Sunday, April 29, 2007

Exhausted, Happy

Well, I got home eventually. Lafayette was quite hard to leave. Festival International was beyond wonderful. Yesterday, I got to see our State Governor grooving out to a band. Today, was superb too.

I am more than tired. However, I am also more than happy. I had a fabulous weekend. To top things off, I ran into a very old, close and wonderful friend, while in Lafayette. This was an unexpected surprise. We spent some time chatting, the result of this chat is that we should have a joint paper soon. As a real academic, I love research and publishing. This is an excellent and exciting project.

Thus, over and above sunburn and fatigue, Festival International was also an excellent place to come across a meeting of minds. I really hope that I will feel rejuvenated enough tomorrow to perform well in my classes. As they say in Lafayette, "Laisser Les Bon Temps Rouler!". Je dis "D'accord!"

The CP

Friday, April 27, 2007

Wild Times

Well, the weather for the Festival has been wonderful. That acts were pretty good too. However, all this was massively overshadowed by other local events, in Lafayette.

Some of the people I know in this town teach at UL Lafayette. These people have been totally wild, since this afternoon. It seems that the UL President has today announced his retirement. Apparently, he is the second longest serving University President in the country. According to my friends, his retirement has been 'next year' for many years now. Now it has happened, the faculty members are very excited. It seems that many 'old boy networks' could be destroyed. Of course, things now all turn on who gets appointed. I will keep you informed.

The CP

Angelique Kidjo

Well the high point of today at Festival International was a performance by Angelique Kidjo. Visit the web site. You can hear sound samples. It was an amazing set, although early on there appeared to be a few technical difficulties. These were fixed rapidly.

A real bonus came from the fact that Kidjo was selling her new CD. It has not been officially released yet. It comes out in a few days, but the Festival seems to have managed to get a few advanced copies. What was even better was that Kidjo was prepared to sit by the side of stage and sign both CDs and posters. While waiting, the Combat Philosopher made some comments, that Kidjo overheard. She accused me of being a philosopher. Curious. She still signed my CD.

Tomorrow will be an early run back home to go teach. Hopefully, the Gods of the nasty Interstates will be willing and I will be able to get back to Lafayette for more Festival. Lafayette is clearly a fun town. Festival International is an excellent event. Please try to listen at From what I have seen so far, there is very little danger of being disappointed.

The CP

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Allons A Lafayette

Well, I got to Lafayette, e v e n t u t a l l y. It seems that a chemical truck had a problem on I-10 and closed it down. Getting here took forever. However, we arrived.

This put me in mind of the Cajun song "Allons a Lafayette". The lyrics do not quite fit, but the sentiment does. Here is a YouTube rendition.

When we got here we discovered that we had just missed Robert Plant. He had been in town the last few days. Oh well. We went to the Festival, but the rain made us leave. It was fun though, until it started to rain too much. Hopefully, tomorrow will be better, if the weather forecasters are to be believed. We shall see.

The CP

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Mr. Murphy And A Hiatus

Well, Mr. Murphy, of 'the Law' fame hit big time in Combat Philosopher land today. It seems that my regular net connection is playing up. Thus, this is being submitted via a very retro feeling dial up connection! It is quaint and very slow, but a pain.

Tomorrow, I leave for a little road trip. I will be going up the road to attend Festival International in Lafayette, after class tomorrow. As I will be staying with friends, I am not too sure what the Internet access situation may be, so there may be a gap in posts here until next week. I will actually have to dash home to teach one more class, but if the net situation is not good, then that will only give enough time to catch up on e-mail.

I attended Festival International last year and it was beyond amazing! This year, I have made arrangements so that I can attend the whole thing. I strongly urge you to check out the web site above, to see what incredible acts from all over the world will be playing. What is better yet, is that I have discovered that the Festival will now be broadcast live over the Internet. If you go to, you can find a live feed from the Festival from Thursday evening onwards. You might give it a try. That way you can hear and share some of the tunes that The Combat Philosopher will be enjoying. Even if that is not an incentive, you might still want to tune in to hear some excellent music. Enjoy!

The CP

Monday, April 23, 2007

A World Of Walls

Some walls are good. For example, the walls of a house keep the elements out and provide a safe and secure environment within. However, not all walls are quite so benign.

One of the earliest examples of a less good wall is The Great Wall of China. This wall has a long and complex history, having been built and rebuilt by successive ruling dynasties. The wall is around 4,000 miles long and stretches from Shanhai Pass in the East to Lop Nur in the West. The purpose of the Great Wall, although it actually served many, was for the most part to keep China safe from attack from enemies. Thus, it had a defensive function. However, it also, at various times, became one of the mechanisms that was used to ensure the unification of China. In cases where the local inhabitants, and their local chiefs, may have been less than entirely thrilled about central control, it also served as a symbol of dynastic authority.

A slightly later wall is the wall that was built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian (AD 76–138). Although Hadrian's Wall has now become a major tourist attraction, it was originally constructed, in AD 122, to keep the the tribes who lived in what is now Scotland from raiding. As such, the wall formed one of the Northern boundaries of the Roman Empire. The wall is constructed from stone and turf and largely still exists today. It has a length of around eighty miles and runs from Wallsend on the River Tyne in the East, to the shore of the Solway Firth, to the West. The point to note here though is that this wall was built by an oppressive invading power, as a means of suppressing the native inhabitants of the area.

Perhaps the most famous wall of the Twentieth Century was the Berlin Wall. Construction of the wall began in August, 1961. It was a symbol of the oppression of the peoples of the Eastern bloc until it was dismantled, beginning in November, 1989. The primary purpose of the wall was to prevent people leaving the East for the West. Indeed, the Berlin Wall stood as the iconic symbol of the whole era of the cold war.

From these three examples, it should be quite clear that walls have historically had an association with oppressive regimes, of one kind or another. Unfortunately, walls of this kind are still with us today. The Israeli Separation Wall that was recently constructed, supposedly to prevent attacks from Palestinian territories, has been subject to much criticism, and has been ruled illegal by some courts. However, Israel is not the only nation engaged in wall building these days.

It seems that the US is now getting into the wall building business. Last year, a plan for a US-Mexican Barrier was announced. Do not be fooled by the semantics. A barrier is a wall, by another name. In the last few days, people in Iraq started protesting about walls being erected in the al-Adhamiyah in east Baghdad. These walls are being built at night by the US military and are unpopular with the Iraqi government. However, there do not appear to be any plans to stop building this wall, just yet.

The reason that these recent US wall building plans and activities are of concern though has to do with the history of the earlier walls. The Roman Empire did not last too long after Hadrian completed his wall. Although China has remained, the various wall building dynasties did not last. The Berlin Wall had an especially short life-span. Given these precedents, should we be concerned about the recent enthusiasm for wall building by the US? It seems to me that concern would be prudent. However, if these walls are just symbolic of the immanent demise of the incompetent Bush administration, then this may not be too bad. We shall see.

The CP

Sunday, April 22, 2007

De Re, De Dicto and '-isms'

This weekend, I went to an event at which I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Norman C. Francis speak. I have heard quite a few things about this gentleman over the years, so I was interested to hear what he had to say. It is also the fact that he has the rare distinction of being the longest serving University President in the country, at the present time.

Dr. Francis spoke extremely well. He kept his words quite brief. He made sure to give his audience a clear road map of the topics that he would cover at the beginning, so we had an idea where he was. He made several interesting and thought provoking points. Although Dr. Francis clearly has had a lot of practice at making speeches, it is seldom that one comes across a speaker who is so naturally gifted at public speaking. His style was lively, although slightly informal, though not in an offensive manner. He was relaxed and amusing at times. I really enjoyed listening to him.

One of the topic he discussed was race relations. Perhaps surprisingly, he argued against raising the topic of race and racism. What was interesting about this was that the audience was largely African-American. While Francis admitted that racism and other forms of discrimination were a problem, he was not in favour of the move of 'playing the race card' as a method of addressing these problems.

He pointed that actually making this kind of rhetorical move, in many instances, often worked against the interests of those that needed support and could end up hurting the people that were intended to be helped. His point was underwritten by the observation that people are different and come in all sorts of varieties. However, if one group is selected to have a special rhetorical move all of their own, which can be invoked whenever a difficulty, or a problem is encountered, then these people could come to rely upon this rhetorical move, instead addressing their own issues. Dr. Francis thus advocated education as a better solution to these kinds of problems, for both for racists and their victims. I thought that this was an interesting insight.

Some time ago, I noticed that there was an interesting phenomenon that roughly corresponded to the De Re and De Dicto distinction which is sometimes invoked about propositional attitudes and belief attribution claims. Roughly speaking, the De Re/De Dicto distinction can be thought of as distinguishing 'what is' from 'what is said' (note, this way of using these terms does considerable violence to the subtleties of the technical notions) for current purposes.

When it comes to contentious matters, such as race, gender, sexual orientation and the like, certain classes of people who have concerns about these matters can be divided into two camps. The first camp, which I think of as being the De Re camp, actually attempt to take concrete steps to ameliorate problematic situations. The other camp, which I think of as the De Dicto camp, spend a great deal of time talking, name calling and denouncing, but do very little else. I think that this distinction can be usefully applied to Dr. Francis' comments. Folks who follow his advice would fall into the De Re camp, while those who too frequently and indiscriminately 'play the race card' fall into the De Dicto camp. Of course, there is a fine line here. For example, those who write on these matters could fall in either camp. However, it would seem that folks who publish their thoughts on such matters in respectable refereed journals, would fall into the De Re camp, much more naturally than the De Dicto one.

One reason this is of interest in the current context is that, if one looks around the world of blogs, it appears that there are many blogs that fall into the De Dicto camp, while offering precious little evidence of any actual practical (that is to say De Re) activity. Other bloggers also seem to have noticed this phenomenon and have made suitably amusing comments on the matter (see here for an example -- it is worth reading the posts in reverse order to see the development). Further examples would be welcome.

The point though that I think is interesting is that the Francis style approach appears to apply to a much broader range of topics and situations than just racism. We have all probably at some point in our lives come across a student, co-worker, or some other individual, who cannot stand to be disagreed with. Whenever something they interpret as being negative is said about them, or done to them, they immediately start making accusations of racism, gender bias, orientation bias, or generally screaming and shouting about so-called 'abuse'. When we are faced with such situations, we should keep Francis' advice in mind. Each such claim should be judged solely on its merits. They should not be automatically accepted as being valid.

There are many '-isms' that people can get upset about. It seems to me that this advice applies equally to all. It is important to keep in mind that words are cheap and actions speak much louder than words.

The CP

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Mayor Ray Nagin's iPod

Some time ago, I came across a rather silly game which goes by the name of 'iPod'. The basic idea behind the game is that a certain person is nominated and then the goal is to figure out the top listened to tunes that would be on that person's iPod. Although this is not too sophisticated a game, it can be quite fun and presents plenty of opportunities for humor. It seems to be broadly based on the 'Celebrity Playlists' feature of the iTunes music store, although I am sure that the idea is actually much older than this.

Late in 2005, after hurricane Katrina, I came up with something similar, although I had not heard of the game at that point. I was looking for a selection of music to play while driving into New Orleans. The way I thought about it then, was to wonder what Mayor Ray Nagin might have on his iPod.

Now, Nagin is an equivocal figure. On the one hand, he was one of the few politicians who actually tried to get things moving after the storms, rather than dithering and indulging in photo opportunities, as did folks like Bush. I particularly enjoyed listening to Nagin totally loosing it and yelling, when phoning into a live radio show. Some of this can be heard on a YouTube video that is located here (the section is about three mins. and a thirty seconds in). His speech was blunt and littered with curse words, which seemed entirely appropriate in the context. On the other hand, since the time of that crisis, and especially since his re-election, Nagin has done a dreadful job leading the New Orleans reconstruction efforts. For this reason, it is hard to quite know what to make of Nagin.

Whatever we think of Nagin though, he is a fun person to play 'iPod' with. Now that iPods can also play videos, though the magic of YouTube, we can even simulate an iPod video version of the game (N.B. JavaScript needs to be enabled for the videos to run properly.) Here we go;

1) Like a Hurricane, by Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

2) When The Levees Break, by Led Zeppelin.

3)Refugee, by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.

Enjoy the Tunes. Remember the Victims.

The CP

Thursday, April 19, 2007

A Day to Walk and Sing

Today, the weather was glorious. It was sunny and warm, but not too hot and not humid. It was one of those Louisiana Spring days that makes it a joy to walk across campus. I did this today. On route, I ran into various people I knew. I stopped and chatted several times. That was this morning.

This afternoon, I had a couple of students drop by my office for help with their final papers. The first student arrived fairly confused, largely by looking things up randomly on the Internet. By the time we were finished, the confusions were gone. This should now be a pretty reasonable paper. The second student is working on a project that is actually quite exciting. They had some excellent questions that were reasonably easy to handle. By the time they left, I had another satisfied customer. I am looking forward to reading this paper.

Next on the agenda was a talk from a visiting senior professor. The talk was very interesting indeed. I was not entirely convinced by all the detailed particulars, but it was nonetheless fascinating. I learned a lot.

So, this was a happy day. As I moved towards home, late this afternoon, I was filled with a desire to sing. Here is Donovan's Catch The Wind from YouTube to sing along with.

I like days like this. I hope that I have plenty more soon. I hope that you have some too.

The CP

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

In Praise Of Pencils

Walking the corridors of my University, one occasionally comes across students reading their textbooks, while waiting for class. One of the things that I have noticed is how often students are reading texts that are massively highlighted. I have never quite come to grips with the phenomenon of highlighter pens. Why do they get used with such glee?

When I was a child, I was taught that it was some kind of venal sin to write in a book. A little later in life, I realised that this advice about writing in books, was not entirely correct. It is OK to write in a book provided that one owns it. It is certainly a sin to write in someone elses book, or a library book. I also came to believe that one should only ever write in a book in pencil, not pen. However, highlighter pens now seem to be the weapon of choice for students. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why this is the case.

When reading a book with a pencil, one can make short cryptic notes in the margins. This makes it possible to rapidly move through the text at a later point, in order to find a crucial passage. This can be done by just perusing one's marginalia. Also, with a pencil, it is possible to mark up a text in a manner that indicates levels of importance of a passage. Crucial passages can be underlined. In fact, one can underline heavily, lightly, or with a broken line, thereby providing a metric of importance. Less important passages can be indicated in a similar manner, by putting a line beside the texts.

Many of the books I have owned for many years are now quite heavily annotated. This is especially the case with canonical philosophical texts, that get frequently used in teaching and research. My annotations, in addition to the table of context and the index, make it pretty easy to find the parts of a text that one needs, both easily and rapidly. This can be extremely handy when writing, or counselling a student on a paper.

There is a sense in which these texts and my notes on them are part of my intellectual capital. Students who attack their texts with highlighter pens, rather than pencils, are denied the possibility of generating this capital over time. Although there are many colors of markers available, who can remember why a particular passage struck one as being worthy of yellow, or blue, rather than orange, many years later? Not only that, highlighted book look ugly! My cryptic pencil notes may not look perfect, but they have a certain familiarity that is comforting in a manner that a highlighted page surely can never achieve.

There is even a way that a pencil can be used on library books, without distressing later readers. The invention of the ubiquitous 'yellow sticky' was the key innovation that made this possible. When reading a borrowed book, one can place a yellow sticky on the page by a key passage and annotate away. These also form handy tabs that can be used later. When it is time to return the book, if one systematically removes the yellow stickys, making a note on them which page they were affixed to, and by which paragraph, it becomes possible to reconstruct one's notes at a later time. I store the stacks of yellow things in envelopes, when not in use.

These then are the reasons that I think that pencils should be praised. They also provide compelling reasons why they are to be preferred over those ugly dayglow highlighters. The pencil is one of the most useful scholarly tools, in my experience. Indeed, pencils have even been the subject of scholarship themselves! Henry Petroski has written a History of the design of the pencil. Thus, I am in favour of pencils.

The CP

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

'Philosopher For Hire'

Once every now and again, a student will do something that is so ridiculous and funny that one can do nothing, but laugh like a drain. Today, one of these incidents arose.

Like many cities and towns, our town has a free publication which is full of small ads. People pay a smallish fee to announce garage sales, advertise things they want to sell, announce properties for sale, or rent, and the like. Our version of this publication also provides a section where employers can look for employees and potential employees can announce their availability. The next edition of this publication will contain, in the 'Jobs' section, the following announcement;

Philosopher for Hire. Can speak on the subjects of Metaphysics, Epistemology and Existentialism. Contact [Student's Name] at xxx-xxxx for details.

If you have ever wondered what philosophy majors do upon graduation, do not be fooled, this is a very far from typical strategy. I will be fascinated to see what, if any, responses the student gets to this advertisement.

This is a student who has something of a track record of doing this kind of thing. Several semesters ago, notices started to appear around the campus announcing a 'Beet Eating Contest', to be held at a certain time and place on campus. The announcement also mentioned a cash prize. On the appointed day, around twenty people showed up, willing to demonstrate their beet eating prowess. One of these individuals was the prankster. After a while, folks realised that they had been had.

When in the dog days of a semester, having characters like this around really livens the place up. I am going to be sorry when this individual graduates. They certainly have succeeded in making my life richer.

The CP

Monday, April 16, 2007

Wait For The Ricochet...

"...wait for the ricochet" is the concluding line to the song Child in Time [Beware pop-ups], by the classic rock group Deep Purple. Somehow, it seems appropriate today.

I teach a three hour graduate class on a Monday afternoon. The morning is fairly hectic too. When I arrived in my grad class one of the students asked me whether I had heard about the events at Virginia Tech. I had not. After class was over, I got home and watched the news. I am completely horrified.

The media are full of accounts of the events, that are beyond distressing. However, there is likely to be many further, far less dramatic traumas that the faculty, staff and students of this University will have to endure, before it is all over. My guess is that this less dramatic kind of trauma will not be covered so widely by the media, but will nonetheless be dreadful for those whom they effect. This is the 'ricochet' I refer to in the title to this post.

On most campuses at the moment, the semester is drawing to a close. This means that final exams are close at hand. It would be almost unimaginably difficult for students at Virgina Tech to focus on their studies, after the events of today. Unfortunately, the pulse of University life means that there is no easy solution to this situation. Seniors need to graduate, as many will have jobs, or graduate schools elsewhere to go to. They can little afford a delay. Yet, those most closely effected by today's events will not be in good shape and thus their GPAs are likely to suffer. Although a delay may seem the humanitarian option, it would come at a cost. Rent still has to be paid and food still has to be bought. Thus, there will be negative effects far beyond those depicted by the shocking images played on the news.

It is likely that faculty will be negatively impacted in a profound way too. A University, no matter how elite, or how dysfunctional, is a community, especially for faculty. Any community that has to live through profound trauma will suffer. Perhaps the less secure and healthy will fear returning to the class room. Who knows. Unless radical steps are taken, some poor faculty member will have the dubious honor of teaching in a class room where a colleague lost their life. I for one would be very unhappy to be placed in such a situation.

It is also quite likely that there will be new provisions made, in a bid by the administration to enhance campus security. In all likelihood, these provisions will be burdensome and work against the free flow of people and ideas that makes campus life vibrant. Would you be inclined to return to your office, or lab of an evening if you had to run a gauntlet of security? I would be much less inclined to do so. Thus, again something important would become 'collateral damage' to the activities of today's lone assailant. It is also possible that enhanced security may become a feature of more campuses, thereby spreading the shadow of today's events. Administrations like to be seen to be 'doing something' in the light of such tragedies. Let us at least hope that the folks in Washington D.C. do not get involved in such programs. If they were to do so, it is a certainty that the results would be appalling.

Nobody can feel anything but the very deepest sympathy for the faculty and students of Virginia Tech at the current time. The point here is to keep in mind that, after all the camera crews and media have gone on elsewhere, there will still be high costs to be paid by everyone on that campus. These will be the 'ricochets' that will keep on coming. Thus, we should keep the campus community of Virgina Tech in our thoughts for a good long time.

The CP

Sunday, April 15, 2007

More Gubernatorial Games

I have written a couple of posts about the Louisiana Gubernatorial race before. Initially, I commented when Governor Blanco announced that she would not run. I then had some things to say about the possibility that John Breaux would run for the position and the Republican objections on the grounds of eligibility. There has now been another twist in this saga. Breaux recently announced that he will not be running, after all.

The following statement can be found at

"I said I would be guided by the Attorney General's opinion and therefore will not be a candidate for Governor. For me to run now means that we would face a campaign based on an eligibility to run, with the prospects of being in a courtroom only weeks before the election. That is not in the best interest of our state or what this election should be about."

This is an interesting turn of events. With both Blanco and Breaux currently out of the running (remember, things can change), there does not appear to be a strong Democratic candidate for the position of Louisiana Governor. As there is a strong Republican candidate, namely Bobby Jindal, it seems that if things do not change, then it would appear that the election is being conceded by the Democrats. Why might this state of affairs be permitted?

There are several possibilities. It could be the case that the Democrats have decided that, as they have no strong candidate, they will save their money and energy for other contests. Somehow, this seems to be an option with minimal plausibility, but it could be what is going on.

Another possibility is that either Breaux, or Blanco may have a change of heart. This appears to be a slightly more plausible scenario. The thinking could be that Blanco's chances were limited, with the possibility of Breaux in the wings. Now, Breaux has been ruled out, she may change her mind and decide to run after all. Stranger things have happened. It would be a strange set of events, but who knows.

It could be that another strong Democratic candidate will suddenly be thrust forward. The problem with this is finding plausible candidates to play this role. The one person who might stand is Mitch Landrieu. He currently holds the position of Lieutenant Governor. He improbably and possibly disastrously lost the Mayoral election in New Orleans, against Ray Nagin. However, there has been no indication that he might be interested in running for the top State job. Of course, there may be other strong candidates, but they have yet to make their intentions known.

Perhaps there is something that the Democrats know, or suspect, that will change things radically. One possibility that does come to mind is that the upcoming hurricane season will produce another devastating storm. As things stand, it is looking like it will be another bad season. Perhaps the thinking is that a bad storm before the elections in October, in which Blanco performs well, might give her the basis for a late run for re-election. Alternatively, the thought may be that if there is another bad storm, nobody in their right mind would want to be Governor of Louisiana. Thus, Jindal may win with a walk, but it could turn out to be a poison pill. However, it does seem unlikely that the politicians would be betting their futures on questionable weather forecasts.

One thing that is for sure, this being Louisiana, there will be some more surprises with this race. It is too early to tell where the next twist will come. However, it is a safe bet that the story of this Gubernatorial race is very far from over. So, as I have recommended before on this topic, keep watching this space!

Update: Today, Mitch Landrieu announced that he will not be running for the Office of Governor. He will be running again for his current post of Lieutenant Governor. Oh well, so much for my 'crystal ball'.

The CP

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Course Renumbering And Chaos

The numbers assigned to courses in most departments often make very little sense. This circumstance arises over time as new courses are added and older less relevant courses are dropped. Thus, as a result of a fairly natural and organic processes, there are almost always anomalies in the course numbering system. It is also the case that, as course number assignment is usually done at the departmental level, there is little rhyme or reason with respect to course numbers between departments.

Such a slightly chaotic system might see problematic, but usually is not. People eventually learn the quirks of such a system. What causes real trouble though is when a proposal arises to 'rationalise' the course numbers. It is my contention that all such efforts should be strongly resisted at all costs.

Those who propose rationalising course numbers usually fall into one of two categories. A program to 'fix' course numbering will sometimes be proposed by recently appointed department heads, when they are in the 'new broom' mode. It provides them a means of appearing to be changing things and getting things done. The other category of persons who are likely to advocate changing course numbers are deadwood faculty, looking desperately for something vaguely useful to put on their faculty reports. This latter category of person often advocates this kind of thing when they wish to angle for a promotion. It provides them with an almost limitless excuse to write memos, hold meetings, prepare draft proposals. In other words, it can be a source of unending 'busywork'.

The arguments offered for these rationalisation programs are often of the kind that appear utterly compelling to Provosts, Deans and other administrative types, who have lost touch with the realities of teaching. Such programs are offered as a means of simplifying things for students. It is also sometimes claimed that the proposed new system will suddenly be rendered consistent with some other institution's system.

I have lived through quite a few of these course renumbering programs. The result of them is always the same: Utter chaos and confusion! No matter how good the arguments sound, they should always be resisted, for this reason.

The problem with changing course numbers is that everyone already knows the old idiosyncratic system. Although renumbering effots are usually accompanied by a flurry of announcements and explanations, these usually have little effect. Too many memos, be they paper, or by e-mail, or both, on the same topic end up going unread. Also, it is common for an initial memo to then require subsequent clarification, or emendation, thereby increasing to overall level of confusion.

The problem is that people are used to the old system, so they tend to default to it. The vast array of forms that need to be updated, means that there are always some oversights.

We had a recent example of course renumbering zealotry. A department that taught a series of courses, that are mandatory for a large number of students renumbered their courses, as part of a complex scheme, which really had as a goal reducing the amount of time faculty had to spend teaching. The course renumbering was part of the complex smoke screen developed to obscure the real goals. For many years now, the mandatory courses ran 101, 201, 203. Although this was not entirely rational, at least everybody knew the system. However, after the changes, the mandatory courses run 101, 102, 203. The result of this change? Chaos!

What really happens when courses get renumbered? Well, students enroll in the wrong classes for a couple of semesters, thereby slowing graduations. Faculty advisers mis-advise students, due to habit and the confusion caused by the various memos and e-mails. Department main offices get besieged by phone calls, as people try and make sense of the new system. There is also usually a great deal of what might be termed 'collateral damage'. The carefully developed tables of course equivalencies with other institutions have to be changed. Also, other institutions usually fail to get all the memos and thus, students end up being denied transfer credit, until the new system is understood.

The point here is simple. No matter how passionate and compelling the arguments made in favor of renumbering courses, they should always be resisted. This is, unless of course, for some perverse reason one should be a fan of causing institutional chaos and dysfunction. You have been warned!

The CP

Thursday, April 12, 2007

On Early Exams

That feeling that the semester is coming to an end is slowly filling the air. It arrives unerringly at this time of the year, as predictably as the Springtime. Suddenly, my e-mail inbox is full of urgent e-mails from students.

At the current time, the major concern seems to be about their final research papers. It always amazes me that students can read the work of philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, or Berkeley, yet do not manage to learn to spell their names correctly ('DesCarte', 'Lock' or 'Barkley'). The recent e-mails are the usual mixed bag.

However, what was interesting today was that I got my first "can I take the exam early?" request. This has to be something of a record. Usually, these show up much later. At least on the plus side, it shows that at least one student has well developed time management and planning skills.

Early exam requests always present something of a quandary. As a general rule, our institution has some (for once) sensible guidelines which do not favor early exams. There can be exceptions though. If one or two students need an early exam, then one has two options. Option One involves giving these students the same exam as the rest of the class, but early. Option Two involves giving these students a different final exam. Neither option is ideal.

The downside with Option One is that it means that other students can discover what is going to be on the exam. No matter how much the students promise to keep things secret, this can produce negative effects. There are always leaks. If students have an idea of what will be covered, then they will not learn the parts of the material that will not be focused upon. This mitigates against them getting the 'big picture' view of the material.

Option Two also has several drawbacks. The most obvious one of these is all the extra work involved in writing a second exam. However, there are further problems that can arise with respect to standardizing scores. It is very difficult to tell whether one exam is harder than the other. If only a small group of students take one version, it is quite tricky to figure this out. As I am quite fussy about ensuring that final grades reflect a student's actual performance in the class, this situation totally messes up my system.

Given these problems, I am against early exams, as there is no good way to handle such a situation. It is for this reason that I am just hoping that no student comes up with a really compelling reason why they should be able to take their exams early this semester. My fingers are crossed.

The CP

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

New Orleans 'Recovery': Front Line News

While sitting on the patio at my hotel this evening, I got chatting to a fellow who was also staying at the hotel. He was in from Baton Rouge, working with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). It turns out that he was in town on a mission.

Apparently, a big problem in the city these days is private landfills. It seems that some landowners have come up with a new way of making money. They let their land be used as landfills, even though they have no license to do so. Naturally, these less than entirely legal operations do not feel inclined to bother with tedious environmental regulations.

According to the fellow I chatted to, this is not a subtle business. The landowners have bulldozers to pile up and stack the waste. Using licensed landfills to dispose of materials is not a cheap business. As there are still many contractors in town, in addition to the traditional methods of saving money, like employing illegal aliens and then not paying them, these less than ethical types save money by using illegal landfills. Illegal landfills will give a discount price on dumping materials and will not ask too many questions about the waste they are accepting.

My informant told me that one of the big issues is asbestos. This stuff is nasty and dangerous. It is also quite common in older structures. Rather than going through all the trouble of doing things safely, for those who only have a commitment to the bottom line, just dumping this stuff in an illegal site is a 'cost effective' alternative. It seems that doing things properly and thereby protecting the population can be avoided by just using illegal sites.

With people like these contractors and these cowboy landfill operators 'assisting' with hurricane recovery, it almost makes the irresponsibility of FEMA, the Corps of Engineers and all the bent and incompetent political types seem minimal. The really sad part about all this is that these cowboy contractors and their illegal dump running friends are still probably the only people who are actually seeing any federal dollars. I thanked the man from DEQ. If it was not for the fact that these activities will make people sick, the situation would make me feel sick.

The CP

On The Road Again, Plus A Reply

So, today is another road trip day. I wish that I had a more reliable vehicle though. Mine is in the shop again, so this road trip had to be done in a hire car. Although it is nice to get invitations, if this circumstance keeps happening, it will get expensive.

My hosts this time took me for supper at a place that advertised itself as being 'genuine' Mexican. Signs that claim this sort of thing I often take to be a big red flag (and not a good one). However, in this case, I was not disappointed. Although I am not an expert on Mexico, or Mexican cuisine, it seemed a reasonably good version of the kinds of meals I have had in Mexico, in out of the way places.

I am back in a hotel again, which I am not too happy about, but it is a necessary evil. At least this hotel seems a good deal better than the last one I was in. They also offer free Internet access, which makes me happy and enables me to write this.

While I was driving over here, I had a chance to reflect upon yesterdays blog events. Quite frankly, I was amazed by them. It seems when people's passions get fired up on a topic, they lose all sense of proportion, critical abilities and to some degree, the ability to read. This is a shame.

Before closing this sorry chapter, I do have one or two remarks for the amateur critical thinkers 'per' and 'Joe Bingham'. 'per' asked,

"[T]ell me, CP, what is the [L]atin name for the logical fallacy which involves using foul language, and calling people names?"

To this question, "Joe Bingham" (who has no real profile) replied,

"It's ad hominem. Thus his pseudonym.

Well Joe, you only get a C- in the class, I am afraid. There are two reasons for this. First, both you and 'per' missed a potential case of the fallacy of prejudicial language. That was not the greatest error though. These activities only count as fallacies is they are offered in the context of an argument. The passage of text you both refer to was, in fact, a description, not an argument! Thus, all this clever classification is somewhat moot.

You see, were you ever to take a logic class, rather than looking a few things up on the Internet, you would know that one of the first things covered is the difference between arguments and other uses of language. Matters which pertain to arguments, do not pertain to other linguistic activities. This oversight is especially unforgivable, as there was a link on the very page you were commenting on that explained all this (hint, take a look at the first paragraph here). However, as Joe then attempts to draw a conclusion (note the conclusion marker term 'thus'), it appears that s/he was arguing in an ad hominem manner to boot.

Well Joe, I hope that your frat boy buddies do not rib you too much about your being hoisted by your own petard. Please, all you anons and pseudo-anons, go back to your holes in the ground! While I thank you for providing me many nice examples of poor reasoning in my Critical Thinking classes, I would rather that you went elsewhere to thump your chests. To my normal readers, normal service will be resumed very soon. I'm sorry about all this.

The CP

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

University Sports Teams

As regular readers will know, I am a big fan of The Tenured Radicals Blog. Today, she has a post about Don Imus's attack on the Rutgers women's basketball team. In the post, she also compares the Imus/Rutgers situation with the case of the Duke Lacrosse team. I recommend reading this post as it has some very sensible comments on both sexism and racism in the context of University sports. Unfortunately for the Radical, her mention of the Duke issue brought out a swarm of trolls. I hope that I do not get the same here.

However, what I would really like to know is why do Universities need sports teams? The standard answers to this kind of question usually involve vague references to things like recruiting students and prestige. I don't not find these claims too convincing.

Let me make it clear that I am not against sports on a university campus. Intramural sports, for example, are an excellent way for staff and students from different faculties and departments to get some exercise and get to know one another. As this promotes collegiality and good health, this is a good thing. What I have in mind though is things like football teams.

Universities are supposed to be places of education and research. How does a sports team promote these goals? Perhaps if a university has a 'sports studies' program, then having some teams may make some sense, but few institutions have such programs. In fact, student athletes can have a negative impact upon educational goals. Faculty are required to keep special track of their grades. If a star football player is in danger of failing a course, it is not uncommon for coaches to call the faculty members to plead their case. This is just 'grade grubbing' by proxy though.

I have tried many times to figure out the costs of university sports teams, but information is seldom available. It is the case though that coaches almost always earn a good deal more than the average faculty member. Are these sports teams self-supporting? My guess is that they are not, or at least seldom are. If this is correct, then it means that resources that could have been directed to academic goals are being spent elsewhere. Why?

If a university is concerned about recruiting, then they could use the money to offer better scholarships. If a university is concerned about 'prestige', then sports is an odd way to go about gaining this. It seems to me that hiring better faculty, who would publish more would be a better method of improving this.

There is one interesting and illustrative example of what can happen when a sports team is eliminated. On March 3, 1999, Carleton University, in Ottawa, Canada, elected to drop its University Football program. Apparently, the thinking was that this action would produce an outcry from the alumnae, who could then be persuaded to support the program. Unfortunately, there was no outcry!

So, I am now officially against university sports teams. They do not seem like a good way for an educational and research institutions to spend money. More importantly, such teams are also a potential source of scandals. A Google search for "college sports scandals" yields a vast array of reasons why university sports teams should be abolished.

The CP

Monday, April 09, 2007

More Philosophy Trivia

Some time ago, I posted several philosophy trivia quizzes. I have run across a couple more, that I thought that I would share.

* Philosophy Trivia Quiz -- This one is an interesting mix of some easy questions and a couple of fairly tricky ones.

* Philosophy Quotes Quiz -- This quiz is actually quite difficult, but interesting.

The quotes quiz I actually made a mistake on. Oh well. These are still quite fun things to test oneself with. Even if you do not get all the answers correct, you will almost certainly learn something by taking them.

As many people are aware, philosophers often use fairly technical terms. These can be somewhat obscure. Of course, it is also the case that philosophers will take otherwise normal words, given them a special meaning and then forget to tell anybody that they have done this. However, it is safe to say that having a pretty good vocabulary is pretty useful, when reading and doing philosophy. For this reason, the following vocabulary quizzes may be of interest.

* Tough Words Quiz -- There are some real stinkers in this quiz.

Finally (especially for Bardiac), do you know which common words were introduced into English by Shakespeare? Try,

* Shakespeare's Words Quiz -- The results of this can be quite surprising.

If anyone knows of any other good philosophical quizzes, please feel free to drop me a line. Enjoy!

The CP

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Why The Easter 'Bunny' Is A Fraud

The image of the so-called Easter 'Bunny' is well known at this time of year. Most people assume that the term 'bunny' refers to the fact that the animal in question is some kind of rabbit. It is not. The animal that should be depicted is instead a hare.

The image of the hare, as being associated with the Spring time comes about due to the hare's association with the Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring, Eostre. Indeed, the very name 'Easter' for this current festival derives from this goddesses name. Relatively little is known about Eoster, although the Venerable Bede discusses this goddess in De Temporum Ratione.

Generally speaking, hares differ from rabbits in being somewhat larger, in particular they have longer ears and legs. Another significant difference is that rabbits are born bald and blind, while hares are not born this way. Rabbits often live in underground warrens, while hares prefer shallow depressions in the ground. There is some evidence that the burrowing behaviour of rabbits is a recent adaption. Indeed, due to the influence of the flea born disease Myxomatosis, there is some evidence that rabbits in afflicted areas have reverted to living above ground again.

The image of the Easter bunny (or hare) is probably based upon the Brown Hare (Lepus capensis), that can be found in both Europe and North America. The notion of a 'Mad March Hare' was popularised by Lewis Carroll, but can be found much earlier in the works of John Heywood (1497-1580). Heywood uses the phrase "Mad as a march hare" in his Proverbes, ii.v.

One final point that is worthy of note. There is no evidence of either rabbits or hares ever laying any eggs!

The CP

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Google Games

As it is a holiday weekend and generally the weather is not too good in many places, it occurred to me that some people may be stuck inside. With this in mind, it seems like a reasonable time to post about some of the fun that can be had with Google.

Send a Text Message
Text messaging is all the rage in Europe. It is also becoming more and more popular in North America. Unfortunately, not all mobile phone plans provide free or very cheap text messaging services. For example, on my plan I can receive text messages for free, but I have to pay to send them. Fortunately, there is a Google tool which can be used to send a text message to most US cell phones. If you go to you can send a text message for free! If I want to send a text, this is the tool I use. It is also much easier and faster to send a text from a computer keyboard, rather than trying to type it into a cell phone. One thing to remember though is that using this technique does not let the receiver know who sent the message, so do not forget to identify yourself.

Google Whacking
This is an odd nerdy game, but can be quite fun. There are a couple of versions of this game.

In 'Google Whacking Lite', the goal is to find some combination of words that will produce exactly one and only one hit on Google. There is no prohibition on how many terms one can use, or requirements that things like "double quote marks" not be used. It can still be quite a challenging game. I had some success playing this by searching for "neural network" "washing powder" "singer songwriter". This generated a single hit, today. Of course, as soon as Google indexes this page, this will no longer work.

The over version is 'Google Whacking Extreme'. This is similar to Google Whacking Lite, but only two words can be used and things like "double quote marks" are prohibited. This is a very tough game. Somewhat bizarrely, there is even a web site dedicated to this version of the game. It cam be found at The odd thing about this page is that any successful Google Whack combination will automatically generate an additional hit, when Google indexes this page. Thus, this is a bit self-defeating.

Other Google Games
Finally, there is a page that is dedicated to a variety of other Google games. It is located here. I have not tried all the games, but the ones I have looked at seem pretty reasonable. This is not the only page with Google games on it. More games can be found here. These pages and activities may provide a way to while away a few holiday hours, if you have nothing better to do and the weather is nasty. Enjoy.

The CP

Friday, April 06, 2007

Confidentiality and Bureaucracy

Today, the ever informative Tenured-Radical has a post about Confidentiality in academia. The general argument is that the main role of confidentiality is to keep the tenure granting process and others like it, utterly mysterious to junior faculty and others. The argument is highly persuasive. I recommend the post.

It turns out that there is another related post over at the Life apparently blog, that discusses rejection letters in the context of an academic job search. This is not a blog I have read before, but I spotted a link to it on the InsideHigherEd site. The post makes some very sane suggestions for people making academic hires.

What these two posts have in common is a good strong dose of common sense, applied to the way things get done in academia. It is perhaps too much to hope that the people who most need to read and internalise this type of information, will actually do so. However, the fact that two bloggers are prepared to articulate and assess their experiences is in itself highly valuable. This I believe demonstrates one of the intrinsic values of blogs, especially somewhat anonymous blogs. What other medium would permit the easy dissemination of these kind of insights?

I am strongly of the belief that administrative actions in academia are almost always inherently messed up. There is too much quiet lobbying and gossiping, for things to be otherwise. Indeed, it is often the least capable and productive members of a faculty who have the time and the energy to devote to this kind of intrigue. I know of one individual of lowly rank, but who has tenure who began a campaign to get two junior faculty members denied tenure, prior to each of their third year reviews. This in part explains why bad decisions so often made. I have written about another related recent example on my own campus.

I actually have a secret theory about bad administrative decisions. It has always slightly shocked me that administrators like, or often feel the need, if they are male, to wear ties. I am against ties, for the simple reason that the knot used on most ties much too closely resembles a noose, for comfort, in my view. I also believe that a tie can easily impede the flow of blood to the brain. In fact, this is why I think that administrative decisions are so often badly made. The people making the decisions, who all too often are male, suffer from low grade, though long term mild ischemic insults to their brains.

Perhaps this theory is too generous. It could just be a special case of the age old problem that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. It could of course be some combination of these and other factors. Who knows?

Fortunately, I do know where it is possible to find a complete and comprehensive handbook to all the odd and weird strategies that a bureaucracy will give rise to. I strongly recommend the Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister Series, produced by The BBC and written by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay. This series provides worked examples of bureaucratic strategies, in a humorous context. Although what is presented is supposed to be funny, it is the best catalogue of this kind I have ever come across. This series should be an object of serious study for anyone who has to deal with moronic and ignorant people with agendas, especially on committees. As they say, 'forewarned is forearmed'. Sometimes reality and fiction coincide. This I believe is one of these cases.

The CP

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Libraries and Their Lurkers

I recently ran across a fascinating article, written by Librarian Chip Ward. Ward recently retired as the assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library System. In his article, that is available here, Ward describes how public libraries have been impacted by recent policies concerning homeless persons and persons with mental illness. It offers an interesting perspective on the role and values of a modern public library and the issues they face. I strongly recommend reading this article.

The article also brings to mind a number of curious experiences that I had in libraries, when I was in grad school. The University I attended had an excellent library, with a large and diverse collection in philosophy and other subjects that were of interest to me. At least, this was the case, when I started graduate school. Then the library was a complete joy. Unfortunately, a series of cutbacks transformed the collection, as after a certain date, new books in many areas were simply not purchased. It was a real shame.

The philosophy part of the collection had a hitherto unknown danger associated with it, both before and after the cuts. The danger took the form of certain people.

I still vividly recall my first encounter with one of these individuals. I was in the stacks trying to track down a paper by Lewis Carroll (few people realise that Carroll made contributions in philosophy and logic, in addition to his other works). The philosophy stacks were very narrow and cramped. They could only be reached by climbing an equally narrow staircase. This gave these stacks a certain labyrinthine quality, that I rather enjoyed. However, the confined space meant that there was not enough room for two people to pass one another with ease. It was whilst in one of these confined spaces that I first came across a fellow I will call Richard.

Richard was not too tall and was slightly plump. He wore a respectable jacket and a tie. He had thin dark greying hair and a beard of a similar color. He was probably in his late fifties, or so. He generally had the look of a slightly bemused professor. This I discovered, was a good form of camouflage. It was not too uncommon to run into such individuals. Often they were visiting scholars, on sabbaticals making use of the extensive library we had at our disposal. I initially took Richard to a person such as this. Was I ever wrong!

It was not uncommon to pass a few words with a person one would meet in the stacks. Figuring out who would let the other pass made this something of a necessity. This was the method by which I was initially engaged in conversation by Richard. It was also not uncommon for people meeting like this to offer assistance to one another, when it came to locating volumes. Had Richard been looking for Synthese, or The Journal of Philosophical Logic, I would have been able to help him. Perhaps he might know where the volume I was searching for might be located? This was not what happened.

After a few pleasantries, Richard asked me where I was from and what I was studying. I guess it was pretty obvious that I was a fairly green graduate student, lost looking for a volume in an only vaguely familiar library. Thus, we got into what appeared a fairly reasonable conversation, for a few minutes. Then our chat took an odd term. Richard accused me of being a traitor to philosophy! My crime, it appeared was wearing a tee-shirt. Richard informed me that Bertrand Russell himself would have thrown me out of Cambridge for such a heinous crime.

I was getting a little uncomfortable with this turn of events. I protested that, as happened to be true, I had visited Cambridge quite recently and there seemed to be quite a few people in tee-shirts, including some philosophers that I knew. I did not also point out that Russell was dead, but could have. Richard though did not consider my objections in the slightest bit relevant. This made me realise that it was time to beat a hasty retreat. Lewis Carroll was going to have to wait.

When I got back to my department, I was feeling a little rattled by the whole experience. I mentioned my experience to a couple of people. They laughed and said "Ahh, so you have met Richard! He is tricky, because he sounds rational at first. Wait until you meet John." They apparently all knew Richard. I wish they had warned me.

After that, I learned to keep a sharp eye out for Richard. I also eventually met John. He was a very odd fellow indeed. He would come up with very bizarre locutions such as "...a parenthetical footnote...", should one ever get trapped into conversation.

Having read the comments of Chip Ward, referred to earlier in this post, I now realise that he is describing a fairly common phenomenon, although Richard and John were not homeless. They were just weird and lurked in the University library.

The CP

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Bed And Breakfast

Anyone who has taught a while knows that, from time to time, students can be surprising. Today, I learned some very surprising things from my students.

In my class today, we began to look at the philosophical work of the philosopher David Hume. Famously, at the beginning of his A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume distinguishes between 'impressions' and 'ideas'. At the beginning of the Treatise, Hume describes the two concepts as follows,

All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call IMPRESSIONS and IDEAS. The difference betwixt these consists in the degrees of force and liveliness, with which they strike upon the mind, and make their way into our thought or consciousness. Those perceptions, which enter with most force and violence, we may name impressions: and under this name I comprehend all our sensations, passions and emotions, as they make their first appearance in the soul. By ideas I mean the faint images of these in thinking and reasoning; such as, for instance, are all the perceptions excited by the present discourse, excepting only those which arise from the sight and touch, and excepting the immediate pleasure or uneasiness it may occasion. I believe it will not be very necessary to employ many words in explaining this distinction.

This was one of the topics covered in class today. When discussing a distinction such as this, it is nice to have fairly concrete examples to drive the distinction home. Coming up with an example of an impression is not too difficult. I can point the the current experience students have of the blackboard, or their chairs, or even the philosophy professor that I am, ranting and raving in front of them. Coming up with an example of an idea, in the relevant sense is a little bit more tricky though.

Over the years, when teaching this part of Hume, I have tried to use various examples of ideas, with mixed success. I have yet to find an entirely satisfactory example, that all students share. At one point I would use the example of their vehicles. However, such an example idea did not work well for those who walk to class, or ride bicycles. The basic intuition that needs to be grasped is that your 'impression' of something, like the computer screen you are currently reading, is much more 'lively' than your recalled 'idea' of the same thing. Today, I tried a new example. The results were not as I expected.

I have learnt (largely, by getting things wrong) to ask the students about my examples, before using them. My plan initially was to use the example of the idea of 'breakfast'. So, I asked the class how many people had not had breakfast this morning. To my amazement, over a third of the class raised their hands. Over one third had not had breakfast? That was worrying.

I had anticipated this possibility (although not how common it might be), so I had a back up example ready. Next I asked the class how many had not slept in a bed last night. My plan was to use the idea of a 'bed', should the breakfast example not fly. To my profound astonishment, three students raised their hands. One explained that they had slept in a lazy boy. The others did not explain this circumstance.

Quite frankly, I am blown away. Over one third of the students in a late morning class had had no breakfast. A few did not sleep in a bed! Of course, my Hume inspired examples of ideas, were totally shot. However, I was left wondering about this state of affairs. I slept last night in a bed. Well, OK it is actually a futon, but close enough. I had breakfast this morning, with lashings of strong coffee. Why had some students not done likewise?

We do not live in a rich part of the world, so these circumstances could have arisen due to poverty. I rather hope that these were life style choices instead. However, this situation worries me. Perhaps some students do not care for breakfast. Perhaps others have night jobs they leave before coming to class, they then going to bed. Who knows? To make matters worse, I felt quite guilty.

When I got to the office this morning, hanging on my door was a bag. In the bag was some fresh home made soda bread, some rather good olive oil to dip the bread into, an interesting book and a nice note. These were gifts from a student who graduated some time ago. These gifts were left for me for Easter. I feel very lucky when I get such gifts (thanks Donna!). However, I wonder whether I should have offered this food to the students who had not had breakfast?

Unfortunately, this idea only occurred to me after class. Students who do not eat breakfast and do not sleep in beds, give me pause for concern. They are unlikely to be in the best condition to learn. I wonder whether I should look into this further and try to see if anything can be done, or whether I should just ignore it all, as these things are just examples of youthful folly. I really hope that it is youthful folly. I am still a little concerned that it could be poverty. This is something that I will have to think about some more. I do not want to have students doing badly due to hunger and the lack of a proper place to sleep. If anyone reading this has any suggestions, they would be most welcome.

The CP

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Downfall of Dr. Ego

One of the people who works at my University is a lot of trouble. The individual has a massively inflated ego and is incapable of interacting with anyone, unless that person entirely agrees to be subservient to Dr. Ego's agenda. Naturally, Dr. Ego is convinced that his/her work is brilliant. Unfortunately, some of the administrative types believe this also.

An upshot of this is that Dr. Ego has been provided with vast quantities of resources and many special dispensations, including from teaching. The unfortunate thing is that Dr. Ego's work is not very good. Although it is the kind of stuff that plays well in the media, on a more mundane technical level, much of the work is deeply flawed.

Dr. Ego's 'special' status has enabled him/her to draw together a small tightly knit group of sycophants. This group functions rather like some weird kind of cult. Anyone who dares to criticise the Great Individual is likely to be subject to serious attack. There are a number of otherwise good careers that have been put in jeopardy, or damaged, by the wrath of Dr. Ego. Sometimes, even competence in the same field is enough for Dr. Ego to perceive a threat and go into attack mode. Regrettably, the awe he inspired in a few weaker minded administrators has meant that Dr. Ego's campaigns have met with a fair degree of success. We recently learned that things have now changed.

For some time now, Dr. Ego has been out and about, pimping his/her latest Great Project. These things show up from time to time, and always seem to cost a great deal of money. As we are not a rich school, such projects are a problem as they divert resources from more worthy enterprises. It is also the case that these projects have a bad habit of not actually yielding the hoped for grand results.

It seem though that the latest great project has been Dr. Ego's downfall. Apparently, after much politicking and negotiating, a source of money for the Great Project was found. However, the money was dependant upon Dr. Ego meeting certain goals and getting certain things done. It seems that Dr. Ego did not feel that this was a good use of his/her time. Things did not get done and goals were not met. The upshot of this was that the administration ended up with proverbial egg on their face, and more importantly, the money disappeared again.

This kind of thing has happened in the past. Apparently unconscionable behaviour has been overlooked and ignored, in virtue of the fact that this was the rather special case of Dr. Ego. Not this time though. It seems that Dr. Ego is going to be made to pay a heavy price for this latest transgression.

Previously, Dr. Ego was allowed to run his/her own operations, with minimal oversight and administrative accountability. This will happen no more. Dr. Ego's funding has been unceremoniously cut. This translates in the a roughly 20% cut in salary, due to Summer funding also being withdrawn. Dr. Ego will now have to submit to being a normal faculty member in a regular academic department. Moreover, the office assigned to Dr. Ego in that department is one of the few without a window. This will be quite a change from the palatial suite that Dr. Ego had become accustomed to. However, the coup de gras of Dr. Ego's new situation is that teaching will become important to him/her for the first time ever. Dr. Ego's sentence is a 3/3 load. I do not envy the students.

At some point in the near future, there will be a small gathering of friends. They will be sharing a bottle of champagne to celebrate this turn of events. Just occasionally, it appears possible that there is some justice in this World.

The CP

Monday, April 02, 2007

Philosophy Songs

Most people at some time will have come across the Monty Python The Philosophers' Drinking Song (an audio version can be found here). This song is associated with the Bruce Sketch, that is based upon the philosophy department at the fictitious University of Woolloomooloo.

This is not the only case of songs about philosophers, although it may well be the most famous. It turns out that Professor Alan White, of The University of Wisconsin Colleges also has composed a number of philosophy songs. Some of these song have also been recorded. To see and hear these songs, visit here. Enjoy!

The CP

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Better Reasoning X: Double Negation and Mid-Term

As this is tenth post in the Better Reasoning series, it is worth pausing a moment and taking stock. One thing that comes to mind is that there is one valid inference rule that has not yet been covered. This is the rule known as Double Negation. Using the conventions adopted earlier, the two forms of this rule can be represented as follows;

Not not P.

Not not P,

The idea behind this rule is reasonably intuitive. If someone is described as being 'not unhappy', we know that the speaker means to imply that the person is actually happy. That is to say, we a familiar with cases where two negatives lead to a positive. Conversely, we know that a positive is equivalent to a double negative. For example, if a garbage can is smelly, we know that it is not unsmelly!

One reason for mentioning this rule is that, although it is pretty intuitive, when reasoning, it is useful to have an explicit rule to appeal to, rather than relying on brute intuition, as intuition can go wrong at times. Thus, the rule is worth discussing here, for the sake of completeness. Another reason for bringing up the double negation rule is that it is needed for a certain on-line exercise.

In many classes at Universities that teach better reasoning skills, it is often traditional to have assignments that are graded, or periodic examinations. Thus, it would be nice to have something similar available with this series of posts. It turns out that there is a test readily available on-line.

Before proceeding to the on-line test though, it would be useful to offer some study tips. The test does not cover all the topics discussed in this series. However, it does test the material covered in Better Reasoning IV and Better Reasoning V which both covered the valid argument forms. Prior taking the test, it might be a good idea to review these two posts.

When you feel ready for the challenge of the test, the test can be accessed at,

Better Reasoning On-Line Mid-Term Exam.

Some of the terminology may not be familiar, but the basic logical concepts that have been covered here are the same. Ideally, a person should score a minimum of eight out of ten. Of course ten out of ten would be better, but there are a couple of question that go beyond the material covered here. Should you get a question wrong, read the explanation and try an understand where you made a mistake. Good luck!

The CP


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