Saturday, December 30, 2006

APA Burn...

The end of an American Philosophical Association (APA) meeting often is characterized by burn outs. Job candidates are burned out from talking too much. Interviewers are burned out by job candidates, to the point that they cannot remember which candidate is which. This year the APA conference ended with a more novel and worrying kind of burn out -- a two alarm fire in the hotel! Brief news coverage can be found here and the fire department statement, including pictures is here.

A little after 5am, the fire alarm in my room went off. I was up and shaving, as I had an early shuttle for a flight. Having had to act as a fire officer during previous lifetimes, I know that all such alarms should always be taken seriously. I threw on clothes, grabbed my passport and computer, as they were packed and ready to go and headed out. When I reached the corridor, there was a heavy smell of smoke. "Hmm, not a drill and not good" I thought to myself. As I was on an upper floor, this could have been a bad situation.

I headed towards the nearest set of stairs, but as I did, the smoke smell got stronger. On this basis, I decided that taking an alternate route was the correct course of action. The fire doors close to my room were closed. As I approached them, I tested their temperature. They seemed cool, so I went through. I managed to find the next set of stairs and hiked down. As I did this at some speed, I decided that I was due for a work out after all the chatting, so that it was not too bad, albeit too damn early for such things.

When I got outside, there were people hanging around, looking a bit bemused. I walked around to the front of the hotel to discover a whole bunch of fire trucks, with hoses, firemen and all their tools. There was even a ladder raised. So, this was clearly the real thing. Wow! When I moved into the lobby, there was someone who appeared to be getting medical attention. I hope that they are OK.

Even though it was 'before coffee' (I subscribe to the 'two coffees for consciousness theory') I realised that I had a bit of a problem. My airport shuttle was about to arrive, yet my big bag was still in my room. Where the shuttle was supposed to arrive, was also totally filled by fire department equipment. I called the shuttle people. They said that they could pick up some other people and then come back.

At this point, things were a bit chaotic, but the hotel staff were totally on top of it all. They deserve a big load of praise. They had people stationed at desks, answering questions. Where they found enough people at that hour in the morning is an utter mystery to me. The people answering the questions were informative, professional and, at times, even amusing. Marriott senior 'suits' -- give all these people big pay raises! They did not 'spin' the situation. When they did not know, they said as much. As soon as the fire was out and the fire guys were in the 'investigation phase' they seemed to know almost at once.

By this point, I was getting a little worried about getting to the airport on time for my plane. I was concerned about my luggage, which was still in my room. I asked a gentleman called Laddie who was working on the front desk what to do. He suggested that my only real option was to hike up to my room, if the fire department guys were OK with it. He showed the correct set of stairs to use. So, I began to climb. It was surprisingly easy, due to the high levels of adrenaline in my system by this point. On the seventh floor, I had to climb over hoses. I kept on going. A little further up, I ran into the fire department guys. I asked the if it was alright for me to go back to my room. They laughed at me. Apparently, I should have been stopped at the first floor, but seeing as I was so close and there was no real danger, they told me to go ahead.

I got to my room and grabbed my big bag. As I started back down the stairs, I was very happy that I prefer to travel with serious backpacks. There are so many places where there are no luggage trolleys I prefer to be able to carry all my stuff on my back. Had I had a regular suitcase, or one of those odd things with wheels, it would have been much harder. However, thanks to Karrimore, I was able to get my stuff down easily.

When I got back to the front desk, Laddie had my carry on bag. He called the shuttle people and discovered a problem -- there would not be another bus until too late for me to make my flight! He handled this situation simply. He gave me cab money and then told me where to go to find a cab (at this point all the streets around the hotel were closed off). Thanks Laddie, you saved my bacon!

Actually, the story does not quite end there. When I got to the airport, my flight had been cancelled! Fortunately, the airline people were able to book me through with another airline and I made it home (eventually), just fine. However, the whole idea of APA burn out now has a totally different meaning for me now. I am glad to be home though. Eighteen days on the road is a long time, even for a Combat Philosopher. It may have flooded a bit here, but at least it is not burning!

The CP

Thursday, December 28, 2006

More APA...Report From The Trenches

Well, a hard day talking to job candidates. Some were good, but not suitable for us. Some were horrific. A few were very interesting. I hope that they all manage to find jobs. I hope that we can find someone good to hire.

The first 'smoker' was this evening. There were a few changes from previous years. There seem to be fewer beards (thank goodness). Also, it seems that more people are now wearing suits. Some time ago, most job candidates wore suits and ties, whereas others did not. This has now changed. It was a fun event though. I got to see many old friends. I am glad that it is over.

It seems that there is 'big gossip'. A well known individual apparently recently claimed that they were leaving academia. Instead, they would be concentrating on a career in acting and screen writing. Knowing this person's work a little bit, it seems that fiction writing should not be too new to them, although admitting it may be. The APA is always such a fun gossip shop.

The best line I heard today was the following: "Let two stand for zero...". Only a philosopher could come up with such a line. This kind of thing is almost surreal.

The CP

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

In D.C. - Secret Service and APA

Well, I am now on the last leg of my travels. I have many tales to tell, which may or may not appear here at various times in the future. After a long transatlantic flight, complete with all the usual nightmares of catching planes, standing in security lines and all the traditional airport fun, I was very glad to get to my hotel last night. To say that I was tired would have been an understatement. However, after a mostly uninterrupted night of sleep, I am refreshed.

For entertainment this morning, I went for a walk. Having spent the previous day sitting in a plane, this felt very good. The air was clear and chilly, but not too cold. After some time wandering around, I found myself at the entrance to the Washington zoo. This seemed like an opportunity that was too good to miss. So, I spent a couple of hours meandering around. I watched a Giant Panda have breakfast and saw all sorts of other interesting critters. It was very therapeutic.

After the zoo, I decided that it was time for lunch. So, I found a nice-ish looking cafe and got myself seated. That was the point at which I realized that I was definitely in Washington. At the table beside me were four Secret Service agents and an FBI guy. They were all dressed in black and carrying guns, as they sat amongst a crowd of normal looking folks eating soup and sandwiches with their kids. One of the Secret Service guys was even wearing a bullet proof vest! It made me realize how unmilitaristic Europe and even Louisiana is, compared to this neck of the woods.

My lunch time neighbors also got me wondering about the name 'The Secret Service'. If these guys are supposed to be so secret, why do they have who they work for emblazoned on their shirts, along with their names and ranks?

Next up is the American Philosophical Association (APA) conference. I have been to many of these, but I never can quite get used to them. Last night, the hotel was placid and quiet. Today, it has slowly filled up with people. The job candidates look so nervous and awkward in their suits. The interviewers and those here on other missions, who already have jobs stand around gossiping. There are way too many people with beards.

Tomorrow evening will be one of the scariest events of the year: The first APA 'Smoker'. For those who have never been to an APA, you cannot know the true horror of these events. The first thing to know is that the term 'smoker' is highly misleading, as the events are entirely smoke-free (as indeed is this whole hotel). What the first smoker involves is roughly three thousand philosophers all drinking free beer in the same huge hotel ballroom. It is an horrific spectacle, which is made worse by all the machinations of job candidates attempting to ingratiate themselves with prospective employers. Watching the patronising behavior of some of the faculty members can be quite nauseating.

Should any job candidate happen to read this, just remember getting an academic job is not a rational process (despite the huge pretence to the contrary). Loosen up a bit. Have some fun. If you think that you might be in line for a position at a fancy school, but they expect you to kow-tow to them now, just imagine how things will turn out if you get the job. It is better to focus on finding people you get along with. This will make you happier in the long run. Also, remember almost nothing is critical at this stage. There are many meetings, Deans to be dealt with and so on, before they can even decide to invite you to their campus. So, at the smoker, go and 'say hello' where you need to, but don't force things. Afterwards, grab a few friends (or if you are here alone, other job candidates) and go have a beer away from the conference hotel. If you do not stay out too late, or over do it, this will put you in a much better frame of mind for the interviews to come.

The CP

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Capital Tour...Update

Although I intended to be silent for a while, the chance of high speed broadband for a night or two has motivated me to post an update on my travels.

I left home and flew to various places, including an ancient European capital city. There I changed planes to reach my Mediterranean island. Once I reached there, I stayed in the capital of the island, in a wonderful hotel. We were wined and dined very well during the meetings. The meetings were very productive and at times quite intense. Our hosts treated us excellently. A huge amount of important research material was discussed. To call the meeting intellectually stimulating is an understatement. Such high powered research has almost narcotic qualities. As a publisher is already under contract for the proceedings, others will have a chance to share in the heady intellectual work we all shared. This is good.

The one down side was that there was not too much time to see the area. Although I had visited that place before, it was many years ago. I did manage to walk up the hill to the castle to take in the view and also managed to tour a very ancient mountain village, once the meetings were over. When it was time to leave, I left for another capital city.

After a couple of days of down time (my first since the beginning of this month), I took at trip to another city. It was a capital city during Roman times. Now, I am in yet another capital city, of a minor country, visiting people I am close to.

After Christmas, I will fly back to the U.S. to Washington D.C., yet another capital. From thence I will finally make it home.

Thus, this trip has become a tour of capitals, both large and small, new and old. I had not anticipated this, when I began these travels. Yet, the cycle of the days still continues. The Solstice has past, but there are still many more festivals before I return home.

I wish you and yours the very best.

The CP

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The CP Has Left The Building...For Now

Well, folks, I have not posted too much in the last few days. It has been final exams, working on my big talk, grade grubber dealing and all sorts of other insanity, both related and unrelated to the end of the semester. I am about to go travelling to pretty, warm islands for stimulating meetings, followed by travels to other ancient and interesting places. This will be concluded by a trip to the Capital of the USA.

As with any long and complex trip, there is a great deal of organization that needs to be done, arrangements to be made and goodbyes to be said. For this reason, I will no longer be blogging, reading blogs, or commenting on blogs for quite a while. I know that connectivity on my trip may be a bit hit and miss too. I have always wondered why the most charming places always have bad connectivity. It could, of course, be a further part of the charm. Who needs the 'net in paradise? However, this makes my absence a practical necessity.

While I am away, keep thinking and keep combating stupidity (I'm counting on you!).

I wish you all a good version of whatever holiday your prefer at this time of year (I like Yule). If all goes well and according to plan, I will be back in the New Year. So, please check back then. Thanks for all the support.

The CP

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Fragments...The Welsh and a Prenuptial Student

So, the horrors of grading have started in this neck of the woods. At this time of a semester, minor amusements gain large value. Today, I was happy to be able to supply one of these.

For reasons which are too involved, complicated, technical and boring to discuss here, from time to time I receive e-mail about e-mail messages which did not get to where they were supposed to go. These e-mails are so-called 'Mail Delivery Errors'. Today I got one of these. This one was unusual though. It was in Welsh! Now, Welsh is not exactly a common language. Mail Delivery Errors are generated by software and are not exactly exciting fare. However, it was rather curious to see one in this language. I checked in with our main systems guy. He confirmed that he has seen a few (million) Mail Delivery Errors in his time, but never one in such an unusual language.

This circumstance prompted me to send e-mail to a contact who happens to live in Wales. He tells me that under The Welsh Language Act, Welsh and English have equal status in Wales. Thus, everything, right down to the labels on garbage bags, have to be written in both languages. He also suggested that this was a great job creation program for Welsh speakers. Well, I say good luck to the Welsh! I wish other speakers of minority languages were able to preserve their linguistic skills in such practical ways.

As is typical during grading season, there are always a few papers that come in late. When I got to the office this morning, there was a paper that had been pushed under my office door. The paper was from one of our majors, a smart and quite interesting character. Attached to the paper was an envelope. When I opened the envelope, I discovered an invitation to the students' wedding. This happens from time to time and I feel it to be something of an honor. However, also included with the wedding invitation was a brief note. It was sufficiently amusing that I will reproduce the text here:

[Combat Philosopher],
You were my favorite professor. You were simultaneously the smartest and biggest bastard of them all! I really enjoyed working with you over the years, and I will always keep in touch. Later, [Prenuptial Student]

Getting a note like this once in a while makes all the horrors of the grading season seem worth while. It is really nice to know that my efforts are appreciated. What is especially exceptional in this case is that this is not your typically sycophantic student. This guy is pretty tough (you should see the tattoos). It is really nice though. I guess expecting and enforcing high academic standards is actually appreciated. I know that the student knows of this blog. So, if you are reading, 'Thanks'!

Now back to the scary work of reading accounts of great philosophers, mangled through the lens of Red Bull powered frat boys...

The CP

Weather Report

Well, today in Louisiana we will have our first hard freeze of the Winter. That means being below freezing for more than 8-10 hours. Having lived in many colder places, cold in Louisiana always amazes me. Stuff is so badly set up for it! I will run my taps though. I have lagged my pipes, so hopefully a plumber will not be needed in the morning.

When the weather gets chilly in this neck of the woods, I am always reminded by a wonderful song by my friend Mike. Mike West, who has been displaced by Katrina once wrote,

i’ve seen wind
tear trees up by their roots
i’ve seen hail
the size of my fist smash windows
and put holes in this roof
i’ve seen the river run high
and i’ve seen it run low
i’ve seen it rain
i’ve seen it flood
and now i’ve seen it snow
i’ve seen some things
you would not believe
like snow in new orleans
on christmas eve

The full lyrics can be found here. If you do not know Mike and his music, I recommend him and his music to you. Check out Http:// for more information. I think that one day, if the world was just (which it is not), this song should be a Christmas hit.

Despite the chill, I will sleep well. This was a long day. I finished grading and working on my big talk after 11.30pm! Tommorrow will be another long day. The end of the semester can be tough. However, this is the job of a professor and a philosopher. Even when we are not teaching each day, we (should) work hard. I wonder what my useless, ersatz-professor alleged colleagues do with their time at this point in a semester? I will just work and sleep.

The CP

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Mr. Murphy On Steroids

Well, we are now at that final part of the semester, when term papers come due and students start having to hunker down for the final exam marathon. One thing that I have noticed about this time in the semester is that 'Mr. Murphy', of the famous 'Murphy's Law' starts to haunt many corners of our campus. Indeed, not only is Murphy omni-present, he also appears to be in some kind of steroid, over-enhanced, fugue state.

It often starts simply enough. A paper is due at the beginning of a morning class. Rather than printing out the paper the night before, a tired, worn out student decides to print out the paper before class. The students are warned not to do this, but there are always a few who do. Such students stand like lambs for the slaughter for Mr. Murphy.

There are so many things that things can go wrong. First, the printers can run out of paper and the person with the key to the paper supply mysteriously is nowhere to be found. Second, as the printers have been shooting out papers for days, this is a favorite time for their ink cartridges to give up the ghost. Finally, if a student manages to avoid all these Murphy inspired pitfalls, there are always the wide range of 'out of left field' problems. This semester, we had a power surge than crippled the main computer network for a couple of hours, rendering the connection between the machines and the printers dysfunctional.

Of course, it is not just students who can fall into troubles. Faculty members have to print out and photocopy many copies of final exams. These activities are more places for Mr. Murphy to have fun. The normally reliable office staff can suddenly flake out under such circumstances. Photocopying machines start to exhibit worrying and incomprehensible messages and refuse to do anything other than impersonate office furniture statues. Needless to say, all photocopier technicians have been mysteriously spirited away to Patagonia, or somewhere. Thus, the prudent professor prints and copies exams, well ahead of time.

Other gremlins often appear at this time of year. Students struggling with final projects run out of disk space quota, so they cannot save the data, vital to writing up their projects. My telephone has already rung three times today, with distressed students suffering these kinds of problems.

Matters are also made worse by the fact that the students are tired, short of sleep, under nourished and living mostly on a combination of Jolt and Red Bull. Tasks that would normally be simple and have been done many times before, become logistical nightmares. People forget how to export data (even if they can manage to find disk space). They forget what format files need to be in, in order to get pasted into documents. In other words, Mr. Murphy is in his element. Not only are there all the time pressures that arise at this time of the semester, which naturally bring Mr. Murphy to the fore, he is now assisted by a small army of tired and wired students, to ensure that maximum mayhem will occur.

Wise, experienced faculty members know what to do at this time of the semester -- hide with their piles of grading, armed with garlic, shamrocks and whatever talismans they have, to prevent Mr. Murphy from coming calling. This is what I shall be doing! Good luck to everyone else doing likewise.

The CP

Saturday, December 02, 2006

A Horrific Tale

I ran into a buddy of mine yesterday. He was sitting on a wall, looking vacant. In fact, he looked like all hell. Toni is one of my few collegues who I respect. He has a heavy teaching load. He is very professionally active, gives papers and gets invited to give papers, and publishes quite a bit, in only the very best journals. I had not seen Toni in a while, so I asked him how things were. What I got in response was what I have titled 'A Horrific Tale'.

A couple of years ago, Toni started dating Joan. Joan also works at our institution, but has a bit of a bad reputation. According to the students, she is a bad teacher. She also has not published in years. She is not well respected, being known to be hysterical, full of herself, and egotistical. Despite being a white middle aged lady, from a very middle class family, she is one of those people who claims discrimination the moment there is even a suggestion of criticism of her (apparently, she has never made a mistake in her life). Many people avoid Joan, because the believe that she is both paranoid and crazy. When I heard that Toni and Joan had started dating, I suggested to him that this might not be the best idea. I was not the only person who expressed concern. He said that he was aware of the issues, but thought that he could handle them.

Several months ago, Toni and Joan split up. He was sanguine about it. She left him, but he was thinking of getting out himself, so it was not a big deal. Toni has since started seeing a new women, who is much better for him. However, it seems that Joan has found a 'novel' way to keep bugging Toni. As he told me about the details, I was horrified.

It seems that some time after they quit dating, Joan sent Toni a letter by registered mail, asking Toni to stop stalking here. According to Toni, this was a bit of a surprise, as he had had no contact with Joan in quite a while. Joan even went to see the Provost about the issue. Toni tells me that the Provost told him that he did not take Joan too seriously, describing her and being paranoid and incoherent. Famously, on another occasion, the Provost described Joan as being like 'academic acid rain'.

It seemed that last week some time Toni had been trying to find a book at his house. He had not had any luck finding it, despite looking for it for several days. Apparently, Joan had moved things around in Toni's house last summer, when see was supposed to be keeping an eye on it. So, she was possibly the only person who might know where the book had got to. Thus, Toni tried to call Joan to ask where he might look. When he got no reply, he sent her an e-mail asking the same question. This apparently was a major mistake on his part. He told me that he assumed that Joan's madness might have abaited. Boy, was he wrong!

The next day, Toni got a visit from the University Police. Joan had flied a police report about Toni, once again claiming that he was stalking her. According to Toni, the police were quite nice, as they had seen the e-mail he sent and concluded that it could hardly be said to be anything other than an innocent request. Toni said that the whole incident scared him quite a bit though. The police recommended that Toni try and do things in the company of others, so that he would have witnesses, should Joan make any other accusations.

Now, I have known Toni quite a while. He is the last person to be a stalker. These accusations just seem to be crazy. However, it seems that when a woman accuses a man of such things, she is given the benefit of the doubt. It sounds to me like Joan is abusing the police system, for goodness knows what reason, to harrass Toni. Either that, or she really is paranoid and crazy. Possibly both.

When I saw Toni, he was suffering from a further shock. He had had a phone call from the Town Police also advising him that they too had received a report from Joan! They too suggested that Toni should keep well away from Joan. Toni had even talked with his lawyer. To file one police report sounded a bit much. To file two, appears to me to be simply barmy. To make matters worse, Joan had apparently shown up briefly, in the corridor outside Toni's office that day, while he was talking to a student. She had also parked her car in the space that Toni usually uses. Joan appeared to be trying her level best to annoy Toni. She succeeded in making him feel very unhappy and uncomfortable. Toni thinks that this was all some kind of attention seeking behavior.

What I do not get is how someone like Joan can be allowed to get away with such behavior. Are there not laws about wasting police time? Has anyone else heard of this kind of thing? This whole sad tale reduces my faith in human nature. It fills me with nausea. I will be doing my best to do what I can to protect Toni. I know that there will be several others who will volunteer to do likewise. What a sick world we live in.

The CP
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