conventional meaning of "education" is schooling by teachers over students.  But the thing itself is not limited to that.
b.  Specialized Meanings - this refers to definitions agreed upon in a discussion.  For example, if you are trying to define human life, you can say, "Let's stipulate that any creature that has reason is human."  And if you and your interlocutor agree, it is a specialized meaning.
c.  Synonym.  - this is the simple word replacement for an equivalent word.
d.  Etymology - understanding the word's origin as definition.  For example "philosophy" is based on two Greek words "phileo" meaning "love" and "sophia" meaning wisdom."  So philosophy is the "love of wisdom."
e. Examples - These are not strictly definitions but they are helpful to get the idea across to someone.  Try defining the color red.  You'll find t"3-hat more often than anything, you point out red things rather than define the thing itself.

2.  Essential
     This should give the genus and specific difference (or property) of the thing being defined.  This is what Socrates always strove for.  He wanted to understand a thing's essence.

When using a genus, you should use the narrowest of genus available.  You could use the genus "shape" or "plane figure" for "triangle."  "Plane figure" is a narrower genus and so it is preferable.

The specific difference tells us how the thing being defined is different than all the other things in the genus.  "3-Sided, enclosed, whose angles equal 180 degrees" is the specific difference.

Together, the genus and specific difference gives us the species.

For example, the species of human is the animal (genus) that is rational (specific difference).  We are like all the other beasts because we share the fact that we are all animals.  But we are different because we are the only ones who have reason.

3.  By Property.
  This is a quality that flows from the essence.  For example, if you said that "Humans are animals that write poetry," you are defining "humans" by a quality that comes only from its essence.  Since the essence of human beings is that we are rational and only those who have reason have language and only those who have language have poetry, therefore human beings are the animals that write poetry."

4.  By Accidents.
   Accidental properties are changeable, non-essential aspects of a thing.  You could define the "clouds" to a child as "the white things in the sky."  But those qualities of "whiteness" and "in-the-skyness" are not essential to a cloud.  Clouds can be different colors.  They can also be be in other locations.  But even though accidents cannot give you an essential definition, if you add enough of them you can convey a clear picture of the subject another person.

5.  By Efficient Cause.
  This is the an explanation of a things origins.  E.g. "AIDS is a disease caused by HIV."

6.  By Final Cause.
  This defining a thing by the purpose for which it is designed.  E.g. "A pen is an instrument for writing."

7. From  Material Cause
  This is defining a thing by its composition.  E.g. "Water is 2 parts hydrogen and 1 part oxygen."

8.  From Effects.
   This is usually done as a catch-all for something that cannot be defined in any other way than the effect it causes.  E.g. a "carcinogen" is defined as "anything the causes cancer."

Film Review: Jersey Boys

This review will be short, unlike the movie I am reviewing.

Jersey Boys is a "musical" about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.  It is not a musical in the traditional sense of characters breaking into spontaneous song.  This can be done well, as in the movies Once and Begin Again (to be reviewed later).  And to be sure, the music is the best part of this movie.  But the film is long, vulgar, and boring.

The story starts with Tommy Devito (Vincent Piazza) narrating about life in "the neighborhood" in '50's Jersey.  He works for mob boss Gyp Decarlo (Christopher Walken) and is best friends with Frankie (John Lloyd Young).  Tommy is an amoral, two-bit nogoodnick who helps nurture the overly talented Frankie.  Later they meet songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) who is much more clean-cut and wants the group to be about the music.  Bob and Tommy have competing narrations.  Later the other member of the Four Seasons, Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) also chimes in as a moderating perspective.  Ostensibly, the story is about Frankie, but he gets no narration until a few lines at the very end.  The quartet navigate the trials and tribulations of rising to stardom and dealing with the excesses.

The movie is filled with problems.

1.  The characters are just plain unlikeable.  They feel like characters from The Sopranos, with all of their self-centered machismo.  Even Frankie, who is supposed to be the sweet innocent, is actually kind of scummy.  He marries early, but he simply takes it for granted that he should sleep with other women on the road.

2. The movie is too long.  At 134 minutes, it drags and drags.  This is a common problems in movie directed by Clint Eastwood.

3.  It is too episodic.  One of the main problems of biopics is that they tend to wander in the narrative.  It feels like we wander into vignettes about a person's life with no real sense of plot structure.

4.  The women are 1-dimensional.  I know that this is a common problem in film, but the women in the movie are flagrantly used as ornaments to the men in the story and serve no other function as to help shape the emotions of the men.  It is so blatant that it gets quite annoying.

The only saving grace of the movie is the music.  Those songs will be stuck in your head and you will remember with nostalgia how fun it is to listen to Frankie Valli's falsetto.

2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time #17 - Raising Hope

4 Seasons (2010-2014)

I remember watching the pilot to Raising Hope and not being terribly impressed.  The premise was that Jimmy Chance (Lucas Neff) is an idiot slacker son of idiot parents Burt (Garret Dillahunt) and Virginia (Martha Plimpton) who all live in with Jimmy's great grandmother Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman).  Jimmy has a one night stand with a girl who turns out to be a serial killer.  She gives birth to the baby and is executed, leading Jimmy the responsibility to raise the baby, named Hope, with his quirky family.

As dark as that premise is, the film is long on the silly.  And yet the one of the last scenes in the pilot was filled with a lot of surprising heart.

But it didn't hook me, so I let it go.  But then a year later there was an episode with Ashley Tisdale in it.  My wife and I being fans of the High School Musical series, we watched.  And it was fantastic.  So we finished the rest of the season and went back and watch everything that had come before.

Here is the key to understand Raising Hope: it is a smartly written show about stupid people.  There are a lot of low-brow comedies that are low brow because the writers have no wit.  But the creators of Raising Hope use the characters to come up with not only incredibly clever turns of phrase, but deal with complex ideas.  I've never seen a television episode of a sitcom so clearly and succinctly explain the problem of inflation and national borrowing debt in a way that was silly and intelligent at the same time.

On a small note, I liked the fact that the Chances went to church regularly.  Like the Simpsons, they are not saints, but even as they fell short of the Christian ideals, they acknowledged that there was something of value in the faith.

The show was extremely broad in its comedy, with no room for subtlety or any real drama.  But that's okay.  It never intended to have any seriousness to it.  It reveled in its silliness.  And it succeeded in being the type of show it set out to be.

Particularly Plimpton was fantastic as Virginia.  On of my favorite parts of the show was her constant mis-remembering of famous sayings or even common words.

And Dillahunt for me was a breakout star.  His Burt was so full of enthusiasm and sincerity, he through himself completely into whatever excited him.  It was so fun to watch him get excited or upset but lacking the intelligence or vocabulary to explain why.  His complete commitment to the character brought out major laughs.


"Jimmy's Fake Girlfriend" (2x14)
As you can see, Raising Hope has a long threshold.  It begins with Burt and Virginia trying to find a hobby to share in common.  Their are attempts are as varied as they are hysterical.  But the crux of the episode is around Jimmy's love for Sabrina (Shannon Woodward), who has a jerk boyfriend named Wyatt.  This had been the running romantic tension of the series.  But Virginia decides to step up Jimmy's game by making Sabrina jealous.  She gets a local actress, Tisdale, to pretend to be his girlfriend.

The results are not only incredibly funny, but the last 10 minutes are incredibly romantic and sweet with all of the silly energy that this show can muster.

The reason why this is the threshold, is because it reflects back on all that has come before it and you see how the events, the tone, and the style all fit together to create a very nice and humorous journey.  It is easy to mistake Raising Hope as a stinging satire of stupid Americans.  But that is not what it is about.  The Chances may not have brains, but they have heart and they have drive.   You can now go back and see the rest of the series in this warm, comforting light.

"Modern Wedding" (3x14)
The "Moonlighting Curse" referes to a show that loses its luster after the 2 leads end the will-they-won't-they and finally get together.  That didn't happen in Raising Hope until Jimmy and Sabrina get married.  The episode is actually very good and has a lot of heart.  But this radically shifts the dynamic of the show.  Not only do Jimmy and Sabrina no longer live in the funny squalor of the Chance home, but the center of the show shifts from Jimmy raising Hope to the adventures of Burt and Virginia.

This should have been an improvement because Plimpton and Dillahunt are the best and funniest performers on the show.  But because of this, the original main character's adventures are relegated to B-story level and it you feel some of the wind removed from the creative sales.

"I Want My Baby Back, Baby Back, Baby Back." (2x22)
It turns out that Hope's mother survived her execution and she wants custody of her baby.  The result is a loony legal fiasco and a trial that revisits the highlights of the series.  This is the funniest episode of the show that I've watched over and over.

The best part is the ending.  It is one of the only times these show feels like it touches some more serious emotions.  I remember watching and feeling a little surprised by this and touched.  And then it ends with a gag that had me on the floor.


Raising Hope is good television in the sense that you watch an episode and you feel better.  It's goal is simply to get an audience lose themselves in a world sillier than our own and feel the pleasure of some spontaneous laughs.  And that is no bad thing.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Film Flash: Begin Again

15 words or less film review (full review to follow soon)

A charming little movie about people finding healing and redemption through music.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Wednesday Comics: Race and Gender in Comic Books

Marvel made an unusual move this week by making a major comic book announcement on The View: The new wielder of the power of Thor is going to be a woman.

Is this Thor being replaced or is this Thor turned into a woman?  We don't know all the details yet, but Marvel's gambit has worked and people who don't really pay attention to comics have taken notice.

But what I would like to address is a trend in comics of changing the race and gender of characters.

Introducing new characters into a title isn't anything new.  The Silver Age brought in new versions of characters like Green Lantern and the Flash.  And then later, even these characters were replaced (at least for a time).  DC introduced a black Green Lantern, John Stewart.  He still serves as a Green Lantern along with Simon Baz, an American of Arabic descent.

Over at Marvel, they replaced Peter Parker in the Ultimate universe with half-black/half-hispanic Miles Morales.  Carol Danvers, known as Ms. Marvel, has taken the previously male role of Captain Marvel.  And now the name Ms. Marvel is being used my an Arab-American girl in her own comic.

The two major companies constantly try to outdo each other in diversity outreach.  It makes sense in an attempt to increase the market by accessing new customers.  One of the primary pulls of the superhero genre is the ability of those (especially the young) to see themselves in the role of the hero.  The more that the character has in common with the reader, the easier it is to identify with them.

I can give you a non-comic book example of this.  When I was younger, I self identified much more with the Asian side of my ethnicity.  As a result, I became very attached to Asian characters in movies and TV.  I watched Bruce Lee's movies over and over.  I loved imagining I was Short Round, accompanying Indy on his adventures.  Now, this didn't mean that I couldn't identify with non-Asian characters, but I can see how the racial or gender component can aid in making that emotional connection.

For the most part, I haven't noticed people in the comic book community very bothered by this.  Most geeks like me see the superhero cannon as a big tent with lots of room.

The problem occurs when they change the race or gender of a character.  For example, Wally West was recently introduced into the New 52.  He is no longer the red-headed family man, but a bi-racial teen.  And now the news of Thor possibly becoming a woman is upsetting to some.

Now, I hesitate even bringing this topic up, seeing as they are hot-button issues and there is already a heightened sense of emotion in this matter.  But it should be addressed.

Giving a superhero code name to someone of a different race or gender is very different than changing the race or gender of the character per se.

The popular internet opinion is that anyone who disagrees with a race/sex change has an objection rooted in racism or sexism.  But I think that is simply a red herring, meant to shame those who have a disagreeing view.

I want to limit my discussion to comic books alone and not to movie and TV adaptation where racial and gender changes are common.  Instead, we have to take the comic genre by itself.  The reason why is that comics are a purely visual medium.

The entire experience of reading a comic book is the visual.  Unlike a movie that employs sound, motion, music, and the like, the only information provided is what you see.  Your imagination has to fill in the details regarding what the character sounds like, what the environment feels like, etc.  Because of this, the visual design and details can be more important than in other media.

We comic book readers become very attached to the way a character looks because that is the most identifiable and unique feature about them.  Changing race and gender in movies and TV adaptions is much more acceptable because of the elements of voice, talent, physical prowess and other qualities that are not needed in depicting a character in a comic book.

This is one of the reasons comic book fans get very opinionated about even the slightest costume change.  Even the smallest change has a strong impact on how you encounter the character.

And then when you change the race or gender, it is obviously a much deeper change.  We are used to people changing clothes, but changing skin color or sex is much more radical.  The reason why is because it would be an intense physical change.  But this is not rooted in any kind of racism or sexism, but with our given expectations of the character.

Imagine a blond Superman?
A male Wonder Woman?
An Asian Luke Cage?

Racial changes are neither good nor bad in and of themselves.  But it is a big change.  To deny that is to   ignore the purely visual nature of comics.  Going back to Wally West, I very much miss his red hair.  But this has nothing to do with his race.  If they kept him caucasian and made him a brunette, it would be just as jarring to me.

Changing sex is a much bigger deal.  Unlike race, sexual differences are rooted in our nature.  And these differences are essential.  You can say that Wally West is the same character no matter his race and it could be true.  But if you say that Thor is the same character no matter his gender, this is incorrect.   I am not saying that you cannot have interesting and entertaining stories about a female wielder of Mjolnir.  But you can't change genders the way you change costumes.

So to sum up, racial and gender changes are big deals because they radically change the look of a character in a medium that is purely visual.  This change is neither good nor bad by its nature but that doesn't change the fact that it is a radical change.  Finally, changing gender is a much bigger deal than changing race because sexual differences changes the character at their essence.


Logic Lessons pt 11 - Rules for Definitions

At our last session we discussed the nature of definitions.  Now here are the rules.

     Definitions must be:

  1. Coextensive with thing defined (neither too narrow nor too broad)
    To define "triangle" as "plane figure" or human as "animal" is problematic because, while true, the definition is too broad.  "Plane figure" could include non-triangles like squares and trapezoids.  "Animal" could include non-humans like orangoutangs, armadillos, and duck-billed platypuses.  

    But to define "triangle" as "3-sided, enclosed plane figure whose interior angles equal 180 degrees and lines are equal to each other," is also problematic because it excludes triangles whose 3 lines are not equal (e.g. right triangles).  To define "human" as "rational male animals" is too limiting because it excludes women from the definition of human.  

    Definitions need to be precise so as not to confuse.  The more precise we are in our definitions, the easier time we will have in talking with each other.  

    This is the hardest of the rules to obey.

    In fact, I just had a phone call from Rick O., who criticized my inclusion of Clerks: The Animated Series into my top 25 sitcoms of all time.  

    The thrust of the argument centered around my criteria (i.e. definition) of what makes a great TV sitcom.  He thought my definition was too broad because Clerks had only 6 episodes and was less in total length than most movies.  I said his definition was too narrow, because there were many great shows that only last a short amount of time (Firefly, Freaks and Geeks).  

    By the end of the discussion, he understood my reasoning a little better.  "Your thinking is consistent," he concluded, "but awful."  The point is that even though we disagreed, we at least understood each other better because we were better able to define more precisely our definitions and articulate how we thought the other violated this first rule.

  2. Clear, not obscure
    Clarity in definition is important.  If you say that a "quarvat" is "an 8523rd century version of a Gravity Rod," you have a coextensive definition, but unless you are fan of James Robinson's writing, the definition is too obscure to matter.  Clarity requires you to put the commons sense of the definition as plainly as possible and as accessibly as possible.

  3. Literal, not metaphorical
    "Writing a novel is like giving birth."  There is great truth in that statement, but that is a terrible definition of novel writing.  "Lies are a tangled web."  Again, a true aphorism, but it is a bad definition because it uses metaphor.  I know now what writing a novel and lies are like, but I don't, from these definition, know what they are.

  4. Brief, not long
    This may not always be possible.  But you want to give the simplest version of the definition because it will be the easiest to understand and therefore the easiest to either accept of refute.

  5. Positive, not negative (if possible)
    Negative definitions tend to be too broad.  If you say "human" is "any creature that is not rational" becomes problematic because it excludes angels.  

    The only time to use a negative definition is for something negative.  "Darkness" can only be defined by a negative: "Absence of light."  "Never" = "Not ever."

  6. Not Circular: term defined cannot appear in the definition
    If I were to say that a "quarvat" is a "quarvat-shaped object," you will not have learned anything because you are using the word you are trying to define inside of your definition.  You need to predicate something new about your subject in a definition in order for it to have any meaning.

    Next time we will go over kinds of definitions.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Film Flash: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

15 words or less film review (full review to follow soon)

Best Planet of the Apes movie.  Great, complex characters and plot. Serkis needs an Oscar.

4 out of 5 stars