Thursday, May 31, 2007

Philosophy Exams

Exams in philosophy can be curious things. Of course, in many instances, they can can be quite mundane exercises, designed to see whether the students have read and thought about the material. However, there is one kind of exam that does not fall into this category. This is the notorious 'philosophical problems' exam.

We do not have an exam of this kind. This is perhaps a pity. However, some programs have an exam in which students are faced with classic philosophical conundrums and asked to respond in philosophically appropriate ways. According to philosophy lore, there was one senior professor who would set the same exam question each year. The question was,

Ask a philosophically interesting question and answer it. Equal credit will be assigned to each part.

Most people are not quite as devious. However, the questions faced by anyone taking the exam can be quite challenging. When I took this examination, there were two questions in particular which stood out. In fact, I can recall their exact wording to this day. These questions were,

1) Can a dog think?
2) Is it possible that you alone exist? If so, then why answer this question?

I actually answered the latter question. As anyone with a little philosophical knowledge will know, this question raises the possibility associated with the philosophical position known as 'Solipsism'. My answer was based upon Wittgenstein's famous Private Language argument. In brief, Wittgenstein argued that there could not be an entirely private language, as language is essentially a public artifact. On this basis, as the question was posed in a language, I argued that although it was possible that I alone existed, it was unlikely to be the case. I then argued, in a manner similar to Pascal's famous wager, that it was prudential to answer the question, rather than not do so. If I recall correctly, I did well on the exam.

Unfortunately, during this exam, the stress proved all too much for one of my fellow students. Some time after the beginning of the exam, he stood up noisily, attracting the attention of everyone in the room. He then announced in a loud voice, "I am an Orange. Oranges do not take philosophy exams". He then started to make odd noises, as he was helped away by the people who were supervising the exam. I personally think that his inference about Oranges and philosophy exams was quite reasonable. It is just a shame that he was mistaken about his being an Orange!

The CP

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Quiet Time...

We are now in what I call 'the quiet time'. The rush of the Spring semester is behind and the Summer classes have not started. This means that there are only a few people on campus. Of course, the office staff are there. However, they spend most of their time playing solitaire, or surfing the Internet. There are no students.

I always find this an interesting time on a campus. It is great time to get research work done. The Library is open, but it too is almost empty. What is really fascinating about this time in the pulse of the University calender is that it becomes possible to figure out who does any research and who does not. The faculty who are around at this part of the year are the ones who are prepared to post their Vitas on-line. They publish. They go to conferences and present. The people one does not see are the ones who do not appear to do any research. They only post vague accounts of their alleged research on their web pages. I guess it is a 'sheep from the goats' thing.

Next week, the Summer semester will start. The quiet time will end, somewhat. Everybody knows that around here the only people who teach in the Summer are people with large child support bills, adjuncts who need the money and a few others who are fiscally desperate and don't care a fig about research. The Summer is one of the very best research opportunities that we have.

The great thing about the 'quiet time' is that one gets to have lunch with people with real research projects. Although we may work in totally different areas, as there are few places open, we often end up in the same place to grab food in the middle of the day. We get to talk and gossip. One can learn a great deal at these sessions. I got to hear about some excellent scandals that were covered up. However, I also got to learn a great deal about an area which interests me, but I do not really know a whole lot about, just today, over a sandwich. I love it.

I guess next week, I will just start shutting my office door again. Maybe I won't have to. We shall see how many students there are. However, I have managed to get a lot of real research done this week and have written a huge amount. It is fun to be part of the 'productive club'. I just wonder what all the other so-called 'professors' are doing?

The CP

Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day

Today is a day that we are asked to remember those who have fallen in battle. This is not unreasonable. However, what this day should not become is an opportunity to glorify war. For all the grandstanding about duty, heroism and patriotism, wars are mostly about the death and maiming of human beings. One of the Commandments of the Old Testament is "Thou Shalt Not Kill." Why does this suddenly seem OK to ignore when wearing a uniform? I include the following clip from YouTube, entitled "Journey's End", to call attention to the results of war. These were the same in the Twentieth Century as they are today.

The CP

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Administrative Strategies

Over the last little while, I have been making a study of the techniques by used by people in administrative positions. It seems that there are a number of methods that one can spot being used over and over again, when administrators find themselves with difficulty. By cataloging some of these, it is possible to gain some insights into the kinds of response one can expect to run into, when as a mere non-administrative mortal, one wishes to get something done, but requires administrative assistance.

Method 1: Avoid saying 'no'.

When an administrator is faced with a request that they wish to deny, a common strategy is not to deny the request. Instead, they simply do not respond at all. The rationale here is quite easy to fathom. People do not like to be told 'no'. Also, if a request appears on the face of it to be reasonable, by saying 'no' an administrator can put themselves in line for criticism. By saying nothing, this is avoided. After long enough, the maker of the request will in all probability forget about it. Thus, not answering is always better than giving a negative answer. This method is also useful when faced with problematic requests for information.

Method 2: Over answer questions.

Occasionally a question will arise that it is impossible to ignore (see method 1). This can happen for a variety of reasons. A good technique to use in such situations is to over answer the question. For example, ensure that the requested information is included somewhere in a series of very long and tedious documents. As a general rule, a couple of pounds of paper should be included for each question asked. This method should be treated with some caution however. It is important that the additional documents are suitably uninteresting so that they in turn cannot cause further difficulties down the line. This method is especially effective if it can be combined with a strict time limit. Even the most trenchant and persistent critic will find it hard to find the answer they are looking for in several pounds of paper, in a twenty-four hour period.

Method 3: In case of trouble, form a committee.

Another excellent method for dealing with problems is to handle them by forming a committee. Once a committee has been proposed, most problems will go away. This is because of the variety of ways that committees can be used to be unhelpful. First off, it can take a while for the appropriate composition of a committee to be determined and agreed. Once the membership is agreed, especially if the committee is a large and diverse one, it can prove extremely difficult to find suitable times for meetings, when all the members do not have other commitments. If no suitable time can be found, after long and strenuous efforts, then a time can be arranged such that only the committee members that are acceptable to administrators can be present. Provided that enough people are present to form a quorum, then suitable decision can be made and the issue can be dealt with (or even ignored) in a manner that suits the administrators.

Even if these steps are not effective, after decisions have been made, a request can be made that the committee present their findings and decisions in the form of the report. Naturally, drafting a report can take quite a while for busy people. Once the report is completed, the committee can try and meet again to approve it, make corrections and so on. Committees can be used as a very effective method for dealing with almost any eventuality. Also, while a committee is completing it's work, administrators can make the decisions they wish to, justifying them on the grounds of expediency. A promise made that changes will be made after a committee reports, almost never needs to be kept, if people even remember it at all.

Method 4: Use promises and inducements.

It is a fact about human nature that individuals will often respond well, if they think that they, or something they care about will be benefited. As a minor example, a troublesome faculty member can often quite easily be placated by the promise of a new computer, or a salary adjustment. It is for a related reason that individuals who are looking for a promotion, or an administrative appointment often make excellent committee members (see method 3). Most people are aware at the imprudence of biting the proverbial hand that feeds. Depending upon the case, a promise alone may often be sufficient. Getting things approved often requires the complicity of numerous other individuals up- the administrative food chain. Use this fact. The longer a person is waiting for preferment, the longer they are likely to keep quiet and do as they are asked. If it proves ultimately necessary to not provide the promised benefit, then appealing to this is also a useful method. There is a fine tradition of blaming Bursar and Comptrollers that should not be ignored. If an inducement can be provided (after a suitably long wait), then it is often a good idea to ensure that the recipient is suitably grateful and will continue to be supportive for some time. This should be clearly indicated to the recipient, albeit in a suitably subtle manner.

As my study of administrative strategies continues, I plan to offer further posts about them here. I would also be interested to hear of other devious administrative methods detected by others.

The CP

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Drills And Clocks

We had a curious event on campus today. It seems that a couple of days ago an e-mail message went out to administrators announcing that the University wanted to test some new emergency procedures, put in place after the Virginia Tech tragedy. Unfortunately, it being after graduation, but before the Summer session, there are very few people on campus, including few administrators. As a consequence, we only got to hear about the drill purely by chance.

The drill consisted of everyone calling a special 'phone number at a certain time. Such an arrangement was decidedly bizarre. How, during a real emergency people are supposed to know when to call, has been left a profound mystery.

Another curious aspect concerned the fact that the exercise was supposed to be timed and coordinated by our institutional clocks. Now, these clocks, at least in my building, are notoriously unreliable. They very seldom tell the correct time. Fortunately, we found one that appeared to be behaving correctly, so that we could participate.

Of course, our clocks these days are relatively new digital ones. Although they do not look as nice as the old analogue models, they at least do not have the habit of suddenly rapidly changing their time in an apparently random manner. When we had the old clocks, I had one class through out which the clock ran backwards at a high rate of speed. It had a bit of a disturbing effect upon the class, as it felt like we were in some weird 1960s low budget time travel movie.

At the appointed hour for the drill today, we all (both of us) dutifully called the special number from our phones. We were greeted by a recording telling us that this was just a drill. Far out! However, the real issue with the whole event is why it was held today. There could not be a worse time to test the phone system. The only people around are a few diligent faculty members, such as myself who are working on research, and office staff. So, how much of a test this really proved to be, we shall probably never learn. However, I now have even less faith in our emergency procedures, although the powers that be can now claim that they have been 'tested'. Yeh, Right.

The CP

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

High Speed Hiatus -- A Retro Reflection

For the last couple of days, my high speed internet connection at home has been on the fritz. I have made the calls. It is being looked into, but as yet there is no answer as to the cause of the problem, or when it will be fixed. Thus, I am forced to use old fashioned dial-up.

Actually, being without a high speed connection is quite an eye opener. I had forgotten how long things used to take at 45.2 Kbps. Of course, part of the problem may also be that these days web pages are getting 'heavier' all the time. By heavier, I mean that they include more and more code, especially the ever evil JavaScript, to make them have more cool features. This is all well and good with a high speed connection, but makes things incredibly slow via dial up.

It is also interesting how many commonly visited sites become totally useless. For instance, although it is probably possible to watch a video clip from YouTube, it would take an eternity to actually download it. Another program I use quite a bit, Skype also barely works at all. This is a particular pain at the moment, as I am collaborating on research and writing with people overseas. Given the differences in time, not being able to chat via Skype from home is a major problem. Hopefully, the high speed gnomes will be fixing things soon.

Actually, on reflection, there are some ways in which I should not really complain about a good 45 Kbps dial up connection. Back in the day, when I was in grad school, I was very happy with a 2400 Kbps connection. Indeed, even with such a narrow data stream, it was still possible to do some quite amazing things and get a good deal of work done.

Back then, I had an especially horrible computer, an IBM XT. This machine had a 4.77MHz processor and a low density floppy disk. It ran DOS 3.2! Unfortunately, the low density disk made it difficult to load software onto the machine. Most useful programs, like Word 4.0 for DOS, were too large to fit onto a single disk. The solution? Using various nifty utilities, like Pkzip and Uuencode, it was possible to compress the software and break it into little files. It was then possible to upload it to a workstation (a Sparc 2, running SunOS 4.0.1, if I recall correctly). One could then download it (overnight!) onto the hard drive of the XT. After putting the parts of the program back together and uncompressing it, one could get the programs to run just fine. Indeed, this is how I got the word processor onto the machine. This was the word processor with which I typed most of the text of my dissertation. I used a similar technique in reverse to get the files off the hard drive and onto a better computer for final formatting and adding tables, equations, figures and all that sort of thing.

I am proud to say, that I still own that old XT and it still runs. It is an amazing bit of equipment. One time, I succeeded in dropping it down an entire flight of stairs. The damage? A dent in the stairs! The machine still run just fine. I guess that is why they called such machines 'Blue Metal'. I am certain that my current laptop would not survive such abuse so well.

To return to the topic of the current connection issue, I am not entirely cut off. I still have an excellent connection in the office, but this is not always ideal. Also, when I am at the office, I am usually working. In fact, just yesterday I sent off a proposal. It is also the case that I feel a little guilty blogging from the office. Even though the semester is over, there is still plenty of research and writing that needs to get done. Thus, the upshot of all this is that posts here may become a little less frequent, until the connection issue is sorted out. However, fear not, this blog is not going away, but it may just slow up a little.

The CP

Sunday, May 20, 2007

To Absent Friends...

Yesterday was a curious day. The main event was that I got to hood my doctoral student at his graduation. I also decided to hold a little get together in my back yard in his honor, and also to honor some other graduates. Things did not go quite as planned.

When I got to the graduation and found my student, he told me that he had not been feeling too well. In fact, his temperature was just below 103 degrees. He also looked a curious color. The ceremony was unbelievable long, with all sorts of silliness, needless speeches and the like. We were there over two hours before the big moment arrived. During this time, my student got progressively worse. At various points, I thought that I may have to take him outside.

Eventually, the big moment arrived. My student rose to the occasion. When we sat back down, he seemed to have been re-energized a little by the experience. This effect did not last too long though. Fortunately, it did not take too long before we were able to process out.

Naturally, after such an event there were family members to meet, photos to be taken, all that stuff. As this progressed, the poor fellow began to look worse and worse. However, he told me quite emphatically that he was determined to make it to his party. It was just going to take a little while. He needed a rest.

I rushed home to discover the party had already begun without me. That was fine. The ceremony took much longer than I anticipated. The other people being honored were there and having fun. I was also very pleased to see someone who did not know anyone there, but who I was very pleased that they managed to show up, had made firm friends with one of my former students.

Initially, I had quite a bit of last moment stuff to get set up. This did not take long. More people arrived. It was going well, but no sign of my student. Eventually, when I was just beginning to worry a little, my phone rang. It was another faculty member. They had stopped by to check on my student. They discovered him in a bad way, with a temperature of 104.5 degrees. Immediately, they decided to take him to the emergency room, as a temperature that high is getting far too close to the danger zone.

So, it transpired that the main guest of honor at the get together did not make it. We got fairly regular updates though, which was nice. I checked on my student today and he is much better. Everyone else had fun, as best as I can tell. I have had a couple of nice phone calls today and a very kind e-mail.

When it came to the champagne toast, there were still two other graduates present, so we added "to X, our absent friend" to the salutation. The last people left a little after 3am. Thus, I am tired today. What a wild day, yesterday turned out to be!

It really does seem even more that having doctoral students is like being a parent. Today, when I talked to the other faculty member, who made the emergency room call last night, we started figuring out how to pay for it, finding my student a job (this looks like it is under control) and sorting out some issues with his living accommodation. Fortunately, I quite like being a parent...

The CP

Thursday, May 17, 2007


This evening I accepted an invitation from a student, a graduating senior, to have dinner with him and his wife at their home. This is a student who is a real character and I have become very fond of. Recently, I treated him and his wife to dinner, to celebrate his graduation, his winning a prize and the news that they are expecting. This was, thus, a 'return match'.

It was a very nice evening. I got to see their home, that they had done major improvements to. The food was wholesome and excellent. We then spent a good deal of time sitting outside by a fire and chatting. Amazingly enough, the weather has taken a temperate turn and this evening was almost a little bit chilly.

It is really nice to see a student mature from being a somewhat callow youth into being a responsible adult. We talked about the future and the possibility of graduate school. However, the feeling I came away with, beyond anything, was what a huge honor it is to help guide someone through the vagaries of higher education into a better life. Sometimes, being a professor has benefits that are worth more than a simple pay check. This evening reminded me very strongly of this fact.

The CP

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Crawfish Boil

As all grades are in, we are now in the transitional period of the end of the semester. We get e-mails from students complaining about grades. There are events honoring various folks and there are other events that celebrate the end of the spring. This evening was one of the latter kind of event.

One of the wonderful traditions in my part of Louisiana is the Crawfish Boil. I attended one today. The crawfish were plentiful and spicy. The beer was cold. Unfortunately, the band was bad, so they were ignored. However, it is just a wonderful thing to hang out with a few people one knows and a larger bunch of people that one will get to know and eat crawfish.

For those readers who have never eaten crawfish, they are a little like small lobsters, although they live in fresh water. When boiled they go red. To eat them, there is no way to do it politely. Hands are the only way to go. After tearing off the head, the trick is to peel off the first band of the shell and then pull the tail out and eat it. They taste fabulous! They are traditionally served with cobs of corn and potatoes, boiled in the spiced water.

Should you ever have the chance to eat boiled crawfish, I would recommend the experience. However, I am certain that it is best done in Louisiana!

The CP

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

An Odd Observation

I was asked to move a vehicle today, by a friend. It was a fancy SUV, very different from my vehicle. It was kind of fun to sit in the lap of luxury. After a little while, my friend told me that she was going to the gym. Apparently, she needed a work out on her arms. Driving her SUV would certainly give no exercise to her arms. Power steering made things all too easy.

My vehicle is not exactly new, or fancy. I also never feel a need to go to a gym to get an arm work out. My vehicle does not have power steering. If I want a work out, I can just try a bit of precision driving in a tight parking lot in my vehicle. Is there not something odd in this whole situation? It certainly seemed that way to me. With my 'senior' vehicle, I save myself a gym membership. Does that not, in a certain way, make more sense?

The CP

Monday, May 14, 2007

A Great Answer!

Today was a day of grading final exams. Not nice, but the big push is almost done. I did come across one answer though that was a complete classic and is worth sharing.

One short answer question asked, "Why did Kant believe that synthetic a priori judgements were possible?". One student answered,

"Kant believed synthetic a priori judgements were possible, because he hates me."

It really cracked me up, when I read this. Although there was no credit for this answer, the student did pass.

The CP

Sunday, May 13, 2007

End Of The Line: A Commencement Address

It is unlikely that I will ever be asked to deliver a commencement address. I am known for telling things as they are. This is not the kind of thing that is appreciated at commencement type events. However, if I were ever asked to deliver such a speech, these are the kinds of things I would have to say.

In the Prologue to his work Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote,

"Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman—a rope over an abyss."

At an event such as a commencement, a speaker such as myself is expected to congratulate you for navigating the rope over the abyss and transforming yourselves into superpersons. Thus, in a cautious way, I will offer you congratulations. However, let me warn you, despite all the pride and pretty words, for many of you, you will find that the abyss lies ahead.

Around you sit your peers, your professors and your friends and family. Many of us are dressed up like you in crazy outfits. There will be hand shakes, there will be photos, there will be hugs and kisses. This should be a happy time. However, do not be fooled, in someways this event is not much different than a funeral, albeit one that is cleverly disguised.

In a little while, you will hear a speaker from the alumni association talk. They will give a predictable speech. Last time I counted, the speech had forty-two euphemisms in it for 'give us your money'. You have been warned.

You might ask why all the effort is made to go through such a ritual as this. This simple answer is this: money. Your University has discovered that you family and friends become suckers for 'official photographs', 'official videos' and other memorabilia. Thus, a good part of the purpose of this event is really not much different from some glorified infomercial.

The really sad part about it though is that for a large number of you, after all the talk of pride, achievement and other upbeat buzz words is done, you will almost certainly be left with a sense of bereavement.

For at least the last four years, you have been granted a fair degree of independence, with few responsibilities. You have been able to wear what you wish -- flip-flops, shorts and tee-shirts has become a common uniform for many of you. You have been able to arrange your own schedule, to a certain degree. You have been able to hang out with people your own age, as you have all pursued a common goal, graduation. Now that goal has been reached, what is going to happen next? This is a tough question.

When you left high school, you were able to keep some of your friends, as they too went to college. Even if you did not go to the same college, you could still relate to one another, as you still had many experiences in common -- the annoying required classes, the odd professors, and so on. However, now that you are graduating, things are going to change radically.

For a while, you will be able to keep up with your college friends, but only for a little while. After a couple of new cell phones, many of the phone numbers will get lost. People's e-mails will change. Even those you still keep track of will begin to mutate, as their lives take a path that is very different and alien from yours. Soon, there will be little to say to one another.

You see after college, there is no single path to follow. Some of you will go to graduate and professional school. Others will get jobs. There will be still others who will just kind of disappear.

Thus, what this event today marks more than anything else is what may be one of the most traumatic transitions of your young lives. For those of you in your early twenties, you will have spent around one fifth of your lives in the college environment. As of today, that will be gone. There will be no more worrying about midterms and finals, which may be a relief. However, the things that you will have to worry about will be more scary, paying bills, getting to work on time, dealing with a stupid boss. Worse yet, there is no graduation from the rest of life. There is no end. You will just have to get through the best you can.

So, in closing, I want to wish you all luck. I also want to commiserate with you all. The one good and important thing to remember is that you will not be the first person to feel this sense of loss, nor will you be the last. Just keep in mind when all the pomp of today is done, that this is probably what lies ahead. Get through it and then try your level best to do what you can to make the world a better place. This is all that we can each do.

The CP

Thursday, May 10, 2007

View From The Trenches

Today was another huge grading day. Groan. However, I have finished all my undergraduate final papers, so that is a relief. All have left now are my graduate student papers. They are generally much more interesting and fun.

As I finished grading yesterday, I came across a paper that set off the proverbial 'alarm bells'. It was an excellent paper, in fact, just a bit too good. I really hate plagiarizers, as they take so much time to sort out, during the part of the semester when time is shortest. I did a bit of Googling on distinctive phrases last night, but did not find anything.

This morning, I set to figuring things out once and for all, with this anomalous paper. If Google fails to reveal a source, then there are other methods. One of my favorite is to check the bibliography. A few citations to journals and books which are not in our library can be quite damning. Again, I struck out. There was one citation that was clearly wrong, and another that was just plain odd, but the rest were all in the library. What I could not figure out was how the student knew about a number of fairly sophisticated arguments, that were not covered in the class.

My next strategy was to ask a co-worker to give the paper a look. This proved to be the correct step to take. It turned out the fellow in the office next door knows the student. He recognised the writing style. He also explained that the student is also in one of his classes where the more sophisticated arguments and concepts were discussed. Thus, I was wrong this time. Rather than having detected a cheat, I have an excellent student instead. This is an outcome I prefer.

In other news, I have been trying to figure out whether or not to accept yesterdays job offer. It is a tough call. Somethings are easy to arrange, other things are proving to be more problematic. It is hard to get a straight answer out of some people! If I accept though, it will provide some employment for my doctoral student who just completed. I will have to keep plugging away at this.

Finally, I want to commend the inventors of the ipod. Wearing an ipod and listening to music most definitely helps with the tedious process of grading paper after paper. I strongly recommend this method. It also provides an excellent opportunity to rediscover some of the more obscure corners of one's music collection (this is the joy of the shuffle function).

The CP

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Job Offer

Today was a busy day. I had a 10am meeting. I also had a 1.30pm meeting and then there was a 5.30pm event. However, the big event happened at noon. I did a job interview by video conference. It seemed that they liked what I had to say.

Later this afternoon, my cell phone went and I was told that they wanted to make me an offer. Were the situation to be ceteris paribus this would be beyond cool. This is a very good university, in a very good program. Unfortunately, there are a couple 'howevers'. The position is only a one year temporary gig. Being in a good place for a year should be fun, so this should be good. I have tenure so that this should not matter. Then there is the second 'however'. It seems that there are major health care issues. If I take this position, I could lose all my retirement benefits accumulated so far. Given the changes in the system, this could be a big hit, albeit one I will get years from now.

There may be ways around this. I have calls in to all the health system hackers that I know in the State. I have not heard back from a couple I would have like to have heard from by now. I am worried about the propensity in this neck of the woods to not tell bad news. Just not replying is easier. Maybe I will hear from them tomorrow. I have my fingers crossed.

In the meantime, I have a tough question to face. Do I want to roll the dice and make it difficult for me to stay in my present position in the long term, or do I play it safe? This is a real quandary. Any suggestions would be welcome.

The CP

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Galileo And Grading

On his death bed in 1642, Galileo Galilei was reputed to have said with his dying breath,

"I do not feel obliged to believe that that same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."

I have spent the day grading final papers and, if we take Galileo seriously, then I am forced to conclude that some of my students must be a Godless lot. How after a full semester some of them can still manage to spell Locke's name 'Lock' and Berkeley's name 'Berkley' is quite beyond me. Stranger still is the fact that some of them use both spellings in the same paper. I guess the power of modern spell checkers has taught some to forget the gentle art of proof reading. Fortunately, it is only a few who have forgone the use of reason and intellect. It is still annoying though.

The CP

Monday, May 07, 2007

A Scary Debt Card Vacation

As a general rule, I am not a huge fan of banks. As best I can tell, banks charge large fees to let people get at their own money. Sometimes my views get a little less jaundiced. Today was one of those times.

Around lunchtime today, I took a walk to get a sandwich. While I was en route to the sandwich shop, I stopped by the ATM as I was getting a little low on cash. When I put my card into the machine, it told me that it could not help me. I assumed that it was some computer problem and went and got some lunch. After eating, I tried again, with the same result. As there was someone in front of me who had no problem, I figured that there could be an issue.

When I got back to the office I called the bank. After several annoying menus where they tried to entice me into buying all sorts of financial services from them, I managed to get through to a human being. There was indeed a problem with my ATM card, a fraud alert had been called on it. I was passed on to the security people at the bank.

What the security people told me made my blood run cold. Apparently, this morning I had made a purchase of nearly $1000 at some outfit called 'ABC Leather Kingdom' in Florida. This had been followed by another large purchase from a shirt manufacturing place. Fortunately, the bank software thought that the purchases looked suspicious and had cancelled my ATM card. This was why I could not get any money.

To be quite frank, I was aghast! I was also slightly concerned about the kinds of leather goods that might have been purchased in my name. A quick look at the website assured me that I was not forever going to be associated with a cat o' nine tails and some leather studded boxer shorts. That at least was a relief! However, how my card number got to Florida is a mystery to me. I seldom use my debit card other than at the ATM and in my boring local grocery supermarket. I would never use it on-line. Yet, somehow my number was grabbed.

I was also very impressed by the bank software. It had spotted the leather purchase as suspicious. This is amazing. I admit that I am not one to buy many leather goods, but how could it figure out it was not me? I travel quite a bit and end up buying all sorts of odd stuff, yet I have never had a problem.

So, although my bank account is currently empty, I will be getting my money back. The timing is not great, as I have bills to pay, but it beats the alternative. I have a new temporary card and a proper new card on the way. When the bank finishes up the paper work, I will get my money back, so all is well that ends well. However, it is still a little scary. In the meantime, I am trying to recall whether I have used this card in some less than entirely reputable gas station, but I just don't think so. I think that next time my debit card goes on vacation to Florida, it should be good enough to take me with it!

The CP

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Seventy Years Ago Today

It was exactly seventy years ago today that the famous Hindenburg Disaster occurred. We have all probably seen the footage and heard the commentary, but as a reminder here it is again.

This disaster took place at Lakehurst, New Jersey, USA, on May 6, 1937 at around 7.30 in the evening. Thirty-six people were killed. A great deal of information about the ship and the incident can be found at, the home page of the Hindenburg Historical Society.

One of the things which made the impact of this disaster so great was that it was the first live news event that was broadcast on the radio from coast to coast. Indeed, Herbert Morrison's blow by blow account of the disaster is a classic bit of radio broadcasting.

One thing that is generally less well known about this event is that, to this day, nobody is really sure about what caused the disaster. There are many theories, but no firm conclusions.

What I find interesting though is the fact that although seventy years ago is a long time ago, it is also not really that long ago. There are many people alive today who were both alive and old enough to notice when the Hindenburg Disaster took place. That being said, the very familiarity of the footage also serves to make it appear to be long ago in the past.

It is certainly the case that the world has changed a great deal in the intervening seventy years. Back then, there were no national television networks and certainly no Internet. Indeed, the first computers were constructed just a few years after this event. Yet despite these massive changes, there are folks who lived during that era and are living today. This, I believe, provides a fascinating perspective on how the world changes over time. I wonder how the World will change in the next seventy years?

The CP

Saturday, May 05, 2007

On Paper

Although computer files, .pdf, .doc, etc. are very useful, they have their limits. While it is handy to be able to move files around and store them by e-mail, on CDs and on flash drives, there are still cases where paper is still the best medium.

It is now the time of the semester, when I have to deal with a great deal of paper. My graduate students are completing their research projects. The undergrads are handing in their final papers. There is a lot of paper in my life at the moment!

Some students have started asking recently whether they can e-mail their papers to me. I know that some institutions require this, so that papers can be checked against plagiarism databases. Although I am a huge fan of e-mail in most contexts, this is not one of them. In addition to the ever present danger of the kind of virus that can hide in common file types (.doc files are particularly bad for this), there are often issues which can arise with printing papers out. In my experience, printers are amongst the least reliable bits of computer technology. They especially like to go wrong, run out of toner, etc. when the pressure is on. I think that Mr. Murphy, of the famous law, secretly haunts printers, especially at this time of the semester.

The great thing about a paper in hard copy is that one has space, margins and between the lines, where one can make comments. Not only is this useful for the students, as it gives them feedback on their work (if they read the comments, something I am never entirely certain about), it is also useful to me to help me remember what is happening in the paper being graded. When going through many papers on the same, or very similar topics, during the usual necessary grading marathon, there is always a danger of getting the faults of one paper confused with another one. Thus, being able to leave comments, like a trail of breadcrumbs, actually helps with the grading process.

So, although it is kind of 'retro' and perhaps a bit 'fuddy-duddy', I quite like paper in this kind of context. I have seen software that purports to provide many similar functions, but have seldom found it satisfactory. Almost always, one runs into version compatibility issues and the like. One then spends time fighting the technology, when one could be grading. This is not a helpful outcome.

Another great advantage of papers that come in on paper is that they are eminently portable. If the weather is nice, one can easily carry the papers, a couple of pens, the questions sheet and the class list to whatever location one desires. One can grade in the park, one can grade at a cafe, one can grade in the office, or at home, depending on one's mood. I often like to move around, when grading, so I think that this is an especially strong advantage.

As I turn my attention to the stack of papers I have waiting for me, I rejoice that these papers are still printed on paper.

The CP

Thursday, May 03, 2007

More On Chickens And Eggs

Almost a year ago, in a post with the title On Chickens, I wrote about the 'sport' of cockfighting, which is still legal in the State of Louisiana. This is now something of a legal anomaly. Recently, New Mexico, the only other State where this activity was legal, outlawed it.

The banning of cockfighting was debated by the Louisiana State Legislature last year. The motion to ban the activity was defeated on the grounds that it would have too severe a negative impact on rural economies. This issue has come up again in this years session.

It seems that this year that the outcome may be different. According to today's Daily Advocate a House panel has agreed to a ban on cockfighting, beginning in 2008. The ban will not come into force immediately, so as to provide time from people employed in this activity to find alternative employment.

What is truly amazing is that it has taken Louisiana until 2008 to ban an activity that was banned in England and Wales in 1849. I guess we are catching up slowly. Now poultry will only have to fear Ronald McDonald's McNugget tycoons and the evil Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Rodent fame. If things continue at this rate though, Louisiana can anticipate a sensible State Health Service by 2168, or so. I am happy for the chickens that run in the streets of my neighbourhood though. I am sure that they would be celebrating, if they were not such bird brains!

As this post is rapidly degenerating, I will close with another good bit of news. At long last, there appears to be an answer to the perennial question of which came first, the chicken, or the egg. It appears that the answer is...[drum roll] the egg! Although the matter is still contentious, it is now widely believed that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs (Creationists and other nut jobs may tune out at this point). Give that it is known that dinosaurs laid eggs, it follows that the egg must have come before the chicken! Of course, this leaves the more interesting question of which came first, the dinosaur, or the egg...

The CP

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Academic Parenthood

When I was a graduate student, I was in the slightly odd position of having two advisers for my dissertation. There was one in particular who I was quite close to, due to the fact that they had also supervised my Master's thesis.

This particular individual once explained to me an interesting metaphor about academics and their doctoral students. In the view of this individual, dissertation advisers are in some sense the academic parents of their graduate students. I have always rather liked this metaphor. When I first became a dissertation advisor, I attempted to emulate the way that my advisers had behaved. Often this was just little things, like paying for meals and passing on useful and interesting information. However, as this is much like what biological parents do, it made me realise that the metaphor had some considerable power.

As is the case with biological parents, the relationship was not just one sided. There was give and take. Upon occasion, when I had to be out of town for a conference, my student would drop by my house to feed and entertain my cats.

The reason for mentioning this metaphor today is because, as of this morning, for the very first time, I became an academic parent. My doctoral student successfully defended their dissertation. Although the final moments were kind of fraught, with late hours, working through drafts which always appeared to show up just a little later than was ideal, the dissertation was completed (just) in time. I guess this process is a bit like the child birth process. However, when graduation comes around, there will be one more shiny new PhD in the world. The dissertation also turned out to be surprisingly good in the end.

The thing that is curious is that when I got a moment (there was a lot of paperwork to get done and a celebratory lunch to hold as well), I felt compelled to drop a line to both my dissertation advisers, telling them the news. The experience of doing this, was not too dissimilar to that of making the calls about a newly arrived child. So, my student's academic grandparents have now been informed. What was interesting, was that in one of the replies, I learned the name of my academic grandparent for the first time. Now, I will be able tell my student of their entire academic family tree.

At the moment at least, I really like this parental metaphor. Of course, as is the case when one becomes a biological parent, the work is never done. The next thing that I have to look into is getting my student gainfully employed, until the next job/post-doc season opens up. However, all in all, this has been a pretty wonderful day.

The CP

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Today if the first of May. This is the traditional date of the feast of Beltane. This is a feast that is popular in Celtic regions of the world. It marks the beginning of Summer. There are many various traditions associated with it. Perhaps the best known of these is the Maypole. Obviously, there is quite a phallic component to this icon of the festival. Beltane is also one of those feasts that is often celebrated with fire. So, I hold up a light and light a candle.

In more modern times, the first of May also became the day to celebrate organized labor and trades unionism. Unfortunately, this is an association that has lost much of it's currency, at least in the US, due to the comparative weakness of the trades union movement. Originally, the date was chosen to celebrate the Haymarket martyrs of 1886. These individuals were crucial to the establishment of the eight hour work day.

Unfortunately, at this time of the semester, professors can only dream of eight hour work days. To everyone else involved in the final 'big push' towards the end of the semester, I wish you luck too. Perhaps you would also care to light a candle?

The CP
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