Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Death of Reason?

It is beginning to seem that reasoning is a dying art. In politics, reason clearly is not a prized commodity. When Stupid W told us that Iraq was a threat to the US, why did people believe it? After all, no Iraqi missiles could reach the US. There were no real links to terrorist organizations. Where was the threat? Was Saddam going to mail the missiles to these shores? In the media, we keep hearing the same sycophantic silliness. On the blogs, which are supposed to be the 'new' media, we find little but axe grinders and ideological prostitutes. Where is the crystalline threat of clear reasoning in any of these areas? I do not see it.

I hear my students speak. They hold beliefs, as they are entitled to. But where do these beliefs come from? All too often they just seem to parrot what their preacher said, or what they saw on TV, or what they read 'somewhere on the internet'. This is not encouraging.

Even the people I work with seem to find reasoning quite difficult. They have been told to do X, so X must be done. This seems to happen no matter how nonsensical the proverbial X may be. They should have the skills, the training and the motivation to ask questions, but they seem incapable of doing just this. I guess having work associates who seldom publish, who have terminal degrees from odd places and yet wish to maintain professorial status should have alerted me to the underlying problems some time ago. The people with degrees from good schools who end up here are the very worst idle 'irrationalists' of the lot, as they believe themselves 'entitled', but enough on this issue

However, reason is important. It is what has helped us become more than apes (in the words of Nietzsche, "Man is more of an ape, than all the apes", TSZ). So why is reason valued so little these days? It appears that a focus group has more power than a well reasoned argument, in far too many arenas. To make matters worse, it is difficult for people to know where to turn to learn to reason better. Do you know how to learn to reason better? Have you ever asked yourself that question? Do you even care? It appears that most people are quite happy with their reasoning skills, no matter how defective they may be. If folks can paint themselves a picture that is appealing to them, then that suffices, or so it seems.

Well, reasoning matters. Learning how to reason well is a skill. It takes both time and effort to learn. Most people, it appears, do not want to expend that effort. As the old saying goes, "If ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise". However, this is proverb sells a false hope, a weak excuse. Stupidity is unequivocally bad! Would you rather go to a physician who knows nothing, or to one who is knowledgeable? Would you rather sail on a ship, or fly in a plane, that is piloted by an ignoramus? I think not. Yet, what steps have you ever taken to learn to reason better? Do not worry. You are not alone. The evidence is around us all every day. However, this very complacency is the precursor to the death of reason. This will not serve to make the world a better place.

The CP

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Man Who Saved The World

Yesterday could have been the 23rd anniversary of the End of the World. It was not, due to the actions (or inactions) of Colonel Stanislav Yefgrafovich Petrov. On the 26th September 1983, Petrov was in charge of monitoring Soviet satellite warning systems that were supposed to give the warning, should a pre-emptive nuclear missile strike be launched against the country. When the early warning systems triggered that day, Petrov simply refused to believe that he was really seeing the beginning of World War III and did not immediately respond.

Initially he saw a single missile launch, a while later he saw another. He reasoned that this was an unlikely scenario if the US was really going to launch a pre-emptive strike against the USSR. In such a situation, it would make much more sense for all the missiles to be launched at once. Instead of alerting his superiors, he reasoned that the cause of the warning was much more likely to be some kind of system glitch. He had the option of waiting for the missile launches to be confirmed by ground radar. Unfortunately, the down side of this is that it would not have left sufficient time for the Soviets to respond.

At the time, the official doctrine was so-called 'Mutually Assured Destruction', quite fittingly known as 'MAD'. Had he alerted his superiors, the Soviet missiles would have been launched against the US and other targets in the West, with a predictable, devastating and very real response from the Western powers. Petrov's cool reasoning quite simply saved the World. It turned out the cause of the alert was indeed a system glitch.

This decision was not without cost and danger to Petrov himself. By not following the standing orders and reporting up the chain of command, he had violated military protocol. Although he was ultimately never punished for his inaction, he was no longer considered a trustworthy officer. He was given less sensitive duties, until he retired from the military. The true story of the events of that day only finally came out in 1998. Perhaps the most worrying thing is that this incident was only one amongst many -- there is a catalogue available here.

Now, the world is a very different place. Indeed, earlier this year Petrov visited the US and a major documentary about the incident is planned. However, the important lesson to take away from this is how very important it is to think for oneself, in a cool and dispassionate manner. Thinking in this way is one of the skills that philosophy develops. It is a shame that, given all the screaming, ranting and raving that goes on across the arena of blogs, these skills are so poorly valued. So, next time you observe a flame-fest, or an outbreak of ideologically driven name calling on a blog, think of Petrov. Had he behaved in such a manner all those years ago, there would be no blogs to read now.

The CP

Monday, September 25, 2006


Where would we be without rhetorical questions?

The CP

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Remembering Rita

I know exactly where I was and what I was doing one year ago today. You see, around 2am tomorrow morning will be the anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Rita, the largely forgotten storm. Rita was the fourth most powerful Atlantic hurricane to hit the US, yet it has been eclipsed in the public eye, by Hurricane Katrina.

One year ago, I was not living in my own house, due to it being used by a family of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. Instead, I was staying across town. Around 9 pm, I realized that I should go an check on my house, as the evacuees had left, due to fear of the storm. As I drove across town, I was the only vehicle on the road. The one exception was an NBC television crew who were cowering in the lee of a parking garage downtown. Even at this early hour, there was a lot of rain that was falling almost horizontally and a fair bit of wind. Earlier that evening, I had chatting with an old friend in Europe, as the first rainbands began to hit.

It was just as well that I went to check on my house. In their panic, the evacuees had taken no precautions to protect the building. Indeed, both screen doors were flapping in the already strong wind. I secured everything, did my best to round up anything that could act as flying debris and then drove back across town though the worsening tempest.

In the house I was staying in, we sat and watched the Doppler radar on the internet and kept an eye out on bulletins on the television. Around midnight, the power went out. The power cables outside the house had been blown down, or knocked down by flying debris. Unfortunately, this did not cut off the power to the downed lines, so we were treated to a display of blue sparks as the cables blew back an forth in the wind. I don't know what time sleep eventually came that evening. All one could hear was the shreak of the wind. It was obvious that Rita was a powerful storm. However, it was also obvious that it was not that powerful, at least not with us. In other words, we had been lucky. This meant that others had not.

The next morning, everybody awoke to a world transformed. There were cable and bits of tree everywhere. However, it was also quite obvious that Rita had just struck us a glancing blow. While the place was a mess, there was not too much by way of really bad damage. We have seen worse. People were out in the streets, talking to their neighbors. Nobody had power, so hasty arrangements were made by people to cook and share the contents of their freezers. One neighbor, Chris, cooked a large shrimp gumbo and offered it to anybody who was hungry. By noon, the power crews showed up. By 2 pm, they had fixed the broken power cables and the power came back.

The story was different closer to the coast. The storm surge forced millions of gallons of salt water from the Gulf of Mexico onto the low lying coastal land. What many people fail to remember is that salt water has the effect of poisoning the land. Many of the coastal communities were entirely under water.

The damage was incredible. What had once been verdant green vegitation became brown brush, if it had not been swept away entirely. One town, Holly beach, which used to be called 'The Cajun Riviera', was almost entirely obliterated. As one local wag put it at the time "Holly Beach is not!".

A few months later, I took a trip down to the region to see the effects on these once vibrant small coastal communities. The devastation was incredible. The land was brown, due to the salt poisoning. Houses were smashed and displaced.

Many people appeared to be living in tents. In places, it was necessary to drive along the center line of the road, due to the edges of the road being washed a way. Clearly, many people had lost everything. The pictures posted here were taken on that trip -- judge for yourself.

One year later, there are no television specials to commemorate Rita, unlike Katrina. Yet, the very real disaster still remains. They are still collecting debris in the coastal wet lands. People are still displaced, or living in trailers, or tents. The people of Vermilion and Cameron Parishes in Louisiana are still living with the aftermath of Rita. I remember Rita. So should you.

The CP

Friday, September 22, 2006

A Curious Advertisement

An almost ubiquitous feature of any university campus is an abundance of notice boards. These are used to announce upcoming events, courses and the like. Other notice boards are used by people looking to buy and sell things. Today an amazing advertisement appeared on a number of notice boards in my building. The text goes as follows:

"Female Roommate Wanted

For Male Occupant

(Must be able to put up with partying and studying...)

Send photo and personal information to [deleted]

Isn't this utterly amazing? I think it provide evidence that not all students have yet discovered The Facebook, or MySpace.

The CP

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Blogs and 'Community Solipsism'

Update (26/9/06): This post is now dedicated to Moksha and her harpies.

The concept of solipsism is an odd one. However, it is one that shows up from time to time as a philosophical limiting concept.

In a classic formulation, solipsism comes in two varieties. Perhaps the most extreme of the two kinds is Ontological solipsism. This is roughly the view that you alone exist. In a technical sense, ontology is a sub-field of metaphysics, that is concerned with what exists. The second kind of solipsism is so-called Epistemological solipsism. This is roughly the view that all that can be known is your own mind and its contents. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that concerns itself with what we know and how we can know it. It is not unusual to find both kinds of solipsism mixed together in the views of a single philosopher.

Now, on the face of it, you might say 'wait a moment, these ideas seem kind of nuts'. You might have a point, but think about things a little further. You certainly know the contents of your own mind. However, how certain can you be about the rest of the apparent world? You may think that you are looking at your computer screen and reading a blog, but can you be certain that this is really what is happening? After all, you could be asleep and just dreaming this experience, or it might just all be a figment of your imagination. Can you definitively prove otherwise? These are the kinds of considerations that can lead to a solipsistic position.

Whilst meandering around the blog arena, I have noticed an odd phenomenon, which has some strong solipsistic propensities. Let us be frank, most blogs are pretty uninteresting. Who cares what this person did at work today? Why should the antics of some person's dog, or cat be too thrilling? Why should I care about the latest twists and turns of your relationship with your boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse? This is probably the reason that many blogs do not get read by too many people. However, every once in a while, one will run across a little 'nexus of blogs'. These are people who clearly read and comment upon each other's work in an almost obsessive manner. These can be interesting and even quite fun. The 'movement' to post Fall related material (see yesterdays post), might fall into this category.

There is another type of blog 'nexus' though that is whole pile odder and more solipsistic. This kind of nexus arises when a bunch of people appear to be working together to create, or propagate a particular world view. There are often common themes to these memetically mutant blogs. Everyone is politically correct, against (or for) X, or Y, advocates the same cause, and so on. When there are clearly problems, or falsehoods in the world view, these bloggers will support each other against anybody who has the cheek to challenge their world view. They will say 'right on, sister/brother' and things like that. The problem is that they seem to be supporting one another in a totally ficticious world view. By working together, the members of these groups work to strengthen what amounts to a group hallucination.

I have seen this group solipsism a few times. It is very weird. It makes one worry about whether the members of these cliques either forgot to take their medications, or are doing too many drugs. However, one of the features that really stands out about these solipsistic communities is the way they deal with their commentators. If one reads a few of these blogs -- following the links from one to another and then returns back to the beginning, it is common to find that comments have been either changed, or deleted. This I believe is one of the hallmarks of this mutant blog type. Anyone who has questions about the group world view, or who challenges it, is deleted. This often happens not just on one blog of the group, but will happen on many in the group.

I find this all very curious. Why do people use blogs to support their own odd reads of the world and, possibly, find support for their mental problems? Keep an eye out for this phenomena. In order to do so, you will have to be quite nimble. Comments are frequently deleted quite quickly. However, what puzzles me is why people wish to live in twisted and ersatz worlds like this? Why do they indulge in community solipsism? Solipsism is an odd philosophical concept. It can be useful as a limit case. However, philosophers know that that is all it is. When the philosophy is done, solipsism is put to one side so that normality and practical goals can be achieved. Imagine trying to drive home from work, whilst in a fully solipsistic rapture! Why do these community solipsists not do likewise? Is the attraction of these curious views connected to what happens to cults? Whatever the answers to these questions, I am sure that it is most unhealthy for all those involved. Should you be a comment deleter (of the kind described), or know of any communities of solipsists, have studied them, and have an explanation for their bizarre mentations, I would really like to hear more.

What concerns me most about this phenomenon is that it seems to be very similar to the kinds of things that must go on between members of The Ku Klux Klan, or Knights of The White Camellia. Are blogs a nurturing ground for this kind of sad stupidity even when the putative stated goals of the community hallucination is the exact opposite?

The CP

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Fall

ToastedSuzy has posted a poem called The Fall. Along with the poem comes a suggestion that others should post poems, or other stuff about Fall, in order to create a 'movement'. So, here is my attempt to become part of the 'movement',

The Fall

There is a season called Fall,
When genitals tend to grow small.
Along with Jack Frost,
Virility is lost,
By all those trips to the Mall!

I challenge anyone else to do more to lower the tone of the movement. A literary commentator has remarked about this 'work'.

"Of course, although this poem adopts the classic form of the limerick, it also alludes to traditional autumnal themes like Jack Frost, in juxtaposition to contemporary cultural edifices, such as the Mall. This juxtaposition serves to highlight the emasculating forces, described by the speaker in the second line. These themes underscore the latent urban disaffection of the speaker, as they come to terms with the alienating post-modern influence on their personhood." [Continues on in this vein for pages and pages -- Note to self: Add obligatory references to Stanley Fish and Derrida].

Please feel free to use the comments section for further 'literary analysis'.

Toasty, can I get an A in English yet? ;)

The CP

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The World of Words III

In this series of posts it has been argued that words, in a serious and important sense, represent our thoughts, and indeed, our thoughts are to a crucial extent conditioned by words. It has also been argued that metaphor is in a significant sense the 'engine' which gives words their power.

In response to these cogitations, a number of interesting and challenging points have been raised by commentators. For this reason, before continuing on with this discussion further, I will address some of the more significant of these points.

In a recent post, Toastedsuzy remarked (quoting himself from elsewhere) that,

"Any time we begin to describe someone or something, we are putting it in a box. Any time we apply any sort of label (that is, any time we use language) I think we are confining the thing we are talking about to perameters [sic] more limited than those the thing really inhabits."

Although this view has some supporters, I believe, at least as stated, that it cannot be correct. First off, notice the highly metaphorical nature of the initial claim -- what does it really mean to 'put something in a box'? Second, the idea of 'applying a label as confining' appears somewhat problematic. If we cannot/do not name/describe something, then we cannot talk about it. So, in a sense by NOT naming, we may not be boxing, but we will also be excluding. The problematic nature of the issue comes to the fore when we think of cases of ostensive definition.

Suppose I look over towards a person and perhaps nod my head in their direction and say (borrowing an example from Russell) "That is the author of Waverely". How have I boxed 'Scott' in doing this? Now, consider a more descriptive case where I just say "Scott is the author of Waverely". In this case also, the alleged 'boxing' is none too apparent.

Let as look at these cases again. In what sense do I '...confin[e] the thing we are talking about to p[a]rameters more limited than those the thing really inhabits', in each case? In the ostensive definition case, if I have done anything, I have added information about the person under discussion. Granted something like a 'parameter' has been added, in so much as, assuming I am correct, I am ruling out the predicate ' not the author of Waverely', as applying to that individual. However, this is surely not a parameter that is 'more limited than those the thing [i.e. Scott] inhabits'. Unless the intent here is to tip one's proverbial hat to proposition 7 of Wittgenstein's famous Tractatus -- "That whereof we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence", the question becomes 'what is the insight that is being reached for here?'

It seems to me that what is missing here is that the objection only really has bite, if there is some further metaphysical thesis that provides a basis for complaining about language. One common metaphysical thesis that might motivate this position is that the world is constantly in change, whereas, in some significant and problematic manner, language treats the world as fixed and unchanging, in a manner that falsifies the actual facts of the matter. This kind of metaphysical thesis can be found, for example, in the works of Heraclitus, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. These philosophers believe that change and 'becoming' are the central salient features of the world. This view stands in contrast to the view of Parmenides, Plato and many other major philosophers. On this latter view, stability and 'being' are the central notions.

This metaphysical debate is an interesting one, but really lies beyond the scope of the current discussion. For what it is worth, I personally hold some sympathies for philosophers who advocate the centrality of change. However, this is not a view I will defend here. The point of this post though is to argue that the objections quoted at the beginning of this post are interesting and non-trivial, although they are not without their difficulties. Furthermore, as they appear to have their true origins in matters of metaphysical presupposition, which lie beyond the topic at hand, it will now be safe to proceed with a further discussion of the World of Words, without worrying too much further about these matters, at least for now.

The CP

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Learn To Read, goddamn!

So, according to all sort of news sources, there is a big fight going on between the Senate and the Whitehouse. The issue concerns the cruel and inhuman treatment of detainees, who are caught up in the ridiculous 'War on Terrorism'. The Supreme Court has ruled that detainees must be treated in a manner consistent with Article III of the Geneva Conventions.

This situation has lead the Whitehouse to ask the Senate to "clarify" certain aspects of the Geneva Conventions. Of course, what the Whitehouse really wants is to be able to torture prisoners. Amazingly, even the Republican dominated Senate is a little concerned about this.

There are a bunch of spurious justifications being offered on both sides. On one side stupid W is playing the 'protect the nation' card to justify torture. There are other concerns too. Might the torturers be subject to suit, under international law? {D'ugh yes, of course!). On the other side are people like McCain (who at least knows a bit about being a prisoner of war, and didn't skive his duty whilst doing Cocaine, like stupid W). These folks point out that 'reinterpreting' the Geneva convention might be bad for US soldiers, if other oppressive regimes went in for analogous 'reinterpretations'.

Stupid W and his supporters claim that the Geneva Convention is vague. What is 'cruel and unusual'? [How about force feeding prisoners, sexual humiliation and using dogs]. What kind of treatment counts as being 'inhumane'? [How about loud rock music and no sleep for days on end]. The really sad part about all this is that it seems to be clear that nobody in the Whitehouse has actually read Article III of the Geneva Convention. There it is clearly stated that,

"An impartial humanitarian body, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, may offer its services to the Parties to the conflict."

Given this language, why not let the International Committee of the Red Cross decide these issues. You know, Red Cross representatives could be stationed in the Gulags and be allowed to rule and report on activities there. Would this not be a simple (and legal) solution to the 'vague language' problem?

Of course, Stupid W is not really interested in the vague language issue anyhow. He and his psychotic henchmen just want the Senate to give them a free pass to abuse prisoners, while avoiding the sanction of the intrusive Supreme Court. However, if members of the Senate have discomfort with this (as well they should), why have none of them suggested the Red Cross? Is this all just political posturing?

The CP

[N.B. Why is it that spell checkers always want to replace the term 'Whitehouse' with 'Whitewash'?]

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

In Memory of John Knight

When I first went up to university, I lived in what is now known as a dorm. There were many people there, some I related to, many I did not. One man I do remember though, John Knight.

The 'dorm' was quite a way away from the campus. There were buses, many people rode those. Some people had cars. As we were all poor, the people with cars would give rides to others and share the cost of the gas. One person with a car was an amusing fellow called Chris Penny. Chris had a bunch of people who would ride in his car. One of these people was John Knight. Another was a good friend of mine, Sean Fogarty. He was usually known as 'Swannee'.

One day, Chris and his crew went to campus as usual. They faced the common problem of finding a place to park. Chris was good and knew a few good places. They parked. It was a windy day. As people were getting out of the car, John said to Swannee "You never get out of this car." Those were his last words. A tree fell on the car and killed John.

This was all many years ago, but I still remember John. I do not recall the exact date this happened, but it was close to this time of year. So, let us all think about John Knight. To write about him after the nearly 20+ years that have passed is the least I can do.

I have lost track of all the people who were involved. Swannee is someone I especially miss. Were it not for him, I would not be a philosopher now. He was an English major. He challenged me with something I could not beat. So, I decided that I should become a philosophy major, to learn enough to respond. Thanks Swannee!

As for John, after all this time I suspect that few people think of him too often. A few days after his death, there was a concert by the Stranglers that was sold out and I did not have a ticket for. Chris sold me John's ticket, so the cash could be used for flowers at the funeral. When I got back from the concert, I lay in the snow thinking about the guy now gone. I froze my butt off. However, this post is to remember that time and to remember John.

The CP

Monday, September 11, 2006

Also Today...

Today, the media is having a field day. What folks tend to forget is that other notable things have happened on the 11th of September. Consider:

- Many Millions of People will have their birthdays. Notable people born today include,
* D. H. Lawrence (1885)
* Theodore Adorno (1903)
* Ferdinand Marcos (1917)

- This is also a notable date for deaths. Notable people who died today include,
* G. D. Cassini (1712)
* Nikita Khrushchev (1971)
* Peter Tosh (1988)

- In addition, there are a wide range of other notable and important events that occurred today.
* Henry Hudson discovered Manhattan Island (1609)
* The Battle of Brandywine began (1777)
* The first newspaper cartoon strip appeared (1875)
* The US invaded Honduras (1919)
* Fatty Arbuckle was arrested (1921)
* FDR dedicated the dam, now known as the Hoover Dam (1936)
* Bob Dylan's first performance in New York City (1961)
* Dow Jones Industrial Average falls the furthest ever in a single day (1986)
* Continental Express plane crash in Houston kills 14 people (1991)
* The US Congress releases the Starr Report (1998)

- Today is also New Year's Day in Ethiopia.

The CP

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Make The Victims Pay

The relationship between FEMA and victims has never been good. The relationship between FEMA and the State of Louisiana, in particular, appears especially disfunctional. This recent story in the Baton Rouge Advocate is well worth reading. It details the latest.

I suggest that FEMA, Blanco and the various others with 'issues' read an old post by V.H.L.K Raven. There the observation is made that,

Blame is the personal narcotic. It is a drug that ravages its habitual user, it is extremely addicting, and there is never blame in short supply.

The State, agencies and others should keep this in mind.

The CP

Saturday, September 09, 2006

War and Attitudes

As the 5th anniversary of the attacks of the 11th of September draws near, the various political propaganda machines are moving into high gear. The Whitehouse wants to persuade us of the importance of the War in Iraq as a means of combating terrorism. This is despite the fact that, almost at the same time, a senate panel is claiming that there is no connection between Iraq and al-Qaida. Thus, the war of 'Words of mass deception' continues. To add to the fun, The New York Times is reporting that the ABC Network is getting itself all in a tizzy, due to their attempting to show a mini-series about the attacks that contained some fictionalized blatant pro-Republican and anti-Democrat propaganda (the story can be found here. It is all rather sickening. Given that the number of US citizens killed in Iraq is now greater than the number of people in the World Trade Center, levels of cynicism are now, quite naturally, reaching transcendental levels. News Flash: Most people have bullshit detectors!

Perhaps what is a little more interesting was a survey about public attitudes that was recently conducted in Louisiana. Some of the questions and results are fascinating, so I will summarize them here.

Question: Do you believe the War on Terror has reduced the threat of terrorism in the United States?

No 73%
Yes 25%
Not Sure 2%

Interestingly enough, when the same question was asked about threat reduction outside the US, 76% of people said 'No'.

Question: Do you believe the war in Iraq has reduced or increased the threat of terror in the United States?

Increased 69%
Reduced 20%
Not Sure 11%

When the question was repeated concerning threats outside the US, 71% of people claimed that the threats had increased.

Question: Do you approve of George W. Bush's handling of the War on Terror?

No 63%
Yes 33%
Not Sure 4%

I think that these results give a pretty clear picture of the way people feel about these issues. Given these facts, why don't the powers that be quit trying to justify an unpopular, unjust and illegal war and instead deal with more important issues. For instance, just one months war spending, if rediverted to reconstruction and levee rebuilding, could solve the current and problems of Katrina and Rita victims, and ensure the future safety of New Orleans and the coastal Parishes of Louisiana. What happens though? We get more propaganda. Remember this when it comes time to vote.

The CP

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Wild Students

Having taught for quite a while, I have had a lot of students. Students are like most individuals, they come is three flavors: Good, Bad and Indifferent. As a Professor, I get to see and hear about many oddities in the lives of students. Often my role is as pastoral as it is academic. Last year, I had to deal with a Katrina victim who tried to jump through the window outside my office (this is on an upper floor). Students freak out. They miss mid-terms due to being in jail. They have disfunctional life situations. They have parents who are too poor and too rich. Today though, I ran across a circumstance that was even beyond me.

Let me emphasize, one of the interesting things about being a professor is the students. Once, during a class, a student bit me. It was not painful or nasty, in fact it was almost affectionate, it was a bit 'out there' though. Another student of mine has spent time in jail for bomb making. He was in high school then and he is a very bright guy. Yet another student would briefly play a harmonica after asking a question in class. This was curious! On an official evaluation I had someone write "If I was a broad, I would fuck this dude". Another student had a name that was phonetically identical to 'Fuck D'Ho'. Giving back tests to this student was quite exciting. For all this 'color' though, today I came across the oddest thing ever.

Since the semester started, I have had calls and e-mails from a person registered in one of my classes. They wanted to know whether they could take the class as a correspondence class. As this is a history of philosophy class, the texts are not too easy to just read, so the lectures matter. This student was quite insistent though. Today, I discovered why. Apparently, over the Summer this student underwent 'gender reassignment' surgery. They now worry about being seen on campus under their new identity. Although I can feel some empathy for this student, it does make me wonder a bit. Do people in such situations not undergo counseling? Should this person not have support for their new identity? Although I have seen a great deal of freaky stuff, this has to be the wildest. So, the question now is what should I do? I want to support this student in their life choices, but what kind of negligence led to this circumstance. Should anyone have been in a similar 'pickle', suggestions would be very welcome.

The CP

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Why All Powerful Beings Are Impossible

The idea that there is some kind of being that is all powerful is a popular one. It commonly appears in a religious context. It also sometimes appears in the context of science fiction. The problem is, the very idea is logically incoherent, no matter how attractive and familiar the concept may seem. Here the reasons why this is the case will be explored.

Let us suppose for the sake of argument that there were a being that was all powerful. The technical term that would be used for such a being would be that it would be considered 'omnipotent'. Presumably such a being could do anything. After all, that is pretty much what 'all powerful' means. So for instance, such a being could turn the seas of the world into ice cream, or cause the waters of the Red Sea to part. It can be fun to imagine all the things that such a being might do, especially if that being was in a whimsical mood.

This is all well and good until one considers a special set of cases of things that this being might wish to do. For instance, to use the classic example, could such a being create a stone that it could not lift? Hmm. This presents a difficulty. If the being cannot create a stone that it cannot lift, then it would appear to fail to be all powerful. Not being able to create such a stone would be a limitation on the power of our hypothetical being. Clearly, this would be a problem for our being's all powerful status. Given this fact, then let us assume that our being can create a stone that it cannot lift. Does this help? Well, not really. Once there is a stone that our being cannot lift, once again the being's all powerful status is under threat. Now it seems that the being is no longer all powerful, as it cannot lift the stone it just created.

At this juncture, people often want to say things like "Well, the being would not want to create this stone", or something like that. This misses the point entirely. The point here is that the very notion of an all powerful being leads to a logical absurdity. The very act of postulating an all powerful being, leads to a situation that is impossible. What this shows is that the notion of an all powerful being is, unfortunately, logically incoherent. There is no other conclusion available here. What this means is that we shall just have to abandon the notion of an all powerful being, as nonsense. Sorry.

The CP

Monday, September 04, 2006

Labor Day

In his 1985 EP Between The Wars, British singer Billy Bragg sang,

I'm bound to follow my conscience
And do whatever I can
But it'll take much more than the union law
To knock the fight out of a working man

Which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?

(The full text can be found here.)

At this time in the UK, the unions were a hot topic, due to the recent epic battle between the National Union of Miners and the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Now some twenty-one years later, the unions appear to be a spent force, both in the UK and in the US. As today is supposed to be the day upon which labor and the workers should be celebrated, it is time to take stock.

Writing in The Nation, Katrina Vanden Heuvel (full text here) points to the growing gap between the salaries of CEOs as compared to those of workers. According to her analysis, the 'suits' are doing especially well in the oil and defense industries. She also points to the alarming disparities between the pay received by many of the troops in Iraq, as compared to the wages received by the civilian contractors. Another alarming fact that appears in the same place is that, since 2003 the median hourly wage has declined 2%, while productivity has increased. So, workers are doing more for less. Where is the benefit of this change going?

This makes one wonder who is it who looks after the interests of rank and file workers these days? It seems that almost nobody is! The traditional advocates for the working class, the Democrats have little power in Washington. Union membership is falling, due in part to the rise of union hostile companies, such as Wal-Mart. Given this situation, is it any surprise that more and more jobs these days lack benefits? To make matters worse, large corporations are now being permitted to abandon their pension funds. This comes after years of underfunding. Traditionally, issue concerning benefits and pensions, in addition to wage rates have been a major union concern.

Perhaps more alarming is an article in The San Francisco Chronicle, in which various Republicans are quoted equating unions with Terrorists! With attitudes like this, is it any surprise that for the first time now, 10% of US households receive over 50% of US income. What of the working person? If the regular person is faced with rising health care costs, no pension and low wages, this does not make for a happy, or healthy country. Although the claim is often made that high wages are justified for certain managerial positions, in order to attract the best people, is this really true? Also, what do the people making large salaries spend them on? Do they employ people, at more than minimum wage? Once again, what about the rank and file workers? After all, they are the people who actually do the work.

So, I advocate that there should be more unionization. There should be more collective bargaining. One thing that the quarterly-figure obsessed CEOs and CFOs often forget is that a happy workforce is a more versatile and productive workforce. Of course, as the bonuses paid to these 'suits' often depend upon short term numbers, they have no incentive to think for the longer term. However, if you are a CEO, then why not try an experiment? For one year, try and consider the workers as equal partners, as well as the share holders. If you are a worker, why not talk to your colleagues and management about organizing? If you are an educator, talk to your students about the importance of unions. I also recommend the excellent, though now rare The Little Red School Book.

In 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau early in his Social Contract noted that, "MAN is born free; and everywhere he is in chains." This labor day, it would be wonderful if each of us could take a few steps to reduce the chains on workers. After all, 'which side are you on'?

The CP

Saturday, September 02, 2006

A Medical Horror: Martin's Story

One local character in this part of the world is a guy called Martin. He is a very active person, volunteering for all sorts of community projects, working with non-profits, etc. What relatively few people know is that Martin is a type 1 diabetic and has been for around thirty years.

I ran into Martin at the Cafe. He was sitting quietly with a cup of coffee looking pensive. I stopped to chat and during our conversation, he told me the following horror story.

Martin has been taking the same combination of insulins for over a quarter of a century. It appears to suit him, as he has had none of the side effects which can afflict diabetics -- his eyes and extremities are all in good shape. He is clearly a person in good health. Recently, he went to the drug store to get his supply of insulin and was told that one kind he takes was being discontinued by the manufacturer. So, he went to see his physician and between them they found another kind of insulin that was pretty similar. However, when he went back to the drug store to get the new stuff, it turned that this too had been discontinued. It was just after this happened that I ran into Martin.

Now, I may get some of the details wrong here, but the details of the situation are something like this. Apparently, Martin takes two kinds of insulin, one of which is short acting, the other of which is long acting. The problem is with the long acting kind. It seems now that, for reasons that are radically unclear, the drug companies have radically changed the kinds of long acting insulins that they make. Martin is going to be faced with making changes to a regime that has kept him in good shape for years. Apparently, Martin has not taken a sick day in over a decade.

Now, I don't know too much about diabetes, but I do know Martin. He is clearly fit, healthy and thriving. He seemed to suggest that making changes in his regime was quite a big and worrying thing to do. What I do not get though is why the drug companies are permitted to do this kind of thing? After all, if something is not broken, then why fix it, as they say. I am assuming that the motivation of the drug companies has to do with patents and profit. However, I just wonder how many other people are in a situation similar to Martin's? Does this happen with other kinds of medications too? Why does the FDA permit situations like this to arise?

I hope that Martin does ok. He is a real asset to our community. I think that the situation is sad.

The CP

Friday, September 01, 2006

World of Words: Interlude

While thinking about the next post in this World of Words series, I have been examining some examples. This of course is in addition to considering the various comments. In my search for examples, I have been looking at some song lyrics. In particular, I have been looking at the lyrics of the band Joy Division. This was one of my favorite bands as a youth and I still listen to their music from time to time.

What I have realized is how well these lyrics work as poems. The lyrics from the first two albums, Unknown Pleasures and Closer appear to be especially fine examples. So, I invite interested readers to join me in this meditation, and read these lyrics. They can be found here (scroll down).

"This is the way, step inside..."

The CP
Listed on 
BlogShares web stats Site Meter