Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A Fun Web Toy

Recently, over at Dr. Virago's 'QuodShe' blog, a reference to an interesting web toy appeared. I have been meaning to take a look at it for a while, but finally got around to it today.

If one goes to the site, there are some really neat tools which enable one to visualize things like the US States one has visited, Canadian Provinces visited, countries in Europe and the like. I really like these tools. With them I learned that I have not traveled enough to the US West coast and the Midwest. I was also especially gratified with my coverage of Canada (if one ignores the Northern Territories).

What is interesting though is the other, less obvious, uses that this tool can be put to. For instance, taking a look at all the places where one has got stuck on a plane trip is quite revealing. More interesting yet, is plotting all the States that have relatively recently got hit by hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and other similar natural disasters can also produce interesting results. Plotting all the States that one has dated someone from can be a bit depressing.

Anyhow, I find these tools quite fun, so I thought that I would share them. I especially like the fact that they work with just plain HTML code and do not require JavaScript, or any other horrors like that. If anyone has any ideas for particularly bizarre and/or amusing uses of these tools, then I would love to hear about it.

The CP

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Explanations Verses Excuses

Universities are fine breeding grounds for excuses. Students have excuses for why they have not done the assigned reading, or handed in their paper on time. Faculty members have excuses for not getting grading done fast enough, or submitting academic papers. Administrators have excuses for announcing deadlines late and insane administrative policies. There are an awful lot of excuses around, in academic contexts.

In a recent class, the topic of the difference between explanations and excuses came up. I have discussed explanations in some detail elsewhere, while discussing types of arguments. (N.B. The series of Better Reasoning posts will be continuing soon.) As noted else where, explanations provide reasons why, or how something came to be the case. Excuses often are fairly similar to this -- "My paper was eaten by my dog", "My writers block was caused by some trauma", "The policy is to produce more transparency", etc. It should be clear that most excuses, in so far as that they are also explanations, are usually instances of causal explanations. However, this raises the question of what is the principled difference between an explanation and an excuse?

To begin with, it is clear that there are many causal explanations that are not instances of excuses. For instance, if someone claims that the power outage caused them to miss the news, this is unlikely to be an excuse (unless there is some particular reason why that person should see the news). Thus, what is needed is an analysis of what are the special features that make a particular instance of a causal explanation an excuse.

A complete philosophical analysis of this difference is beyond the scope of what can be achieved here. However, there are still some useful general observations that can be made, that may clarify the matter somewhat.

When an excuse is offered, it is usual for the person offering the excuse to be requesting some kind of special concession, or indulgence. The student with the late paper, hopes that they will not be penalised for missing the deadline. The deadwood academic hopes that their work for the year will still be considered satisfactory. The administrator hopes that they will not to be judged a complete moron. The hope of some kind of absolution is an important feature. If one calls the utility company to apologise for paying the bill late, because it fell down behind the fridge, one is offering an explanation. If one agrees to pay the penalty fee, then this is not an excuse. However, if one begs to have the transgression overlooked and that the penalty fee be waived, then this would constitute an excuse.

One interesting feature of excuses is that, from time to time they may be reasonably be granted. People have children that fall ill, vehicles that fail to work properly and the like. In such cases, a little leniency can be appropriate. However, this sheds light on another feature of excuses, as opposed to explanations.

If a student has a rough semester, for reasons outside their control, then cutting them some slack may be appropriate. However, should this happen semester after semester, then a different policy may be more appropriate. Similarly, if a faculty member fails to get any papers accepted one year, that is not good, but can be overlooked. However, if they publish nothing for years, or worse, do not even submit anything, then it is time for punitive measures to be put into place. The point here is that excuses lose their effectiveness when they appear again and again.

Another feature of excuses is the extent to which they are appropriate under the circumstances. If a defendant in a criminal trial claims that they committed their crimes, as they were told to do so by their room mate, then such an excuse is hardly appropriate. Similarly, if a student does not study for a test, due to playing computer games, this is not an appropriate excuse. However, if the same student has been sitting in the hospital with a sick relative, then this may be another matter. Analogously, if a professor, or an administrator excuses inadequate performance in some area, due to some event that happened years ago, then this is not really appropriate. This contrasts with an analogous case where the faculty member is completing some other important project, then this may be more reasonable.

Perhaps the very worst cases of excuses makers are those who repeatedly fail to do what they should, but time after time offer a range of ever changing excuses. These are the folks who are truly culpable and should be given the very least possibility of being allowed to continue in such behaviors. I have seen students and other individuals, who are true experts in just this sense. This is the reason why it is important to keep track of when excuses are made, when they are granted and how often this happens over time. Eventually, an individual who achieves very little, other than being a constant source of excuses, should be shown the door!

The CP

Monday, February 26, 2007

Paying It Forward

Some time ago, there was a silly movie called Pay It Forward. I did not see it, because (a) I am not a huge fan of Hollywood movies, and (b) it sounded a little too 'feel good' for my tastes. The idea behind the script was not a bad one though. The idea is that if someone does you a good turn, repay this by doing someone else a good turn. This evening, I had such an opportunity.

Monday is a tough day for me this semester, as I have a three hours graduate level seminar in the afternoon, on top of my regular classes. I enjoy teaching this class, but it wears me out.

Just after class finished today, my phone rang. It was an ex-student of mine who made a bad graduate school choice and is now working on getting into a more appropriate program. (I am happy to say that I got to say 'I told you so' about his first grad school choice!) We see each other for time to time. He wanted to know whether I wanted to go and grab a bite. Although I was pretty tired, I decided that it might be a nice thing to do.

As I was arriving home after eating, there was an unknown car blocking my drive way. It was quite tricky to get around, but the two guys standing by the car were most apologetic and explained that they had run out of gas. It has happened to me.

On the very first day I lived in this town, I borrowed the chair's truck to run some errands, buy food and do other sundry things. The only condition was that I had to get the truck back in time for him to pick up his son from school. Not a problem, I thought.

As I was returning to the office to bring back the truck, the engine suddenly cut out. I let the truck drift to a halt on the shoulder of the road. I was on a very busy road, the time was getting on and I was generally in a bit of a pickle. Now, I quite handy with things mechanical, however even a complete dolt would have realised that the problem was that the gas gauge read zero. I had run out of gas.

At that point, I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do. I could not get out of the drivers side door, due to the traffic, so I climbed out on the passenger side. I had no clue where the nearest gas station might be, so I was going to stand and try and figure what to do next.

By the time I got out of the passenger side door, another truck had pulled up behind me and the guy had got out. "Do you need a boost?" he asked. "No", I replied, "I am out of gas." The guy grinned and said "Oh, that is easy, not a problem." He pulled a gallon gas can out of the back of his truck and gave it to me. When I had put the gas into the truck, I offered to pay him for the gas. "Nope", he said, "Just pay it forward."

In my workshop, I keep a couple of cans of gas. They were there initially to power my lawn mower. Then I learned to keep a supply after it became impossible to find gas anywhere, after the storms of 2005. So, I was able to give these two guys a gallon of gas. Thus, I have now paid that debt, of over a decade ago, forward at long last.

The guys were very grateful. It turned out that they too were in a real pickle. They had quite a distance to go and had no money. My only request to them was that they too pay this debt forward. They readily agreed. I am sure that they will.

I think that the principle of paying things forward (I actually prefer to call it 'passing it on'), is an excellent one. There are too many mean spirited people and actions that fill each day. Paying things forward is a nice exception to this. There is some evidence that principles such as this were vitally important for keeping barter based economies viable. Thus, in addition to being a little way in which we can all make the world a better place, it is also the kind of cooperative principle that makes simple economies work. If you get a chance to pay something forward, please do.

The CP

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Parties and Wind

So, the conference is over. There was an after party. Often times philosophy parties can be ultra 'nerd fests'. This one was not.

I got to chat to a literature person from an R-1. Apparently, our local comparative lit people are at least nearly 20 years out of date. Their views on racial issues are enough to make my informant laugh out loud, when I asked about certain thesis claims. This may explain why the students really dislike this whole area of discourse. It may be the case that they are more up to date than our 'deadwood'. Being so out of date could also explain why respectable journals will not accept their papers.

There was also some interesting information on the current goings on in epistemology. Our people who specialise on that stuff also appear to be totally out of it. So, the party was fun and academically useful. It seems that I may be getting some more talk invitations soon. It seems that folks liked my show.

The down side of this evening is the weather. The wind is blowing sufficiently hard that, sitting on an upper floor of a hotel, it makes a very loud whistling sound though the AC vents. Even inside my room, this wind is still very strong. Earlier today there were tornado warnings. Let us hope that this danger has now past.

I had a couple of other interesting experiences and encounters today, but as it is very late, I will not describe them in detail here. I need to think about a couple of things, but may well blog these things later. So, G'night from,

The CP

Saturday, February 24, 2007

More Memphis

I have now had a chance to ride around the town of Memphis a bit. It is a curious place, of contrasts. On the one hand, there appears to be some great affluence in places. On the other hand, there also appears to be great poverty as well. I am still quite struck by the relative lack of business chains. Although these are present, they do not seem to be a prevalent as they do in many places. Of this, I approve.

One of the things that is quite striking is also the large number of small business establishments, with sometimes amazing names. There is a pawn shop that calls itself 'The Happy Hocker', a hairdresser called 'The Salon of Focus' and an establishment that rejoices in the name of 'Eversky's Big Mens Clothing'. The place called 'The Supreme Learning Center' appears to have been rather optimistically named. I was not too sure what to make of the 'His-Hers Lounge'. However, the 'Dogs Rule Day Care' sounds positively worrying.

Close to The University of Memphis, is 'The Normal Masonic Temple'. One is inclined to wonder where the abnormal masons go. The University is not very pretty. The architecture is largely late 1960/70s concrete and brick in construction. This I do not like. The whole place is made slightly more bizarre by the fact that they appear to be in the middle of demolishing the Students' Union. Although the building is mostly intact, one corner is missing.

One thing that is slightly disconcerting is the fact that there are a number of events going on in town. The effect of this is that I keep running into people I know from home. I must have seen a dozen people I know. Perhaps this explains in part why so many places seem to offer Cajun food.

One thing is clear though, barbecue ribs are king in this town. We stopped in a one place, that was highly recommended, only to find that it was not open (despite the claim of the neon sign). As we were about to leave, a guy pulled up outside the business. It was the owner. He explained that he was going to be opening late, due to having recently suffered from a heart attack. What was strange was the hint of pride with which he said this. He then explained "I eat my own ribs."

Thus, Memphis continues to be interesting, being both familiar and unusual. As my session was yesterday and went well, I can now afford to kick back a little. This is proving to be both a fascinating and strange trip.

The CP

Friday, February 23, 2007

On Memphis

Early this afternoon, I arrived in the city of Memphis. This is a city I have changed planes in many times, but know very little. I once had a five hour layover here and past my time by visiting Graceland. It was traumatic. I may post about this experience at another time.

This time I get to stay in Downtown Memphis. I was not quite sure what to expect, but having spent the afternoon and evening wandering, I am both impressed and interested.

Downtown Memphis has a very old world feel to it, albeit very much an old world of the South. That being said, the feel is very different from Louisiana. There are trolley cars and guys doing shoe shine, but also few people walking around and many properties looking for tenants. There is an restrained dignity though, that is impressive. I like the place.

As I walked through the area, I was impressed by the lack of chain business. I liked the interesting local ones. For instance, the peanut store, the independant clothing store and the place with a sign that now reads 'Downto n igs'. It is a very cool place. It is both very retro and very real.

Naturally, by reputation alone (and by anyone who is asked) one is drawn to Beale Street. As I wandered up and down Beale Street looking for a place for supper, I was horrified to see a real Elvis impersonator (I'm still having PTSD from Graceland). I was amazed and horrified by the number of places that sold what they claimed to be Cajun food. Why? Scary! The fact that one place had award winning Gumbo in no way made me feel any better.

Eventually, a guy approached me. I figured him for a hustler. He could have been. However, he asked me where I was from, when I said Louisiana, his disposition changed. He was originally from New Orleans. I explained that I was looking for a good place to eat. He told me that I should go to a place called Rendezvous, tucked away in an alley opposite the Peabody Hotel just up from the intersection of Third and Union Streets. His advice was excellent. I ate superb dry ribs. I recommend this joint.

Earlier on Beale Street, I ran across the most unique A. Schwab store. There they have a huge variety of stuff, from cheap clothes, to weird decorations, to Voodoo supplies. All arranged in a fairly random manner. The staff were very charming, so I stocked up on my Voodoo supply needs, at great prices. My enemies should take note of this [NB. this is a joke, maybe]. This store is incredibly folkloric, a real period piece out of time. I recommend it, as I recommend old Downtown Memphis. What a weird, but cool town.

After the visit to this store, I got to take a long walk down beside the Mississippi River, watching the barges and boats. The weather was perfect. It was warm, but not hot, with a light breeze. Truly magical.

Tomorrow, I have to return to the academic world, to say my thing at my session. However, I am very happy to have such an interesting and unusual place to continue to explore, during the rest of the conference.

The CP

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Drake Equation and A Possible Hiatus

Let me begin my noting that there may be a hiatus in postings to this blog, starting tomorrow and finishing early next week. Later this week, I will be speaking at a conference. Tomorrow I leave for my trip. Experience has taught me that Internet connections can be a bit hit and miss when traveling. Thus, there is no certainty that I will be able to add new postings. Hopefully, it will all be fine. However, if things stop, this will be the explanation.

My topic for today is the Drake Equation. Now, not everybody likes mathematical topics, but in this case, I urge you to make an exception. The interesting thing about this equation is that it can be used to compute an estimate of the number of civilisations in the galaxy, who may be able to communicate beyond their own planets.

The equation was developed in 1961, by Frank Drake. The equation is quite clever. The details of it are explained in various places around the net, namely here and here. This equation has important consequences for the feasibility of the Search for Extra Terrestial Intelligence (SETI) Project. This is an on-going research project, is not run by nuts cases and potentially may yield interesting results, some day.

My absolute favorite page on the Drake equation though is located here. The great thing about this page is that if you scroll down, there is an application that lets you compute a value for the equation, based upon your own estimates [NB. this application requires JavaScript enabled].

When I used the calculator, I got a value of 20, so I guess I'm a bit of a pessimist. The default values give a score of 1000. I'd be interested to know what scores other people get. Perhaps other bloggers might find it fun to try. This is so much better than all those silly personality quizzes.

The CP

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Mardi Gras Day and Indians

Today, did not go quite as I expected. I had intended to go to the first parade, but instead got side tracked by the Mardi Gras Indians, roving my neighbourhood. I live in an old and traditional area, which has traditionally had a large number of African-American residents. This is why we have Indians. As I am friendly with many of my neighbours, it was natural that I should get mixed up in these events.

One senior resident claimed that we have had Indians almost as long as New Orleans. What is interesting is the differences in traditions. Our Indians fiercely represent their neighbourhoods, competing for bragging rights. What is amazing is that the organizations of Indians run along lines that use names for neighbourhood areas, that are no longer current. This suggests that these are traditions of some antiquity. I am quite honored to be let into the 'inside' of these traditions, as the Indians are usually notoriously secretive.

After a while, I went to the second parade, where I ran into many friends and neighbours. Also, a friend of mine was riding in the parade, as he has political aspirations, so it was fun to yell for him.

After the parades were over, I wandered home slowly. There were vehicles parked everywhere and almost every household had a party going on the porch. Barbecue pits were everywhere. I was invited many times to join in the festivities. On a day such as this, it is fun to hang out with one's neighbours. It took me a long time to travel the short distance home. When I arrived at home, I was very, very full, having eaten many kinds of food.

This evening, I was invited to a Creole friends house for gumbo. It was a small, colorful gathering. There were many people I knew and several I did not. Meeting new people and making new friends are all an important part of the Mardi Gras tradition, just as much as beads and sharing food and drink. What a wonderful set of traditions!

However, tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and all the merriment must cease, as the austere rigors of the Lenten season will begin. The rubbish will be cleared away. The only memory of the party will be the beads hanging in trees. The many facades and illusions will have to be dismissed. Reality will return. The one good thing to look forward to now is the ever wonderful Lenten specials, involving lots of shrimp. Happy Mardi Gras to you all.

The CP

Monday, February 19, 2007

On Renouncing Violence

The BBC is reporting that there has been a meeting in the middle East, concerning the relationship between various feuding factions. Needless to say, Condoleezza Rice showed up, to grin on behalf of the US.

This is certainly not the first meeting of this kind, nor will it likely be the last. Indeed, this kind of meeting occurs frequently around the world, between feuding factions. There is something about this type of meeting that has always puzzled me. Why is it that one side, or another always calls upon the other to 'renounce violence'? The request is not the puzzling part. After all, violence is usually a bad idea for some group, or other. The puzzling part is that such requests are always so very one sided.

Consider the case of the US. If the US asks some group to 'renounce violence', would it not be reasonable for the group to whom the request is made, make a similar reciprocal request to the US? Yet, this never seems to happen, or at least, does not get reported.

The bizarre asymmetry here appears to arise from the apparent inconceivability of the US government renouncing violence. After all, one important function of any army is to inflict the will of one group upon another, by violent means, if necessary. The US is currently involved in the 'War on Terrorism'. This is a war that currently has two fronts, Iraq and Afghanistan. Wars, by their very nature are violent. Thus, for the US to make such a renunciation request to any other group appears hypocritical. It is a bit like those curious folks who resort to verbal abuse, in putative attempts at stopping verbal abuse!

There is usually some 'fig leaf' justification offered for wars. They are justified by appeals to 'freedom', 'democracy' and other lofty sounding ideals. However, why do these ideas (and others like them) justify war? This I do not get. Surely, if all parties renounced violence, then wars would stop. Rather than making bizarre requests of other groups, would not violence be stopped more directly by sending all the troops home?

Well, I now know the 'surge' is really coming. Before the latest invasion of Iraq, I would see train loads of weapons travelling East. Just today, I had to wait at a crossing, while a very long train of Hummers, painted in desert colors again travelled East. So much for renouncing violence.

The CP

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Mardi Gras: Last Year

Last year, during this time of the Mardi Gras season, I was in New Orleans. The feeling of the place was interesting. There was a sense of accomplishment in having managed to pull off Mardi Gras, despite the ravages of the storms of 2005. There was a sense of optimism, of people returning home to their comfort zone, after a long time away. As I have written elsewhere, these positive feelings have been replaced by a sense of frustration and disappointment. All the broken promises have taken a toll on the City, almost as great as the storms themselves.

Last year, we arrived in time to walk down deep into Uptown, just in time to meet the Krewe of Mid City coming the other way. This is an interesting crew. It is the fifth oldest of all the Krewes, having been founded in 1933. Their floats were festooned with memorabilia from the storms and exhibited a certain poignant gallows humor. There were many interpretations of the letters of FEMA and strips of the notorious blue tarps were used in many creative and amusing ways. The final float depicted Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco getting married. Although the humor was dark, the spirit was light. The parade was at least running again. Fat Tuesday was ahead.

After the Krewe of Mid City had passed and the light was beginning to fade, we walked on a little further, exploring the sites and sounds of the crowd. In this part of town, a good way from the French Quarter, the people were almost exclusively locals. We stopped in a hotel bar to rest a little and drink. Eventually, we found a spot to stand a wait the short while for the next parade. The wait was far from dull, as many impromptu Krewes and colorful revelers walked up and down the parade route, entertaining the crowd.

As is traditional, the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) began cruising up and down the parade route, clearing the way for through the crowds for the Krewe of Bacchus. The Krewe of Bacchus parade is one of the most spectacular of them all. It features celebrities on some floats. Last year, Willie Nelson was there. It also has mounted riders and many torch bearers and bands in addition to huge and spectacular floats.

Last year, the parade was as spectacular as ever. However, it moved slowly, until it eventually it ground to a halt. It turned out that one of the floats had collided with an overhead power cable and the parade had to stop until a linesmen could be found to render the downed power line safe. However, as many parade goers know, a stalled parade provides excellent opportunities to interact and converse with the people on the floats. Thus, we came away with many fine strings of beads and other trophies. As we left the parade route, we made our way to Magazine Street, to a small cafe, where we ate a hearty supper. Afterwards, we walked back and caught the end of the parade of the Krewe of Endymion, that had been postponed from earlier.

The following day, we went to Uptown again. There we found the Krewe of Proteus forming up for their parade. This Krewe was formed in 1882, making it the second oldest of all the Krewes. Many fine catches were gained from this Krewe.

Immediately following this parade, came the Krewe of Orpheus. This is one of the newer crews, having first paraded in 1994. Orpheus counts as a 'super-Krewe', with a large number of highly elaborate floats. This Krewe also featured celebrities. I caught a long string of large pink beads from Steven Segal. Form these two parades, we caught many fine beads, along with all sorts of other wild and wonderful Mardi Gras curiosities.

The New Orleans parades of last year were profoundly wonderful. Indeed, it counts as one of the happiest and most signature experiences of my life. Regrettably, since that time, little has changed in the City. My partner on that journey though has changed. They finally succumbed to the triple specters of paranoia, delusion and madness, that have haunted their personality for many years. These are both sad things.

The CP

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Insights: Behind The Mask of The Bacchus Parade

Last week, I had a drink with a friend of mine who rides with the Krewe of Bacchus in New Orleans. His insights into the 'other side' of such a huge parade were quite interesting.

Astute observers of the parade will notice that all the riders are attached to the float by cables. It turns out that as the floats form up, the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) boards each float and checks it to ensure that there are no weapons, glass, or other prohibited materials. This is done before each float is allowed to join the parade. The NOPD also places seals over the cable connections that attach the riders to the float. This seal must not be broken under any circumstance. Thus, each rider is committed to the parade for the entire length, come what may. Despite these restrictions, I really hope that my friend has fun tomorrow night. Somehow, I suspect that he will.

The CP

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Mardi Gras Madness Begins

Mardi Gras in Louisiana is a special time. It is 'special' in a sense of a deeply, magically and mysteriously different time. One of the subtle sub-themes of Mardi Gras is the theme of illusion and reversal. It is OK to make stuff up and act it out like it is real. It is fine to ask the richest person in town to beg like a pauper. This is Mardi Gras.

A wise man I know has a whole bunch of papers and talks about the logical reversals that characterise traditional Mardi Gras. However, this is a set of traditions that can be taken too far. Descartes, in his first Meditation remarks,

"But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapours as to cause them pertinaciously to assert that they are monarchs when they are in the greatest poverty; or clothed [in gold] and purple when destitute of any covering; or that their head is made of clay, their body of glass, or that they are gourds? I should certainly be not less insane than they, were I to regulate my procedure according to examples so extravagant."

Two of the colors of Mardi Gras are gold and purples. The third color is green. Some folks, in their desire to join in the spirit of the time, will invent any kind of story, to be in the Mardi Gras spirit. However, when this happens on blogs, which exist outside the world of Les Mardi Gras, then this just amounts to falsification, illusion and an indulgence in wishful thinking. You cannot really have Mardi Gras in Brooklyn. Les Fou Follets cannot survive that far North. The falsehoods of true Mardi Gras are a prescribed illusion. They all end on Ash Wednesday. However, presenting falsehood in the blog world, is not so prescribed.

So, I will only be an occasional visitor to the blog world until Mardi Gras is done. My world will be full of pageants, parades and masques. I know these for what they really are. The blog world does not (or should not) co-mingle with this world, or at least should only co-mingle with the lightest of touch. The blog world is a static space that records what is written and lacks the embodiment of the festival. The great danger arises when people cannot correctly distinguish, or delineate the two domains.

At Mardi Gras, wish fulfillment is paramount, even if the wish itself is a sham. (Who really needs another string of plastic beads?). However, like the people who believe they have heads of clay, or who think that they are gourds, there can be too much wish fulfillment, too much illusion. I believe in keeping these worlds appropriately separated. Mardi Gras only happens in certain, special places. That is where it must stay. In the blog world, beware the illusionists. With such illusions, although the intent may be blameless, the effects can be pernicious and mislead.

So I will cry to the Indians, who are my neighbours and friends, "Où est le capitaine ? Où peut je laisser le bon roulement de temps?", then I will eat Gumbo with Creoles on Mardi Gras Day. "C'est une bonne manière de passer un bon temps."

The CP

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Translating Physician Speak

Medical professionals are devious types. You may have already noticed how clever they seem to be at making your money magically appear in their bank account. What is less well known is that they also have their own secret language. The following is a primer to translating the utterances made by physicians.

- You should not feel a thing" – 'I am a liar'.

- "You may feel a little pressure" -- 'This will hurt'.

- "This may cause some mild discomfort" -- 'This will hurt like hell!'

- "It would be prudent to run a few more tests..." -- 'I have not got a clue what is going on'.

- "This is a difficult diagnosis, but I suspect..." --'I am now officially guessing'.

- "Dr. X will be assisting with this procedure..." -- 'My friend wants to cop a feel and see you naked'.

- "Dr. X is an expert on this condition..." -- 'My friend, Dr. X, has a condo payment due'.

- "You should come back and see me next week." -- 'I have a condo payment due'.

- "I want to keep a close eye on your condition." -- 'You will help me pay for my new boat'.

- "This new medication comes highly recommend..." -- '...By the drug rep. who bought me lunch'.

- "This medication works for some patients." -- 'It seldom works, but the drug rep. was cute'.

- "Research suggests that this drug..." -- 'We have no clue how this works, so here is a nice story'.

- "Now, I would like to do an examination..." -- 'You are cute. I want to see you in a paper gown'.

- "Patients have told me that..." -- 'My patients know more about this condition than I do.'

- "There may be sexual side effects." -- 'It will break your dick!'

- "You seem to have a chronic pain condition." -- 'I am now your new, licensed, drug dealer'.

- "It is quite a complex procedure." -- 'Prepare to re-mortgage your home'.

- "A less aggressive approach..." -- 'This is the cheap option'.

- "You need to eat a more healthy diet..." -- 'Auto-pilot is now engaged'.

- "I recommend quitting smoking and drinking..." -- 'Auto-pilot still running'.

- "If you have any further questions, ask my nurse." -- 'Your seven minutes are up!'

- "It is a minor, out-patient procedure" -- 'We will send you home with a bunch of happy pills'.

- "It could be psychological..." -- 'You are a nut-job.'

- "It is a maintenance medication..." -- 'My drug company stocks will benefit from this'.

- "It is an elective procedure." -- 'Please say yes, my wife wants a boob job'.

- "I strongly recommend this treatment option." -- 'I want my wife to have bigger boobs too'.

- "Not every procedure is successful..." -- 'My lawyer and my insurance company make me say this'.

- "There are risks..." -- 'I may kill you'.

Further 'translations' are very welcome!

The CP

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Quds force

So, we learn from ABC News [requires Javascript enabled] tonight, that there is a new group to fear, the 'Quds force'. The name allegedly means 'Jerusalem force'. According to this story, this outfit is "...a group of secret agents and hit men." These individuals only answer to Iranian religious leaders. Sounds scary, doesn't it?

There is a reference to the Quds force on an Israeli terrorism information site. There is also a Wikipedia entry, under the spelling 'Qods force'. Google throws up a bunch of other references.

Apparently these are very elite dangerous people. They have been 'linked' to all sorts of bad events. They are also 'believed to be behind', various atrocities. They are fanatics, of course. Just lately, they are suspected of supplying weapons to Iraqi insurgents. This is all the kind of stuff to strike fear in to the hearts of honest Americans.

There is a problem, though. I just do not believe it! How many times have we heard about terrible, scary, shadowy groups who are hell bent on doing unspeakable wrongs against peace loving peoples, of late? Who can forget Saddam's supposed weapons of mass destruction. They keep finding members of Al Qaeda, although bin Laden remains elusive. We live in a terrifying world.

The problem I am having is that I am now too tired of being mislead and lied to. I have simply lost the capacity to accept the latest bunch of supposed bogey men that the large media corporations and the Whitehouse wish us to be scared of. I have lost the capacity to worry about Quds force, or Qods force, or whatever these people are called.

No doubt I am wrong about all this. Any second now, hundreds of armed Quds force members will be causing havoc in my neighbourhood. Somehow, I doubt that this will happen though. My bet is that this is just a media led softening exercise to prepare us for some more war, this time in Iran. It follows an all too familiar pattern.

Sorry though, it is time to count me out. I quit. I am turning off my TV. Call me when this perpetual war is over (if it ever is).

The CP

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Mailing Lists

I am subscribed to a couple of philosophy mailing lists. One is a kind of general purpose announcement list. The other is focused more specifically upon my areas of research interest. They are both useful sources of professional information. They can have their amusing moments too.

Lurking on these lists, I have noticed a puzzling phenomenon. Some new person will subscribe to the list, often without having read too carefully about the rules and focus of the list. They will then post something, that is not really too appropriate. One common sort of message might say something like,

"Hello, I am new here, so I thought I would introduce myself..."

Messages of this kind a little annoying, but are not really too bad. However, what I find amazing is the number of list members who will reply to these folks, telling them all the things that they are doing wrong.

It would be one thing to tell these people in a private e-mail, but to post such a message publicly, seems a bit mean. The way both lists seem to be set up is such that the default setting sends replies to postings just to the poster. Thus, these people have to go to all the effort of filling in the CC: field, to ensure that their message goes to the entire list. My question is, why do these people do this? Also, is this not the job of the Listowner, if it is anyone's job? I am always puzzled by these self-appointed list guardians. Although I am certain that their intentions are good, why do they act this way?

Another curious list type are the people who start yelling "take this discussion off the list" after a couple of posts on a particular topic. There are many announcements that are of little interest to me. I delete them, or perhaps forward them to someone who might be interested, who does not subscribe to the list. It is not a big deal. Am I just a tolerant type? Does anyone know of any serious studies that have been done on this kind of thing?

The CP

Monday, February 12, 2007

Monday and Thunder

Monday is a pretty tough day in Combat Philosopher land. In addition to my regular classes, I also teach a three hour graduate level class. It is a great class, with a large number of good grad students, but it leaves me tired. Once a month, on a Monday evening, I also attend a Board meeting for a non-profit organisation that I am involved in. Today was one of those evenings. This make it an even longer day.

After I got home, when the meeting had finished, I turned on the TV. My Tivo had saved the news for me. From the news, I learned that there is a substantial storm front coming though. We also have a tornado watch posted.

As I write, I am very tired. However, I can hear the distant crash of thunder. I love a good storm, provided it is not a hurricane and it does not bring a tornado. Having looked at the Doppler radar, I think we should be safe from tornadoes tonight. Thus, I will get to fall asleep to the crash of thunder. It is a strong and strange lullaby.

The CP

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Better Reasoning VI: Enthymemes

- Previous Post in the Series
- Combat Philosopher Home Page
- Next Post in the Series

In the previous couple of posts in this series, various valid argument forms have been introduced. There is one further complexity that arises with real arguments, that has yet to be mentioned.

One thing that people may have noticed with the valid argument forms is that they seem to involve rather a lot of repeating the same phase over and over again. For instance, in a Modus Ponens inference, the phrase symbolised by P in the argument form appears in both the antecedent of the first premise and in the second premise. In practice, people seldom talk, write, or reason this way. Instead, it is common for people to take little logical 'short cuts'. Consider the following two arguments,

(a) "If it is cloudy, then the solar cell will not work well, so it won't work well today."

(b) "If it is cloudy, then the solar cell will not work well. It is cloudy today. So, the solar cell will not work well today."

Essentially, (a) and (b) make the same argument. Notice though that passage (a) sounds much more natural, while the version in passage (b) sounds kind of leaden and overly pedantic. The reason for this is pretty obvious. Passage (a) uses contractions, and does not explicitly state the second premise. Passage (b) sticks much more closely to the valid argument form. On the face of it, it would seem that if the version in passage (b) is a valid instance of a Modus Ponens inference, then that would seem to guarantee the the version in passage (a) was valid also. Yet, there is a bit missing. What is going on here?

The version of the argument that appears in passage (a) contains an Enthymeme. This term has a Greek origin and means roughly 'in the mind'. It turns out that in many cases in natural speech and writing, we do not have to explicitly state all the parts of the argument, because we are able to easily and almost automatically, fill in the missing parts, with our minds. However, this adds a further complication to identifying valid arguments in real world reasoning.

The very automatic nature of the way we fill in missing parts of arguments can actually make it a little bit difficult to spot enthymemes at first. However, knowing the valid argument forms makes finding enthymemes just a little bit easier. Enthymemes need to be treated with care, however. This is because letting a reader, or hearer fill in missing parts of an argument can serve to hide from explicit scrutiny fairly dubious premises and conclusions. Consider the following argument,

"Gun control legislation is a restriction on freedom, so it shouldn't be passed into law."

As stated, this argument lacks any of the special logical words mentioned in the previous posts. Thus, it does not appear to match any of the valid argument forms and would consequently appear to be invalid. It turns out that this is not the problem with the argument, though.

One of the principles that is useful when dealing with enthymemes is the so-called 'Principle of Charitable Interpretation'. The idea here is that it is easy to make an argument look bad. However, if an enthymeme can be added that would make an argument a valid one, then it is reasonable to add that enthymeme. If the premise 'If something is a restriction on freedom, then it should not be passed into law' were added to the above argument, it would appear to be a valid case of a Modus Ponens inference. After doing this, we can write the argument out more formally as follows,

(1) If something is a restriction on freedom, then it should not be passed into law.
(2) Gun control legislation is a restriction on freedom.
(3) Gun control legislation should not be passed into law.

By convention, Enthymemes have their number underlined, to make them stand out. With the argument written out like this, we can now see that the argument is a valid instance of a Modus Ponens inference. However, we can also see that there is something very wrong with the first premise. After all, all legislation has the effect of restricting freedom in some way! My 'freedom' to drive at any speed I feel like is restricted by speed limit laws. My 'freedom' to steal your stuff is restricted by laws about theft. Thus, the premise is patently false. However, when the argument is made without this premise being explicitly stated, people may not realise how silly it is and may be fooled into accepting the conclusion of the argument. This nicely illustrates the way that enthymemes need to be identified and handled with care.

Let us consider another example. This one comes from the real world. Some years ago some group stated putting up notices around our campus that simply said "Jesus or Hell." It is not unreasonable to think that the people putting up these notices wanted to persuade people of something. Thus, these notices were probably supposed to provide arguments. The question is, what was the intended argument?

Noticing that the single premise has the word 'or' in it offers a clue. It is at least plausible that the posters of these notices intended their readers to perform a Disjunctive Syllogism inference. If this is correct, then there are two enthymemes, the second premise and the conclusion. So, the intended argument probably looked like this when presented more formally,

(1) Jesus, or Hell.
(2) Not Hell.
(3) Jesus.

Of course, it could have been the case that the notices were posted by a local group of Satanists and the intended conclusion was "Hell"! In both cases, this would be a valid Disjunctive Syllogism inference (recall that there are two forms of this kind of inference). This is one of the incipient dangers of relying upon enthymemes. Readers and hearers may not draw the intended inferences.

In conclusion, let us look at another, yet more complex real world example. This one comes from an opinion piece written by Michael W. Brandl, that appeared on the InsideHigherEd web site on the 2nd of Feb. this year (the full text is available here). Brandl is writing about the issue of the use of second hand textbooks by students. In the process of arguing his point, he made the following argument,

"To begin with, if every student were to buy only used textbooks then no new textbooks would be sold. Thus, no new textbooks would be produced, rapidly diminishing the quality of education."

The first thing to notice is that the conclusion (indicated by the term 'thus') concerns the production of textbooks and the quality of education. However, the consequent of the If...then,... premise concerns the sale of new textbooks. Thus, there needs to be something to connect these topics. One natural way to do this, would be to add another If...,then... premise. This can be done validly, by the inference called Hypothetical Syllogism. Notice also that Brandl also seems to think that it is reasonable to believe that 'every student were to buy only used textbooks'. (This case has some similarities to passage (a), above). Having noticed these points, we can write out the argument more formally as follows,

(1) If every student were to buy only used textbooks, then no new textbooks would be sold.
(2) If no new textbooks would be sold, then no new textbooks would be produced, rapidly diminishing the quality of education.
Thus, [By Hypothetical Syllogism, from (1) and (2)]
(3) If every student were to buy only used textbooks, then no new textbooks would be produced, rapidly diminishing the quality of education.
(4) Every student were to buy only used textbooks.
Thus, [By Modus Ponens, from (3) and (4)]
(5) No new textbooks would be produced, rapidly diminishing the quality of education.

This example is quite complicated, but notice how we have ensured that the argument at least has the virtue of being valid. However, it is questionable whether the argument sound. For instance, it seems rather unlikely that a circumstance would arise under which every student would buy only used textbooks. Thus, by carefully rooting out the ethymemes in this argument, we are in a much better position to figure out whether or not we should be persuaded by it.

In this posting, the notion of an enthymeme has been introduced and illustrated with a number of examples. This shows some of the more sophisticated features of real world arguments, which are not immediately obvious. Understanding these things also assists us in improving our own reasoning and gives us more powerful tools to analyse the arguments of others.

The CP

- Previous Post in the Series
- Combat Philosopher Home Page
- Next Post in the Series


The 'New' New Orleans

Tonight, I attended the Sparta and Pegasus Mardi Gras parades in the once fine city of New Orleans. I was here last year for some of the Mardi Gras celebrations also. I notice a big difference.

Last year, Mardi Gras was about making a statement about resilience, about recovery. This year, that optimism seems to be missing. The friends with whom I am staying talk more and more about what has NOT happened, changed, or improved. They also recall the many people who have not come back to their homes. They cry, at times.

The superficial splendor is still there in the parades, but talking to the folks standing waiting for the parade reveals a troubling change. I have never known this city well. However, I learned a good deal more about it during and after the storms of 2005. Hell, I had folks from The Big Easy staying in my house. The brash and shallow version of the city still remains -- it is the vision sold to the tourists. However, the deeper heart of the city seems to be on life support. Although I may not be an expert on this city, I am a pretty good judge of human nature. The spirit of the city now seems mortally wounded. It makes me want to cry too.

So, the festival season will come and go. After all the beads and after all the drinks, when the austerity of Lent arrives, I worry for the soul of the city. This is a place that has had more than enough austerity, more than enough loss, more than enough trauma. The violence in the city is increasing. According to my friends, it has more to do with alienation, displacement and the lurking specter of situational insanity, than anything else. As one said, "If I had a gun, I'd be tempted to shoot both Nagin and Blanco too". Fortunately, this individual does not have a gun.

Another topic I heard mentioned many times, while waiting for the parades was Bush and his State of the Union address, in which the city and the area did not even warrant a mention. If the politicians in Washington, have forgotten the city, then who will remember it? Who will help with any recovery? A city needs schools. A city needs services. A city needs resources. New Orleans appears to have been denied all of these. It is no wonder that the parades seem like a sham and the parade goers seem like I know not what. What I do know is that this is a very different Mardi Gras. It so much sadder. Anyone who denies this, has either not been to this city, has not talked to any resident, or has the empathy of a rock.

The CP

Saturday, February 10, 2007

On 'Objective Reality'

This week in my history of philosophy class, we were looking at various medieval concepts that are used by Descartes in his Third Meditation.

One of these concepts is 'Objective Reality'. As I was going over this notion, I suddenly realised that this notion could be extremely important, with respect to the the problems of representational realism that arise in Locke's Essay, which ultimately was fatally attacked by Bishop Berkeley. For fun, I thought I would Google the phrase 'Objective Reality' and see what came up. I got a nasty surprise!

It seems that the correct philosophical use of the phrase 'Objective Reality' has been swamped by all sorts of other crazy discussions, often connected to the 'Objectivist' pseudo-philosophy. In fact, I only found two sensible links on the topic. One was to a web page by Dr. Bob Burch, from the University of Alberta, which is here. The other, ironically enough was to a page on the much maligned Spark Notes site, available here. Thus, to try and redress this imbalance, I will add a discussion of the philosophically correct notion of 'Objective Reality' here.

The notion of Objective Reality first appears in the works of Duns Scotus. Objective Reality is a property of things that stand for, or represent other things. Descartes only uses the concept with respect to ideas, but there is really no principled reason why it should be so restricted. Indeed, it is easier to explain the idea, using less abstract notions.

The key thing about the Objective Reality of a thing is how well it represents the thing that it represents. So, for example, a photograph of my cat will have more Objective Reality than an artistic sketch of my cat. Similarly, an artistic sketch of my cat will have more Objective Reality than a highly abstract painting of my cat. Hopefully, this conveys the idea, reasonably well. Now, ideas are often of things. That is to say, they stand for other things. Thus, they too can be judged with respect to their Objective Reality.

Descartes specifies his notion of Objective Reality (which, as mentioned, is a slightly more restricted use of the notion) most clearly in his Reply to Objections II of the Objections and Replies to the Meditations. There he writes,

"I mean the being of the thing represented in the idea, as it is represented in the idea … Whatever we perceive as being in the object of our idea is in the ideas themselves objectively."

This then is the philosophically correct notion of Objective Reality. It should not be confused with the various other suggestions that have been made about the idea on other web sites.

The CP

Friday, February 09, 2007

Two Words, Four Meanings

Every once in a while, a circumstance will arise in which a bunch of faculty members, who all know each other, will end up at the same place at the same time, through pure chance. Such a circumstance arose today. It was an extremely intellectually stimulating, friendly and funny meeting of minds. I was fortunate enough to be there.

At this little gathering, one of the more amusing topics turned out to be misunderstandings. Some of the people present, although native English speakers, are not quite speakers of the same kind of English as some of the other people present. It turns out that different linguistic sub-groups of English language speakers use the same terms to mean opposite things. This can lead to misunderstandings.

The first misunderstanding occurred over the meaning of the term 'funky'. This term appeared initially in the sentence "I am feeling funky." It turned out, after a bit of confusion, that the speaker intended to convey the message that they were not feeling quite right, in a negative way. They were feeling a bit 'out of sorts', or 'off color'. However, it turned out that the other linguistic group thought that this sentence meant something like 'I'm feeling cool', or 'I've got my groove on', or something else, with quite positive connotations. Of course, this was almost the exact opposite of the sentiment that was intended. (There were probably all sorts of wild Griceian Implicatures going on too, but the basic misunderstanding was funny enough).

Thus, this turned the topic to other similar confusions that could arise between the two linguistic sub-groups. One participant, who is from the non-dominant linguistic group involved in this conversation, admitted to having a similar problem with the term 'homely'. Apparently, where they grew up, this word means something like 'comfortable', or 'relaxed' and has no negative associations with it. It turns out this individual had innocently used this term to a close friend, who was not from his linguistic sub-group, with rather unfortunate consequences. They were shocked to learn that to use this term about a person, for the other linguistic sub-group was a rather severe insult! This had not been their intention at all. In fact, what they had intended was almost the diametric opposite!

As I walked back from the impromptu gathering, cup of coffee in hand, I chuckled a little to myself about the vagaries of language. However, I was suddenly struck by the wisdom of the old adage that one should be 'Careful for what you wish for'. Suddenly, this appears doubly wise (if that makes any sense). If one is in one part of the World and wishes to be 'funky and homely', one is wishing to be kind of cool and relaxed. However, if one was to make the same wish somewhere else, one would be wishing to feel and look bad. I concluded that it would be wise to wish for nothing in the near future!

The CP

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Is Note Taking a Dying Art?

When I was in school, our teachers would terrify us with the prospect of the note taking we would face, when we got to university. In school, they would dictate the information, or write it on the chalk board. As young things, the prospect of taking all the information in a lecture and then have to condense it down into meaningful prose, without assistance, was a big concern. There were few tips available about how to learn to 'take notes', but we were assured that it was a skill we would just have to develop. By and large we did.

In my largish class this semester, which is a history of philosophy class, I have noticed that students seem to take relatively few notes. If I write something on the black board, then they will write it down, for sure, but that is about it. The other day, I decided to ask the students about this.

It seemed that only about three of them took more than a couple of pages of notes each class. This was a shock to me! I generally get through two, or three pages of my lecture notes. These notes are not that detailed either. They are more like talking points about the texts, and the relevant arguments, often peppered with useful facts about the historical context. These I have structured in a manner such that they have a logical flow. I use them largely to ensure that I do not forget to adequately cover the important points. There is a great deal more information in each class, than is in my notes.

Why don't the students take notes any more? Do they think that they are gifted with perfect memories? What is the deal? I was especially surprised at the lack of note taking recently, as we have been covering some of the technical medieval concepts that appear in Descartes' Third Meditation. Before I teach this material, even though I know it well, I always go over it ahead of time, to make sure that I do not mix up 'objective reality', with 'formal reality', or 'actual reality'. Without notes, how do the students expect to be able to remember which is which?

What amazes me about this attitude to class notes is the tremendous waste of intellectual capital that it represents. Some time ago, I suddenly had to teach Plato's Republic for the first time, after many years of not looking at the text. In addition to rereading the material, one of my best resources for preparing classes were my own notes, from when I was a student. Should any of these students ever become professors, they are robbing themselves of a wonderful potential resource. Why do they do this? Even doing well on the mid-term and final exam is, to a degree, predicated, upon recalling the subtleties of the text, that are discussed in class. Surely, they should at least care about this? Apparently, they do not.

The cause of the decline in note taking are not hard to fathom. The popularity of requests for 'study guides', suggests that some faculty members have decided to take the notes for the students. When students ask me for a study guide, they always seem perplexed when I suggest that their notes are their study guide. On-line facilities like the evil Blackboard, and the less bad Moodle, probably have also had an impact too. It is still a shame though, in my view.

When I go to a talk, if it is a good one, I always take notes. This means that if something relevant to the talk shows up later, I can check my notes and find the example I need. Indeed, over the years, I have developed my own note taking short hand. This is made up of symbols from various logical systems, mathematical functions and letters from a few alphabets (mostly Greek and bizarrely even the Theban one). I also have some standard abbreviations. I can read it easily. Others often find it a little challenging.

I believe that the decline in note taking may be a generational phenomenon. Last year, I had a very good more mature student who took very detailed notes, every class. This student would then type them up. If a question arose, they would e-mail, or call for clarification. This student was a wonderful asset to the entire class. Should someone miss a class, they knew who to ask for the notes. This student has now graduated, so I am left with the non-note taking young ones.

Perhaps note taking is just in a temporary decline. I do hope that this is the case. As we were assured when I was in school, to be able to take good notes is a skill that has to be learned. It would be a shame if this skill was to be lost.

The CP

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Publishing and Perishing: Myths and Obligations

Over at the ever excellent RateYourStudents Blog today, the perennial issue of publishing verses teaching in academia came up. As regular readers will know, publication, or more specifically the lack of it, is one of my pet peeves. The discussion today at RateYourStudents was admirably balanced and well informed.

One particularly welcome thing about this discussion was an inclusion of a link to a paper by Historian James Axtell, that appeared in The Journal of Scholarly Publishing, 29/1 (1997). The paper is simply called "Twenty-Five Reasons to Publish". I strongly recommend this paper to all academics, or interested parties, with academic interest. Indeed, this paper perhaps should also be recommended to students, as it is a paradigm of well-reasoned, amply referenced, academic prose.

Axtell attempts to dispel the myth of the alleged tension between teaching and research. He also provides a cogent set of reasons why professors who are active researchers have higher self-esteem, greater job satisfaction and are overall more healthy and functional members of the academic community, than those professors who do not. In addition to discussing the obvious arguments, he also offers some relatively novel ones.

One point (Reason Two), which was especially interesting was the observation that,

"Higher education is the only learned profession that requires no recertification at suitable periods after the award of the terminal degree and no regular upgrading of skills and knowledge."

He then argues that the process of scholarly peer review serves the function of ensuring that faculty members knowledge of current literature and issues, are adequate for them to be able to be effective teachers. He also maintains (Reason Five) that

"...academic meritocracy believes that peer review by fellow professors is the only reliable and justifiable way to evaluate its activities."

This he believes is far superior to teaching evaluations. In Axtell's view, academics actually have a moral obligation to publish, in addition to the more obvious mere professional and societal obligations to expand the boundaries of knowledge in a rigorous and disciplined manner. I have not seen this point argued before (although I have heard a fair few excuses given for contrary behaviors). As I say, I cannot recommend this paper highly enough. Indeed, there are a few of my co-workers, including one who has an office just down the hall from me, who I am tempted to print this article off for. I doubt that it would get read by the inhabitants of 'Deadwood' though.

Having found this paper, I decided to take a look at the table of contents of The Journal of Scholarly Publishing, as it is a journal I have not come across before. Also, as this Journal is published by the University of Toronto Press, it should probably be pretty good. I was not disappointed.

One of the papers I discovered had to do with blogging! This naturally grabbed my interest. Some time ago, around the time of the MLA panel on blogging, there were some interesting reflections on blogging and academia on various academic blogs. The consensus that seemed to emerge from the various cogitations was that blogging should, at best, be categorized under the general heading of 'service'. This seemed like a pretty reasonable conclusion to me.

A slightly different perspective on this topic is taken by William W. Savage, Jr. in his article "You Can't Spill Mustard on a Blog" [warning: .pdf format], that appeared in The Journal of Scholarly Publishing 38/1, (2006), pp. 47-51. Savage argues that the lack of peer review in blogging means that it should be assigned a status analogous to self-publishing. Savage offers an entirely reasonable argument in support of this position. When combined with the notion of 'blogging as service', it seems reasonable to assign blogging a value akin to producing pamphlets to educate the general public about one's subject. This to me seems an entirely reasonable analogy. I would never put making such a pamphlet on a year end report and analogously, I did not report my blogging. However, that being said, I know of co-workers who have claimed that, due to the nature of their field, even writing a letter to the local newspaper, should count as a publication for them! I find this claim frankly preposterous.

The consideration of the status of blogs and the importance of publication in academia, got me thinking about the ancient adage that in the Ivory Tower, the options are 'Publish, or Perish'. I realised that this adage is only true until a person gets tenure. After that, it becomes simply a myth. Once a person is tenured, it doesn't really matter too much if they do not publish anything in peer reviewed journals. OK, they might not get much of a pay raise and promotion is highly unlikely, but if they are happy just tending their garden, playing golf, or whatever it is these folks do with their time, then, at least at my institution, they can often get away with it. This makes me a little sad.

As I reflected on this conclusion, I paid a visit to the notorious RateMyProfessors web site. I looked up my co-worker who has the office down the hall and a couple of other folks who are non-publishers. Guess what! Axtell is right. These people get very poor reviews from the students too.

Although I know that it is a generally unpopular idea amongst many academics, but as a result of all this, I find the notion of post-tenure review more and more attractive. I believe that academics fear this proposal, because they believe that it would provide administrators with another potential tool of oppression. This is not an entirely irrational fear. However, if some sensible bench marks were set, then surely we could use such a device to police ourselves? For instance, if a lax standard (say nothing in print in a half dozen years), was adopted as a 'trigger' for such a review, then it would be hard for the 'suits' to use such a mechanism for devious purposes. This would mean that for most normal, productive faculty members such a review would never even be an issue. However, it would provide a mechanism to cull the Deadwood, to open up spaces for eager new Ph.D's who desperately want to find a tenure-track position.

I'd be interested if anyone has any thoughts on these matters, either for, or against. Now, I have to get back to working on the conference presentation that I will be giving later this month. ;)

The CP

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Two Weeks to Mardi Gras!

Last month, I marked the beginning of the Mardi Gras Season. In that post, it was also suggested that there would be more information here about Mardi Gras traditions. As today marks exactly two weeks until Mardi Gras day, it is time to make good on that promise.

Last time, the famous song La Chanson des Mardi Gras was introduced, and the lyrics were given. This song, in addition to being one of the theme tunes of Mardi Gras, also explains certain Mardi Gras traditions, found in rural Acadiana.

There is a tradition that on Mardi Gras Day (also on other days, close to the main day), 'Les Mardi Gras' will congregate. The name 'Mardi Gras' is given to the participants in the 'Courir de Mardi Gras', or the 'Mardi Gras Run'. The run often begins very early in the morning. The participants are (more or less) under the control of a 'Capitaine', who is in charge.

The role of the Capitaine's is commemorated in the Refrain of La Chanson des Mardi Gras, which (approximately in English) runs thus,

Captain, captain, raise your flag,
Let us go and visit our neighbors.
Captain, captain, raise your flag,
Let us follow it on the way.

As part of the tradition, Les Mardi Gras wear highly decorated and colorful costumes. These costumes are almost always home made and are alleged by some to be based upon parodies of the medieval courtly clothes of Europe. A number of these costumes are illustrated in the following pictures, which were taken in Eunice, Louisiana in 2005 (clicking on an image will let you see a larger version).

As the images make clear, Mardi Gras beads are also an important part of the celebration. The traditional form of transportation is horse back. The horses, in combination with some more costumes are illustrated in the following pictures, also from Eunice. It is worth mentioning that the first picture is of one of the Capitaines.

It is often the case that not all Mardi Gras have access to horses. For this reason, the Mardi Gras also ride on floats, like this one.

The purpose of the run is to go out and collect chickens and rice that will form the basis of a large communal gumbo, that is cooked after the run. Needless to say, Mardi Gras is not a good day to be a chicken! However, the chickens are very important and are often prominently displayed, as is illustrated in the following picture.

This tradition may look curious to outsiders, but it should not be underestimated. It is a great deal of fun. There is also a great deal of good will amongst the crowds. It is common for people to share beads and give strings of beads to complete strangers. People will often also share 'beverages'.

Thus, Mardi Gras is a wonderful, colorful and unique set of traditions. They provide one last major party before the austere rigors of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday. Laisser les Bon Temps Rouler!

The CP

Monday, February 05, 2007

An Enron Budget, or a Casualty of War?

Clausewitz famously claimed that "The first casualty of war is truth". The truth of this remark appears to be confirmed on a daily basis.

It seems that the Whitewash House has sent down the next budget. The numbers in it are utterly huge. Naturally, defence spending is a huge portion of the suggested spending. It seems that W. thinks that he can spend a huge amount, and yet balance the budget, without putting up taxes.

Naturally, there must be some magic trick behind this claim, assuming that it is not just an outright lie (more Words of Mass Deception?). It seems that one way this trick is going to be pulled off is by hitting all those nasty Pinko programs, like Medicare. There are also 141 unnamed programs that will be targeted for cuts. The odd thing about this is that this is exactly the same number of programs W. tried to cut last year, and even the Republicans on the Hill would not let this by. The Democrats are even less likely to play ball. These cuts alone are not enough to account for the budget magic trick.

This is a puzzle. After all, we are spending millions of Dollars a day funding the ridiculous War. How can this be? What makes this all possible is a magic trick known as 'Bridge Funding'. This is funding that is appropriated, but is not part of the main budget. It is the kind of funding that is supposed to be used in case of emergency (N.B. Louisiana is still waiting to receive Hurricane funds). This is the primary means by which the war is being funded and will continue to be funded.

Consider the case of a Corporation that presented their balance sheets to shareholders, but managed to leave off substantial liabilities, or anticipated costs. When Enron did this and got caught, the result was a huge corporate scandal, rolling heads, etc. Now it seems that silly W. pulls a similar trick, and does it explicitly, and nobody turns a hair.

If the huge cost of the war is not part of the budget, then the budget is incomplete. It would be like a Corporation having a huge overseas liability that they left off the balance sheets. If a CEO pulled this trick, they would go to jail. When W. does it, he gets to make dubious claims about balancing the budget. I do not see why W. does not get sent to jail for such activities, like the Suits from Enron. But oh yes, I forgot, the folks in Washington get to make their own rules. It is a shame that it is ordinary tax payers who have to ultimately foot the bill and ordinary soldiers (who are also tax payers) who get to do the dying, whilst W. gets to keep on lying.

The CP

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Better Reasoning V: Valid Argument Forms II

- Previous Post in the Series
- Combat Philosopher Home Page
- Next Post in the Series

In the last post in this series, the conjunction and simplification valid argument forms were introduced. Also, a convention for using letters to stand for entire propositions, that is to say, things that can be said as complete statements, was explained. This convention will continue to be used here.

We have also been made aware that there are certain special logical words, that have very predictable effects upon the sentences in which they appear. Last time, we looked at the words 'Not' and 'And', which fall into this class of terms. These are not the only examples, however.

Another important logical word is the word 'Or'. There is a minor complexity that arises with 'Or', though. This is that natural language contains two logically distinct versions of 'Or'.

The first kind of 'Or' is called 'inclusive Or'. Sentences that contain an inclusive Or are true when either of the disjuncts (that is to say, the propositions either side of the Or) are true, as well as when both disjuncts are true. Consider the sentence

"Sammy will bring ham or cheese to the potluck dinner".

This sentence would not be false, if it turned out that Sammy brought a ham and cheese plate. In this case, 'Sammy will bring ham' is one disjunct, while 'Sammy will bring cheese' is the other disjunct. This illustrates the way 'inclusive Or' functions in language. Generally speaking, it is usually assumed that this is the default type of 'Or' people use, when speaking in natural language.

The second kind of 'Or' is known as 'exclusive Or'. For the purpose of disambiguation, this is usually written 'Xor'. This practice will be followed here. Sentences which have an Xor between their disjuncts are only true when one of their disjuncts are true, but not when they are both true. In common speech, the use of Xor is often marked by the use of the phrase "Either...,or...". Suppose one was to go out to dinner and the server was to say,

"Your meal comes with either a salad, or coleslaw. Which would you like?"

There would certainly be some surprise if one was to ask for both salad AND coleslaw! For the most part, in what follows, the inclusive use of 'Or' will be assumed.

Now attention can be turned to valid patterns of inference that involve the use of Or. The first of these to consider is the so-called 'addition' inference. Following the conventions introduced earlier, this kind of inference has two variants, which can be represented as follows:

P or Q

P or Q

On the face of it, this may appear a bit of an odd inference, albeit a valid one. If one knows that a particular proposition, P is true, then we can infer that 'P or Q' is also true (actually, the same holds with false sentences -- valid inferences are 'truth-value preserving', in more technical language). So, if one knows that, for example "The sky is blue", it is valid to infer that "The sky is blue, or grass is green".

The apparent oddity of addition inferences notwithstanding, there are occasions when this kind of inference can be useful to make. There are a number of cases in the philosophical literature where inferences of this kind have been crucial to developing philosophical objections to positions. Perhaps the most famous of these arises in the argument for the so-called Gettier Problem (see especially case II, in this account).

A much more common valid inference involving sentences containing 'Or' are 'Disjunctive Syllogism' inferences. Disjunctive syllogism inferences also come in two varieties. The forms of this kind of inference are as follows:

P or Q
Not P

P or Q
Not Q

This kind of inference is quite important in everyday life. Suppose that one is hoping to meet a friend, but one is unsure where they will be. One might reason as follows,

"At this time of day, Robin will be in the office, or in the cafe. I just called the office and there was no reply, so I had better go and look in the cafe."

In this case, P corresponds to 'Robin will be in the office'. Q corresponds to 'Robin will be in the cafe'. The fact that the office phone went unanswered, suggests that 'It is not the case that Robin is in the office' (i.e. Not P). So, we are led to the conclusion that 'Robin will be in the cafe' (i.e. Q). It is relatively easy to see that this kind of inference is valid, as we are most likely very familiar with it. However, we now have a much deeper understanding of why this is a 'good' inference.

Another important class of valid inferences occur with 'If..., then...' statements. If we think about how sentences with 'if..., then...' in them function, it becomes clear that provided some condition is met (the bit after the 'If...,'), some other thing (namely, the bit after the 'then...'), follows, or will happen. It is useful to have some special terminology to talk about the different parts of this kind of sentence. By tradition, the part after the 'If...,' is known as the 'antecedent' and the part after the 'then...' part is known as the 'consequent'. With this terminology, we can now say that with sentences of this kind, provided that the antecedent condition is met, the consequent result will follow.

Probably the best known kind of inference involving if...then... sentences is an inference known as 'Modus Ponens'. The form of a Modus Ponens inference is as follows;

If P, then Q

Consider as an example the inference that,

"If the telephone is ringing, then there is someone trying to call. The telephone is indeed ringing. Thus, there is someone trying to call."

There are many similar inferences we can think of. Any inference that follows this pattern though is going to be valid, as all Modus Ponens inferences are valid.

One thing that is important to keep an eye on though is that the various parts of the argument are all in the correct places. For instance, the inference "If P, then Q, Q, thus P", is invalid. This would be an instance of the fallacy of 'affirming the consequent'. This is not a truth preserving inference. This can be seen by substituting the phrase 'it is raining' for P, and 'the streets are wet', for Q. In this case, while it is often true that 'If it is raining, then the streets are wet', we can think of instances when the the streets are indeed wet, yet there could be another cause (for instance, they could be cleaning the streets, with water jets). This shows that affirming the consequent is not a valid kind of inference. However, if one reflects a little about the valid instance, with the same phrases substituted for P and Q, then the truth preserving nature of the inference is quite apparent.

Another important kind of valid inference involving 'if...,then...' are so-called 'Modus Tollens' inferences. These inferences take the following form,

If P, then Q
Not Q
Not P

On the face of it, it may appear surprising that this kind of inference is valid, given that in many ways it appears similar to inferences that involve affirming the consequent. A more concrete example may help here. Consider once again the case when P is the phrase 'it is raining' and Q is the phrase 'the streets are wet'. In this case the inference would be,

"If it is raining, then the streets are wet. The streets are not wet. Thus, it is not raining."

This is notably different from the affirming the consequent cases, due to the inclusion of the 'not'. It is also the case that, intuitively, this seems like a pretty reasonable inference.

One thing to realise is that it is not absolutely necessary that the word 'not' appears in the second premise. What really matters is that the second premise and the conclusion are opposite (in terms of their negated, or unnegated status), from the values the same letters take in the first premise. We can see this by considering the following example, which is hopefully somewhat intuitive. Suppose a parent were to say to their child,

"If you do not clean up your bedroom, then you will not get your allowance."

This would form the first premise of the Modus Tollens inference. We can the imagine the child reasoning,

"I want my allowance, thus I must clean up my bedroom."

It is worth mentioning in closing that some people find Modus Tollens inferences notoriously hard to teach, compared to Modus Ponens inferences. Thus, it may be worth spending a little time thinking about this kind of inference, to enure that it is sufficiently well understood.

The final classic class of inferences involving 'If...,then...' that are valid are so-called 'Hypothetical Syllogism' inferences. These inferences have the following form,

If P, then Q
If Q, then R
If P, then R

This inference type is much more obvious than Modus Tollens inferences. The following little argument would be a case of a valid Hypothetical Syllogism inference.

"If there is rain tomorrow, then the picnic will be cancelled. If the picnic is cancelled, then my salad will go to waste. Thus, if there is rain tomorrow, then my salad will go to waste."

This inference is valid and also quite intuitive.

In this post, we have continued looking at valid argument forms. The great thing about knowing about these is that they enable us to pretty quickly spot valid arguments in natural language. If an argument matches one of these forms, it is valid! Simple as that. However, before we can become really skilled at spotting these kinds of valid arguments in the real world, there is one further complication that needs to be addressed, concerning missing premises and conclusions. This will be the topic of the next post in this series.

The CP

- Previous Post in the Series
- Combat Philosopher Home Page
- Next Post in the Series


Saturday, February 03, 2007

Philosophy Web Resources

From time to time, I spend a while looking at how people find this blog. It is quite an interesting process. However, I realise that I have been negligent in certain ways. Many people find this blog looking for information on philosophical topics. I do not provide any information for such individuals. In this post, I will remedy this.

Should you be looking for a web site with wonderful philosophical resources, there is only one place to look, Epistemelinks. This is the best philosophical resource on the Internet currently, and has been for quite a while. Assiduous readers may have noted the many links to this resource I have posted here.

The fellow who runs this resource is someone I know, at least in the sense that anyone knows anyone on the Internet. Indeed, he has even conferred on me an award, for one of my other Internet related activities.

This site now has a link to Philosophy blogs. Check it out here. This blog is not listed, but I have submitted the necessary form. We shall see what happens.

However, I am a little puzzled about the oddity of anonymous blogging and writing to people one knows using another 'voice'. It is kind of weird. As a certain subsection of the blog community seem to be Internet bullies, nut jobs, or people living out an elaborate fantasy life, which bears no relation to their actual life, I can see how they may wish to hide their identities. However, although I prefer to write without a connection to my real world identity, it is a strange experience.

So, check out Epistemelinks. It is a wonderful resource. I will have to mull over the identity issues some more. I will add a link to my template though.

The CP

Friday, February 02, 2007

Plato and Popular Culture

Most people have heard of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. Some people may have some familiarity with his works. For example, Plato's Republic is often included in lists of the great books of Western culture, and is frequently taught in politics classes. What perhaps is less known is the influence that Plato has had on certain aspects of popular culture.

For instance, many people have heard of a mythical place called Atlantis, without necessarily being aware that the origin of this myth is Plato's dialogue, the Timaeus. A priest says to the character Solon in the dialogue,

"Many great and wonderful deeds are recorded of your state in our histories. But one of them exceeds all the rest in greatness and valour. For these histories tell of a mighty power which unprovoked made an expedition against the whole of Europe and Asia, and to which your city put an end. This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together, and was the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; for this sea which is within the Straits of Heracles is only a harbour, having a narrow entrance, but that other is a real sea, and the surrounding land may be most truly called a boundless continent. Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia. This vast power, gathered into one, endeavoured to subdue at a blow our country and yours and the whole of the region within the straits; and then, Solon, your country shone forth, in the excellence of her virtue and strength, among all mankind. She was pre-eminent in courage and military skill, and was the leader of the Hellenes. And when the rest fell off from her, being compelled to stand alone, after having undergone the very extremity of danger, she defeated and triumphed over the invaders, and preserved from slavery those who were not yet subjugated, and generously liberated all the rest of us who dwell within the pillars."

The eventual fate of Atlantis is also described in this passage. It continues,

"But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island."

The story of Atlantis has proved a huge boon to documentary film makers and archaeologists. It has even provided the inspiration for luxurious vacation resorts. Indeed, a quick search on reveals a large number of books available on the topic of Atlantis, showing that the place still plays an important role in the popular imagination. All this came about, due to a few, quite possibly chance remarks in a Platonic dialogue.

Another way in which Plato has had an influence on popular culture, albeit indirectly, is through the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien's popularity has been on the rise of late, in large part due to the recent adaption of his Lord of The Rings trilogy as film scripts.

Central to story of The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings is a ring with the magical power of conferring invisibility on it's wearer. The idea that inspired this magical ring is the 'Ring of Gyges', that appears in the Second book of Plato's Republic. The relevant passage of the Republic (359a-360d) can be found here. In Plato's version, the ring is introduced whilst Socrates is debating with Plato's brother Glaucon. The ring of Gyges confers invisibility, when worn a certain way. The story of the ring is introduced by Glaucon, in order to argue that people will act unjustly, if they have an opportunity to do so, without getting caught. While Tolkien's Golem, the long time owner of his ring, became a sad, pathetic figure, even after no longer having possession of the ring, no such ill fate befell the character in the Platonic dialogue. However, the sad fate of Golem should be a lesson to many. Plato's story is thus the happier one. The main point here is that, this is another way that Plato has influenced modern popular culture.

Of course, there are many other ways that Plato has influenced modern thinking. A particularly important manner in which his ideas and philosophy have exerted an influence, is through the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo. However, Plato's influence can also be seen in philosophers of the Modern era, such as Rene Descartes. Indeed, the Twentieth Century philosopher A. N. Whitehead went as far as to remark, famously that, "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." [A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 39.] Thus, although he has been dead for over 2,000 years, it should be no surprise that the influence of Plato is all around us, even today.

The CP
Listed on 
BlogShares web stats Site Meter