Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Samhain/All Hallows

The 31st of October is a very odd time. According to the wisdom of old, it is the one night of the year when the boundary between the normal world and some other world can be breached. Some say that today, we may receive visits from the dead. The old festival of Samhain falls on this day. This festival was taken over and brought into Christianity, where it became known as 'All Hallows Eve', from which the contemporary term 'Halloween' derives. Originally, Samhain was the festival of the end of Summer.

The significance of this day has become confused and mixed. For some, it is a day to visit the graves of relatives, to tidy and clean them. For others, the traditional significance has been lost. It is a day that has been subverted by candy, Spiderman and similar silly outfits and other ephemera.

One of the things I find most troubling about 'Halloween' is the propensity of people to say "Happy Halloween". This is totally odd to me. After all, what is so happy about the dead?

Where I was brought up, this festival was taken quite seriously. Granted people dressed up in costumes or disguises. However, any disguises worn at this time had to honor the intent and the theme -- they had to be scary. No Spiderman! After all, if one was walking the footpaths and the lanes and you saw a scary looking person, who knew who that was? It could be your neighbor, or it could be his or her dead relatives.

I mourn the loss of the traditional Samhain. There is something undoubtedly special about these days. For instance, any party held about this time of year almost always goes well. Why is that? Yet, the folk wisdom behind this observation, which probably belongs in the Farmer's Almanac, seems to have been lost. The commercialism of All Hallows has also brought about a loss of meaning. This, I believe to be a shame and a sad loss.

As a philosopher, I am generally speaking the arch-skeptic. However, the special nature of Samhain is still something I miss. So, please honor the old traditions tonight, if you can. Dress yourself, or your child as a witch, or a goblin, not Spiderman. It may just make the world a better place (assuming that the 'old wisdom' has some validity). I also recommend learning something about the history of Samhain/All Hallows. Can an event mean too much if one does not understand how it came about? I would say not. I guess Wal-Mart says otherwise. Where do you choose to take your stand?

Sleep well, Jack O' The Green.

The CP

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Thinking, Writing, Publishing and Research

One of the sad things about the Institution that I work for, is the number of faculty members who fail to engage in research. There are some who claim to be busy researchers, but somehow never seem to be able to manage to have anything appear in print. They often defend themselves by appealing to their teaching loads, their administrative duties and the like. Although such appeals may have some validity for the odd lacuna in the Vita, when several years go by with nothing appearing in print, these excuses appear increasingly thin and implausible.

Now, there may be some faculty members whose job assignments are such that they are primarily teachers. This is fine. These people usually have heavy teaching loads. The people I am thinking of here are those who have the pretensions of being research faculty and being scholars, but fail to really be so. This type can be identified by their light teaching loads, in conjunction with no scholarly activities, or things appearing in print, often also combined with a good dose of academic posturing.

A number of years ago, it was discovered that in the UK, there were several academics who also failed to engage in research. There, the solution to this problem was for these 'deadwood' faculty members to be offered a simple proposition: The job of a professor consists of three main activities, teaching, research and administration. If a person failed to do any research, then their salary was to be reduced by one third. This strategy awoke many slumbering faculty members and persuaded others to retire. We do not have this option, unfortunately. So, for those struggling faculty members, who have become strangers to publication (and by this I mean publication in peer reviewed journals -- remember, blogs do not count), I offer the following inspirational lines, which come from two books I have been reading over the last couple of days. It is interesting that all these lines are nearly 35 years old.

"...a classic case of Horney's: the man [or woman] who comforts himself [or herself] not with what he [or she] achieves, but with what he [or she] dreams of achieving."
- Rhinehart, L., (1971), The Diceman: A Novel, The Overlook Press (New York), p. 53.

"If you are not writing, you're not thinking,...and if you're not thinking you're dead."
- ibid, p. 48.

"Those who have tried research, but abandoned it for easier things, are objects of some contempt; those who have never tried, but are merely teachers, are to be pitied."
- Ravetz, J. (1971), Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems, Oxford U.P. (Oxford), p. 16.

"Without research--the continuous, disciplined advance from the known into the unknown--...other activities would either lose their meaning, or become stale, sterile and eventually corrupted."
- ibid, p. 13.

I dedicate this post to the guilty, both at my institution and elsewhere. If they read this, they should know what to do to remedy the situation! Contributions of other inspirational quotes, or further thoughts on these topics, would be very welcome.

The CP

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Blogs, Books and So-Called 'Memes'

So, over at the ever excellent GBitch Blog, there is one of those odd blog 'memes'. I'm not a huge fan of the use of this term in this context, nor do I find the activities suggested in these things especially worthwhile. In this case though, I am going to make an exception. The reasons for this exception are that (1) this is a self-selecting exercise -- this seems much more sensible than the silly 'tagging' that often happens, and (2) when I tried to follow the instructions (just for fun), the results were pretty funny. So here we go.


Let us begin with the instructions:

The Rules:

1. Grab the nearest book.

2. Open the book to page 123.

3. Find the fifth sentence.

4. Post the text of the next 4 sentences on your blog along with these instructions.

5. Don't you dare dig for that "cool" or "intellectual" book in your closet! I know you were thinking about it! Just pick up whatever is closest.


When I did this, I was faced with a dilemma. There were two books that were equidistant from me. So, for fun, I have followed the instructions for both books.

Book I

"In courtship, the masculine principle must seize the initiative and place itself below the feminine principle.

Just as the first part of the book I begin with the hexagrams of heaven and earth, the foundations of all the exists, the second part begins with the hexagrams of courtship and marriage, the foundations of all social relationships.


Influence. Success."

[For completeness, the rest of the judgment reads "Perseverance furthers. To take a maiden to wife brings good fortune."]

Wilhelm, R. (1951), I Ching, or Book of Changes, RKP (London).

Book II

"Thus, a deterministic PDA [Push Down Automaton] suffices to execute the program we have defined.

Having developed a procedure to parse a regular expression, we now add statements to output a finite automaton. Each procedure is modified to return a finite automaton. In procedure FIND_TERM, if the input symbol is 0, 1, e, or [Greek letter Phi], a finite automaton accepting 0, 1, e, or [Greek letter Phi] is created and FIND_TERM returns this automaton."

Hopcroft, J. and Ullman, J. (1979), Introduction to Automata Theory, Languages and Computation, Addison-Wesley (Reading, MA).

I guess I should be a bit more careful about the kinds of things that I have to hand!

The CP

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Election Rigging 101

There are mid-term elections coming up on November 7th. According to most current analysis, the Republicans are in deep trouble and will probably lose control of both the Senate and the House. However, we have seen a similar situation before. Most of the smart money and exit polls predicted that the criminal and moronic W. would have been dumped after the last Presidential election. This did not happen.

Since that time, a good deal of research has been conducted into how that 'upset' could have come about. If the Republicans suddenly, 'magically', do better than expected in the mid-term election, the mechanism by which this could have happen will be revealed here.

There has been a good deal of concern about the paperless, electronic voting machines that have become increasingly common. This is a red herring. There are simply too many individual voting machines for these to represent a realistic method of rigging the election. All the discussion on this topic though serves to distract attention from the most likely method.

Once votes have been cast, they need to be tabulated. That is to say, all the individual results need to be collected together and counted. These tabulating devices are the best place for those with dubious intent to exercise their craft.

One system of tabulating votes is the GEMS system, from the Diebold company. On this system, election data is stored in a Microsoft Access database. Although the GEMS software requires a password and has some logging capabilities, the Access database can be easily changed without using this software.

Each candidate is assigned a unique number within the Access database. By simply changing the assigned numbers of candidates, the votes cast for one, appear in the tally total of the other and visa versa. To make this change takes under 30 seconds.

The change is made from within Access, software that can easily be carried on a thumb drive. The change made in Access leaves no evidence trail. A single change in a tabulator database can mean that a Republican candidate who lost against their Democratic opponent can suddenly get the previously Democratic votes, leading to a surprise win.

There is some evidence that this mechanism was used during the last Presidential election, in addition to the more traditional methods, like voter intimidation, 'fortuitous' distribution of voting machines and the like. Motivated partisan Republican zealots may resort to these methods again. So, if the upcoming election does not turn out the way it should, and most people expect, then you should suspect the tabulating machines, not any highly motivated voting block. Remember, you heard it here first, before it even happened!

The CP

Another World

In the land of fugitives,
The person walking towards you,
is running away.

I saw this written as graffiti, on a desk today. I am too tired to write more. This is an interesting sentiment though.

The CP

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Students and Grading

This weekend has been largely spent grading midterm examinations. This is not too much fun. However, I did come across one amusing and 'imaginative' answer. The class in question deals with ancient philosophy, most notably Plato, Aristotle and the Pre-Socratic philosophers. One of the short answer questions was "What is the Greek term for Heraclitus' doctrine of 'perpetual flux'?". The correct answer should have been Panta rhei. One student though clearly did not know the answer. Instead, they offered up some symbolism from physics. This was pretty wild!

However, this is not the oddest thing that I have seen students do. Once, when I was teaching a class for another faculty member, as I was leaning over to show a student how to do something on the computer, the student bit me! It was quite a shock. What was really strange was that the bite was not painful, or nasty. If anything, it was gentle and almost affectionate. It was still pretty freaky though.

Perhaps the oddest thing that has ever happened though was the time that I was teaching a Critical Thinking class. One particular student was very concerned about their final grade in the class, a few days before the final exam. The student eventually did not show up to the final exam. Instead, they sent me an e-mail explaining that they were so concerned about the final that they had elected to spend the time in their dorm room, praying about the outcome, rather than take the exam. Although some have claimed that 'faith can move mountains', unfortunately, it cannot pass philosophy exams. I guess the student should have read David Hume on the topic of Miracles!

The CP

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Requiem for Clampett

Some time ago, one of my favorite bloggers quit blogging. He quit blogging after an especially nasty attack from members of the blog crew I have named the The Poison Girls. This blogger was Clampett. I had hoped that he would return to blogging, after a respite. I discovered today that, instead, he has deleted his blog entirely.

This is a huge shame. Clampett was a bright young man with eclectic interests and excellent questions. However, asking questions was his undoing. The Poison girls do not permit their [insane] world view to be questioned. I do not know why he deleted his blog, or whether he will appear again under another name. I really hope so. Very few blogs get the honor of being linked to this one. Clampett made the cut. So, it is with sadness I edit my template and delete Clampett's bad link.

I really hope that The Poison Girls are happy with their efforts. As some of them claim academic credentials, I just hope that they treat their students better.

I will light a candle and mourn a lost friend. I just wonder how many other Clampetts are no longer out there too. It is all very sad.

The CP

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Sentiment Analysis, Statutes and Scary

Today, I was searching around looking to check up on a few technical details for the paper that I am just completing. While searching, I ran across a reference to something called 'Sentiment Analysis'. Sometimes when doing research, it is fruitful to follow the odd whim, so I set about learning a bit more about sentiment analysis, as it is the kind of technical topic I find interesting. Roughly speaking, sentiment analysis is a technique for detecting favorable and unfavorable opinions toward specific subjects, based upon the content of texts. This kind of research is of interest to me, as it often uses techniques that involve automated machine learning. There is even downloadable software and sets of test texts available. That was this morning.

A little later in the day, I ran across something else that mentioned sentiment analysis, in a political context, on the truthout.org web site. It is pretty unusual to run across a new topic twice in one day, in different places, thus my interest was piqued. This second article sounded a little on the paranoid side, but did raise some interesting issues. In particular, it pointed out how the highly automated and mechanical nature of the technique made it eminently suitable for deployment upon large bodies of text. This had not occurred to me this morning. Although it was not mentioned in the article, it occurred to me that the texts that can be found on the web, or on blogs, would be an ideal place to deploy this technology. This I find a little unsettling, to put it mildly.

Perhaps the most worrying thing about all this comes about from the fact that The Military Commissions Act, was signed into law today. Under this new legislation, anyone can be deemed a 'unlawful enemy combatant', for providing 'material support' to terrorists. Furthermore, this Act even makes hearsay evidence allowable in legal proceedings, under certain circumstances, provided that a judge deems it 'reliable'. It is pretty obvious that judgments of reliability are somewhat subjective. However, the phrase 'material support' is also horrifically vague. If I said "The Marine Corps. are an excellent bunch of heroic fellows", would I be lending 'material support' to the Marines? Would the standard be different if I said something similar about Hezbollah? Who knows.

The reason for concern over these developments is that the power of the mechanical procedure of sentiment analysis, in conjunction with vague and punitive laws, leaves open a very great possibility for abuse. This should be of particular concern to bloggers. Although blogs provide a medium under which people can exercise their rights to free speech, even to the point of advocating insane and massively ideologically engaged positions, they can now be subject to scrutiny. Of course, this is not really new. Uncle Sam and his minions can read blogs, just like anyone else. The new possibility that sentiment analysis opens up is that they can be mechanically scanned for both content and attitude. Should a blogger express a view that runs contrary to government policy, or supports an alleged national enemy, then in principle, the government can declare the blogger an 'unlawful enemy combatant', with all the negative consequences of such a declaration.

These are very worrying developments. We should all exercise care, protest against the new status quo and keep an eye out for other bloggers (although I can think of a few bloggers who would be better silenced, but for other reasons). Another thing we could all do is begin to include text that will throw up false positives for the mechanical systems:

- Ayatollah Khomeini for President and Pope!
- The W-man in the Whitehouse is a moronic cokehead.
- North Koreans make very nice noodles.
- To stop wars, eat Republicans.
- Osama is a very fine orator.
- Foley's new career will be as a priest.
- Hezbollah uses a very pretty color scheme.
- The Marines are big girl's blouses.
- Terrorists wear really funky vests and belts.
- Teenagers, don't commit suicide, join the army instead.
- The Koran should be on Oprah's book club list.
- Be a patriot, join a Jihad.

I wonder whether I will meet anybody I know, when they drag me off to the torture chambers (also made legal today) at Guantanamo? Should anyone wish to join me on my 'Caribbean vacation', please feel free to add more 'false positive' statements.

The CP

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Power of Perspective

In the Second Century A.D., there lived a writer called Sextus Empiricus. He is best known for his book The Outlines of Pyrrhonism. This book has historically been important and influential. It played a role in the impetus that led to the scientific revolution. Indeed, there is evidence, from the examples that appear in both, that Descartes was influenced by Sextus in the development of his famous Meditations. Despite these facts, Sextus is not that widely read a philosopher, these days. This is a shame as his book is important, and at times, very funny indeed.

One thing that is interesting about this work is the perspective that Sextus takes on the world. It is remarkably different from the kind of views that are common places today. The interesting point though, in the current context, is how we can succeed in understanding this different perspective, with a little disciplined, careful reflection. Consider the following passage, that comes from Chapter XIV of The Outlines, (from the R. G. Bury, translation, published by LOEB):

"...as to origin, some animals are produced without sexual union, others by coition. And of those produced without coition, some come from fire, like the animalcules which appear in furnaces, others from putrid water, like gnats; others from wine when it turns sour, like ants; others from earth, like grasshoppers; others from marsh, like frogs; others from mud, like worms; others from asses, like beetles; others from greens, like caterpillars; others from fruits, like the gall-insects in wild figs; others from rotting animals, as bees from bulls and wasps from horses. Of the animals generated by coition, some -- in fact the majority -- come from homogeneous parents, others from heterogeneous parents, as do mules. Again, of animals in general, some are born alive, like men; others are born as eggs, like birds; and yet others as lumps of flesh, like bears."

Now on the face of it, there is something touchingly naive about this passage. Although it is quite understandable how someone may believe that worms come from mud, or that caterpillars come from green, we now know this view is wrong. [The joke about 'what is worth than finding a worm in your apple?' -- 'Finding half a worm! seems vaguely relevant here]. Notice though that, although we now claim to 'know' about the errors of these claims, there is still something very intuitive about Sextus' kind of view. There is still part of the passage that appears a little odd though. Why would anyone believe that bears are born as lumps of flesh? On the face of it, this seems at the very least, odd, if not downright crazy. Thus, this claims will take a little more effort to understand. This is where the careful consideration of perspective come into play.

Let us begin by considering what we know about bears. As a general rule, bears are pretty dangerous animals, that a person would be rather unwise to get too close to, even under the best of circumstances. Given that bears who have just given birth are likely to be in a less good 'mood' than usual, it is reasonable to assume that bears in such a condition would be exceptionally dangerous. These facts alone, make it reasonable to conclude that a person wishing to view a newly born bear would have to do so from quite a distance. When this conclusion is added to that fact that bears often give birth in a lair, like a cave, actually getting a good view of a new born bear is likely to be especially difficult.

There are also some other facts that are salient. Consider the fact that eye glasses would have been unknown at the time Sextus was writing. In addition, it is also now known that when bears are born they do not have fully developed fur. Instead, they are covered by a light fuzz of fur, through which their pink skin can be seen. When all these considerations are taken together, it is perhaps not surprising that an intrepid explorer, who is not suicidally inclined might easily conclude that bears are born as lumps of flesh. After all, there would have been few zoos where they could have learned anything different. Thus, the claim about bears being born as lumps of flesh makes a lot more sense, when considered in a careful and reflective manner.

The moral that should be drawn here is that taking the time to consider the perspective of another individual making claims that are, on the face of it, rather nonsensical, can yield surprising and enlightening results. Indeed, this kind of methodology is an important one, when working in the history of philosophy and ideas. In fact, this process of carefully considering perspective, is important in wider contexts too. This is the reason why the ideologically engaged ranting of some bloggers are ultimately so anti-academic, unscholarly and pernicious to the development of true knowledge. If the conclusion of an enquiry is determined before the enquiry has begun, then little is to be gained.

So, I advocate the careful consideration of perspective in all cases in which it may be relevant. Indeed, it should be considered even in cases in which it does not immediately appear relevant (you can ask 'why is perspective not relevant here?'). This, I believe will prevent some avoidable errors.

The CP

Thursday, October 12, 2006


The posting for today is to remind us of the things that are going on in Iraq. It also is in preparation for Memorial Day (aka 'Glorification of War Day').

This is another case of music lyrics, functioning as poetry. Although, when originally recorded these lyrics were also just spoken. These lyrics come from the Album Stations of The Crass (1979), by the band Crass. These lyrics are used without permission, that makes me feel vaguely guilty, but what the hell. Enjoy and contemplate.

The CP

"Demoncrats", by Crass (1979)

I am not he, nor master, nor lord,
No crown to wear, no cross to bear in stations.
I am not he, nor shall be, warlord of nations.
These heroes have run before me,
Now dead upon the flesh piles, see?
Waiting for their promised resurrection, there is none.
Nothing but the marker, crown or cross, in stone upon these graves
Promise of the ribbon was all it took,
Where only the strap would leave it's mark upon these slaves.
What flag to thrust into this flesh
Rag, bandage, mop in their flowing death.
Taken aside, they were pointed a way, for god, queen and country,
Now in silence they lie.
They ran beside these masters, children of sorrow,
As slaves to that trilogy they had no future.
They believed in democracy, freedom of speech,
Yet dead on the flesh piles
I hear no breath, I hear no hope, no whisper of faith
From those who have died for some others' privilege.
Out from your palaces, princes and queens,
Out from your churches, you clergy, you christs,
I'll neither live nor die for your dreams.
I'll make no subscription to your paradise.
I'll make no subscription to your paradise.
I'll make no subscription to your paradise.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

FEMA Foolishness, Goddamn

I recently ran across the news story in the Orlando Sentinel that really annoyed me. The story described the antics of FEMA in Florida. Apparently, FEMA is putting on puppet shows and running bingo games there. Read the story. It should make your blood boil. It did mine.

This story really annoyed me at two levels:

First, there are still many people in the State of Louisiana who are suffering from the profound negligence of FEMA. Indeed, they are now no longer prepared to pay all the costs of debris removal in the Parishes impacted by Hurricane Rita, yet they are hunting for hurricane victims elsewhere, to play games with? This is positively sickening. This does not even begin to raise the issues of those displaced people from New Orleans and the surrounding Parishes living in tiny FEMA trailers, or those still forced to live many miles away from their homes.

Second, as a tax payer, it gauls me that Federal money should be wasted on such frivolity. There are plenty of better uses that this cash could be put to. While I am not talking about starting more wars, I do have in mind things like education, health care and levee building. This objection should resonate even with folks outside Louisiana.

I would write more, but the huge sense of indignation prevents me from saying anything more that might be considered coherent.

The CP

Monday, October 09, 2006

How To Stop School Shootings

In the wake of the recent spate of school shootings, the net is now awash with news stories, opinion pieces and blog postings on the topic. The Whitehouse is even holding a special summit on the topic. One rather alarming suggestion that keeps appearing is that teachers and other school personnel should be permitted to carry concealed weapons. As best as I can tell, such an idea is positively insane. Yet, it appears to even be getting some support from politicians.

Consider the facts for the moment. The one thing that makes school shootings relatively easy is the ready availability of firearms. If guns were not available to disgruntled students, and others, then shootings in schools would be much harder to pull off. Indeed, guns are a necessary condition for recent outrages. If this condition was removed, then there may still be violent incidents in school, but the chances are they would give rise to much less carnage.

Nobody will disagree that a person with malicious intent, armed with a hunting knife, box cutter, or some other kind of weapon would still be able to inflict considerable harm. However, the harm that could be inflicted would be greatly reduced. This is because an attacker would have to gain proximity to their victim. Also, should a person be intent on committing multiple homicides, they would ultimately have to deal with the effort involved in committing such acts. Also, whilst an attacker was focused upon one victim, others may have a chance to escape. Compare this to a case where an attacker has a firearm. Under these circumstances, an attacker need not get close to their victims. Also, much less physical effort would be involved. In addition, people attempting to flee could be easily stopped.

Thus, rather than arming teachers, we should instead control access to firearms far more closely. This would help reduce instances of school shootings. In fact, this is not a new idea. President Clinton proposed a host of restrictions on firearms, in the wake of the Columbine massacre. These never managed to get passed into law though, due to the lobbying efforts of gun makers and the NRA. The gun lobby are aware of these facts and already have spokespersons appearing to suggest that this strategy did not work last time, so it will not work if tried again. We should not be persuaded by this rhetoric.

It is important to realize that it was a Republican controlled Congress that failed to pass these proposed laws. As there is a fighting chance that the Republicans will lose a large number of seats in the upcoming November elections, it may be timely to try this again.

It is no great surprise that the homicide rate in the US is as high as it is, given the ready availability of firearms. Other countries with stricter gun laws may have higher rates of assaults, but this is not too high a price to pay. I for one would rather face a belligerent person with a broken bottle, or a knife, rather than the same individual with a firearm.

As for the proposal to arm teachers, it makes no sense. All this would do is increase the availability of firearms in schools. This would make things worse not better. So, to stop school shootings, get rid of the firearms. If this requires changing the Constitution, then so be it. Such an approach would address the underlying disease, rather than merely offer palliatives for the symptoms.

The CP

Sunday, October 08, 2006

To The Country

So, this weekend involved a run away from town, to the country. First, wandering and looking at antique country stuff was on the agenda. Although there was nothing that actually totally transfixed, a new location with good stuff and unbelievable deals was discovered. This place will be visited again.

Next, was a run to the lake to see if the 'gators were out. They were not, but there were lots of other fun critters. Also, an examination of an odd European style folly was undertaken. More local folklore will need to be investigated to get to the bottom of this one. Whilst at the lake, a discussion of Jack O' the Green was begun. The question became, who does this job in Louisiana? The consensus view that this role was played by 'Bubba-foot'. This conclusion caused great mirth to all.

After this, we went to another small town to listen to a great Creole band play in the street. We laughed and drank cold, cold beer, even though the weather was not too hot for once. This was followed by further relaxation.

The country experience was concluded by a steaming meal of hot and very fresh vegetable and beef soup and hot fresh bread. It was flavorful, succulent and filling. It would have been food for the soul, were such things to exist.

Trips to the country can refresh the spirit. This is good to remember.

The CP

This was

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Spuddle: An Excellent Word.

One of the nice things about being a philosopher is that one has to spend a certain amount of time reading old texts. Although the history of philosophy is not my main research area, it is still something I enjoy studying. Often times when studying historical works, it is helpful to read other historical works from around the same period, in order to get a better 'feel' for the general intellectual climate. Today, I was doing just this.

One of my favorite 'background' texts is a rather curious work by one Charles Mackay, published in 1874, called Lost Beauties of the English Language. This book contains all sorts of oddities and surprises and can be quite funny in places. Whilst reading this work today, I ran across a splendid word I had not seen before, the word 'spuddle'. According to Mackay, this is a verb which means,

"To go about a trifling business as if it were a matter of grave importance. To assume airs of importance without occasion."

The OED amplifies this at little telling us that the term means,

"To turn over, dig up, stir or work at, lightly or superficially."

This term seems to be an excellent one, which needs to be brought back from the mere dialectical usage that the OED ascribes to it. I can think of many occasions where this term perfectly describes the activities of my colleagues and also of various bloggers. I cannot count the number of times I have had to listen at length to other professors describing how important their work is, and how they are such great scholars, when I know damn well that they have not published a thing in years. This term also seems quite applicable to the various behaviors of administrators. They seem compelled to think up utterly insane and futile exercises, which are supposed to further some goal or other, but really just amount to a waste of time. Despite the obvious shortcomings of these schemes, the proponents like to set deadlines, hold meetings and go on at great length about the crucial importance of their proposals.

In the past, under these kinds of circumstances and situations, I am always been reminded of the passage from Descartes' First Meditation where he discusses

"...people whose brains are so impaired by a stubborn vapor from a black bile that they continually insist that they are kings when they are in utter poverty, or that they are wearing purple robes when they are naked, or that they have a head made of clay, or that they are gourds, or that they are made of glass." [AT 19]

Now however, I will be able to just note, correctly name and identify cases of spuddling. This I take to be a substantial terminological innovation.

The CP

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Spirit of the Desert

The following text was adapted from the Lyrics of the Song "Spirit of The Falklands" [N.B. Beware of pop-ups -- disabling JavaScript is recommended], by the Yorkshire band New Model Army.

The Spirit of the Desert

The natives are restless tonight, sir
Cooped up in towns with no hope in sight
They need some kind of distraction
We can give them that
'Cause they'd kill if they only had something to kill for
They'd die if they only had something to die for
They'd cheer if they only had something to cheer for
We can give them that
So it's off to war we go (I couldn't believe it)
Bring out all the flags (I never believed it)
Fight the good fight

It's working like a dream, sir
Half the nation are hooked on the bait
Waiting for the next victorious instalment
We can give them that
'Cause it's no surprise that young men are heroes
It's no surprise that young men are strong
It's no surprise that young men are foolish
We've known that all along
Exciting pictures on News at Ten (I couldn't believe it)
Read all the crap on all the front pages (I never believed it)
Fight the good fight

Dead men in the Iraqi Desert
It's meant to warm our hearts
They think that they died for you and me
Oh God, what a farce, what a farce

And now it's the reprise
Plugging 'Freedom' and the 'Terror threat'
Show the pictures again and again
Till the new war comes around
'Cause we'll kill if we only have something to kill for
We'll die if we only have something to die for
We'll cheer if we only have something to cheer for
That is worthy of the name
Oh yes the new war (I never believed it)
See the propaganda in TV fiction (I never believed it)
Enemies with horns and tails

There are dead men in the Iraqi desert
It's meant to warm our hearts
They think that they died for you and me
They died for Halliburton

The CP

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Poison Girls

No, this post is not about the rock group from the 1980s that featured Joy Division producer Martin Hannett on bass, rather it is about a nasty blog based phenomenon.

For some time now, I have been following the blogs and comments of various bloggers. From time to time, when doing this, I will take a look at the blogs of people who post comments. Often this method will lead me to other interesting blogs. However, this is not always the case.

This is a post about four bloggers I have followed with a certain perverse fascination, due to their ideological engagement and hypocrisy. From their posts, comments and other actions, it is clear that these are people with a lot of 'issues'. It is also interesting that this quartet frequently comment upon one another, cite one another and link to one another, thereby forming a self-sustaining rhetorical circle of illusion. I will describe these folks here (though not in too much detail -- their anonymity will be respected) and try and draw some conclusions about the phenomenon that they manifest. I would be interested to know if anybody else has come across anything similar and to what extent the conclusions I draw appear to generalize.

Poison Girl 1
The first Poison Girl, hereafter PG 1, is interested in exposing racism and sexism. This she does to remarkable effect, albeit not quite in the manner she intends. The racism and sexism she best succeeds in exemplifying is her own. One of the features of PG 1 is that she cannot stand anybody to disagree with her. She even gets ugly when asked questions! She certainly has little or no time for most commentators, especially if they appear to be male. Here is an example of the purple prose of PG 1:

"...because you are so superior to little old amateur intellects like myself you had to go back to your blog and cry about it, cry about it like a little pussy bitch who cannot fist fuck at liberty. The problem is, I don’t like being fist fucked."

This is what she had to say to a commentator whose comments she deleted. Her focus is very much upon perceived abuse and abusers (more often imagined than real). Much of what she has to say is manipulative. Indeed, it appears to me that the passage quoted above, if it were articulated by a man and directed towards a women, or a minority, it would be an unequivocal case of abusive language. The venom and the terms here are prejudicial and inflammatory. They also misrepresent the facts. The person PG 1 is writing to only posted a comment that she disagreed with. The response it got, in addition to the comment being deleted, appear totally over the top. Despite these facts, PG 1 appears to have a number of regular fans and supporters. They will join with her to assault other commentators on her and other blogs, when the comments are not deemed 'on message', yet are not too far off to warrant being deleted. This seems to me to be neither conducive to furthering understanding, nor to offer a means of healing the ills that PG 1 so often detects. I'd really like to know what the real agenda is here. It is clearly not the agenda that PG 1 claims. If anything, it appears to be quite the opposite. PG 1 was the first blog that alerted me to the phenomenon under discussion here and represents possibly the most extreme case of the sickness.

Poison Girl 2
The second Poison Girl is a regular on the PG 1 blog. She claims to be interested in bringing about change. Her topic and focus, like PG 1, are racism and sexism. In her profile she asks "Why am I not surprised?". After reading her blog and comments, the answer is manifestly clear to the reader. PG 2 finds the ills she is looking for all around her. However, this is something akin to a self-fulfilling prophesy in this.

One of the more interesting features of PG 2 is that she believes herself to be gifted with some kind of special insight. She remarks that

"I don't argue with people who don't "get it" because it's a waste of everyone's time--mine and theirs."

We also learn the reason why some people fail to 'get it'. PG 2 writes about someone she wishes to complain about that they do not,

"...have the knowledge, the understanding, the empathy, the sense of perspective, or (apparently) the willingness to acquire any of these things that would make it possible for her to "get it.""

Fortunately, for all, PG 2 does 'get it' and is more than willing to share her insights with the ignorant masses.

PG 2 is rhetorically quite sophisticated. This is probably because she appear to be some kind of university person. However, the line that runs through her texts is similar to PG 1s -- if you ask questions, or disagree with PG 2, be prepared to be patronized, called a racist and/or sexist and generally brow beaten. Even simple questions, or requests for clarification, or heaven forbid, proposals of alternative explanations of alleged phenomenon can lead to the ideologically driven rantings of PG 2. A somewhat unique feature of PG 2s style is that she likes to back up her claims with 'facts' and statistics. In theory, this should be good and could make the claims advanced more plausible. Unfortunately, these putative facts and numbers appear out of the blue, with no attribution. Indeed, they are presented as widely known truths. However, the facts and numbers often suffer from a rather serious implausibility. As with our previous PG, PG 2 ends up alienating and frustrating people, far more than she succeeds in enlightening. Thus, she manifestly fails in her professed goals.

Poison Girl 3
It is necessary to be a little circumspect when discussing PG 3, as this is a person I have known for quite a while, outside the blog arena. She too is heavily invested in matters of race and gender politics and like PG 2, likes to claim academic credentials. Although these matters are not always the main focus of the blog, as with our previous PGs, race and gender comments of the 'Ooooh, I so agree!' kind are a frequent theme to her comments on other blogs (especially PG 1 and 2s).

Often, PG 3s blog is filled with observations about columns in leftie magazines, or radio stations, accompanied by plagiarized texts. However, every now and again, there are posts that deal with race and gender matters. This PG is especially fond of, like PG 2, claiming that she has a magical insight on these matters, although the positions articulated are predictable and unsophisticated. A feature which is especially odd is the tendency to speak about books on these topics that she has only read reviews of, rather than reading the texts themselves. However, perhaps the oddest feature of the PG 3 blog is her propensity to claim that, on the basis that she has occasionally been mistaken for a non-white American, that she actually is of other ethnicities. Now, I was under the impression that this is what is termed 'racial appropriation' and is often considered a pernicious activity. However, PG 3 is under the impression that behaving in this way is ok in her case.

PG 3 has admitted to me in person that the reason she reads and comments on many blogs is to get more people to read her blog. There is a crucial insight here; PG 3 just wants to be the center of attention. By identifying with oppressed groups and emphasizing her role as an oppressed women (a claim of questionable plausibility, given a background of privilege), this enables PG 3 to play the role of victim, that she appears addicted to playing. There are elements of this in the previous two blogs also. To me, it seems odd that a person who is an academic should spend so much time reading blogs and magazines. I was under the impression that papers in refereed journals would be a better reading diet and publishing papers in refereed journals is a better use of academic time, than posting on blogs. Oh well.

PG 3 also shares another feature with the previous PGs in so much as she is a very aggressive deleter of any comments that might question her wisdom, consistency, or 'insight'. In this, PG 3 has already so disheartened one earnest blogger, that they quit blogging! This too appears to work against the furtherance of the professed goals, as well as what should be PG 3's professional goals, rather than help.

Poison Girl 4
Poison Girl 4, like 2 and 3, is also an academic. She appears to have been inspired to enter blogging by PG 3, with whom she is a friend. She spends a good deal of her comment time telling PG 3 how clever and politically correct she is. Her blog is a rather weak attempt at emulating PG 3s style. This does not work too well though. After all, who really cares about someone's visit to the State fair? Occasionally, there are attempts at erudition and direct addressing of gender and race issues, but these are infrequent and confused. It is in her comments that PG 4 earns her inclusion in the group of poison girls.

These individuals have a number of features that they have in common. At least two-thirds of them are white academics. They also share certain rhetorical tropes. For instance, they commonly like to talk about 'white/male entitlement'. Whilst this may be a real phenomenon in certain cases, it is a diagnosis of dubious merit in others. For instance, if a colleague has a successful career, then it is at least as possible that this is due to their hard work and productivity, as it is due to their race and gender. Without these considerations being taken into account, a simple cry of 'white male entitlement' should not be taken too seriously. Of course, this is especially the case when such a cry is issued in conjunction with claims of victimhood. It would have been much more helpful if a detailed and careful debate was engaged in, rather than one sided diatribes, even if there are several distinct authors on this single side.

However, in order to get a better perspective on the Poison Girls, I asked a number of individuals from historically disadvantaged ethnic backgrounds to take a look at their writings and give me feedback. This group consisted of both genders (thanks folks, you know who you are). Perhaps the most telling comment came from a neighbor who said "Well, if these are the people who are 'friends', who needs enemies?".

Although the opinions expressed were quite diverse, there were certain clear trends. First off, a number of individuals observed that the Poison Girls spouted a lot of words, but showed little evidence of doing anything concrete to assist the groups they claimed to support. One person suggested that each of the Poison Girls should look out the front of their houses three times for a half hour, on different days and at different times and observe the ethnicity of those people walking and driving past. This individual conjectured that the result would be mostly whites. As none of the individuals discussed here, is likely to read this, it is unlikely they will ever be able to take this test. I bet that the results would be interesting though.

The consensus of those whose opinions I sought was that the PGs either had no effect at all on real matters of race and gender, or possibly had the effect of desensitizing people. This last conclusion appears a little sad, given the highly earnest tones of the PGs. My group also wondered a little about the motivations of the PGs. Why so much heat and anger, if this is just venting, without even a pretense of debate (the group was especially concerned about the propensity to delete posts)? I think that this is an especially important point too. Any view point, no matter how intrinsically virtuous, which cannot be subject to scrutiny has to be considered suspicious. What is also sad is the lack of humor that appears to pervade the writings of these individuals. It seems to me that chilling is good and that a sense of fun can be important in explaining important concepts. However, as a guy and thus an a priori sexist (at least to the PGs), who cares about my view?

Should anyone wish to comment on this post, either in support or disagreement, I give my word that no comments will be deleted. In this, I hope to lead by example.

The CP

Update: Someone was kind enough to draw my attention to the following comment,

" Great link - and note, there is an odd thread on race at [PG 1's] blog. Intervention of some sort could be helpful."

The amazing thing is that this remark was left by PG 3, in a comment on PG 2s blog. This seems to amount to concrete evidence of collusion. Amazing.

The CP
Listed on 
BlogShares web stats Site Meter