Saturday, March 31, 2007

Sound And Vision: Start The Fire

Today, a neighbour sent me an e-mail. The e-mail was short. It just contained a link to a website and a recommendation that the site should be visited. As a rule, I am suspicious of such things, but this one seemed plausible (being a University site, made me feel a little safer). The link is,

The flash video is quite good. It is a bunch of images, with some words (which are witty) interspersed. These are timed to the tune of the song 'Start The Fire', with the words adjusted to fit the images. It might be an idea to set you browser to full screen to view.

While this is not exactly highbrow philosophical material, it is pretty neat mind candy. Perfect for the weekend.

The CP

Friday, March 30, 2007

On Knowing Too Much

I appreciate honesty amongst students. It is a generally laudable property. However, sometimes there can be too much honesty. I encountered an example of this today.

As I was collecting my notes and things together before class today, a student dropped by my office. They wanted to explain that they would be leaving class a little early. They wanted to know whether that would be OK. I wish this had been the question that was asked. It was not.

What the student actually did was explain to me how she and her husband were having problems with conception. As this explanation was being given, I was fearing what the question actually would be. However, she was so earnest, I did not feel that it was appropriate to interrupt.

She explained that today was one of the 'good times'. This was certainly more than I needed to know. It was only after this, that she asked permission to leave class early. Due to her husband's work schedule and her class schedule, they only had a rather narrow 'window of opportunity'. If she could leave class just a little early, then they would have an additional 'opportunity'. Providing me with very exact timing information was most definitely overkill.

I really do not mind when students leave class early. If they get the notes, then this is fine by me. I do not need a reason. When the young lady left class today, I felt like I really knew much to much about the reasons. I also knew too much about timing. Undergraduates are a curious breed.

The CP

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Something Different: A Focus Group

The entertainment for this evening was something a little out of the ordinary. A few days ago, my cell phone company gave me a call and asked me whether I would be willing to take part in a focus group. As I have never done this before and there was a rather nice honorarium, I agreed. That is where I went this evening.

There was an interesting mixture of people who showed up, as would be hoped with a random sample. There was a guy who drove trucks, a stay at home mother, a women who worked in insurance, an ER nurse and various others. I was the only philosophy professor. As we listened to questions and chatted, I learned several interesting things:

1) One person had 3,000 minutes a month on their plan and yet often ran over. That is fifty hours of talking a month! They said that they could not talk at work, between the hours of 8am and 5pm. Given all the various free minutes available with the plan, this is an incredible amount of time on the phone, over two full days a month of talking, without using the free minutes! This blew me away.

2) Apparently, after the hurricanes of 2005, our cell company was the only one that did not experience any serious service outages. The same story was told by everyone, even those who lived in relatively out of the way places. After Rita, one women explained they lost service for only twenty four hours. I would have never guessed.

3) Some people take their cell phones very seriously. One person had no less than three cell phone companies. For the life of me, I cannot figure why anybody would need that. A couple of other people had two cell phones with them, from two different companies. Once again, I cannot figure out why.

4) One fellow had been with the same cell phone company for twenty-two years! Another person had been with the company for fifteen years. I find this profoundly amazing.

5) It seems that of the group, I was the utter Luddite. I don't use my phone that much. I do not want a very fancy phone, just one that works. Others clearly were interested in having the very latest gadgets. I guess this means that I am uncool.

It was an interesting experience though. Everyone was amazingly articulate on the topic of their phones. I did not realise that the slightly useful gadget, that occasionally disrupt my classes, when students forget to turn them off, could cause such interest and passion. The best bit about the experience was undoubtedly getting the honorarium, though. It sure was a different way to spend an evening.

The CP

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

To The Library

I must confess that I like libraries. I have also had the good fortune to spend time in some of the best libraries in the English speaking world. Regrettably, my University library is not one of the better libraries. However, it is still a library, so I have some fondness for it, whatever it's shortcomings.

These days, it seems that going to the library is a much less common activity than it used to be. This is, in part, due to the influence of technology. From my office, I can see whether a particular volume is available. Also, on-line subscriptions to services like JSTOR and EBSCOHOST mean that journal articles can be conjured up and printed out, without having to wander about the stacks, looking for the correct volume. Although this is convenient, there is a certain arcane pleasure that is lost in the process.

As I am a somewhat old fashioned type, I usually try and make sure that I take reasonably regular trips to the library. There are some things that can happen in a library that cannot happen on-line. The kind of thing I have in mind is that occasional joyous serendipity, when one notices a volume of interest, close to the volume one is looking for. There is also the pleasure to be found in just browsing through a particular section of interest. It is for these reasons I like to haunt the library from time to time.

Recently though, I have noticed a subtle change is taking place. A few years ago, it was common to find undergraduates, graduate students and occasionally faculty members, sitting at the tables that are scattered around the stacks. Sometimes the students might be asleep, but no matter, it was life in the library. The serious researchers would occasionally look up, perhaps say 'hello', maybe ask a question. That too made the experience pleasant. It is nice to meet fellow travelers.

However, today when I went into the library, I noticed something different, something that I had not noticed before. Close to the circulation desk is a large area that has slowly been growing. It is where all the general use computer are. This area was packed with people. There were even people standing in line, to wait there turn. I immediately headed up the stairs to the stacks. Once I got there, I appeared to be alone. As I wandered looking for the book I wanted, all the desks were empty. I might as well have been on the Mary Celeste, for the lack of people about.

Unfortunately, it turned out that I had written the call number for the book I wanted down wrong. I ended up in a section on Islamic philosophy, books on Theosophy and all sorts of other curious things, very remote from the subject I was interested in. I went to check the call number again on the computers by the stairs. However they seemed to have disappeared. The cables were there, coiled up neatly, but the machines themselves were nowhere to be found.

I was thus forced to trek back down the stairs to the main catalogue machines. Once again I was in the busy, populated area close to the computers. The contrast from the stacks was palpable. Once I found the correct call number, I returned to the the empty world of the stacks and found the book.

While I was locating the book this second time, I did manage to locate two people hidden amongst the stacks. One appeared to be an overseas students, who was asleep. The other was a young man watching YouTube videos on his laptop, with headphone, apparently enjoying the free wireless access.

What I would like to know though is what has happened to the little community of scholars that used to inhabit the stacks? Perhaps I just hit the library on a bad day. After all, the weather was nice. Perhaps people were giving the library a miss today, for that reason. I do hope that this is the case. It seems to me it would be more than a little sad if our library were to become little more than an Internet cafe for the students and a place to store books.

There are few enough true scholars on our campus. It would be shame if they were all to end up closeted in their individual offices, away from the stacks. In some sense, the library used to be the heart of any University. Perhaps I am just old fashioned in hoping that this will remain the case. For all the added convenience now available, I will continue to make my trips to the library. I will also encourage my scholarly friends to do likewise.

The CP

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Sitting On The Porch

As I wrote the earlier post, I was sitting on my porch. This is one of the joys of a wireless connection.

At this time of year in Louisiana, the weather is lovely. It was warm, but not too hot today. It is somewhat humid, but not obnoxiously so. Sitting on the porch in the evening in Louisiana is a Spring tradition and one I very much approve of.

One of the reasons that I especially like sitting on my porch, is because of the neighbourhood I live in. It is an old part of town. The history can be traced back until before the Civil War. This means that the houses are well built, if not always well painted. They are also architecturally interesting.

One of the nice features of my neighbourhood is that it is demographically extremely mixed, in terms of race, age and to some extent, economic status. I much prefer this to the Whitebread areas other people I know live in. It also makes the parade of characters who walk past, much more interesting. That is another nice thing about the area, people still walk here, rather than drive. We are also not near any busy, or noisy roads. However, we are close to the train tracks, so we get the occasinal train. Somehow, although the trains can be noisy, it is not as intrusive as traffic.

As I was sitting out there earlier, various people I knew passed by. Almost everyone says 'hello'. Then there are the local kids on their bikes. They race each other, swooping round and around. In some sense, the kids resemble the birds that fly around in a similar manner, at this time of day.

A little later, I took a stroll through my neighbourhood. I too like to walk. It gave me a chance to see the people I know. Many of them were out on their porches. From time to time, I would have brief conversations. I would hear the news. People would tell me their ideas, then I would move on.

The institution of the porch, especially at this time of year, in Louisiana is a wonderful one. As the weather gets hotter, the porches will soon have to be abandoned, left only to the extremely hardy, those with broken A/C and smokers. However, right now, the porch is the very best place to pass sometime, as the sun goes down.

The CP

Watching The Logs...

One of the things that is fun to do as a blogger is keep an eye on who is visiting your blog. As a person who is in charge of various web sites, keeping an eye on logs can be a chore. However, for some reason, keeping an eye on blog logs does not seem as tedious.

What is interesting is watching the ebb and flow of traffic. When one gets a mention, or a link somewhere that gets a lot of traffic, like InsideHigherEd, hit rates can suddenly shoot up. Similarly, one can see connections that come through reliably every day. One can even occasionally spot hits from friends, both old and new. It is all rather fun.

This week though, something rather unusual has happened. This blog seems to have gained popularity with folks in the nation's Capital. A couple of day ago, someone from the Pentagon stopped by, for a look around. Today, a hit came in from the U.S. House of Representatives. Who knows who on these networks are reading this blog. However, it is rather a nice thought that the ramblings that show up here might be being read by folks from such important places.

The CP

Monday, March 26, 2007

Ideas Or Objects?

When we perceive, or experience the world, is our experience of ideas, or objects? This question may seem a little silly at first. Isn't the obvious answer that we are aware of objects? You may think so, at first blush, but a little further thinking can lead one to realise that things may not be as straightforward as they initially appear.

The reason for discussing this question is that it came up in one of my classes today. We have been studying John Locke's important work on the mind, his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. This is an interesting work. In it Locke articulates a position with respect to the human mind that is pretty close to what we consider common sense today, in some respects, at least. Today however, we began to look at the philosophy of Bishop George Berkeley who, in addition to being an enthusiastic advocate of the virtues of tar water, was also an important critic of Locke's philosophy.

Berkeley noted that when we know things, we do this with our minds. Locke had also made a similar observation in his Essay. Indeed, it is pretty obvious that it is our minds that are the primary place where we are able to entertain ideas. However, this observation is what gives rise to the question that began this post.

When we experience the world, we get ideas about it. I am aware that before me there is a computer screen and a keyboard (somehow, this seems much less poetic that Locke's similar observation about white paper). What do I mean though by saying that 'I am aware'? Where does this awareness take place? Well, if I think about this awareness, and the screen and keyboard, then this awareness would seem to be taking place in my mind -- it seems to be ideas of these things that I am aware of.

What about my senses though? Do not my ideas somehow come from my senses? Do I not get these ideas from seeing a screen and a keyboard? This forces us to reflect upon the relationship between the senses and our minds. We might want to tell a story something like this:

"Our senses somehow enable us to perceive the objects in the world, this process of perception then gives rise to the relevant ideas in our minds."

On the face of it, that sound sensible enough, doesn't it? There are still a few details that are a little unclear though. It is not controversial to claim that by the time things start happening in our minds, we are dealing with ideas. We have already covered this point. What is going on with the senses though? Do the senses deal in 'ideas' also? Here things seem less clear. What is it that our senses deliver in our story? Hmm.

When we were discussing this point in class, several students suggested that whatever was going on with the senses, the senses had to be aware of things, before they could deliver ideas to the mind. This is problematic though. Surely, 'awareness' is only the kind of thing that a mind can be? Senses just sense.

Berkeley wanted to maintain that we could only be aware of our minds and the ideas that populated them. It was only due to the Lockean inspired presumptions, that we want to make some further claims about objects influencing our senses. However, if we were to accept Berkeley's claim, then we would be forced to give up the idea that there were objects out there, that were the cause of these ideas. Maybe there are, maybe there are not. We could not know, for sure. As all we can have knowledge about are ideas and these are strictly speaking things that populate minds alone.

What this means is that when we perceive, or experience the world our experience is going to be either of ideas, or of objects. Common sense tells us that our experience is of objects. However, if we accept Berkeley's thesis, then this would be incorrect. So how we answer the question at the start of this post depends more upon the presuppositions that we make and the philosophical position that we are prepared to accept, than the actual evidence itself, as this is equivocal. Who would have thought?

The CP

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Better Reasoning IX: Unacceptable Premises

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

Just as there are a number of tests that can be used to determine when premises should be counted as being acceptable, there are also a number of ways that premises can be unacceptable (again, Govier is being followed here). As with acceptable premises, it is important to have a number of different tests. Also, it is important to ensure that a particular premise really does fail due to passing one of these tests. It is for this reason that it is sometimes useful to be able to give an argument as to why a particular premise is problematic.

There may be cases when a premise may appear to be intuitively unacceptable. However, when one considers the premise carefully, it may turn out to be less problematic than it initially appeared. There may even be cases where a particular premise does not seem to satisfy either an acceptability, or an unacceptability test. Although such cases are inherently problematic, this is the kind of case where the correct course of action is to consider the premise provisionally acceptable, pending further information.

Govier's Unacceptability tests for premises

- Premises that are easily refuted

If a premise is offered that can easily be shown to be false, then pretty obviously the premise will count as being unacceptable. A very effective method for doing this is to be able to offer a counter-example. It is also worth noting that the broader the claim made in a premise, the easier it is to counter in this manner. Thus, when considering arguments, it is always worth being on the look out for extremely broad premises. Now, let us consider an example. Suppose someone were to offer, as part of an argument, claims like,

(a) "All members of outlaw motorcycle club are illiterate", or
(b) "British people are all extremely proper and polite".

We could reject (a), as Ian 'Maz' Harris was a member of the British Hells Angels motorcycle club, yet had a Ph.D. It is not possible to get a Ph.D. if one is illiterate. We could similarly easily refute (b) by noting that Ozzy Osbourne is British. Osbourne is manifestly neither 'extremely proper', nor particularly 'polite'.

- Premises that are a priori falsehoods

There are cases where premises can simply be obviously false. Consider a case where someone appealed to the idea of a four sided triangle in an argument. The very idea of a four sided triangle is obviously nonsense, thus it would make no sense to accept a premise that appealed to such a notion. Other cases can be more subtle, however. Consider the case of an argument which rested upon the following premise,

"Anything which restricts freedom should not be passed into law."

We have seen something similar to this in this series before, when discussing enthymemes. On the face of it, this premise might seem vaguely plausible, if one was to think about all the rights and freedoms that are guaranteed by various nations. However, a little reflection shows that such a premise is problematic. This is because it is the very nature of laws, that they restrict freedom. My 'freedom' to drive too fast, for example, is restricted by speed limit laws.

There is another type of case which also follows under this test. If two premises explicitly contradict one another, then they should both be rejected (unless one is obviously true and the other obviously false). Consider, the following argument,

(1) Sentence (2) is false,
(2) Sentence (1) is true,
(3) The nothingness negates itself.

It turns out that together, sentences (1) and (2) form an instance of a famous philosophical puzzle known as The Liar's Paradox. It is pretty clear that these two sentences are problematic and as such should be judged unacceptable. There is an interesting point to note though, it turns out that the conclusion (3) actually follows validly from the two premises! This is due to the definition of validity. To put the matter simply. given the contradictory nature of the premises, it is never going to be possible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false, thus the argument is valid.

- Premises that contain implicit inconsistencies, or are problematically vague or ambiguous

Sometimes premises can be implicitly inconsistent with one another. Such cases are subtle and take some practice is detecting. However, suppose someone is giving an argument about the negative effects of a proposed trade policy. Supposed in one premise it is assumed that trade is going to increase, but in another that trade would decrease, both allegedly bringing about negative effects. In such a case, we would once again be justified in claiming that the premises were unacceptable.

Ambiguity can also be problematic and render a premise unacceptable. Consider for example the following rather silly claim that I spotted on a blog (a tragically bad one) some time ago,

"Academic feminists and not feminists."

This claim is somewhat odd. After all, a tabby cat is still a cat. What seems to be going on here is that the author intends the second use of the term 'feminists' to mean something rather different than the usual meaning, that is invoked by the first use of the term. It is pretty clear that this claim is basically incoherent and thus the premise should be ruled as unacceptable. Analogous difficulties can arrive when premises are irredeemably vague.

- Premises that are as dubious as the conclusions they support

Recall that the conclusions of arguments are usually controversial, surprising, or counter-intuitive. If an argument rests upon premises that are as dubious as the conclusions they purport to support, such premises should also be rejected as unacceptable. This situation is illustrated by the following argument,

"Since his alleged death, many people have reported sighting Elvis Presley in a variety of locations and situations in the continental United States. As the well-known aphorism has it 'There is no smoke without fire', so there are grounds for believing that Elvis Presley is still alive and well and living amongst us."

The conclusion here, that 'Elvis Presley is alive and well and living amongst us', is just a little surprising. However, the fact that people claim that they have seen Elvis is equally surprising (after all, they could be confusing Elvis impersonators for the real thing). Thus, the claim about Elvis sightings should be deemed unacceptable under this test.

- Premises that beg the question

If an argument tries to argue for a conclusion, by assuming the conclusion, then this too would render the argument problematic. This is handled by deeming the premise that encodes the conclusion as unacceptable. For example if someone attempted to argue,

"Orange is green, therefore orange is green."

we are unlikely to be too impressed. It is worth noting though that few cases are as blatant as this. A more subtle case, which is more like a real world example might be something like,

"It is unfair to raise our taxes, therefore it is unjust to do so."

There is in fact a very famous argument for the existence of God that suffers from just this kind of problem. It is known as the Ontological argument, originally proposed by Anselm. There are many versions of this argument. I will offer one of the simplest formulations here. Consider the following argument,

(1) God is 'that than which nothing greater can be conceived'.
(2) This conception of God implies existence (as an existing thing is greater than an equal thing which does not exist),
(3) God is that which cannot be conceived not to exist.

This is a classic case of a question begging argument. The fact that the conception of God specified in (1), is stipulated to imply existence in (2),just begs the question. This is pretty obviously objectionable.

When assessing a deductive argument, it is important to check whether the argument is valid. If the argument is valid, then it is next important to check the acceptability of the premises. In order for a premise to count as acceptable, it must pass one of the acceptability tests, discussed earlier. If a premise appears not to pass any of the acceptability tests, then the premise should be checked against the unacceptability tests. Only when a premise satisfies an acceptability, or an unacceptability tests, can we determine whether or not the arguments is sound. These are a powerful set of tools. However, they take a little practice to get the hang of applying in real world contexts. This is the reason why practicing these skills is extremely important.

The CP

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


Saturday, March 24, 2007

Memory of a Free Festival I: Stonehenge 1984

On his 1969 album Space Oddity, David Bowie recorded a song with the title "Memory of a Free Festival" [Beware, pop-ups]. The lyrics began thus,

The Children of the summer's end
Gathered in the dampened grass
We played Our songs and felt the London sky
Resting on our hands
It was God's land
It was ragged and naive
It was Heaven.

Although there is a strong streak of the idealism of the 1960s that runs through these lyrics, they are not entirely fanciful. Up until the mid 1980s in Great Britain, there were many such Free Festivals that ran pretty much in accordance with the sentiments Bowie describes.

In the Summer of 1984, I was in Great Britain. Through a series of circumstances that are too complicated to recount here, I ended up attending the Stonehenge Festival that year. I still have the tee shirt from the time. The picture is below.

It was an interesting and amazing experience. I was there with several friends. If I recall correctly, Karen, Nik and Wendy all also attended. I think that Paul and Sandy may have been there too. We all got to the Festival by hitch hiking. This gives an idea of how the world has changed since then. However, a history of some of the festivals can be found here.

We were camped near a group of people who lived in teepees. They appeared to have turned their back on modern technology and instead preferred a more rustic approach to life. One of the most amazing sites was watching one of their number shoeing a horse, wearing nothing but a blacksmith's apron.

The Festival was a true free for all. There were many little businesses that had set themselves up in amongst the areas where people were camped. By wandering around, one could come across places to buy breakfast, henna tattoos, clothes, you name it. There were many kinds of excellent and cheap vegetarian food available. The attitude of the merchants was interesting too. Rather than engaging in business, with profit as the main motive, most traders seemed to be there to provide a service. A person could spend days just wandering around, chatting, sharing and observing. It was wonderful.

Some of the traveller vehicles were amazing sights in and of themselves. Indeed, although there were a number that were fairly basic, others were genuine works of art in their own right. Basically, the Festival was a social and visual feast!

Although the atmosphere on the Festival site was nice and relaxed, outside it was not quite so. The Police stood at the entrance to the site, where people had to go to get to the bathroom facilities and would occasionally hassle folks. It appeared that they did not dare enter the site, at least not in uniform. It was also the case that Police helicopters would regularly fly over the Festival site. When they did this, they were greeted by a wave of obscene gestures from the Festival goers below.

Of course, and important component of any such festival was the music. There was a large tent, rather like a circus big top that was set up for people to just jam in. Sometimes the results were amazing, at other times they were less so. There were also bands who had set themselves up in amongst the campers. Almost every type of music was represented, in these 'volunteer' musical outfits.

The most important venue though was the main stage. The main way to find out who would be playing was from two guys who rode around the Festival grounds on two bicycles that were tied together with a longish rope. As they cycled, they would call out the musical acts that would be on later. Who knows if this was an 'official' mechanism, or whether these were just volunteers. It did not matter. The Festival was not organized in this kind of sense.

The biggest night of the entire Festival was naturally Solstice night. The classic British band Hawkwind played twice that night. It really was a night to remember.

By the time it came to sunrise, many of the Festival goers had moved across the road to stand within, or close to Stonehenge itself. It appeared that the Police had entirely given up trying to prevent people getting to the Stones themselves. Instead Policemen stood in groups of two and threes, moving about within the crowd of revelers, from time to time.

I had the good fortune of standing by the Slaughter Stone around Sunrise. Unfortunately, the day dawned overcast, so we did not get to see the Sun. The experience was not without amusement though. As well as the crowds from the Festival, the Druids were there also, performing their rituals, in their elaborate ritual attire. The crowds were respectful enough to give the Druids the space they needed. There was one slight issue though around the Slaughter Stone. One dog kept running up onto the Stone. Eventually, the dogs owner managed to get it under control, but not before some wag from the crowd had warned the dog to "Get off the Stone, or the Druid laser will get you, dog", to the vast amusement of the assembled masses near by.

Until recently, I thought that the whole Stonehenge 1984 Festival experience was something that would just reside in my memory. However, I recently discovered that the performance by Hawkwind had been videotaped and now has been made available on YouTube. The video runs about an hour and is divided into six sections, each of about ten minutes. The video can be accessed through the following links (N.B. You will probably need JavaScript enabled);

Hawkwind, The Solstice at Stonehenge, 1984, Part 1

Hawkwind, The Solstice at Stonehenge, 1984, Part 2

Hawkwind, The Solstice at Stonehenge, 1984, Part 3

Hawkwind, The Solstice at Stonehenge, 1984, Part 4

Hawkwind, The Solstice at Stonehenge, 1984, Part 5

Hawkwind, The Solstice at Stonehenge, 1984, Part 6

Even if you lack the time and inclination to watch all the videos, I would recommend at the very least watching the first one. This is because it opens with some general scenes from the Festival itself. It provides some insight into the general look and feel of the event. It was a wonderful time. There is also some further Festival footage at the end of the sixth video. As the slogan on the tee shirt pictured above noted, it was a 'fun, free, festival'. It is a great shame that this would be the last ever 'Henge Festival of this era. More on this in the next post in this series.

The CP

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Possibly A Case To Watch For?

A couple of days ago, I posted some comments about Governor Blanco's announcement that she would not be seeking re-election. It seems that people found these comments interesting, judging by the number of hits on this post and the fact it was linked to from elsewhere.

In the previous post, I noted that the current wisdom then was that Senator John Breaux would announce his candidacy for the Governorship. I also noted that we could expect all sorts of antics from the Republicans, should Breaux choose to run, as Bobby Jindal's camp believes him to be a serious challenger, unlike other potential candidates. As the say in the Bible, "And lo, it came to pass."

The Republican Party of Louisiana has 'paid for and authorized' a television commercial attacking Breaux already, despite the fact that he has not yet even announced his candidacy! The Republican commercial takes the line that Breaux is just a big bucks lobbyist these days. They have fun with Google Earth in the commercial showing Breaux's big house. Of course, one hopes that the Republican's remembered to pay all the appropriate royalties to Google for the use of this footage.

This is not the big message of the commercial, however. According to the Republican's Breaux simply cannot run for Governor, as he does not satisfy the requirement of Article IV, Sec. 2, of The Louisiana State Constitution of 1974 to be a candidate for State political office. There it is stated that,

"To be eligible for any statewide elective office, a person, by the date of his qualification as a candidate, shall have attained the age of twenty-five years, be an elector, and have been a citizen of the United States and of this state for at least the preceding five years."

According to the Republicans, as Breaux has recently been living in Maryland, he is not, to quote their commercial, a "citizen...for at least the preceding five years." They even show a Maryland Voter Registration Application which Breaux allegedly filled out, to bolster their case. It is worth noting that on this application, if Breaux really filled it out, the only address that is visible is one in Crowley, Louisiana.

There have been various press reports about this commercial. The consensus is that the issue of whether Breaux is qualified to run will have to be determined by the Courts. This has the potential to be a very interesting case, if it ever gets to court.

However, before M'Learned friends get a chance to consider this matter, it seemed to me that this would be a fun little research project for The Combat Philosopher.

If we consult the OED we find that the primary definition of 'citizen' is,

An inhabitant of a city or (often) of a town; esp. one possessing civic rights and privileges, a burgess or freeman of a city.

However, given that the OED is a British publication, it may not be entirely apposite here. Unfortunately, the Merriam-Webster primary definition is almost identical. However, as a secondary definition the following is offered,

"...a native or naturalized person who owes allegiance to a government and is entitled to protection from it."

Thus, there appear to be two avenues that Breaux's legal team could follow, based upon these dictionary definitions. (1) They could argue for Breaux's 'allegiance' to the State of Louisiana, or (2) they could argue that Breaux has certain 'civic rights and privileges' in the State of Louisiana. Both these claims could be bolstered to a degree by the fact that Breaux still owns land in Crowley, Louisiana.

In fact, there may be other considerations that may be relevant here too. The ever dubious Wikipedia entry on citizenship discussed all sorts of different uses of the notion in various contexts, around the world.

Although the above is interesting, it is not really conclusive. Thus, it was time to take another step. I had a look at the relevant case law that I could find in the State of Louisiana. Although I am not a lawyer, I do have access to certain legal research tools, through the University library.

As best as I can tell, there is no real case law that has addressed the issue what constitutes a 'citizen' in the relevant respects, under the State Constitution. The few cases that did show up all concerned whether, or not convicted folks could get the right to hold public office, after various legal things had happened, like being pardoned by the Governor.

The cases which did show up, that appeared to be on point all dealt not with the issue of citizenship, but rather the issue of 'domicile'. For example, the Landiak v. Richmond (2005) case, considered whether a candidate lived in the correct location to run for the New Orleans council. Again, this appeared to be of limited relevance in the current situation.

Thus, if this cursory search is correct, it will appear that should the case ever get to court, it will be entering into entirely uncharted territory. This could make it pretty exciting! It is also worth noting in passing that my various searches also managed to pull up a large number of cases of judges getting disciplined for various things. This serves to make the prospects of this potential case even wilder.

There are at least some people who appear to believe that Breaux should not worry too much about this potential legal challenge. There already is a web site that is advocating Breaux's candidacy. There is very little there at the moment, although when I looked 602 people had expressed an interest (one actually had registered whilst I was looking at the site). There is a potential campaign commercial, that is quite interesting viewing (follow either the 'News', or the 'view video ad' links).

The video works hard at establishing Breaux's Louisiana credentials. It claims that he was born in Louisiana, was a citizen for 64 years, is married to a woman from Lafayette, attended USL and LSU, before outlining his achievements whilst a Senator. It even includes a quote from Stupid W. Bush extolling all the wonderful things Breaux has done for Louisiana people. Of course, linking Breaux to the moron of the Whitehouse, may not be such a good idea, but it may appeal to some disgruntled Republicans.

So, we shall now have to wait and see if/when Breaux will announce his candidacy. In their commercial, the Republicans conclude with the line that, "Breaux may be wealthy and powerful, but he is not above the law." However, as the law appears to be largely untested, or uninterpreted, such a conclusion appears rather premature. When the time for testing comes, it could be a highly amusing case. Who knows what the courts my decide? Hell, it could all turn on Breaux's abilities at peeling crawfish! Watch this space.

The CP

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Some Philosophy Trivia Questions

There is a chance, if you are reading this blog, that you have some interest in philosophy. The question is how much do you know about philosophy? I recently ran across some philosophy trivia quizzes. I thought that it might be fun to share them.

* Basic Philosophical Knowledge -- This one is fairly basic and easy.

* General Philosophical Knowledge -- A Little more broad than the first, with a few repeated questions.

* 19th and 20th Century Philosophers -- Do you know much about recent philosophy?

* Philosophical Ideas and People -- This quiz is both short and easy.

* Philosophical Terminology -- Do you know what philosophical terms mean?

All these quizzes are pretty easy, at least I found them so (I got every question correct). However, it would be worrying if I did not! I hope that you enjoy them.

The CP

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Blanco Is Out. What Now?

This evening Governor Blanco announced that she will not be seeking re-election. This is not entirely surprising. This eventuality has been talked about for some time. The hurricanes of 2005 claim yet another victim.

Given the heavy criticism that Blanco came in for in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, her popularity never really recovered. In addition, with many of the Democratic voting areas of New Orleans still sparsely populated, her chances of running again successfully were pretty thin. Ray Nagin got away with it (God knows why), but Blanco's chances were never that strong to begin with.

Blanco was also facing a strong challenge from Bobby Jindal. Jindal gave Blanco a good run for her money in the last Gubernatorial race. With the millstone of the storms around her proverbial neck, it was probably not a race Blanco could win this time. Thus, Blanco's decision not to run makes political sense.

The question though is what happens next. In fact, there are several 'what happens next ?' questions.

The first issue is not too hard to fathom. Ex-Senator John Breaux has been the next Democratic heir apparent for some time. In all likelihood, he will announce his candidacy for the Governorship at some time in the very near future. In fact, it would be no surprise, if he made an announcement in the next couple of days.

Breaux is a very seasoned politician, who had a great many Senate terms to build up a large network of contacts and potential contributors. Given that he also holds an important lobbying position, he is unlikely to have too much trouble building a campaign war chest easily and quickly. He is also still quite popular in the State of Louisiana and remains untainted by the storms of 2005, being out of politics during this period. Thus, Breaux represents the Democrats best hope of holding onto the Governorship.

It is likely that the race between Jindal and Breaux will be a reasonably wild one. They both will have large amounts of money at their disposal. This means that the television commercials will start flowing thick and fast. If things turn negative, which in all likelihood they will, then it could be quite a bruising contest. Breaux does not have any known skeletons in his proverbial closet, yet (Republicans are probably thinking things up, as I write). Jindal may have to be careful about his popularity with the Stupid W. Bush White house in his early career. I usually hate the use of the term 'colorful', when it is applied to Louisiana politics. However, this could be one race in which it might actually be appropriate.

A more interesting question concerns what will happen next, as Blanco works out her final months in office. As was noted here before, Blanco's recently announced $235 million increase in Higher Education spending could become a casualty. During a recent Special Session, State Legislators refused to do Blanco's bidding. With her in lame duck mode, it will be interesting to see what happens with this and her other similar proposals. Optimism is probably not the correct disposition, however.

That being said, although a number of State Senators are term limited, a larger number are up for re-election. This could persuade them to support Blanco's more popular proposals. Even they have been known to act rationally, when it concerns their own best interests. On these matters, it is probably too early to tell how things will pan out.

A more interesting question concerns what will happen to Governor Blanco's husband, Raymond 'Coach' Blanco. 'Coach' has for a long time had the reputation as being one of the most important power brokers in recent Louisiana politics. With his wife no longer in the Governor's mansion, questions arise about what will happen to his powerful political network. Will this 'machine' just go quietly into retirement, or will it find new projects to pursue behind the scenes? Whatever the answer to this question, few people will ever likely know the true answer.

There are two things that are for sure. First, the old saying, common in these parts, that "Louisiana has the best politicians that money can buy" will have a significant reprise, as the major campaigns seek contributor dollars. No doubt the corporate lobbying types are already lining up with their check books and bundles of notes in plain brown envelopes. The second thing that is a certainty is that, no matter how the people of Louisiana (both dead and alive, as is the tradition) eventually vote, the politicians will win (and in all likelihood, the people will not)!

The CP

Monday, March 19, 2007

On Being There

One of the classes I teach this semester is at the graduate level. This makes the class both challenging and fun. Although there is a good dose of philosophy in the class, there is also a certain amount of history. This is because it is a class designed for a fairly interdisciplinary program, that is just beginning to get firmly established.

Almost any discipline has some kind of basic creation myth. For example, in philosophy everything was supposed to have started with Thales of Miletus. According to the standardly told tale, philosophy was supposed to have begun on the 25th of May 585 BCE, when Thales correctly predicted a solar eclipse.

Naturally, such stories should be treated with some caution, not least due to the vastly improbably precision of the date. Indeed, according to people who know about such stuff (I am not too much of a scholar of pre-Socratic philosophy), the current thinking is that Thales may never have actually existed. Oh well.

This new discipline that I am involved in, is still in the process of working out their own creation myths. This process is complicated in part, due to the fact that the discipline is made up of an unholy alliance of sub-parts of a range of other disciplines. That is to say, the story is complicated and is still being written.

However, what is quite fun is when we get to allegedly important moments in the history, where I was actually present. It is also interesting when the myths involves people I know, or have met. Today we covered some material that was of these kinds.

It is funny how things turns out. Many years ago when I was in graduate school, it was deemed important by those in the know that I manage to attend certain events. Fortunately, there was also funding available which made going possible. Because of these lucky circumstances, I was able to witness certain, now classic battles, between various titans of the field. I was also able to have the chance and sit down with a number of important figures and ask questions. With still others, I was able to engage in e-mail dialogues.

This was all a while ago. Although much of the excitement in the field is still there, some of the early major figures are no longer actively participating in the field, either due to death, or ill health. Today, while I was teaching I was able to recount anecdotes about how these people saw their work. I was also able to debunk some of the standard myths that have grown up, as is inevitable.

One of the papers we read today is now an absolute classic, that regularly appears in collections of important papers. Both authors are now dead. However, there is a certain puzzle about this paper. One of the authors wrote a later paper in which he made certain additional claims. The other author then wrote a paper that appeared to contradict these claims. This always puzzled me.

A few years ago, when the first author had died, but the second was still very much alive, I was able to ask him about the apparent discrepancy. His explanation was a bit of a disappointment. He noted that the two of them did not discuss the topic too much and that their views must have drifted apart. Although the answer lacked a certain color and drama, it was at least the man's own view, based upon his recollection of the times and the events. I was fortunate to be able to ask these questions, as that gentleman too is now dead.

The point I wish to emphasize here though is the very living nature of the history we all have around us. I had a bit of good luck, being in the right place at the right time. I am able to pass the insights that I gained from these experiences to my graduate students. I hope that in turn, when they graduate, they will be able to pass these insight on to their students, in conjunction with the insights of their own. It is situations such as this which make being a professor a wonderful job.

The CP

A Reason Why Students Learn To Do Badly?

Today, as I opened up the detris of e-mail that had arrived over the weekend, but looked too tedious to be bothered with reading, I received notice of a couple of Summer session classes, offered in another unit of my College. Apparently, we are supposed to encourage our students to take these classes. This is one invitation I will be certain to resist.

The classes will be offered for a couple of hours each afternoon, four days a week, for three weeks in June. They are at the intermediate and (allegedly) advanced levels. According to the flyer, the classes will consist of the daily viewing and discussion of movies. When it comes to what the students will be expected to do for credit, I was amazed. The flyer claims,

"Attendance and active participation mandatory. No exams. All students will maintain an informal film journal. Students enrolled at the advanced level will make brief, but well put together formal presentations on the last day of class."

This is followed by a brief paragraph, that is heavily seeded with exclamation marks, extolling the virtues to these so-called classes.

If I have co-workers offering credit, without exams and for a mere 'informal journal', then it is little surprise that there are students who did so poorly in my mid-term. In addition to finding this flyer deeply offensive to academic and scholarly standards, it is clear that I work along side folks who wish to get a Summer check, for doing the very minimum of work.

No wonder the students have become accustomed to such shoddy standards. I find the whole thing, especially in the light of the weekend grading experience, both deeply disturbing and deeply depressing. Watch some videos, chat a bit, jot down a few thoughts, then get credit. To me, that just seems wrong.

Whatever happened to professorial integrity and the notion that grades should be earned for real academic work? Whatever happened to the virtues of having students read, rather than just watch TV?

Perhaps I have just become an old fuddy duddy. However, I am concerned that allegedly trendy 'instant messenger and I-Pod inspired' teaching methods are taking over, and replacing serious pedagogical endeavor. Have books and papers really fallen so far out of fashion? Perhaps I should forgo my summer research time, to try and teach some proper classes, instead of these weak offerings?

No, I will not! I value my research time too much. It is also important to my ability to get out of this Hell Hole. However, I will make sure that none of my advisees fall for these ersatz-classes. I thought so-called professors were supposed to be on the same side? I guess I was wrong. It seems that when there is a scam to be run, some have no standards, or scruples. Although I should not be surprised, somehow this makes this a sad day.

The CP

Sunday, March 18, 2007

On Grading...

I had intended to post the next part of my better reasoning series today, but instead, I got bogged down in grading mid-term examinations.

The latest set of mid-terms are quite unusual. Some are amongst the worst I have ever seen. Not one, but two students succeeded in getting just 4% of the possible points on the questions. This I find amazing. There were a few others who also did extremely badly.

When grading a set of exams like this, especially if one runs across a series of very bad ones early on, there is a tendency to wonder whether there was something defective in one's teaching. This would be a surprise, as this is a class I have taught many times before and covers material I know very well, but there is always room for doubt. However, as I worked my way through the pile of answers, it became clear that at least some of the students did very well indeed. The majority of answers were not too bad. Thus, the teaching is probably not the source of the problem.

As I went back and looked at the bad answers, I came to a shocking realization. It was pretty clear that a number of the students had probably hardly ever been to class. It was also doubtful whether they had done much if any of the reading. Misspelled proper names can be a dead give away. In fact, on some of the lower scoring answers, it was possible to discern which classes the student had attended and, possibly, which readings they had done. In the rest of their answers, it was pretty clear that the student was just guessing. This was clear from the fact that their guesses were based upon the parts of the material they appeared to know, aided and abetted by common sense.

In some ways, this kind of result should not be a great surprise. By and large attendance in this class is not that good. It appears that around one fifth of the students in this class (this is roughly how many truly abysmal answers there were) think that they know enough about philosophy to get by without coming to class, or doing any reading. Why might students think this?

The really sad part about this is that also about a fifth of the students in the class, did really well. The material we are covering is complex and old. There are many important references and allusions in the texts that no student would ever be able to figure out on their own. One group of students clearly have grasped and internalized these, while the other group of students has not.

Now, I am faced with something of a dilemma. I seem to have a couple of choices. I could read the class the riot act and then go back over the basics, in order to try and get the slackers up to speed. This would probably bore the majority though. Alternatively, I could just keep teaching the class at a level that will continue to engage the majority, hoping that the slackers will just drop the class. Neither option seems ideal.

Mid-term examinations are always a bit of a crap shoot. One can never be sure what one will find. Usually, the scores cover a range from good to bad. However, I cannot recall having seen a set of mid-terms with so many truly shocking, horrifically bad, answers. I guess this will have to be filed under the 'live and learn' category. I am really glad that this stint of grading is now finished though!

The CP

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Nietzsche And Wittgenstein

In a comment to a recent post, Horace raised the following set of questions,

I ask this as someone with scant philosophical background, but would it be fair to say that Wittgenstein and his positivist extensions of Kantian enlightenment epistemologies are often at odds with Nietzsche?

Am I wrong in understanding them (generally, simplistically) this way? If so, how do you reconcile them in your own work?

Please bear in mind that I've read too little of any of them to have an informed opinion here; I am asking for insight...

I am very pleased about this for two reasons. First, it is always nice to get comments, particularly comments like this. Second, the raising of these questions enable me to address an issue that it had not occurred to me to discuss on this blog before. However, now the questions have been raised, I realise that this blog is a perfect place to discuss this matter. The reason that this is the case is that I lack the necessary skills to be able to address these issues in a serious scholarly publication, yet it involves a potentially interesting philosophical thesis.

Any discussion of Wittgenstein is complicated by the fact that there are really two Wittgensteins, the earlier and the later. To make matters more complicated, these two philosophical phases radically differ from one another.

Horace, despite his philosophical modesty, is entirely correct in identifying a strong influence from the Vienna Circle of Logical Positivists in the work of Wittgenstein. Also, Wittgenstein was influential upon the Vienna Circle, in turn. However, these reciprocal influences are most evident in Wittgenstein's earlier works, most notably in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, (1922).

It is also worth noting that Logical Positivism was actually more influenced by British Empiricism, most notably David Hume, than by post-Kantian epistemology. However, a degree of influence from Leibniz, especially with respect to the importance of logic, has also been claimed. The post-Kantian influence is more strongly associated with German philosophers such as Hegel and Schopenhauer. It is correct though to think that Nietzsche is more strongly associated with this tradition.

The facts of the matter appear to be a little more complicated than that presented in this picture though. In the Tractatus, one of the few philosophers Wittgenstein mentions by name is one Fritz Mauthner. Wittgenstein explicitly rejects Mauthner's views. This is a little odd, as Mauthner is not considered by many to be a major philosophical figure. However, this reference permits the inference that Wittgenstein was at least acquainted with the works of Mauthner.

There is another interesting thing about Mauthner. According to Hans Sluga, in his book on Frege, Mauthner's philosophy of language was very heavily influenced by the views of Nietzsche. This at first appears a little odd, as in certain philosophical traditions, Nietzsche is not thought of being an influential figure in the philosophy of language. In the current context though, Sluga's remark suggests that it is at least possible that Nietzsche's philosophy of language indirectly influence Wittgenstein, through the works of Mauthner.

I would love to be able to investigate this hypothesis in more detail, but I do not read German and very few of Mauthner's works have been translated. Perhaps someone with the relevant skills, looking for a thesis topic, may want to investigate this possibility further.

The reason that this connection is relevant here is because of the philosophical stance taken by Wittgenstein in his later incarnation. The Later Wittgenstein, most famously in his Philosophical Investigations (1953), radically changed his views to adopt a position that was much closer to both Nietzsche's and (presumably) Mauthner's. In his later incarnation, Wittgenstein famously claimed things like,

One can for a large class of cases in which the word "meaning" is used--if also not for all cases of this use--explain the word thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language (PI §43)

The Investigations and the other writings of the Later Wittgenstein are extremely complex, involved and controversial, thus an attempt at summary will not be made here (see here for a summary, but beware of the pop-ups). However, there are reasons to believe that Nietzsche's views may have been influential on the positions argued for there.

Nietzsche's view on language are most clearly articulated in his early work, On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense. There, for example, Nietzsche remarks,

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.

The focus on metaphor and metonymy is an unusual doctrine, which is particularly Nietzschean. However, it is also similar in some sense to the kind of thing that the Later Wittgenstein might approve of (actually, it is a little more radical than Wittgenstein).

There is a final interesting, modern point that is worth mentioning before closing. In various books, the linguist George Lakoff has also argued that metaphor and metonymy are central to our formation of mental categories. In his (1987) book, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About The Mind, (University of Chicago Press), Lakoff explicitly credits Wittgenstein with anticipating the position he argues for. Many years ago now, I had the opportunity to chat to Lakoff about this particular claim, via e-mail (we had met in person on a couple of previous occasions). I argued that he would have been better off crediting Nietzsche. Initially, he was somewhat sceptical about my claim. However, after I directed his attention to certain papers by and about Nietzsche's views on language, he came to agree with my claim.

This is an awfully long answer to Horace's questions. However, it is a topic that I think is interesting, not least because of the potential intellectual link between Nietzsche and the Later Wittgenstien, via the philosophy of language of Mauthner. If anyone knows anything that may either support, or refute this suggestion, I would love to know.

The CP

Friday, March 16, 2007

Louisiana Higher Ed. Funding Announcement: A Reality Check

Yesterday, Governor Blanco announced her proposals for Higher Education in the State of Louisiana. The proposals are as follows:

1) Cover all mandated costs increases ($33.2 Million)
2) Provide for an across the board faculty raise of 5% average ($30 mill)
3) Fully fund the formula ($98.1 mill)
4) Provide a 3% increase to units all ready at the 100% formula level or are a non-formula unit ($16.9 mill)
5) Provide a special fund for faculty recruitment, retention, and recovery at hurricane impacted units ($10 mill)
6) Fund a community college accreditation and program development project ($2 mill)
7) Provide a $1,500 increase for all non-faculty ($21.8 mill)
8) Expand library and scientific acquisitions budgets ($7.5 mill)
9) Fund a special workforce development program for construction and health care ($7.5 mill)
10 Continue current funding of the construction initiative ($5.5 mill)
11) Fund a dual enrollment expansion ($1 mill)
12) Support the ULM Pharmacy Accreditation Plan ($1 mill)
13) Support Pennington Biomedical Research Center Initiatives ($3 mill)
14 Support the Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise ($3.2 mill)
15)Fund the LSU Fireman Training Institute ($.5 mill)
16) Establish a need-based scholarship program ($15 mill)

These proposals have got a lot of press attention. A typical headline is something like, "Bottom line, $235 million increase in Higher Education funding (largest one year increase in state history)."

However, before the faculty in the Louisiana State system start thinking that they can again dare to answer calls from their Patron Saints (Visa, Mastercard and American Excuse), or dreaming of looking at the used car section of the paper, a reality check is in order.

The first thing to notice is that this is just an 'announcement'. Like many blogs, it is little more than a (possibly delusional) wish list. I can 'announce' that "The Moon is made of green cheese", without this having any relevance whatsoever for the composition of the planet closest to the Earth. This announcement is similar.

Now, do not get me wrong. This is a far better 'announcement' than the promise of draconian cuts, but a number of things have to happen before any of this announcement actually becomes part of the real world.

If the State of Louisiana is not hit by another hurricane this year, then some of this announcement may become real. If the State legislature passes the Governor's proposal, without making too many changes, then some of it could become real. Do not hold your breath on this one though. The State legislature has a rather bad habit of cutting and changing such proposals to a point that they are unrecognisable. Who can forget the Stelly Plan? The Governor's more recent proposal to boost teacher pay, simply failed. Thus, this announcement needs to be put into perspective. This also suggests that now would be a really good time for Louisiana faculty members to lobby their representatives and urge others to do likewise.

Even if the announced funding passes with minimal changes, all faculty may not be as happy as they may hope. Notice the language in the second proposal "Provide for an across the board faculty raise of 5% average". The phrase 'across the board' is a clue to potential future shenanigans. It is quite possible that certain systems and schools (we all know the one) may receive considerably more than 5%, while other schools and systems get correspondingly less. Apparently, immediately after the announcement, at least one school was complaining and worrying about these issues. We can anticipate a big old fight over who get what of the "...across the board faulty raise of 5% average." It will doubtless be unseemly.

Even if one should be a faculty member at a school that actually gets a reasonable cut of the assigned funds, there will still be issues about how the money is distributed amongst faculty members. A full professor earning $150k (although rare, they do exist) will get an extra $7,500 per year, with a 5% raise. However, a beginning assistant professor earning $30k will get a mere $1,500 per year with a 5% raise. Given the way that faculty are evaluated, those at the top are the most likely to get the big raises (they are often buddies with the suits). Those at the bottom will likely see a lot less cash. (For outsiders, it is important to realise that many Universities in the State of Louisiana are still run rather like plantations).

If this was not enough to take the joy out of any celebration that faculty members might be tempted by, there is yet another matter that could totally derail the whole set of proposals. Do not forget that there is an election coming up. At the present, it is still unclear whether Governor Blanco intends to run for re-election. She and ex-Senator John Breaux are playing chicken with one another, over who will and will not run under the Democratic flag. It could be the case that this announcement is just another move in this game. Until we know who will be running and who will not, none of this can be taken too seriously. If Breaux runs and Blanco does not, then the chances of these recommendations coming to pass will be reduced. She will have a lot less motivation to push the legislature to pass the proposals. It is currently too early to tell how it will pan out.

The point here though is that although this sounds like good news, it is a very long way from actually being good news. So, regular faculty members should not stop scanning the part-time help wanted ads and looking for jobs elsewhere, just yet. It may be OK to dream of the day when there is no longer too much month at the end of check, but do so in the secure knowledge that it is nothing but a dream, rather like the higher education proposals.

The CP

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Interview: A Blog Game of 5 Questions

Recently, a new blog 'game' arose. I noticed it over at Veronica's interesting and funny Nine Pearls blog. The rules of the game are as follows:

1. Leave me a comment saying, “Interview me.”
2. I respond by asking you five personal questions so I can get to know you better. If I already know you well, expect the questions may be a little more intimate!
3. You WILL update your journal/bloggy thing/whatever with the answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the post.
5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.

As this sounded interesting and amusing, I elected to play this game. Thus, I will now answer Veronica's questions, which are as follows:

1.) Why are you a “combat” philosopher? Were you in the military? Do you simply idolize Sun Tzu?

The name combat philosopher was conferred on me quite a while ago, whilst I was in graduate school. At the time, my main mode of transportation was a motorcycle. Thus, I tended to wander around in a heavy pair of boots and a leather jacket. I consider these minimal safety gear, in addition to a helmet. The boots I had then were similar to army boots. I also had a bad habit of wearing pairs of combat pants at the time. The large pockets were very useful. This was only part on the reason I got this name though.

During this period, I spent sometime away from home at a major summer institute. While there, I got a bit of a reputation for being prepared to argue with anybody, no matter how important, or famous they were, if they made a false or dubious claim. Thus, it was from my attire, plus fearless philosophical 'combat' that were the origins of the name.

On the blog, my goal originally was to use philosophical methods to fight against the stupidity, lies, ignorance and prejudice that we are sometimes fed by the media and the like. My goal was to really do this, not just complain a lot, as we see on some blogs. This was why the name seemed appropriate. An additional reason comes from the fact that philosophy, done correctly, depends very heavily on argument. According to Lakoff and Johnson's, (1980) Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press), arguments are strongly associated with metaphors of war. Thus, again 'combat' seemed to quite hit the spot.

All that being said, I actually prefer Lao Tzu to Sun Tzu. I have never really been in the military, although I did a brief stint in the cadets in high school, before I deserted. I am actually something of a pacifist, apart from on philosophical matters.

2.) Who is your favorite philosopher and why?

The honest answer to this question is probably 'myself'! However, I suspect that was not the answer that the question was supposed to elicit. It is actually hard to say. I do have a fondness for the works of Nietzsche, but he is badly misunderstood in popular culture. I am also impressed by the power and insights of both Kant and Wittgenstein.

3.) According to your entry on the legal status of chickens in Louisiana, you smoke. What brand, how long, how old were you when you started, and have you ever tried to quit?

Oh dear, my great guilty secret. At the moment it is Winston Lights. In my younger days, it was hand rolled Gauloises. I started when I was about seventeen years old. I have tried to quit a few times, a couple of times with success. However, the old monkey has always had a habit of climbing up again on the proverbial back. I am now working on cutting back. I am hoping that the recently reported results concerning the Insula may yield a better solution. On this one, as the Greeks used to say, I suffer a bad case of acrasia.

4.) I have heard that there is long-standing debate in philosophic circles about zombies. How much coffee does one have to consume before hypothetical zombies seem like a good way to make a point?

Oh dear, this is a topic that makes me cringe, just a little. It is claimed to have an origin in the work of Descartes. A reasonable discussion of this topic (at least, as reasonable as is possible, given the topic) can be found here. Recently, Dave Chalmers has been all too responsible for bringing zombies back to life and making them popular. I personally do not have much time for zombie talk. Given that I drink vast amounts of very strong coffee every day, I would say that these zombies have another cause, but I know not what.

5.) What was your favorite thing for lunch in elementary school?

I am pretty sure that the correct answer is ham, cabbage and potatoes. It was a while ago, so my memory is not all that clear. I still love thie meal to this day.

The CP

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Arms Length

The topic for today comes from the 'silly teaching examples' file. Others may wish to use it.

For the average human being, both arms are the same length, right? Actually, not quite. It all depends. This is something that can easily be studied at home in a bored moment.

First, hold out both arms, straight in front of you. This is best done with the palm face down. Unless you have had some trauma, or other misfortune, both arms should be appear to be of equal length. Now, there are ways of messing with this, by pushing each shoulder forward or backward. That is not the point here. If you find that you get the wrong result, or you are tempted to roll your shoulders, then check the lengths of your arms, while standing with your shoulders flush against a wall.

So, after the initial examination, it would appear that, for most people, arms are of equal length. We have now set a base line. It is at this point, that we try something a little unusual. The next thing to do is to leave one arm sticking out and turn it so that the palm is face up.

The next step is to bend your elbow such that your lower arm is at ninety degrees to the upper arm. You need to keep doing this, up and down, for about thirty seconds. Doing this should not be too tiring.

Once you have completed flexing the one arm for the required time, try checking the lengths of your arms again. What you should find is that the arm you have been flexing is now shorter than the arm that you have not flexed. Thus, it is not always the case that our arms of equal length! It all depends upon what we have been up to.

The reason this effect occurs is because of the contraction of the muscles in the arm that we have been flexing. Fear not, fairly rapidly, your arms will return to their previous length. The point here is that even amazingly obvious truths are less straightforward than we might initially imagine. This should give us pause when we are asked to believe complex propositions, which are less than entirely obvious.

The CP

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

On Suburbia And Comments

Well, today was a bit of a road trip day. I have an interview in the morning in the Big City. In theory, I could get here in the morning (albeit by leaving at an ungodly hour). However I do not trust Mr. Murphy and the God's of the Interstate. Thus, I elected to come today and am festering in a hotel.

The drive was quite nice. For some reason, there seem to be many birds of prey hovering close to the highway. They were interesting to look at and NPR kept me company. The hotel though is very mediocre. I am sure that it costs much more than my one in Memphis, but it is not nearly as nice. This is a shame. The thing that is really odd though is being in manifest suburbia.

After a drive, I like to walk. This is not easy here. I am in a world designed for automobiles. Where I can get (without driving) is proscribed by mutli-lane roads full of traffic, without even the pretense of a pedestrian crossing. I can see a nice looking book shop, with a cafe, that I would like to visit, but it is simply impossible. Indeed, even trying to get there by car looks like quite a daunting prospect.

On my walk earlier, I discovered that there was a K-mart and a grocery store quite close to the hotel, which could be reached without risking premature termination by traffic. As there was little else to do I took a look. However, I first had to cross the parking lot that was larger than several football fields. When I got to K-mart, the place was also huge and very full of stuff, but almost entirely devoid of people. Between each row of merchandise, was enough space to drive a truck. I left rapidly. It was scary.

I then took a trip to the grocery store. This I was pleased to see, as I had forgotten toothpaste. It too was huge. I decided, as a decadent act, to buy some potato chips. This was not a good plan. Bags came in sizes ranging from large to profoundly massive. I bought the smallest I could. There is still enough fat in this single packet to refurbish an entire whale.

As you may have guessed by now, I am not a fan of suburbia. I prefer smaller places, where people can see each other, rather than just drive by one another. I hate the concrete and the 'corporateness' of it all. I will be going home tomorrow. I will be glad.


It was nice to see a couple of comments come in. Thanks Veronica. I can see all the people reading, from the connection logs. It would be nice to hear from you all, once in a while.

I was especially impressed by the comment left by Jeff B. on my report on my blog experiment posting. It speaks well that outfits such as GolinHarris are prepared to explain their activities and motivations, and even enter into some kind of dialogue. It is almost enough to give me greater faith in my fellow man...if I were not stuck in goddamn suburbia!

The CP

Monday, March 12, 2007

ICE Numbers

It is sad to say that cell phones have become almost ubiquitous. Students appear to have them surgically implanted onto the sides of their heads. Graduate students can only be traced by calling their cell number. There are commercials for specialised services from the Disney corporations for families with kids. There are even custom models for seniors. Although this has brought a lot of convenience, it is not something I entirely approve of. There is an idea concerning cell phone though that I do think is excellent and I want to both share and advocate. This is the ICE number.

The idea originated with an the East Anglia ambulance service of Britain. One of the problems faced by emergency personnel is figuring out who their victims are. People with serious complaints often carry special ID tags and cards, but most of the rest of us do not. The East Anglian ambulance service suggested that people should program an emergency contact number into their cell phones, associated with the name ICE. ICE is supposed to stand for 'In Case of Emergency'.

Should an accident befall an individual, then the emergency personnel could call this number, both to alert loved one and also to get crucial information about their new patients. When there were terrorist bombings in London on the 7th of July 2005, a large number of the dead and injured had ICE numbers programed, which enabled the emergency services to figure out who they were. Thus, this is an idea with a powerful track record.

Some general advice about setting up ICE numbers can be found here. More general information about the program can be found here. In fact, the popularity of the program has been such that the phrase 'ICE number' has now been granted admission into the English language by the MacMillan English Dictionary.

So, in the interests of greater safety, I urge you to program an ICE number. I have had one programed for a while now. I also urge you to tell others about the idea. Cell phones are one of the more obnoxious intrusions of modern life. However, if they can be put to a good use such as this, then perhaps they can be tolerated a little more easily.

The CP

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Better Reasoning VIII: Acceptable Premises

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

Previous posts in this series have mostly focused on the formal properties of deductive arguments, especially validity. However, another important feature that has an important effect upon whether or not we should be persuaded by an argument, is the truth, or otherwise of the premises. Regular readers of this series will recall that a valid deductive argument with true premises is sound and thus should be considered persuasive.

It turns out that figuring out the truth, or otherwise of premises is a little bit more tricky than one would originally realise. Consider an argument that uses the claim that ,

"The rate of acceleration due to Gravity is 9.8 meters per second squared."

Is such a premise true? Well, the answer is really 'sort of'. A more accurate value would be 9.81 meters per second squared. Does this mean that the premise is false? Again the answer is something like 'not exactly'. The problem here is that the precision that is appropriate will rather depend upon the context.

This is not the only kind of trouble that can arise when assessing the truth of premises. This fact was tacitly recognised by Ambrose Bierce in The Devil's Dictionary, where the following cynical definition of truth was offered,

"TRUTH, n. An ingenious compound of desirability and appearance. Discovery of truth is the sole purpose of philosophy, which is the most ancient occupation of the human mind and has a fair prospect of existing with increasing activity to the end of time."

Thus, assessing premises for 'truth' is perhaps not the best way to go. A good alternative is suggested by Trudy Govier in her A Practical Study of Argument, (6th Ed.), Wadsworth (2005). Govier suggests that premises should be assessed for 'Acceptability'. I will follow Govier's suggestion here.

Govier offers a number of tests that can be used to determine whether premises are acceptable, or not. If these tests are used, then a reasonable set of strategies for assessing premises result. It is worth emphasizing that it is really important that each premise must be assessed. It is also important that one think carefully to determine whether or not a particular premise really satisfies each test. Sometimes, it can even be helpful to construct a little argument to make sure. Also, just because a premise does not appear to satisfy one of these tests, is not sufficient to ensure that the premise is not acceptable. There is a separate set of unacceptability tests, that will be discussed later.

Govier's Acceptability Tests for Premises:

- Premises defended by cogent, or sound subarguments

If a premise is defended by a strong argument, then there is every reason to judge it acceptable. This should be obvious and uncontroversial. Of course, this puts the burden of acceptability back onto the strength of the subargument and the acceptability of the premises of the subargument.

- Premises defended elsewhere

It is often the case that premises will be defended in one place, and then used in another. For example this situation frequently arises in long texts. In some way, this condition is just a variant of the previous one. This kind of justification appears in academic writing through the use of references and citation to articles in refereed academic journals.

- Premises that are known a priori to be true

The idea behind a priori judgements is that there are some judgements that can be known to be true from the concepts alone, even prior to experience. To cite a couple of classic examples, if one knows that a particular object is a triangle, then one knows a priori that this object has three sides. Similarly, if one knows that a particular individual is a bachelor, then one knows a priori that the individual is unmarried. A priori judgements are not entirely uncontroversial. However, in the current context, this can still be a useful test for acceptability.

- Premises that are commonly known to be true

There is a class of premises that are not a priori truths, but nonetheless everyone knows to be true. For instance, most people will agree that, under the appropriate viewing and climatic conditions, the sky is blue. Similarly, most people will agree that, at least in temperate latitudes (the polar region present problems here), that there is less light at night than there is during the day.

- Premises that are supported by appropriate personal testimony

This condition is useful, but can be a bit tricky. Generally speaking, accepting premises using this test, should only be done if (i) the claim is not implausible, (ii) the source of the claim appears reliable, and (iii) the claim made does not go beyond a person's reasonable experience.

- Premises that are supported by a claim to proper authority

There are experts in the world. Generally speaking, their claims can be accepted. However, it is important to consider the extent to which the authority is a reasonable and credible person in the context. For instance, a professor may make a claim about an issue. However, if the issue is outside their specialised area of training and expertise, then the claim would not be acceptable.

- Premises that are provisionally acceptable

Sometime, in the context of a real argument, it is just not possible to determine whether a particular premise is true, in the context in which the argument is being offered. In such a case, it is not unreasonable to accept the premise only provisionally. For instance, people are often doing this kind of thing when they say things like 'for the sake of argument...'.

These tests are really quite useful when used in practice. However, having a bit of experience trying using these tests can make things easier. I recommend doing a few exercises. However, once a person has become reasonably familiar with these tests, determining which arguments to accept and which to reject becomes considerably easier. Next time, the ways that premises can be rendered unacceptable will be considered.

The CP

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


Saturday, March 10, 2007

Business and Blogs: Experimental Results

Well, in a previous posting an experiment to see the extent that large business entities scan blogs was announced. The basic premise was to post a list of the top 200 companies from the Fortune 500 on an otherwise 'virgin' blog and then track the hits.

The first phase of this experiment has now been completed and, quite frankly, the initial results are a little bit disappointing.

The first hit came from GCI, an Alaskan telephone and Internet company. The second came from someone possibly in Australia, using Google's blog search tool, looking for references to the ConocoPhillips Corporation. The third hit was also fairly cryptic, but seemed to come from the BellSouth connection.

Eventually, on the fourth hit, there was something positive. It turns out that Publix Super Markets were the first company to fall for the bait. The next hit came from a division of the ITT Corporation. Initially, I thought that this was exciting, until I realised that ITT and not in the top 200 companies on the fortune 500. Who knows why this hit came in?

The next hit was more interesting. It came from a heavily disguised source (that analysis revealed was part of the Comcast system. More interestingly, the hit seemed to have had it's origin in someone using the Technorati blog search function, looking for the name 'Merrill Lynch'. It seems that the second corporation had fallen for the bait.

The next hit came from The AllState Insurance Company. This hit was not a huge surprise. When they have been mentioned on this blog, they have come visiting. Interestingly, they too appeared to be using Technorati to search blogs for their name.

The next hit was a bit more creepy. It came from Dorsey & Whitney LLC, a bunch of lawyers. God knows what they wanted. There were no corporate ambulances to chase on the page. Maybe they were searching on behalf of paranoid clients.

The next hit came from Virginia, although who, what and where it came from remained a mystery. The hit that followed though was less of a mystery. It came from the propaganda firm Fleishman-Hillard, from their Washington D.C. Office. This was similar to the next hit that came from the PR spin doctors at GolinHarris.

There was then a bizarre hit, from the Philippines. Apparently, someone over there was searching blogs for '"american electric power " location:ky'. Very strange indeed! Fortunately, this was followed by a hit from the lavatory paper magnates at Kimberly-Clark. This hit was followed by one from Kelly Services. Goodness knows why they came a calling.Perhaps they wanted to offer me some 'staffing solutions'?

The next visitor was Virginia Power outfit Dominion Resources. As they are in the 200 corporations listed, this made some sense. However, the next hit from Marshalls did not make many sense. Perhaps they wanted to offer interview clothes for the Kelly Services job interview?

There were then two further hits, one from the UK, which appeared to be from people who got lost. Finally, a hit came in from Southern California Gas Company, where somebody was again using Technorati, to search for blog references to Sempra Energy. As Sempra Energy is in the top 200 Fortune 500 companies and owns The Southern California Gas Company, this hit is not too surprising either.

It seems that a few of the top 200 of the Fortune 500 companies seem to be keeping an eye out for what is said about them on blogs. However, clearly these companies are in a minority. That being said, the fact that there were also hits from corporate PR types and lawyers, suggest that some companies may have 'outsourced' their paranoia about blogs.

Perhaps more interesting are the bizarre hits that came in. Who knows why ITT, Kelly Services, or Marshalls should take an interest.

A further set of studies will probably be undertaken in the future. For instance, it is likely that linking to corporate web sites, rather than listing names, should produce a stronger effect. We shall see!

The CP

Friday, March 09, 2007

From The Arctic to The Oval Office

Sometimes one will come across a tale that is frankly amazing, both in terms of events and outcomes. The tale of the ship H. M. S. Resolute is one such tale. Now, you might ask why a story about an old ship should interest a philosopher, if you read on, you should see why.

The H. M. S. Resolute was very much a ship of it's time. It was a large ship for the day, weighing 424 tons. It was 115 feet long and had a beam of twenty-eight and a half feet. The Resolute was specifically built and fitted out for work in Arctic waters. It was one of the flotilla of ships that joined the many expeditions launched in the year 1850 to hunt for survivors from the ill-fated Franklin expedition. It was initially commanded by Horatio Austin, when it formed part of a four ship search party. This party met with little success.

The Resolute was back in the Arctic in 1852, as part of a five ship expedition headed by Edward Belcher, again searching for signs of Franklin and his crew. This expedition was funded by the British Admiralty. In 1853, the men from the ship, led by Bedford Pim, helped rescue Robert McClure and his crew, when their ship the Investigator got into troubles.

Some time later in 1854, the Resolute and her sister ship the Intrepid became iced in. Much to the chagrin of the crews of these ships, Belcher, the expedition leader ordered that both ships be abandoned. The crews sailed back to England on the ship The North Star.

It is at this point that the story begins to take an interesting twist. In the following year, 1855, the Resolute was discovered by the Connecticut whaler James Buddington, who was captain of the George Henry in the Davis Strait. The ship appeared to have drifted 1,200 miles without a crew! Just eight members of the crew of the George Henry manage to sail the Resolute, including going through a hurricane, back to New London, Connecticut.

In 1856, the US Government bought the Resolute, completely refited her and presented her as a gift to Queen Victoria. The Queen was completely delighted, as the ship was now very well-known.

In 1879, the Resolute was ordered decommissioned. However, Queen Victoria also ordered that the very best timbers from the ship be saved and fashioned into an elaborate desk. In 1890, the Resolute desk was presented to the then US President, Rutherford B. Hayes. Attached to the front of the desk was a brass plaque, which read,

"H. M. S. Resolute--forming part of the expedition sent in search of Sir John Franklin in 1852, was abandoned in Latitude 74" 41' N, Longitude 101" 22' W on the 15th May, 1854. She was discovered and extricated in September 1855 in Latitude 67" N by Captain Buddington of the United States Whaler "George Henry." The ship was purchased, fitted out and sent to England as a gift to Her Majesty Queen Victoria by the President and people of the United States as a token of goodwill and friendship. This table was made from her timbers when she was broken up, and is presented by the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, to the President of the United States, as a memorial of the courtesy and loving kindness which dictated the offer of the gift of the "Resolute.""

After having occupied various locations in the Whitehouse, including the Oval office and the Broadcast room, in 1993 the desk was returned to the Oval office by President William J. Clinton. It remains there to this day.

Now, if that is not an amazing story, then I do not know what is!

The CP
Listed on 
BlogShares web stats Site Meter