Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Hurricanes '06

The first of December marks the end of hurricane season. Thank goodness. The 2006 season was, for the most part, mercifully quiet. Nowhere was this appreciated more than on the Gulf coast. Louisiana is still recovering from the double trauma of the 'media darling' hurricane, Katrina, and the forgotten hurricane, Rita. We can now breath a sigh of relief, until the beginning of next June.

New Orleans is still a mess. Many people are still displaced. In a recent survey, 17% of those who have returned are planning to leave again, within the next year. The petty political waste of Mayor Nagin, the incompetent Governor Blanco, in conjunction with Federal stupidity and corporate greed, ensure that the only people recovering are the out of State 'contractors'. If you do not believe this, look at the links at the G Bitch blog.

In the area afflicted by hurricane Rita, the situation is still pretty bad, but slowly getting better, despite (not because of) governmental incompetence. At long last, it was announced today, they will be rebuilding the main hospital in Cameron Parish. It will have many fewer beds, but at least it is being rebuilt. A local tax was needed to pay for running it though.

So, good ridance to hurricane season. For those outside Louisiana, please remember that things are still not right here. The people afflicted by Rita have been marginalized and are still struggling. However, we have all been saved the horrors of more devistating storms, for this year at least. Let us thank all the gods.

The CP

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Some Days, Life Is Good

Well, some excellent news. Some time ago, I received an invitation to give a talk at a rather select gathering in December, on another continent. This is going to be a complicated trip, because after the meeting, I want to go somewhere else, to be with people I am close to for Christmas. Immediately after Christmas, I need to be on the U.S. East coast, for another conference.

Getting the travel arrangements sorted out has proved to be more than a little complicated. However, today I finally received confirmation of my multi-country, multi-city itinerary. It actually does not look too bad (although there is a lot of time spent on planes). I also got the details of our accommodations, which appear to be first class.

One of the perks of being an active researcher, is that one gets to go on trips like this, once in a while. The really nice part about this particular meeting is that all the costs are being borne by the organisers. My almost non-existent travel budget will only have to cover the hotel on the East Coast. In addition, it appears that I know quite a few of the other people presenting at the same event. They are smart and interesting people, so this should make for a great meeting. As a final bonus, a major publisher has already agreed to publish the papers that are given at the meeting. So, a nice trip to far away places, with clement climates is now confirmed. This makes my day. Of course, now I have to make sure that the talk I give is up to standard. I have been working on it since Thanksgiving. It seems to be shaping up rather well. To get to see people I do not usually see for Christmas is a bonus. The final conference will be more work related, but as it is large and one I have attended many times, I anticipate seeing plenty of old friends there too.

On various other academic and pseudo-academic blogs fairly recently, I have seen people arguing that research is not really that important. I think that this is rubbish! This is the kind of line one gets either from those condemed to teach too much by their oppresive institutions, or from those who do no research that they can get published. Not only is research one of the most exciting and rewarding parts of an academic job, when it also bring dividends like this trip, it should be praised for pragmatic reasons too.

The CP

P.s. Several blogs I read have postings about a blog game (I hate the word 'meme', being used in this context). Folks are being asked to link to a post on the blog of Acephalous. Apparently, this is some kind of experiment for a talk that will be given at this years annual MLA meeting. So, add the link, or say 'Whatever'.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Student Excuses

The ever excellent RateYourStudents blog announced a new project, in combination with The Chronicle of Higher Education. The project is to collect "the best student excuses you'd care to share with us - the absurd, the imaginative, the ridiculous, the sublimely outrageous." I encourage everyone to send in their favorite howlers.

Perhaps my favorite excuse of all time arrived when I was quite a green teaching assistant, in graduate school. One of the students in the class I was looking after explained that they could not hand in their paper on time, as their brother was a computer hacker. At first, this excuse did not quite add up. However, the student continued on to tell me that the security services had paid their house a visit and taken away the family computer for further investigation. The only copy of the paper, it was claimed, was on the hard drive of the now confiscated computer.

On the face of it, this excuse was so out of it, that it seemed to have a ring of plausibility. I told the student that they should try and get some evidence, like a property receipt, or something from the relevant authorities. They promised to try. After puzzling over this tale for a while, I decided to do my own investigation. I discovered that there was an 800 telephone number for the security services listed in our local telephone book. So, I gave them a call.

The lady who answered the telephone was initially somewhat amused, but took my request seriously. After a certain amount of being shunted around their internal telephone system, I was eventually put through to the national head of computer crimes. He too took my request very seriously, took down the necessary details and promised to get back to me. About an hour later, my office telephone rang and it was the computer crime head honcho. He told me that he had looked into the matter. It turned out that the last computer seizure had happened about three weeks previously in a city a long way away. Thus, he concluded that the students amazing story was just that -- a story. A few days later I received a letter from this man, confirming in writing the results of his investigation.

The next class, I took the opportunity to have a quite word with the student. First, I asked about the evidence they had promised to try and find for me. They assured me that they had tried, but had found that it was impossible to contact the security people. To my amusement, they suggested that not being able to find a telephone number for these people was probably a national security thing. The student did promise though that they would try and write a letter. The following class, when my letter had arrived, the student went a very funny color when I showed it to them. The student got a zero for the paper, but I got a great tale to tell. I will be submitting it.

The CP

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Magpie

The magpie is a curious bird, or rather, a curious collection of birds. There are in fact eleven different species, world wide. In North America, there are two kinds. Pica pica, the black-billed magpie is the most common. It's yellow-billed cousin, Pica nuttalli is found mostly on the West coast. All magpies are members of the crow family and are distinguished by their black and white feathers. A picture of a magpie, along with other interesting information, can be found here.

What makes magpies interesting is that they are birds that excite a lot of interest and about which their are a variety of myths and beliefs. For instance, the Chinese call the magpie 'The Bird of Joy' and associate good fortune with them. This view is rather an unusual one. A more common set of beliefs about magpies can be found in a traditional rhyme about magpies, that is learned by English school children. The rhyme goes,

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret
Never to be told.

Magpies are known for having a few odd habits. For instance, magpies are highly attracted to shiny objects. However, this is not the set of habits that have caused magpies to have an unsavoury reputation.

Most people know that crows are mostly scavengers. Magpies too are also scavengers. However, they differ from other members of the crow family, in so much as they will take an active role in bringing about the demise of their prey. For instance, should a crow spot a young rabbit in a bad way, the crow will most likely hang around until the rabbit dies, before proceeding to scavenge from the rabbit. Magpies in contrast, will often peck out the eyes of an animal in distress to hasten their death. Such behaviours are often viewed as being unnecessarily cruel by rural people. This kind of behavior has been responsible in large part for the contempt that magpies are held in.

As the rhyme above suggests, magpies in general, and single magpies in particular, are seen as birds of ill omen. This raises the interesting question of what a person should do, if they see a magpie, in order to ward off the misfortune. Various proposals have been made on this topic. However, when I was growing up, we were always taught to follow a curious little ritual. Just in case, someone has an unfortunate encounter with a magpie, I will describe the ritual here.

Should one see a magpie, then immediately one should greet the magpie with the two phrases,

"Good morning, my lord,
Good afternoon, Mr. Magpie."

After these words have been said, it is next important to salute the magpie. Now, how, or why this little ritual is supposed to help, is radically unclear. However, just in case, it may be wise to follow the ritual anyhow. Indeed, I know people who take things a little further. Should they see two, or three magpies, then they will repeat the ritual once for each bird. This may be excessive.

Some people, and even some bloggers, are a bit like magpies. They are attracted to the shininess of other peoples words, images and the like, and feel the need to collect them up for themselves, by putting them on their blogs. This kind of person (and bloggers of this ilk) are often rather cruel, like magpies. One can also find something similar when people without philosophical training start thinking about philosophical topics. They will pick up a few words and ideas from various places and then try and make intellectual headway. These attempts almost never lead anywhere. Perhaps the worst type of case like this is when a person collects up several concepts from politics, philosophy, psychoanalysis and self-help, mix them with implausible claims about perception and some highly suspect reasoning and then attempt to build justifications for their own shortcomings. This is not only annoying and futile, it also exhibits the same coherency as a magpie's random collection of shiny things. It is a real shame that there is no simple ritual to make this kind of person desist and go away.

The CP

3 Years, 8 Months, 7 Days

Today is a shameful anniversary. As of today, the US has been in Iraq for exactly three years, eight months and seven days. Now, on the face of it, this number appears arbitrary. It is significant, though. This is exactly the amount of time that the US was involved in World War II. The differences between the two conflicts are startling. In World War II, Europe was liberated from Nazism during this time period. There appears to be nothing remotely similar that can be said about the current war in Iraq. In fact, the influence of the US in Iraq appears to have been almost entirely detrimental. Although Iraq may have had problems before the US invasion, it was not on the brink of civil war, as it is now. This is shameful.

The CP

Friday, November 24, 2006

Derick's Disease

One meets curious people in grad school. When I was just beginning my doctoral program at roughly the same time there was a fellow who was starting in the Master's program, by the name of Derick. Derick was a nice enough fellow, a little older than most of the other students. He dressed quite well, though conservatively. He always took fastidious notes with a gold colored propelling pencil. His handwriting was incredibly neat. Chatting with Derick, I learned that his ambition in life was to become a 'philosophy lecturer'. This seemed a little odd, given that this terminology is not too common in North America.

If I recall correctly, I took a couple of classes with Derick. One of them was a seminar class on the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. As the weeks progressed, a rather odd phenomenon concerning Derick became clear. He was attempting to understand the work of Kant, by trying to relate his thought to the work of the British philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. This was rather curious and gave rise to some comments (and a little frustration from the professor), but did not seem totally off the wall.

The next semester, I found myself in another class with Derick. I forget what the class was about, but I do recall that it was a topic that was not even remotely related to, or sensibly relateable to, the work of Hobbes. For this reason, I assumed that the Hobbes fixation would disappear. To my complete amazement, it did not! As the semester progressed, it became terrifyingly clear to myself and many other people in this class that the only philosopher Derick really understood, was in fact, Thomas Hobbes. Indeed, this claim needs some qualifying. It also appeared that Derick's grasp of the works of Hobbes was not as firm as it might have been. Some wag named this phenomena 'Derick's disease'. It was decided that whenever a person attempted to understand any topic by relating it to another topic, then this person potentially suffered from Derick's disease. If the person always chose the same topic as a means of understanding everything, no matter how inappropriate it might be, then the diagnosis of Derick's disease was confirmed.

I don't know what happened to Derick. However, I am pretty certain that he never successfully completed the Master's program.

Now, on the face of it, this might seem to be a mildly amusing anecdote from graduate school and little more. I beg to differ on this interpretation. It appears to me that cases of Derick's Disease are in fact alarmingly common. For instance, I had a student who exhibited Derick's disease whilst studying the history of modern philosophy. He tried to relate everything to the work of John Locke. This however by no means exhausts the domains in which people exhibit this malady.

Consider the case of certain excessively dogmatic fundamentalist Christians. These people in a certain number of cases seem to exhibit Derick's disease. Why did their car not start? It was God's will. Why did their daughter become a junkie? It was God's will. Why did it rain on the church picnic?...You get the picture. We can also find sufferers of Derick's disease amongst certain types of Marxist/Socialist types. I suspect that there are even existentialists who suffer from this malady (probably also falling into bad faith, in the process). Some people will insist that all their problems are due to the oppression of white males, homophobes, evil fairy's, or whatever. Others will claim all sorts of utterly nutty things, based upon all sorts of wild theories. Many of these kinds of people will suffer from Derick's disease also.

Thus, I submit that Derick's disease should be considered for inclusion in either medical, or psychological, manuals in the future. It is an alarmingly common sickness. ;)

The CP

Thursday, November 23, 2006

News From The South: Sican and Mapuche

There have been two interesting news items recently from South America. The first item comes from Peru. It seems that Archaeologists have recently discovered some tombs which are over 900 years old. The exciting thing about these tombs is that they have not been robbed. The tombs are located in the Pomac Forest Historical Sanctuary, which is 680 kilometers (420 miles) northwest of the Peruvian capital, Lima. The tombs contain bodies from the Sican culture, from between A.D. 750 to 1375. An accounts of this discovery can be found here and here.

The most exciting aspect of this find is that archaeologists have found a large number of artifacts, including twelve "tumis". Tumis are ceremonial knives, which are also a Peruvian national symbol. The really exciting thing about the current find though is that this is the very first time that tumi have been found in their original context, without being disturbed by grave robbers. This should provide extremely valuable information about their use. Thus, this is a very important find indeed.

Meanwhile, further south, in Chile, the Mapuche people (the name means 'People of the lands') have filed a lawsuit against the evil Microsoft Corporation accusing the company of linguistic piracy. According to the story at CNN, Microsoft translated their software into the Mapuzugun language spoken by the Mapuche people. The lawsuit contends that Microsoft should have gained the permission of the tribal elders, before translating the software. Failing to do this, the suit contends, violates the Mapuche cultural and collective heritage.

Of course, the really interesting thing about this suit is that it raises the issue of whether, or not any particular group can 'own' a language. Given the utter insanity of intellectual property law at the current time, this is a fascinating, though worrying question. This suit also raises intriguing questions about globalisation and the actions of multinational corporations. Microsoft produced their software as part of an effort to bring the cultural riches of native peoples to a wider audience. Microsoft also wished to bring native peoples into [their version of] the digital world. This program has met with a good deal of hostility from the native peoples themselves. It certainly has colonial type tones to it. One wonders whether an open source project would have the cultural sensitivity to ask permission, and whether such an effort would meet with the same amount of hostility.

It will be interesting to see how this lawsuit plays out. One point to note though is that Microsoft has found in the Mapuche a formidable adversary. This people has historically strongly resisted attempts at subjugating them by both the Incas and the Spanish.

The CP

Monday, November 20, 2006

Academics and 'Busy Work'

Update: In my last post, I raised a question about certain corporations scanning the blog arena. The two companies I especially raised questions about were Entergy and Halliburton, who had previously paid me a visit after I had mentioned them here. Well, guess what, today I had a visit from both corporations! The log entry for Entergy can be found here and the entry for Halliburton is here. [N.B. I am a little uncertain how the Site Meter assigns URLs, so these links may not be good for too long -- we shall see]. Perhaps this is now a question to be posted to Slashdot?

As regular readers will know, one of the topics that gets discussed here is the status of the professorial life. In particular, I am always amazed at how incredibly idle and unproductive some of my co-workers are. They teach, but as best as can be inferred from the evidence, they do no research, or at least, do precious little. This has led me to wonder what these people actually do with the their time. I have also been slightly interested in learning how these people get away with it. Having undertaken a little bit of a study (albeit with too small a sample size to be truly scientific), I think I now have an answer: These people spend their time doing 'busy work'.

The interesting part about 'busy work' is that it gives off a pretence of being a real academic activity, or at least an activity with some academic purpose. This perhaps explains how folks manage to get away with it. Our administration types are not all that on the ball and it seems that the terminally idle get away with it by spinning elaborate yarns about all the effort the put in on what they depict as being vital tasks. There is a moral lesson here too for academics everywhere. If you find that you are putting inordinate amounts of effort into tasks that are not really research and do not result in conference presentations and/or academic publications, then, this should be taken as a red flag. You could be headed for 'deadwood' sooner than you think.

In order to help others spot the signs of folks who may be headed for this particular kind of doldrum, I have compiled a list of common 'busy work' tasks:

  • Designing/Maintaining Web Sites. As anyone who has either designed, or maintained a web site knows, this process can be quite an effort and time consuming. This being said, once the design has been done, if a web site is architecturally well designed, it should not take too much time to keep up to date. As most administrators are techno-wienies, they have few ideas about how much effort is really involved in running a web site. Thus, what once may have been a useful and meaningful exercise can, over time, become a form of busy work.

  • Mystery 'Administration'. The deadwood types often speak in hushed tones about all the time they spend on 'administrative tasks'. Quite what these tasks are, or why they should apparently take up so much time and be such a burden is seldom revealed. Now, every one has to do some administration. It is a necessary evil. However, it is clear that not all administration is of equal value. For instance, alphabetising a collection of CDs can be seen as a form of administrative task, but it is clearly one that is best left to office help, or a student worker. However, the joy about these administrative claims is that the real administrators may be impressed by them, as they spend so much time on this kind of activity.

  • Creating Promotional Materials. There can be little doubt that marketing is important. However, it is not so important that a faculty member should spends days, or weeks working on it and nothing else. An attractive pamphlet providing information about a program may bring in a few majors. However, the difference between a pamphlet which has been worked on for few hours and one which has been worked on for a few days, in terms of the majors it yields is likely to be minimal. A similar point can be made about a poster. Is there much point in days being spent on a poster announcing a talk, when only a handful of people show up for the talk? I would say not. Yet this is just the kind of 'busy work' that is a favorite of the deadwood types. In addition, few academics have any real skill in graphic design. For this reason, this is often the kind of job also much better left to staff members.

  • Talking To Students. Talking to students is an important part of the job of an academic. However, not all kinds of talk is helpful. Discussing class readings, working on paper outlines and even assisting with graduate school plans are all useful and worthwhile activities. However, swapping gossip, discussing movies and other fundamentally social activities are not a good use of either professorial, or even the students time. Although it may be fun to get to know one's students a little, it is a mistake to treat them as friends, other than in perhaps exceptional circumstances. Getting a reputation for being cool with the undergraduates is not real work. People need to remember this.

  • Blogging. It always slightly shocks me to see how often academic types post to their blogs during the working day. Some justify this activity by claiming that it is a method that helps them clear their thoughts, in order to get them into a better frame of mind to actually conduct and write up their research. This justification wears remarkably thin when there is no actual evidence of this alleged research, in terms of publications. Although blogging may be fun and therapeutic, until the priorities of the academy change, blogging is not an academic activity, as the concept is currently understood. Thus, this too is at the very best mere 'busy work', if it is to be counted as work at all (currently a doubtful proposition).

This list is by no means exhaustive. Indeed, some of the activities described are mere placeholders for numerous similar activities that are fundamentally similar in nature, in amounting to little more than 'busy work'. Most professors know that students are not graded upon the amount of effort they put into an activity. Rather, students are graded upon their performance. It puzzles me that professors sometimes seem to forget that the same applies to them.

The CP

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Of Corporations and Contraception...

So, to begin with, I have some good news. The large and important paper I have been working on of late is at long last finished. It turned out to be a bit more complicated and technical than I had originally thought it would be, but it is also better. I will be able to send it out next week, which is just great. Now to the business at hand.

I have noticed a rather curious phenomenon and I would be interested to know if anyone has seen anything similar. It appears to me that large corporate entities are scanning blogs, looking for references to themselves. Some time ago, I put up a post that included a reference to the Halliburton Corporation. To my surprise, when I was reviewing the hits on the blog the following day, I noticed that the blog had had a visit from someone logged into the Halliburton system (or at least, from a machine which was in their IP block). I thought that this was a little curious, but did not think too much about it.

Now, something similar has happened again. In my last post, I made reference to the Entergy Corporation. On the day following my putting up the post, in my logs I find a visit from a machine in an IP block registered to Entergy! From these two bit of evidence (a weak basis, as yet), it seems plausible to hypothesise that at least these two large corporations are keeping an eye on the blog arena to see what is being said about them. I find this a bit worrying. What I am interested in doing is seeing whether anyone else has noticed anything similar. If so, it might be interesting to compile a list of companies that scan the blogs, so as to produce plenty of false positives for them -- For example Halliburton and Entergy New Orleans fall in love!".

Recently, the Bush administration announced their choice of the person to head the federal Office of of Population Affairs. They have chosen one Eric Keroack. The Washington Post has a story about this announcement here. Now although a rather obscure sounding federal office, the Office of Population Affairs falls under the Department of Health and Human Services. It is the office with responsibility for, according to their website,

"...a wide range of reproductive health topics, including adolescent pregnancy, family planning, and sterilization, as well as other population issues."

So, Eric Keroack is going to be the new 'Contraception King'. So, who the hell is this dude? It turns out he is an obstetrician-gynecologist, who is also the medical director for A Woman's Concern, a nonprofit group based in Massachusetts. On the face of it, on the basis of these facts, he sounds like a reasonable choice for the position (at least, for a man). However, a little further research reveals some rather worrying additional facts.

It turns out that a brief review of the web site of A Women's Concern reveals that they are eager to inform women of the dangers associated with abortions. They also preach the virtue of abstinence! This is not a good sign. To make matter worse, it seems that this guy get cited in approving terms on the web site Now this is truly scary. So, it seems that Bush's appointed Federal 'Contraception King' does not in fact approve on contraception at all! How nuts is that? It sounds to me a bit like asking a teetotal Baptist to organise a frat house keg party, or asking a Quaker Pacifist to head up military policy. It seems to me that everybody, men and women alike, should be sending checks to Planned Parenthood before Bush's boy outlaws safe sex altogether!

The CP

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Miscellany

* There is an amazing post over at Bill Quigley's site. It seems that the post-hurricane chaos continues. According to the post, Community Development Block Grant fund stands at $10.4 billion, yet despite this fact, only 18 homeowners have received assistance through this program out of the 77,000 homeowners who have applied. Despite this fact, $200 million of these funds have been given to Entergy New Orleans, the power company. Quigley's post discusses other ridiculous wastes of money going on in the hurricane effected areas. It seems that large corporations are the main beneficiaries of the various relief programs. This is both sick and sad. It is no surprise that in Louisiana during the recent elections the Republicans all held their seats, bucking the National trend. It seems that Republican style 'business as usual', will continue to hold back this State for awhile longer yet.

* Apparently, the Marine Corps. 'Toys for Tots' program has had an offer of a donation of 4000 Jesus dolls, that spout scripture. The story is covered here. Initially, the Marines turned down the offer, for fear that these dolls might end up in Jewish or Muslim homes. However, according to our local news people, the Marines have had a change of heart now and will be accepting the donation. I predict that some poor (both literally and metaphorically) kids will have a pretty bad Christmas, because of this.

* Finally, we move to the world of the silly, for those who have time to kill on the web. The site has an amusing list of challenges. I was especially impressed by the 'Kids Toys For Grown-Ups'entries. Enjoy!

The CP

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

German Sadness and Joy

Today is probably the saddest day of the year for German philosophers. This is because two major German philosophers died on this day.

On the 14th of November 1716, in Hanover, the philosopher and polymat Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz died of arthritis and gout. Leibniz made many interesting contributions during his life. He invented binary arithmetic. He may have invented calculus (although Newton appears to have also invented it at around the same time). An excellent and detailed philosophical biography of Leibniz is available on-line here, by George MacDonald-Ross. As a classic rationalist philosopher and a scientific innovator, Leibniz would have been a sad loss to the German people.

What is perhaps a little odd is that Leibniz has developed a new 'career' in recent years. He now features in certain kinds of historical novels. He appears as a character in Iain Pear's novel An Instance of the Fingerpost. He is also a major character in Neal Stephenson's three Baroque Cycle novels.

A little over one hundred years after Leibniz's death, in 1831 the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel also died on the 14th of November. Hegel was the most famous post-Kantian German philosopher and was extremely influential on subsequent German philosophy. Hegel exerted a strong influence on Karl Marx, in particular. Indeed, some have suggested that Marx's opposition between classes was based upon Hegel's conception of the Slave verses the Master moral types. As a major German thinker, Hegel too would have been a sad loss to the German people.

Hegel is not a philosopher I know well. He is quite a difficult writer to read. Indeed, until a couple of years ago, I knew exactly how many pages of Hegel I had read in my entire life (seven). Unfortunately, I then taught a history of philosophy class and one of our majors decided to write a paper comparing the work of the philosopher we were focusing upon (Nietzsche), to the work of Hegel. I was forced to read a good deal more Hegel in order to be able to grade the final paper.

Fortunately, there is also less maudlin news out of Germany today. It seems that human right's groups there have have filed a lawsuit accusing Donald Rumsfeld of war crimes. This can be nothing but good news!

The CP

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Wise Words and the Future of Publishing?

Today, in a lazy sort of way, I have been preparing for the classes I will have to teach next week, along with doing various chores. As background for one of my classes, I decided to re-read Marx and Engel's Manifesto of The Communist Party. The German edition of this work was initially published in Leipzig in 1872. In this text, I found and was struck by, the following remark,

"In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations becomes common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature."

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1872), reprinted in translation in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works in One Volume, Progress Publishers (Moscow), p. 39. [The section that includes this passage is available on-line here.]

This passage is interesting for a number of reasons. The first of these is that, in some sense, these remarks appear to almost anticipate the internet. What, one wonders would Marx and Engels have made of the complex of texts, literatures, images, sounds and video clips available to anyone with a connection across the world today? This though raises a more interesting question of whether the rise of the net will lead to a single world literature? On the face of it, this is problematic, not least because of the barriers presented by language. That being said, as automatic translation tools, like those available from Google and outfits like Babblefish improve, perhaps these barriers will be transcended too.

Another things that is interesting about this passage is that it throws into question the work of certain 'theorists' (the term is used loosely here), who are interested in so-called 'post-colonial theory'. As a number of these theorists also embrace Marxism, one is left wondering what they make of this remark. Perhaps they just ignore it. Who knows.

This remark also makes us mindful of the trend of globalization, that currently grips many business areas. The burger I eat in Beijing, should be the same as the one I eat in Moscow, Chicago and New York. I for one think that this is a shame. Local variation is one of the things that makes travel interesting. With globalization, this is increasingly lost.

I recently had a 'globalization' experience. I received an e-mail from India, telling me that the proofs of a paper that I had recently had accepted in a rather good journal were ready. The e-mail sent me to a web site, where I could download the proofs, instructions, forms and all that stuff in .pdf format. The odd thing about all this is that the editorial board of the journal is almost entirely based in the U.S., whilst the publisher is Dutch! Such is the global world in which we now live and which the Internet has made possible.

However, the thing that makes the above quoted remark a little bit sad, is the extent to which the Utopian vision it seems to suggest is prevented from coming to be, by commercial interests. It is not the case that the intellectual property of the world is becoming universally available. The predatory behavior of large corporate copyright holders is making the wide availability of certain texts, images and the like an impossibility, unless fees are paid. This is a shame.

Consider the case of the academic paper. I work for a University that is part of the State school system. What this means is that, to a large extent, my salary is paid by tax payers of the State. One of my primary job duties is to do research and produce papers describing novel and original results. However, once a paper is accepted for publication in almost any respectable journal, I am required to sign over the copyright of my work to the publishers of the journal. The publishers then wish to sell my University library a subscription to the journal for a large fee. Publishing in respectable journals is the only way to get, and stay, ahead in academia. People who do not publish, or who publish in out of the way places, will fail to get promoted and lose the respect of their peers (if their peers even manage to get to hear about them in the first place).

This system is on the face of it, a little ridiculous. There are papers that I have written that I cannot access in our library. The people of my State have paid for this work, yet they cannot access this work either, without paying more. Moreover, these payments are made to large publishing houses that are often out-of-State, or even out of the country! This makes no sense to me.

It is because of these issues that I advocate supporting efforts like Cogprints. This is an archive of paper drafts in the format they were in, just before the authors' were required to sign away their copyrights. This provides a means of giving access to the fruits of research, without all the fees. This is also the reason why academics everywhere should consider supporting the efforts of outfits like Eprints and allied organizations. We academics should also all actively self-archive our work and make it available on the Internet. If we all do this, then perhaps the World of literature that Marx and Engels imagined may become a bit closer to a reality.

The CP

Saturday, November 11, 2006

A Punctuation Game

So, today is a writing day. The paper I am finishing is fun and important. This means doing academic things has to take precedent over blogging.

By way of recompense, I offer this rather cute and fun punctuation game. Enjoy.

The CP

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

New Osama Message

Some Arabic news sources are reporting that a new message from Osama bin Laden has appeared on several web sites. The message appears to have originated from the Pakistani/Afghan border region. The message has just been translated. As a service to the public, the text will be reproduced here.

"In this year of Allah, I speak to The Great Satan, W of the obscene United States of America. May Allah, in all his mercy, reign ruin upon you all, in his magnificence.

Great Satan W, why did you let the events of last night come to pass? Have not your Satanic hoards perfected the great art of election rigging? Was this not how your base art gained and has held the fetid sore that is the Whitehouse? Allah may be merciful, but has no truck with, and holds the greatest of scorn towards, the breaching of trust. Did we not have an 'understanding', or as your crass business evil doers say 'a deal'?

With the decadent and debased persons now controlling you evil House and probably your blasphemous Senate, how will the glorious war be continued? On this, our interests coincide, although I hate to lie in the same bed with the son of a camel, such as yourself. I need the war to keep rallying the forces of Allah against you and your evil minions. You need the war to keep control of the sacred crude oil and to maintain the obscene profits for Bechtel, KBR and the other minions of Halliburton, not to mention your catemites in Exxon. If peace is to be upon us, we both lose, along with my glorious martyrs and your vile slaves. Where once the scion sword of Islam and the herd of crooked accountants and consultants had marched as a single adversarial army, we are now faced with calamity. This is a mighty blasphemy and an out right problem.

At first, oh Satan of W, I prayed that Allah would find you in your bed and strangle you in the night, with the cocaine residue in your nose. Now, I have come to appreciate and indeed, love the great wrongs that you visit upon my Muslim brothers and Sisters, as it makes us stronger to fight against your profound evil. With the great passing of the psychotic and corrupt knights of your Congress, like Foley of fondle and all the similar kind, all appears to be lost. I, though, had faith in both Allah and in your arrogance and stupidity. I told my yaks that the Satanic W would not fail us at this great hour of need. You would find a way. However, when I viewed the heretical al-Foxnews today, I discovered that you have permitted the pompous Rumsfeld to leave your service. Have you lost your mind? Do you know how many brave warriors have volunteered for suicide missions, soley on the basis of the chance of kicking that idiotic arse? May Allah smite you, Rumsfled, and your families for the next ten thousand generations. I too curse you, in the name of all things holy that are beyond your comprehension!

This leaves us with the vexing question of what should be done now. I could send my brave warriors again to wreck havoc in your cities, but this would do no good. Now, you can blame all such actions on the tree-hugging Democratic demons. I will pray long and hard for a method to move ahead. I trust you will do likewise, to your false prophet Jesus Christ. If we cannot find a solution to this paradox of potential peace, we may soon both be out of business.

Let me know your thoughts. I will listen to your speeches. Keep on using the 'dumb remark and mispeech code', as before. I know that you no longer wish to 'stay the course'. However, by the very light of Allah, I cannot believe that you really mean to quit, after all this time."

Well I never! ;)

The CP

Monday, November 06, 2006

Forced Choice and Lost Opportunity

No doubt the blog arena will start ringing with all sorts of election and voting related stuff, as the midterm elections start tomorrow. I say 'start', as there is evidence that suggests that the process could be long and involved. Both parties have armies of lawyers at the ready.

One of the big bones of contention will no doubt be the electronic voting machines. As has previously been discussed here, this is all a bit of a red herring, as the real problems arise with the tabulator machines. However, there is a related topic that is of interest.

One of the downsides of voting machines of any kind is that they force voters to just choose between pre-defined options. This is problematic. Consider a case in which, when you walked into vote you discovered that your choices were between unplaitable options. For the sake of argument, imagine one had to choose between voting for Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler (feel free to substitute other names of your own here). What should a reasonable person do?

With a voting machine system, there would be two options: (1) figure out which candidate was the least objectionable, or (2) walk away without casting a vote at all. This is a classic 'forced choice' situation, which is created by the voting machine technology, be it touch screen, punch card, or whatever method. This is not the only way things can be though.

Other countries, such as Canada and many in Europe use old fashioned paper ballots, where the voter marks their choice with a pen. Such a system has advantages in terms of being able to verify the vote, but of course this makes elections harder to rig, so this system is not popular in this country. However, a paper ballot provides the voter with a third option, when faced with an unpalitable forced choice. The voter can spoil their ballot paper.

In most jurisdictions, spoiled ballots have to be examined by candidates, or their agents, to make sure that there was no misapplied intention to vote. However, this process provides a mechanism through which the voter can communicate directly with the political machine. For instance, in the forced choice case, a voter could simply write "None of the above!" (or, "Get the troops out of Iraq!") across the ballot. With mechanical systems, this option is lost. It would have also prevented the kind of mess that occurred in Florida in 2000, when the Republicans stole the Presidential election for Stupid W.

Fortunately, tomorrow the choice is easy. Anyone who is not extremely rich, or extremely stupid, realizes that the Republicans need to be evicted from the hot tub of sleaze, that they have made the Senate and the House. Of course, whether or not this will happen will depend on how brazen the Republican cheating will be. There are already signs that things are going pear shaped. One of my students told me today that when he went to cast his vote early, he was told that the Democratic candidate had withdrawn!

So, please try and vote. The more votes that are cast, the more fun will be the legal shenanigans that follow. However, remember that "Which ever way you vote, the government will win!"

The CP

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Guy Fawkes Night

Remember, remember the fifth of November
The gunpowder, treason and plot.

So begins a rhyme learned by British children. The full text can be found here. The 5th of November is an unusual holiday, or remembrance, in the British Isles, as well as South Africa and other Commonwealth countries. This year will be the 400th year that this slightly odd event will take place.

On the 5th of November 1605, a group of thirteen conspirators lead by Robert Catesby who came to prominence during the Essex Rebellion of 1601, decided to blow up the British Houses of Parliament, whilst the king, James I, was also in the building. This group wanted to further the cause of Catholicism. They failed, but they left behind in their wake a unique tradition, that has now lasted 400 years.

On the evening of November 5th, one of the plotters, Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellars of the Houses of parliament with 32 barrels of gunpowder. Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were tried for treason. Fawkes was sentenced to death by the brutal method of hanging, drawing and quartering. Tradition has it that Fawkes attempted to jump from the gallows, to break his own neck, in the first phase, to avoid the agony of the other phases. Unfortunately, this plan failed, as the robe broke, thus leaving Fawkes very much conscious for the rest of the execution.

In memory of these events, it became a tradition for the King and parliament to commission a special sermon each year. The first of these sermons was delivered by Lancelot Andrewes. The events of this period recently formed an important theme in the feature film V for Vendetta. Along with the tradition of the sermon, it has become common for the British people to celebrate on this date also.

On the night of the fifth of November, or thereabouts, large bonfires are lit. On the top of these bonfires and effigy of Guy Fawkes is placed. Fireworks also are lit throughout the British Isles on this night. Prior to the event, it is not uncommon for groups of children to display their 'Guy', as the effigy is affectionately known and ask for "A penny for the Guy?" in order to buy fireworks.

It has been suggested by some that the traditions enacted on Guy Fawkes Night have their origins in older pagan traditions that were associated with the festival of Samhain. This association though is not incontrovertial. Further details about the historical events surrounding this event can be found at the web site of The Gun Powder Plot Society.

I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

The CP

Saturday, November 04, 2006

150 Silly Things I Have/Have Not Done

So, there is another blog game out and about. Some people like to call these 'memes', but I object to this use of the term. The idea with this blog game is that one copies this list of 150 activities, and bolds the ones that one has actually done. Having misspent my youth efficiently, I have decided that it would be fun to join in on this one.

01. Bought everyone in the bar a drink
02. Swam with wild dolphins
03. Climbed a mountain (A mini mountain)
04. Taken a Ferrari for a test drive
05. Been inside the Great Pyramid
06. Held a tarantula
07. Taken a candlelit bath with someone
08. Said "I love you" and meant it
09. Hugged a tree
10. Bungee jumped
11. Visited Paris
12. Watched a lightning storm at sea - from the shore
13. Stayed up all night long and saw the sun rise
14. Seen the Northern Lights
15. Gone to a huge sports game
16. Walked the stairs to the top of the leaning Tower of Pisa
17. Grown and eaten your own vegetables
18. Touched an iceberg
19. Slept under the stars
20. Changed a baby's diaper
21. Taken a trip in a hot air balloon
22. Watched a meteor shower
23. Gotten drunk on champagne
24. Given more than you can afford to charity
25. Looked up at the night sky through a telescope
26. Had an uncontrollable giggling fit at the worst possible moment (like, all the frickin' time)
27. Had a food fight
28. Bet on a winning horse
29. Asked out a stranger
30. Had a snowball fight
31. Screamed as loudly as you possibly can
32. Held a lamb
33. Seen a total eclipse
34. Ridden a roller coaster
35. Hit a home run
36. Danced like a fool and not cared who was looking
37. Adopted an accent for an entire day
38. Actually felt happy about your life, even for just a moment
39. Had two hard drives for your computer
40. Visited all 50 states
41. Taken care of someone who was drunk
42. Had amazing friends
43. Danced with a stranger in a foreign country
44. Watched wild whales
45. Stolen a sign
46. Backpacked in Europe
47. Taken a road-trip
48. Gone rock climbing
49. Midnight walk on the beach
50. Gone sky diving
51. Visited Ireland
52. Been heartbroken longer than you were actually in love
53. In a restaurant, sat at a stranger's table and had a meal with them
54. Visited Japan
55. Milked a cow
56. Alphabetized your CDs
57. Pretended to be a superhero
58. Sung karaoke
59. Lounged around in bed all day
60. Played touch football
61. Gone scuba diving
62. Kissed in the rain
63. Played in the mud
64. Played in the rain
65. Gone to a drive-in theater
66. Visited the Great Wall of China
67. Started a business
68. Fallen in love and not had your heart broken
69. Toured ancient sites
70. Taken a martial arts class
71. Played D&D for more than 6 hours straight
72. Gotten married
73. Been in a movie
74. Crashed a party
75. Gotten divorced
76. Gone without food for 5 days
77. Made cookies from scratch
78. Won first prize in a costume contest
79. Ridden a gondola in Venice
80. Gotten a tattoo
81. Rafted the Snake River
82. Been on television news programs as an "expert"
83. Got flowers for no reason
84. Performed on stage
85. Been to Las Vegas
86. Recorded music
87. Eaten shark
88. Kissed on the first date
89. Gone to Thailand
90. Bought a house
91. Been in a combat zone
92. Buried one/both of your parents
93. Been on a cruise ship
94. Spoken more than one language fluently well enough to have a decent conversation
95. Performed in Rocky Horror
96. Raised children
97. Followed your favorite band/singer on tour
99. Taken an exotic bicycle tour in a foreign country
100. Picked up and moved to another city to just start over
101. Walked the Golden Gate Bridge
102. Sang loudly in the car, and didn't stop when you knew someone was looking
103. Had plastic surgery
104. Survived an accident that you shouldn't have survived
105. Wrote articles for a large publication (Um, not sure... define "large")
106. Lost over 100 pounds
107. Held someone while they were having a flashback
108. Piloted an airplane
109. Touched a stingray
110. Broken someone's heart
111. Helped an animal give birth
112. Won money on a T.V. game show
113. Broken a bone
114. Gone on an African photo safari
115. Had a facial part pierced other than your ears
116. Fired a rifle, shotgun, or pistol
117. Eaten mushrooms that were gathered in the wild
118. Ridden a horse
119. Had major surgery
120. Had a snake as a pet
121. Hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon
122. Slept for more than 30 hours over the course of 48 hours
123. Visited more foreign countries than U.S. states
124. Visited all 7 continents
125. Taken a canoe trip that lasted more than 2 days
126. Eaten kangaroo meat
127. Eaten sushi
128. Had your picture in the newspaper
129. Changed someone's mind about something you care deeply about
130. Gone back to school
131. Parasailed
132. Touched a cockroach
133. Eaten fried green tomatoes
134. Read The Iliad (parts of it)
135. Selected one "important" author who you missed in school, and read
136. Killed and prepared an animal for eating
137. Skipped all your school reunions
138. Communicated with someone without sharing a common spoken language
139. Been elected to public office
140. Written your own computer language
141. Thought to yourself that you're living your dream
142. Had to put someone you love into hospice care
143. Built your own PC from parts
144. Sold your own artwork to someone who didn't know you
145. Had a booth at a street fair
146. Dyed your hair
147. Been a DJ
148. Shaved your head
149. Caused a car accident
150. Saved someone's life

Isn't this silly? If you join in this game, feel free to let me know.

The CP

Friday, November 03, 2006

Blogs and Copyright: A Rough Guide

Before I begin here, I should briefly register the circumstances under which this post is being written. I am currently 'on location'. When I arrived, I discovered that I had forgotten my power supply. So, as I write, I am carefully watching the rapidly sinking battery indicator, hoping to finish before the machine dies.

I have been looking around at blogs for quite a while now. There seem to be so very many of them. Some blogs are of interest, many are not. The few that I really like It link to. In all this blog watching though, certain trends have become apparent. One of these trends is the apparently formulaic nature of so many blog postings. Indeed, recently this propensity was hilariously parodied by The G Bitch, with her Instant Blog Post Template. The kind of post sent up here I try and avoid, as this type of post is ultimately boring. If I do not have anything to say, I don't post. Simple as that. It seems that other people should try doing likewise.

Another worrying trend I have noticed though is the way that bloggers have little regard for copyright. Although I have slightly transgressed on this front, or played close to the edge once, or twice, as a general rule, I try and respect copyright holders. It seems that I am in a minority in this respect.

There are a couple of common copyright transgressions found on blogs. The first of these concerns pictures. Many bloggers seem to believe that it is just fine to copy any old image onto their blogs, if they can find the image with a quick Google image search. Images are subject to copyright! Another common copyright transgression concerns poetry and text. Some bloggers seem addicted to posting entire poems onto their blog space. Sometimes they provide a link to the source. Other times they do not. Of course, texts too are subject to copyright and permission is needed for texts to be used by a person who is not the copyright holder.

Given the recent aggressive tactics of outfits like the RIAA against people who share music on-line, it is quite surprising that bloggers seem to pay so little attention to copyright law. So, what I will attempt to do in the rest of this post is offer a brief overview of regulations that govern the use of copyrighted material.

What kinds of things are subject to Copyright? The short answer to this question is 'almost everything'. Some texts which are old (over about 75 years -- the exact length, depends upon the country) will be out of copyright, but it is better to presume that most texts and almost all photographs are subject to copyright.

There is no copyright symbol on the web page where I found this text, does that mean it is not subject to copyright? The answer to this question is simply 'No'. It is not necessary for a copyright symbol to be attached to a text or an image for it to be subject to copyright. In addition, it is an additional offence to remove the copyright symbol from a text, even when you are reposting it.

If I just use the text/image on my blog, isn't this what they call 'fair use'? Once again, the answer is 'No'. The doctrine of 'fair use' permits the use of texts for certain purposes, such as scholarly study. However, there are some quite strong limits on 'fair use'. For instance, if more than ten percent of a text is used, then in most cases, it will not be a case of fair use. More importantly though, 'fair use' is not a right, rather it is a defense that can be raised against a claim of copyright infringement. In other words, 'fair use' only really comes into play when a copyright holder has launched a court action. As this will require you to hire lawyers, etc. it is generally not a good idea to appeal to 'fair use'.

If I use something on my blog, will anybody ever notice, or really care? Although there may be a germ of truth in the intuition behind this question, it is not something that should be relied upon. After all, if a copyright enforcement suit is filed against you, the process will be long and expensive. In other words, by using copyrighted material, without permission, a person is taking a very big risk. More importantly though is the fact that copyright holders are getting more and more aggressive about defending their rights. Thus, if you post something which contains copyrighted material today, it may be several months, or even years before the copyright holder comes after you. However, as more content gets bought up by large corporate entities, it becomes increasingly likely that you may find a legal action filed against you.

So, is there any way I can give my readers access to copyrighted materials? The answer here is 'Yes'. If you find the material you are interested in discussing on a web site, including a link to that web site on your blog is perfectly legitimate (at least in most cases).

Is there any other good news about copyright for bloggers? In fact,there is some good news. Everything posted to a blog is also subject to copyright. The copyright is held by the writer. So, by blogging (assuming that what you write is original text) you are creating copyrighted material.

Now, these suggestions are only guidelines. I am not a lawyer, so they should not be taken as the final word on these matters. But the moral here should be very clear - Don't just copy other people's work into your blog!

In fact, there is a final point to be made here. If you find it necessary to fill your blog with the work of others, why are you blogging at all? You might be better off just putting up a links page. It is much more impressive to be able to fill your blog with original, insightful text, than with text and images belonging to others. Indeed, some bloggers seem to think that they can make themselves appear learned and erudite, by reproducing the work of others. This impression is simply misguided. Really, even in the blog arena, posting the work of others amounts to something close to plagiarism. For these reasons then, it should be avoided.

The CP

Useful Links Concerning Copyright
A Copyright Quickguide
A Canadian Copyright Guide
A Copyright Guide for Students (UK) (N.B. .pdf format)
U.S. Copyright Law

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Finding Good Professors

It is now the time of year when students have to decide which courses they will take next semester. It is common at times such as this for students to ask about which professors to take. Questions such as these are always a bit tricky to answer.

At the lower levels, there is often little to say. Courses are taught by graduate students. Although news about their teaching does filter back, they are often not around long enough for information to remain current. Other lower level courses are taught by instructors. On these we can get some feedback from students. The information is not always entirely reliable though, as different students respond better, or worse to different teaching styles.

It is at the upper level courses that things get a bit more interesting. Students spread information and opinions around amongst themselves. We can get some ideas by asking the students. This is not always a fool proof method, but should patterns appear, these can be trusted sometimes. Tools like can be a bit of help, but again, they are not without limitations.

One method I have used in the past is to recommend professors I know and who seem to be smart and reasonable. This turns out not to be a reliable method either. In one case, there was another faculty member I knew quite well and recommend to several students. Eventually, one of my students told me that this professor was bad, unreliable and seldom prepared. This admission came a semester after the fact, as the student had decided initially not to say anything. They knew that I was friends with the other professor and were thus reticent.

These methods are all ok, but limited. They are also hard to apply when it comes to cases when students need to take courses in departments with which I have minimal interactions. To this end though, I have developed some rules of thumb. These rules of thumb are also useful for students who are considering graduate schools.

It has been my experience that good professors are also reasonable researchers. Although some professors do not do any research and focus their efforts on teaching, these professors are easy to spot, as they usually have high teaching loads and teach a lot of lower level courses. However, at upper levels, if a professor does not have any recent publications in an area, then this should be seen as a red flag. Active researchers are far more likely to be up to date. Although we all occasionally have to teach outside our real areas of expertise, publications on a topic (or indeed, any topic) are the best guide to who are likely to be the good professors.

With the growth of web usage, it is now often easy to find lists of a professor's recent publications on the department web site. When trying to determine which professor to take, check for these first. If a professor has not published anything in the last few years, this is a bad sign. Remember, once a professor has tenure, they cannot be sacked. This means that many universities will have a few bad professors on their faculty. Checking for recent publications is a good method to avoid these individuals. Also be wary of professors who like to pretend that they know it all. This is especially the case if their rank is only Assistant Professor. Any professor worth their salt should be able to back up their alleged expertise with real publications. If they cannot, then this is another important red flag. Remember, professors can be posers too.

Another important clue comes from seeing whether a professor reads papers at conferences and the like. These too should often be listed on department web sites. Although things can get tricky, when travel funding is scarce, most 'real' professors will be able to give presentations at least at near by institutions. If a professor can give successful professional presentations, then it is likely that they will be able to present clearly in the classroom.

Although none of the suggestions here are perfect, they provide some guidelines that can help students find reasonable teachers. I hope that this is helpful. As always, other comments and suggestions are welcome.

The CP
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