Saturday, June 30, 2007

Random Eight Blog Game

They say that lightening does not strike twice. I hope that someone has told the lightening about this. However, in blog 'games' (as I prefer to call them rather than the more common term 'meme', which somehow seems inappropriate), one can get struck twice. I have been tagged twice in the eight random facts blog game, first by Tim Lacy and then by The Tenured Radical. In fact, the Radical was tagged by both Tim and by Adjunct Whore.

Apparently, the nature of this game is such that one has to first come up with eight random facts about one's self and post them one one's blog. Hopefully, these facts should be interesting, or perhaps surprising. Hopefully, people will avoid facts that are too disturbing. It should also be the case that these facts are actually true (some people may find it hard to conform to this suggestion). The second stage is that one has to then tag eight other people to also play the game. Of course, one is also supposed to explain the rules too, as I have just done.

So, here are my eight random facts:

  1. I once denied the current Governor of the State of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco, access to a VIP area, because she lacked the proper pass, even if she did have a State trooper with her (she was Lieutenant Governor at the time).

  2. As an undergraduate, I worked doing security at rock and roll venues. I worked with the Pogues, Dr. and The Medics, Huska Du, Billy Bragg and The Sisters of Mercy, to name a few. At a concert by The Lords of The New Church, I fell off stage, into the crowd.

  3. I speak a few words of Cree and can read Classical Chinese, albeit very slowly.

  4. Neither of my parents graduated from college and I dropped out after my first year, only to go back later.

  5. I play the mandolin. I also play backgammon at the expert level.

  6. I once had a rear wheel blow out on a motorcycle, while doing over 120 m.p.h. However, I managed to control the machine and did not even fall off.

  7. I once disarmed a guy with a gun, armed with nothing but pure rhetoric. This was because I was unarmed and the gun was pointed at me at the time. I had few other options.

  8. I have had my poetry published. Unfortunately, I have lost the text of every poem that was published.

What can I say? I have always attempted to misspend my youth as efficiently as possible!

Ok, now I have to nominate eight other bloggers to participate in this game. I choose Bardiac, Lumpenprofessoriat, Dr. Crazy, Indexed (how that turns out could be interesting!), Dr. Virago, Flavia, (these last two are not really fair, as they have been travelling, but what the hell), Anastasia and ToastedSuzy. If they get lucky, I may even mention to these folks that they have been tagged.

The CP

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Old Man And The Frog

This evening, I went walking in my neighbourhood. I like to walk. It is a good way to get exercise and in my neighbourhood, it is a good way to find out what is going on. As I was walking, a car stopped. It was one of the older residents. This is a man I know. A true community leader. He wanted to chat.

For a while we chatted in the street, then we went back to his house as his car was blocking the road. It is important to know that the neighbourhood that I live in is historically important. It has been a place for Free People of Color since before the civil war.

There have been some changes in this neighbourhood of late. Out of State corporations have been moving in. This mostly is motivated by post 2005 Hurricane money that is available. I have been quite active in trying to defend the area and it's history from these outside invasions.

The senior gentleman wanted to chat about recent developments. In this last week, this little area has gained over $300k in support from various sources. We talked at length about how best to spend the money. Now, I am very far from the only person involved and responsible for this. However, I have played a significant role in making these things happen. I am proud of being able to play this role.

It is amazing when one reads the silly blogs about race issues how few of them talk about taking concrete steps to actually make things better. Indeed, they appear to be racists, in politically correct clothing. They hand out harassment and attract similarly inclined flakes and fools. However, they never mention anything practical that they have done. Far more important than spouting politically correct views (or not, as the case may be), is taking steps that actually make a difference. Actions speak much louder than mere words.

After my walk when I got home, on the steps to my house, I was met by a frog. This was unusual. Toads I see often, but frogs are quite rare. I was happy to see the frog, just as I was happy to see my old friend. I wonder how many of the politically correct racists can claim such things?

The CP

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Bye Bye Blair, Plus Audrey

I. Blair's Legacy
So, Britain's Tony Blair is finally gone from office. Not before time. It seems that the UK has a habit of having long serving Prime Ministers. Blair was in office for a decade. Prior to the Blair era, Margaret Thatcher was in office from 1979 to 1990. Both of these individuals caused great harm to the UK, as best as I can tell.

Blair, of course, will be remembered first and foremost for his complicity with the Bush administration in exaggerating the case for going to war in Iraq. It was fitting to see on the news that even on his last day in office, Blair be heckled by anti-war demonstrators. It is interesting to note that Thatcher also managed to get Britain into a war, of dubious merit. That was the Falklands conflict. The one difference though between them is that at least Thatcher managed to win her war, unlike Blair.

It is interesting to note that although Thatcher and Blair were of ostensibly different political leanings (Thatcher was a conservative, somewhat akin to US Republicans, while Blair was Labour, akin to US Democrats), their policies had many consistent themes. Thatcher attacked the trades union movement. Her most notorious action was the epic Miner's Strike, that effectively destroyed the British Coal industry, and the communities and traditions associated with it. Instead, Thatcher favoured the business people of the City of London. In a series of policies that became known as "selling the family silver", she privatised many of the previously State owned industries, with disastrous consequences.

Although the British Labour party traditionally had strong ties with the labour unions, these ties were not honored under Blair. Instead, Blair favoured an ever increasing army of consultants and spin doctors. Under Blair, venerable and worthwhile British institutions such as the National Health Service have experienced a serious decline.

Perhaps the most damaging of Blair's policies was the increasing use of so-called Private Finance Initiatives (PFI). This was a strategy under which private businesses were contracted to build new schools and hospitals, rather than having these funded by the government. Although in most cases the argument for the adoption of PFI schemes was made on the basis of reduced projected costs, these costs seldom materialised. In fact, PFI schemes notoriously have cost overruns and frequently the corporations involved renegotiated their deals with the government when they found that their profit margins were not high enough.

Apart from being a prodigious waste of public money, PFI schemes have had a bad track record of delivering the promised services. This though is not the really sad part about them. Even if the money that was wasted on consultants putting together these PFI schemes is overlooked, these schemes are at best short sighted. The true crime of these PFI schemes is that they lock public services, like health and education, into expensive contractual arrangements for years into the future. Thus, even when the ridiculous war in Iraq has been forgotten (probably after it is abandoned), the Blair legacy will be these schemes. The British public services, that were once fine and august institutions will be tied to expensive contracts. This may be intentional though. What better excuse could be found by a government for insisting on a further encroachment of industry into previously publicly provided services? Thus, both Blair and Thatcher have sold out the people of Britain and their institutions to base mercantile forces. This is the reason the legacy of neither is anything to be proud of.


II. Hurricane Audrey, 50 Years Ago
It was 50 years ago today that coastal Louisiana was visited by Hurricane Audrey. This was a notorious storm, that killed over 500 people. There is a fascinating and excellent discussion of this storm, along with some comparison between it and the 2005 Hurricane Rita, that hit roughly the same area, over at Dr. Jeff Masters' WunderBlog. It is well worth a visit, as it has some wonderful graphics and some moving first hand tales linked to it. There is also an interesting comparison between Audrey and Rita over at Lafayette weatherman Rob Perillo's blog. That too is an interesting read. In Louisiana, hurricanes are important events. Since the beginning of this month, we have been watching the Gulf of Mexico with some trepidation. Fortunately, there has been little to worry about, as yet. We shall see if this remains the case as the season progresses. Our fingers are crossed.

The CP

Monday, June 25, 2007

Writing And Code Hacking

Posts have been getting a bit scarce around this blog of late. Sorry about that. The reasons are pretty simple to explain. With my computer unreliable after the lightening strike, several on going projects fell behind. I have been working on catching up.

There have been two main tasks that I have been concentrating on. The first concerned the research puzzle, that I have mentioned here before. Eventually, I was able to figure out a solution to the difficulties I had run into. Basically, by looking at some slightly older work, I can still provide a theoretical justification for the more technical research. I have already started writing the paper up and the prose is flowing very smoothly. I guess sometimes a bit of a break from work can actually produce beneficial results. It is looking like this is going to turn into an excellent paper.

The other big project concerns hacking HTML code. Some time ago, I discovered that a good friend of mine is running for an elected office. He is an excellent fellow. In addition, he is running against a local politician who is a profound buffoon. I really dislike this latter guy, as in his previous post, he sold out his constituents. Thus, I offered to build the campaign web site for my friend.

It has been a while since I have done a major bit of HTML code hacking. I had forgotten how easy it was and also how much plain tedium is involved. However, I am very happy with the way that the web site is shaping up. It is now about half done.

So, for the next few days, things here may remain a little sparse, until I can get at least the web site project under control. I hope that, in at most a couple of days, things will be back to normal. Thanks to all the folks who keep visiting this blog, even though I have not been posting too much. Your loyalty is appreciated!

The CP

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Trust And Academia

In response to my last posting,, the blogger Olddeadmeat left a long and thoughtful comment. In the comment, my observation that academia presupposes a degree of trust was cited. Olddeadmeat asked, and then remarked,

"Do you refer to trust between academics, between academics and students or between academics and the public? If the latter, I think the Ivory Tower may risk bankruptcy."

The contention here was then supported by a bunch of studies. I think that this is an interesting topic that deserves some further amplification. I will try and answer the questions too.

I don't think that it is too much of a surprise that the public do not trust academics. The main reason that this is probably the case is because most people do not really understand what goes on in higher education. This is made clear, for example, when being introduced to someone new as a professor, they respond by saying things like "Oh, so you are a teacher then?" Even students seem to have only a minimal awareness of the real role of faculty. Given that we naturally distrust those things we do not understand, this in part explains the reason for public distrust of academics.

Before returning to this issue though, let me address the issue of trust between academics and students and between one another. It is fairly obvious that students have to trust their professors to some degree. When they come to class, they come to learn things. There is a presumption that the professor knows what they are talking about, on the part of the students. Hopefully, for the most part, this trust is well placed. Of course, this does not mean that professors do not make the odd mistake. This is the reason why it is important for students to feel free to question their professors. Such questions can often be pedagogically important too, as they can reveal points about which the students have become confused about. Students must also trust that faculty will grade them fairly. Although there may be the odd complaint from time to time, students seldom question this (it happened to me exactly once in over a decade).

Do the faculty trust the students? I think that, within limits, this too can be answered in the affirmative. We do have to be on our guard against the occasional cheat, or plagiarist, but we seldom scan every paper checking that it did not come from some web site. This would just take too long. By asking carefully worded questions, it is quite easy to make it difficult for students to behave in a dishonest way. Also, with a few years of teaching experience, it becomes pretty easy to spot the students who appear to be odd. Thus, we must trust our students, at least by default.

The question of whether academics trust one another is a little more complex. When we submit papers, we trust that editors will send our work to referees who are competent and qualified to judge our work. This methodology also helps to ensure that badly mistaken, or even fraudulent data and claims do not appear in print. When we read a paper in a respectable journal, we are inclined to trust that the editor, referees and the author(s) have done their jobs conscientiously and that the claims made are at least plausible. There are even rating systems for journals, which convey a crude measure of the amount of trust that can be placed in a paper that appears in the journal. Thus, at least in the context of published research, academics do trust one another.

What complicates matters is that we may not trust our co-workers and administrators. They too are academics. Faculty members who do not publish, I believe to be inherently untrustworthy. If their ideas cannot stand external independent scrutiny, then what certainty is there that their views are really up to date and informed? When it comes to administrators, they are often distrusted by normal line faculty. As administrative positions are inherently political, to some extent, this distrust is quite natural. This distrust is even more natural, when a person's appointment is fundamentally political. I have written about this issue before.

So, I think that the trust that academics have in one another is a function of the roles played by the individuals. In addition, personality also plays a role in these kinds of interaction. This is why the situation is more complex than the case with students.

Now, let me return to the issue of academia and public trust. As I mentioned earlier, members of the public do not trust academics in part because they do not understand what we do. The belief that academics are just teachers is surprisingly common, even amongst students. This is one of the reasons why I believe that it is important to explain to students a little more about the nature of our jobs. If one attends conferences that arise during the semester, then this is a necessity anyway. This is one of the reasons being active in the profession has broader benefits.

One traditional formula is that an academic position should consist of roughly one third research, one third teaching and one third administration. This seems about right to me. If the public only considers the teaching component, then it is no surprise that academics look lazy, with their long vacations. That being said, this is also the reason why 'dead wood' faculty members are such a problem. I believe that non-publishing faculty members are in some sense, betraying the public trust (even if the public do not understand this). Thus, we should do whatever we can to help the broader populace understand what actually goes on in the Ivory Tower.

It is worth pausing here to mention that the requirement of active scholarship does not apply equally to all faculty. Some are employed in primarily teaching roles. For these individuals, the requirements are not the same. However, my comments should apply to all faculty with a research expectation and a commensurately lighter teaching load.

Now the issue arises of whether the public actually should trust academics, even if they do not. I would say, again the answer should be 'yes'. Although at any institution that employs a large number of people there will be a sub-set of individuals who suffer from mental illnesses, substance abuse issues, and other vices, by an large many faculty members are pretty responsible. Of course, there will also be a few who are terminally idle, who cancel classes for no reason, who spend their time when not teaching decorating their houses, playing golf, or working in their yards. However, there are mechanisms in place at most institutions to ensure that these folks cannot keep up such behaviours for too long, before getting caught.

That being said, it is an unfortunate fact that higher education institutions are inherently conservative bodies. This means that it can take a very long time for problems to get rectified. However, by everybody doing their jobs responsibly, there are reasons to have faith that, over the long term, we academics are providing value to society, even if that society is unaware of what is going on. After all, academic institutions have been around for a long time. There is a reason for this longevity.

The CP

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Academia And Business

If I recall correctly, it was in the 1980s, during the Thatcherite and Reaganomics era, that the notion that businesses were inherently efficient came to the fore. The contrast class to this claim was that governmental and similar arrangements were supposed to be inherently flawed. The rise of this pair of claims had the effect, and still has the effect, of making the idea that the adoption of business principles popular as a means of reforming institutions, including academic ones.

This phenomenon is seen from time to time on campuses when administration types come up with 'bright' ideas, like departments developing 'business plans'. The same set of values also appears to motivate the current epidemic of private consultants from industry being hired for their advice. My contention here, is that these are a fundamentally misguided set of ideas.

The goal of a business, or a corporation is to make money, or at the very least (for public entities) to increase shareholder value. Thus, a fiscal measure is the simple metric of success in this environment. There is nothing intrinsically problematic with this, unless this metric is applied in the wrong circumstance. It seems to me that academia is an environment where this measure is really a very poor fit.

The first thing to keep in mind is that there has been a history of businesses and corporations indulging in questionable practices in order to achieve their goals. The history of the downfalls of Enron, Worldcom, Arthur Anderson and similar organisations stand in mute testimony to how the profit motive can lead to bad choices. Of course, the recent list of corporate scandals provides many more instructive examples. In each of these cases, ethical considerations were given a secondary role to pecuniary advantage. This should be a red flag that there is an incompatibility between academic values and business values.

One of the most important virtues in the academic world is (or at least, should be) high ethical standards. We expect (hope?) that students will not plagiarise. We assume that researchers do not falsify their results. While there are some checks and balances in place and there have occasionally been some well publicised cases of fraud, by and large trust is the main currency in the Ivory Tower. Without this, we would spend more time checking up on one another, than actually doing any productive work. So, if an assumption of high ethical standards is fundamental to academia and the world of business does not adhere to these same standards, then there is an intrinsic problem with any attempt to graft business practices into the academic environment.

There is also a deeper confusion which lies at the heart of the assimilation of business values into academia. In business, value can be measured in monetary terms. However, such a measure is not applicable in academia. What is the 'value' of a good paper in a first rate journal? How many dollars should be applied to inspiring a student to pursue further study of a subject? There have been naive operationalist attempts at quantifying such things, but the results are at best laughable. More abstract values associate with academia, like the value associated with a well educated populace, that is skilled in critical thinking, are impossible to measure in a manner similar the the simplistic monetary metric. The point crucial point here is that there are many kinds of values. These values cannot be reduced to one another.

Now, this is not supposed to mean that academia should be permitted to engage in fiscal irresponsibility. Deans and other administrators have to ensure that units operate within budgetary guidelines and in a sensible manner. However, these guidelines merely provide the parameters within which the broader goals of increasing knowledge and educating the populace have to be achieved. These latter goals should always have precedence.

Thus, the attempt to use the business model in academia is doomed to failure, at least in terms of being a method for achieving academically proper goals. While people insist upon trying to enforce the ideology of business in academic circles, the results can only be detrimental to the main goals of academic institutions. So, such attempts should be resisted by every means possible.

The CP

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Ring Solstice Bells!

Tonight is the night of the Summer Solstice, the shortest night of the year. All over the world this is a time for celebration. There are many things that are celebrated on this night. For example, in Ireland and Spain, they will begin celebrating St. John's Eve. This is just one of many. However, not in Louisiana. This is a bit of a surprise, as almost any excuse for a party or a festival is popular here.

The actual Solstice this year will occur tomorrow, the 21st at 18.06 UTC (1.06pm EST). This is the time when Summer officially starts, at least in popular culture (there are many more complex theories). This means that it is the day when the Sun is highest in the sky. So, this is a significant milestone of any year.

The name 'Solstice" is also of interest. It comes from Latin and literally means 'Sun stands still'. After the Solstice, the days start getting shorter and the nights longer. There is a rich set of traditions associated with the Solstice. According to those of a Pagan inclination, it is a day when the Goddess manifests as Mother Earth and the God as the Sun King. It is a traditional time for people to gather together. It is certainly an excellent time to decide to have a party. I have done this quite a few times. The parties have always been a tremendous successes.

Some of the traditions associated with this time of the year include building a large fire, to welcome the Sun and then to stay up to greet the Sun rise in the early morning. It is also a time when medicinal plants that are gathered are supposed to have special properties.

This is going to be a quiet Solstice for me. I have had more exciting ones. For instance, in 1984 I met the morning Sun standing by the Slaughter Stone at Stonehenge (or I would have done, had it not been cloudy). Of course, the Druids are famously associated with the Summer Solstice at Stonehenge. It is unfortunate that their putative history is almost certainly fictional.

So, I wish you all a merry Solstice and hope that your celebrations (if you do such things) go well. I shall celebrate by shouting,


L. V. X.

Sorry, this is an odd tradition of mine. Happy Solstice!

The CP

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

History, Technology And Canonical Records

The Tenured Radical, one of my favorite bloggers, has an interesting post up today about how the systematic erasure of e-mails and the use of non-governmental servers by members of the Bush administration presents a real challenge for historians. As this is a topic I have thought quite a bit about, I was going to post a comment. However, I have decided that it is a topic worthy of a full post.

I am an avid user of technology and have been for years. I began regularly using e-mail in the late 1980s. Back then, the system was a Michigan Terminal System (MTS) device. Connection was via a VT100 emulating dumb terminal, that connected through something known as a Gandalf box. The only way to keep a record of e-mails back then was to print. This was not a simple system.

After MTS, I moved onto a VM/PROFS system. This offered more options, but was still pretty primitive. Again, the only way of making a record was by printing. I still have a few print outs from those days, when I got e-mail that I considered to be of particular significance, from important people. It was during this period that it first became possible to access e-mail from home via dial-up modem. However, there was still no really handy way of archiving e-mail. Between these two systems, I have no ideas how many e-mails I sent or received. However, with the exception of the few print outs, I know that they are all gone.

The next step was to move to a UNIX e-mail system. I have been with UNIX (and more recently Linux) ever since. UNIX offered much better opportunities for saving things. Indeed, I still have e-mail records from years ago, stored on my various systems. Again printing is/was still an option.

Over the years, e-mail has changed a great deal. Once upon a time, almost everyone answered almost all their e-mail, as there were so few people connected. Those were the glory days. Now, e-mail comes in an avalanche. There are message from students, messages from administrators, messages from colleagues, messages from various mailing lists and, of course, there is always spam. Even when one deletes the dross, this makes for a great deal of e-mail. Most days, I get 40, or 50 (not counting spam). On a bad day, I have got nearly 300 (again ignoring spam). Indeed, on one memorable day, I got over 2,500 e-mails, due to a technical issue.

As I write, the Inbox on my current machine has over 19,000 messages, and that is with all the rubbish removed. When I backed it up today, the Inbox alone filled almost an entire CD (in fact, until I deleted the Trash e-mail folder, it would not fit onto a CD). That is a great deal of data. Now, I am not too likely to be of great interest to historians, but if I were, working through all that stuff would be a Herculean task. If important people have to deal with similar kind of volumes, this could present a problem. I always felt sorry for Leibniz scholars, who have to deal with his roughly 15,000 surviving letters. My e-mail alone, for just a couple of years, would present a far more daunting task.

Another problem arises due to the fact that e-mail records are likely to be incomplete. Even the most uptight person usually does not back up their files, especially e-mail files, often enough. There are other problems too. Hard drives fail, taking e-mail records with them. Much of this can be handled by using centralised servers, but it is seldom done. A further concern arises from the fact that e-mail forgery is also pretty simple to do. Unless one has a good understanding of the ever shifting standards associated with e-mail headers, it can be very difficult to distinguish genuine e-mails from potentially fraudulent ones.

However, the problem of e-mail that Tenured Radical describes not the only one. She mentions the use of cell phones, but what about other increasingly common technologies, like Instant Messaging systems and Skype conversations and chats? It is doubtful that records of these are ever kept.

This brings me to the topic of blogs. We all appear to have some kind of quite faith that the folks who run Blogger and similar systems will retain our texts. However, the question of how long this will happen is an open one. Even a simple software upgrade can wreck havoc. Also, once again, it is relatively trivial for blog owners to keep re-editing their posts, deleting comments, editing comments and even forging comments. Again, technical methods can be used to deal with these issues, but they depend upon access to detailed technical data, that may, or may not be available. Furthermore, technical methods like the use of proxies and IP spoofing, which are not really that difficult to deploy, can complicate matters immeasurably. Thus, the question arises about the kind of contributions to the historical record blogs and their comments will actually leave. Do blogs matter, in this way?

When thinking about matters like this, I suddenly feel very happy that I am a philosopher, not a historian! That being said, historians have been in their business for quite a while. I am certain that they will develop methodologies to deal with these issues. It will be quite a challenge though. Good luck to the historians, is what I say. I will be very interested to know what they come up with.

The CP

Monday, June 18, 2007

On Creating Structural Dysfunctionality

Over the years, I have learned to become an astute observer of institutions and their institutional cultures. From time to time, these observations lead to surprising conclusions. One of these conclusions will be the topic here. This is a case where an apparently sensible policy can lead, over time, to very unfortunate results.

The academic institution that I work for is not a fancy school. This means that the salaries are relatively low, the teaching loads are quite high and funds for travel and the like are very limited. A concrete example of the general malaise comes from the fact that last academic year, the library budget for new books was zero dollars! Things could be worse, but it can be quite a struggle to get things done.

The faculty are quite a mixed bunch. More than a few are people who have failed to get tenure somewhere else. Others are people who had a luke warm early career, that has now fizzled out. Of course, there are also a few people who maintain an active research and publication programs. I count myself amongst this latter group.

The people who do not publish, generally get assigned more teaching. This makes sense, especially if they are reasonable teachers. Unfortunately, not all are. This means that there is something of a stratification among faculty members into researchers, teachers and the others. It is often the case that this final group, the 'others', are the people who are assigned administrative tasks and committees to direct.

Although this may seem like a sensible way of deploying personnel, it actually produces bad effects. The active researchers have no desire for such time consuming activities. However, this is a mistake on the part of the researchers.

Unfortunately, there are many petty jealousies between the various faculty groups. The non-researching, poor teaching faculty members end up having an inordinate amount of power, due to their administrative assignments. On more than one occasion, I have seen this power used to settle scores, with other groups.

The researchers are the people who most often suffer at the hands of these individuals. I have never really understood why this is the case. Perhaps it is simple envy. We get invited to go and give talks in interesting places. Frequently, other institutions will pay our way. Perhaps it is insecurity on the part of those people assigned to doing the administrative work? Presumably, at some stage in their careers, they had aspirations to be academic successes, so they must be aware that the huge gaps in their CVs are pretty obvious signs of failure. Who knows what the cause of this persecution really is?

This is not just an abstract animosity. I know of another good researcher who was categorized very poorly on their year end report, on the basis that they did not exhibit sufficient 'collegiality'. In another case, a faculty member who had taught a very successful and popular upper division course for years, had it replaced with a large (and suitably hellish) introductory section. The justification for this? Someone thought that " would work out better," whatever that is supposed to mean!

The problem is that this situation is fundamentally unhealthy and dysfunctional. It has been allowed to come about, by folks making choices that on the face of it made sense. What usually happens is that eventually the researchers strike back, either by accepting positions elsewhere, or by filing formal grievances. This of course does little to make for a comfortable and supportive academic environment. The complaints are rare though and take forever to actually reach a conclusion.

Thus, my reason for writing about this is to warn others about the unfortunate consequences of expedient decisions. I am able to shield myself from the worst excesses of these circumstances, but I know many who are not as successful. Untenured faculty are especially in danger, as they often become the victims of campaigns against their tenure. So, should you be untenured and find yourself in such an environment, my advice is to get out as soon as you can. Oh yes, and keep publishing! The administrative jihadists usually come undone in the end, but they can make life very difficult in the interim.

The other take home message here is that active researchers should also be prepared to undertake administrative tasks. Although they are a pain and take too much time away from real academic work, they are important. If they are left to less productive co-workers alone, extremely negative results can follow. There is perhaps an instructive analogy here with the steps of societal degeneration, discussed in Plato's Republic. So, if you are an active researcher, next time you are asked to chair a committee, or an equivalent role, perhaps re-read Plato before just saying 'No'.

The CP

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Predictive Blogging: Hurricanes And Satellites

Fairly recently, a story started circulating in technical blogs and websites about the immanent failure of the QuikScat satellite. Although this story has had some limited discussion on some news sources, it has not really hit the mainstream.

The story got a bit more press when Bill Proenza, director of the National Hurricane Center, was outspokenly critical of the situation. In particular, Proenza claimed that the accuracy of hurricane prediction could be reduced by up to 16 percent. Needless to say, according to The Miami Herald, Proenza has been officially reprimanded for his comments, in a three page letter. This event gave the story a little more momentum, although it has yet to hit the mainstream.

A few social/political commentary blogs have picked up the story so far. See for example, Republic of Sesakastan, Rants from the Rookery and Multifarious Ramblings. By and large, the reporting on these blogs has been reasonably responsible, albeit with an Anti-Bush slant. However, if this story gets out into the more general, politically correct, ideologically engaged blogs, the facts of the matter are likely to become obscured by the various agendas. I anticipate that there will be posts on these blogs which will follow roughly the following schema:

"QuikScat will fail...Hurricane Season...Kartina...Money...War in Iraq. Damn Bush and his cronies...what about Gulf Coast residents?...Republican agenda...Irresponsibility...Something should be done...[ad nausiam]"

This pattern is all too familiar on too many blogs, including some who claim academic credentials. While I do not necessarily disagree with the sentiments expressed, what I hate is when the facts are got wrong. This story has every potential to be misunderstood, or worse co-opted, in order to further the agendas. When this kind of thing happens, it really annoys me. So, as a service against the potential future postings of these fools, in what follows, I will try and lay out a few of the basic facts of the matter. Interested readers may also wish to consult the lively and informed discussion available at SlashDot (people who work with QuikScat also have contributed there, which makes this an especially valuable resource).

QuikScat was launched in 1999, as an emergency replacement for the NASA Scatterometer (NSCAT) instrument on Japan’s Midori satellite (previously known as the Advanced Earth Observation Satellite (ADEOS)). This satellite failed, about nine months after launch. QuikScat was supposed to be a 'quick and dirty' stop gap measure, with a limited intended life span, of at most two or three years.

In the words of an insider,

"It [QuikScat] was built in 13 months (hence the Quik) from spares from the one already in process, modified to fit on a commercially available satellite bus (Ball BCP2000) and launched on a surplus obsolete TitanII the AirForce had sitting around....

The instrument was designed as part of an effort to collect 10 years or more of continuous data as part of an overall "understand the interactions of air and sea" program. So JPL developed a ground data system oriented towards that need (hosted at PODAAC). As it happens, we also had a real time feed of the data to NOAA (think of a "tee" early in the data pipeline), which, it turns out, has been very useful in the forecast business (back in 1999 and earlier, when this was all being done, people weren't sure it would be useful.. certainly not to the point of kicking in large sums of money to that end..). It took several years for the forecast community to start heavily using QS data (they were justifiably nervous about depending on an experimental satellite that was never intended to run this long...)"

So, when this satellite was put up, it was at best a short term hack. Furthermore, at the time, the usefulness of the data was not fully appreciated. When these facts are combined with the length of time usually required for a satellite deployment (normally around 8 years, or so), in conjunction with cost, it is really not too surprising that there is no replacement for QuikScat, as yet.

There are also other issues. For instance, such satellites often involve the interaction of numerous government agencies. These interaction can be complex, especially when it comes to figuring out the responsibility for funding such projects. A second factor is the increase in hurricane awareness that has arisen since Hurricanes Kartina and (the often forgotten) Rita. This change in perception could not have been predicted.

So, if the ideologically engaged bloggers start wailing about the failure of QuikScat and blaming it on War spending, do not be fooled. Although their sentiments may be laudable, their facts are likely to be seriously wrong. There are plenty of real issues that the current administration should be criticised for. This is just not one of them, although it has a nice emotive ring to it. Sometimes, knowing a little about what one is talking about, in conjunction with a bit of philosophical insight, can be rather useful.

The CP

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Agricultural Nostalgia

A little known fact, is that after I graduated, but before I went to grad school, I worked in farming. Thus, I have something of a soft spot and interest in matters agricultural.

A couple of days ago, I ran across an interesting video on a web site I was looking at. Fortunately, I was able to find the video on YouTube. I have decided to share it here.

What makes the video interesting is that it depicts farming techniques from over twenty-five years ago. I found the video particularly emotive, because all the agricultural tasks that it shows are things that I have done, from stacking hay, to turning hay and even working on a potato harvester.

The other curious thing is that the equipment depicted in use is also fairly similar to the equipment I worked with. Not all the similarities are perfect though. The video was taken in North Yorkshire, England in 1980. I was farming quite a bit later and elsewhere.

This video documents farming methods which have now been superseded by innovations like the flat-eight bail grab. Many of the tractors lack cabs, air conditioning and most of the modern comforts, that are now taken for granted. Indeed, the lack of roll bars on some of the tractors would have made them illegal, even by the time that I was working the land. Thus, this video is an interesting historical artifact. I like it, because it reminds of some happy times in my youth.

The CP

Friday, June 15, 2007

Research Paralysis And A Puzzle

This has been a frustrating week, research wise. As regular readers will know, last week my house was hit by lightening. One of the casualties of this was the power supply to my computer. Fortunately, it is still under warranty. The new power supply arrived on Tuesday. Until then, all my current work was stuck on a dead machine.

I had the good fortune that the computer was basically OK, once I got power back to it. Unfortunately, the Ethernet card had also burned out. I got a new motherboard the following day. Things are still not right though. For some reason, the machine keeps overheating from time to time.

When they sent the new motherboard, the guy was also supposed to bring a new keyboard. The letters on the old one had worn away from over use and some of the keys were sticking, or not registering keystrokes properly, from time to time. Another guy showed up today to fix this. While he had the machine in bits, he had a look at the overheating issue. It seems that some of the replacement parts are defective, so more new kit will show up on Monday. However, the effect of all these computer troubles is that I have managed to get almost nothing written this week. It is very frustrating.

It really shows the extent to which we academics have become slaves to the technology. I have managed to draft some stuff long hand, but I don't want to try typing it up until the computer is reliable and trust worthy again. This provides an interesting insight into how things have changed since when I began college. Then, I had a portable manual typewriter. Now, I cannot move ahead without my machine.

As I have been thwarted in the actual business of writing up research work, I have been mulling over a rather curious research puzzle. One of the things I have been working on recently is a paper which is co-authored with my doctoral student, who recently graduated and another researcher elsewhere. Initially, we had intended to send it to a rather good journal, that requires proposals prior to submission. We decided that this was the correct place to try initially, because they have a very rapid publication rate. Unfortunately, they did not accept the proposal, pleading too heavy a backlog of papers currently. The question is what to do with the paper now.

There is one obvious place where the the paper could go. Unfortunately, one section of the paper is a brief summary of some of the things argued for in my student's dissertation. The rest of the paper concerns an application of the suggestions to a concrete problem. The problem is that this very same journal is also the most logical place for my student to publish a detailed paper on the core of his dissertation. Both papers in the same place would produce too much redundancy.

Without the summary of the dissertation work, the theoretical justification for the approach will be missing. Without this justification, the rest of the paper doesn't make too much sense. However, the paper I am writing will be ready much sooner than my student's paper. So, another publication venue needs to be found. However, finding such a venue is proving much more difficult than one would imagine.

When working in a fast moving, rather specialised, interdisciplinary field, I guess this is the sort of problem one should expect. On the one hand, there is too much technical and methodological data for a straightforward philosophy journal. On the other hand, there is really too much philosophy for a journal with a more specialised and technical focus.

The odd thing is that this is not a bad idea. Even the editor of the journal that did not accept the proposal, liked it. I have had a similar reaction from all the people who work in the relevant fields, with whom I have discussed the project. The problem is that, as yet, I have not found a suitable venue. Indeed, perhaps there is no such venue, other than the obvious one, which I want to leave for my student. Has anyone else ever run into this kind of problem? I guess that I will just have to keep on digging. It will give me something to do, while waiting for the next visit from the computer technican.

The CP

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Minds And Ideas I: Dualism

This is going to be the beginning of an occasional series of postings concerning the philosophy of mind. I have noticed that there appears to be some interest, and some confusion, on these topics amongst various bloggers. Thus, I will offer brief 'bite size' discussions of these matters here, as they are something that I know quite a bit about. I will start with the topic of Dualism.

I. Introduction
Even Ancient Greek philosophers noticed that there was something rather different about minds, as compared to other things in the world. For instance, you can have a thought about beautiful things, without thinking about any particular beautiful thing. When it comes to beautiful things in the world, they tend to be single entities. Yet, the mind has this curious ability to think about beautiful things in a more abstract manner, without any particularity. How can this be?

In philosophy, this matter is sometimes called 'The Problem of Universals'. Plato's famous Theory of Forms was an early attempt, in part, to address the problem of universals. The interesting point here though is that this kind of example nicely illustrates the power of the human mind and how it seems to be both special and different from the mundane objects of the World.

By paying attention to this difference, people have tended to get attracted to the idea that, in some way, mental things and material things are intrinsically different from one another. In some sense, minds and ordinary objects appear to be composed of fundamentally different kinds of 'stuffs'. This is the insight that leads to the philosophical position known as Dualism. The term 'dualism' is just a fancy philosophical word for the idea that there are two kinds of 'stuffs' in the world, mental stuff and all the other stuffs.

Dualism is a surprisingly popular view, even today. Consider the notion of an immortal soul, that is so popular with many religious ideas. This notion makes the most sense in the context of dualism. We all die. That much we know. When we die, our bodies decay. However, if someone wishes to hold that part of them can survive death and the process of bodily decay, then what could be more useful for explaining how this might happen, than to be able to appeal to some other kind of stuff (a mind, or a soul), that can survives these processes unaffected.

II. Cartesian Dualism
Probably the most famous dualist though was the philosopher Rene Descartes. In his writings, Descartes made a number of observations and offered several arguments that the dualistic position was correct. For instance, he noted that thoughts seem to lack a particular location. Now, we tend to think that we think with our heads. This is a relatively modern idea. For instance, Aristotle thought that we thought with our hearts and that the brain was merely some kind of radiator! Consider for a moment, you idea of a triangle. Where exactly is that idea? Can you point to it? Contrast this with the case of any actual triangle. These pretty clearly have specific spacial locations. We can easily enough point to them. This, Descartes argued, showed that there were important differences between mental things and other kinds of things.

Another claim that Descartes used to support his dualistic view was the observation that mundane material objects are fundamentally divisible. We can think of half a sandwich, or half a chair, or even (eww!) half a mouse. By contrast, thoughts do not seem to behave this way. Does it even make sense to talk about 'half a thought', or 'half an idea'? Descartes thought not. Thus, he maintained that this too was an intrinsic difference between the mental and the physical. This in turn supported his claim that there had to be two distinct kinds of stuff.

So, on the face of it, dualism seems to be quite an attractive position. Moreover, there seem to be some quite good arguments to support the view. Perhaps this is why it has proved so popular. Unfortunately, it is also a view that has difficulties associated with it.

III. The Mind/Body Problem
The so-called 'Mind/Body Problem' is the main objection that dualism has to face. If the mental and the physical are two distinct kinds of stuffs, then how on earth are they supposed to be able to interact? It is pretty clear to me that my mind somehow becomes informed about the physical state of my body. If I tread on something sharp, I get alerted to it immediately. How does this happen? Conversely, when I think that I have an itch that needs scratching, the dualist owes us an explanation of how this thought gets translated into bodily movement. It is clear that this does happen. Where the dualist gets into trouble is by providing a plausible story about the exact mechanisms by which mind and body interactions actually happen. How can something physical, like and object, influence something non-physical, like the mind? If the mind is, non-physical then how can it have physical effects? The dualist is in a bit of a pickle to provide the required explanations here, without violating their prefered principles.

Descartes himself was aware of this difficulty. Indeed, in his correspondence, he even admits that he does not really have a suitable story to tell that can really solve the mind/body problem. It is a genuinely difficult issue. Indeed, trying to figure out this problem remains a central preoccupation of philosophers of mind, even to this day. In the post which follows this one, I will discuss some proposals that have been offered to get around this difficulty.

The CP

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Cajun/Zydeco Grammy News

This evening, I was invited to a local celebration. In the past few days, the Recording Academy have approved a new Grammy category for Cajun and Zydeco music. This is something that has been advocated for quite a while, by several people. Cynthia Simien, wife of Terrance, has been an especially vocal advocate. Congratulations to all the advocates. After all, if there is a Grammy category for Polka, it is only just that the indigenous music of Louisiana should also be honored in a systematic manner. The gathering this evening was fun with many of the 'usual suspects' in attendance.

Needless to say, local press has been little short of ecstatic. Both the Baton Rouge Advocate and the Lafayette Advertiser,
along with the TV stations have provided extensive coverage. Thus, this is a popular move.

Cajun and Zydeco music though has been recognised by the Recording Academy before. In 1982, Queen Ida Guillory received a Grammy. Then in 1983 Clifton Chenier was recognised. The fact that this evenings event was held in a club that was opened by Clifton playing was thus entirely appropriate. Rockin’ Sidney Simien received a Grammy in 1985. Most 'recently', in 1997, BeauSoleil was honoured. There have been quite a few nominations since, but these are the only winners to date.

In honour of this change in the Grammy rules, I will close by raiding the archives of YouTube again. Here is a short video of BeauSoleil, who won a Grammy, a decade ago. This is actually quite an interesting recording for reasons that will be discussed below.

Although the video quality is none too good, the sound quality is at least reasonable. The title of the video claims that the song is "Baby Please Don't Go". However, this song is also known as the "Seychelles Waltz". The video was apparently taken in a club in Austin, Texas. The line up in the video is also quite unusual.

On the far left, playing the fiddle is Michael Doucet. In the middle, and towards the front of the stage, is Jimmy Breaux, on accordion. To stage right is David Doucet on guitar. However, the curious thing to note is the drummer. It seems that Billy Ware is playing Drums. Usually, Billy plays percussion. The normal drummer is Tommy Alesi. Apparently, Tommy had managed to break both his wrists, thus making the change in musical assignments necessary. It is funny the kind of situations that can get captured on YouTube.

So, congratulations (albeit a decade late) to BeauSoleil for their Grammy. Let us hope that the future Grammy winners, in the new Cajun and Zydeco category, live up to their example.

The CP

Monday, June 11, 2007

Small World

This evening was the Board meeting of one of the non-profit Boards I sit upon. As has become the tradition, after the meeting we all went and had dinner together at a local eatery. We sat outside. A fellow came to join us. This happens from time to time.

After a while, the conversation turned to Summer travel plans. The topic of a visit to the city where I was in graduate school came up. The fellow who joined us, suddenly mentioned that the funniest person that he had ever met came from that part of the world. When he mentioned the name. I was shocked! The person he named was someone I knew!

It turns out the apparent 'funniest person' is the son of someone I was in graduate school with. Not only that, I was good friends with his father. Indeed, we even shared a house for a while. This was just a bit too wild.

It also turns out that the 'funniest person' was also a student in the first class section that I ever taught all on my own. I still remember his grade (A). What made things better was that the visitor could even recall an e-mail address. I really hope that it is still current. However, it makes one aware of just how small the world really is these days. What are the chances that someone in Louisiana, should know someone I knew quite well, over a decade ago, in another country? I know where the father is, due to professional matters, but we do not keep in contact. I wonder what the odds of this are?

I have had something vaguely similar happen once before. When I first arrived in Louisiana, there was a local musician who shared the same name with someone I was in high school with. I naturally discounted the possibility that they could be the same individual. A little while later, I learned from a school contact that it was, in fact, the same person. When we met for the first time, after nearly twenty years, we recognised one another immediately. We have remained in semi-regular contact, although he is now in Kansas, due to Hurricane Katrina.

In both cases, I am amazed about how there are odd connection's between people, in disparate places and through time. I think that this is wonderful. Of course, the advent of universal e-mail and web pages also has made making this kind of contact easier to maintain. It is still wonderful when it happens though. It makes one think...

The CP

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Lightening Strike!

Yesterday was an odd day. In the morning, was James funeral. It was a suitably somber occasion. I was very happy that the family opted not to have an open coffin. I am not a fan of that tradition.

Yesterday evening, I agreed to meet a recently graduated senior, who wanted some career advice. As the place we agreed to meet was only around the corner and parking is usually a nightmare, I elected to walk. However, as I had heard a few rumbles of thunder, I decided to take an umbrella with me. It turns out that this was a good call.

I was not too far from my house, when suddenly, it started to rain. Now, you have to realise that this was the tropical kind of rain that we get in these parts. It is like someone turning on a tap. I was grateful for my umbrella. I considered returning home, but decided to take shelter under the overhang of a public building that was closer by. As I was hurrying across the parking lot, lightening started to crash around me. It was actually quite scary, as I was in a large exposed space, with a metal umbrella pointing up, just asking to be hit. Fortunately, I made it without incident.

As the rain poured and the thunder and lightening crashed and flashed, I was pleased to be under cover and relatively out of danger. It was pretty exciting though. The lightening was very close by as there was almost no gap between the flash and the thunder, which was incredibly loud.

After a little while, the rain abated somewhat and the tempest appeared to have moved away. Once it was reasonably dry and appeared to be safe, I continued on to my destination. The meeting with the student was fruitful and I also ran into a couple of other people I knew.

By the time I returned home, the storm was long gone. However, there were residual effects, I was yet to discover. It appeared that during my absence, lightening had hit my external TV mast. The TV and my Tivo were toast. Also, the power had gone out on my laptop. A second computer I also have in the house seems to have had the bun too. It must have been a good strike, as all these things were on pretty good surge protectors.

Although it is rather a pain, it could have been worse. I was glad that I was not home. The cat seemed unperturbed. The lightening did not set fire to my house. I have ordered a new power supply for my laptop (fortunately, it is still under warranty). I got a new TV. MyTivo is now a paper weight, but I may be able to trade it in for something a little better. I resurrected an old Pentium III I keep in the office, for just such emergencies. So, although it has been expensive and a pain, everything is more or less back to normal.

The one thing I am keeping my fingers crossed on is that the laptop did not sustain any damage. Hopefully, the power supply took the brunt of the hit, rather than the computer itself. The batteries were dead when I got home, as I had left the machine running. I will find out on Tuesday whether the machine is OK, when the new power supply arrives. I take this to be an object lesson in the power of Mother Nature and the relative frailty of modern electronic devices.

The CP

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Something For The Weekend -- BOFH!

The weekend is upon us. The weather with us is getting vile. The temperatures are in the nineties and the humidity is high. The Louisiana Summer weather is beginning to bite.

If you are looking for some entertainment this weekend, I have a suggestion 'BOFH'. This is short for The 'Bastard Operator From Hell'. This is a series of short stories that are available on the web site of The Register. BOFH is written by Simon Travaglia.

The basic premise behind BOFH is that the BOFH is the head computer techie for some company. He also has his side-kick, The PFK (Pimply Faced Kid). Often these two work in concert, however not always. They scheme and plot against various enemies, which frequently include their Boss and the Head of IT.

The methods of the BOFH and the PFK are largely hacker tricks, designed to enable them to get money, equipment and drinks. They are not too inclined to ethical behaviour. Troublesome persons may find themselves having their accounts and data deleted, being electrocuted and finding themselves in other problematic situations, courtesy of the BOFH.

A large archive, containing several years worth of BOFH storeys can be found here. Older storeys (going back to the year 2000) can be found by scrolling down. Older storeys going back to 1995 can be found here.

Interestingly enough, the Wikipedia entry for the BOFH is actually pretty good and accurate. Should you have an interest in things technical, then I strongly recommend the BOFH to you. The storeys are pretty funny and can be quite addictive to read.

The CP

Thursday, June 07, 2007


At long last today, I got broadband access back. The guy showed up this morning and did the basic connection. Unfortunately, it was not initially reliable. The name server kept dropping out. It turned out the problem was that the signal strength was too good. I take this to be a good problem. The guy came back. A 'thingy' was added to the line and now it works just fine.

Being without broadband has been an interesting experience. One gets used to such luxuries all too easily. Being back in the dial-up world taught me a great deal about web site design. Too much fancy stuff and they become simply unusable. This is worth keeping in mind.

One of the great advantages of the new setup is that I can now use my Linux partition at home. Prior to this, for all sorts of technical reasons, this was not an option. As this is my main partition for 'real work', this will make me much more productive, as I no longer have to go into the office. Even my technical software, which is expensive and requires licenses, seems to work just fine. This is a joy. I can relegate my windows partition to just playing DVDs.

This being said, it took me a while to get get the entire wireless network back up, running and secure. This is time well spent. Not being on a tightly secured connection can make all sorts of bad things happen.

I tested the new set up this afternoon, but calling a Brazilian friend of mine on Skype. The connection was amazing! If you do not know this software and have research collaborators around the world, I strongly recommend it.

So, I should be able to get back to posting to this damn blog on a regular basis. It will not happen immediately though. I have funeral things to deal with over the weekend (see the previous post on this matter). However, The Combat Philosopher is back! You have been warned. Thanks for putting up with the outage and visiting nonetheless.

The CP

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Very Sad News...

When I got to the office this morning and checked my e-mail, I got a bit of a shock. It seems that our main systems administrator, James, died over the weekend. This makes me very sad indeed.

When it came to hacking the school Unix systems, James was a God. As I am quite a frequent user of various facilities that run on these systems, I would interact with James once or twice a week. In fact, he was one of the people I have known longest on our campus. Thus, apart from the technical loss, it is also quite a personal loss.

He was someone who was kind and patient. He was also very funny. If I ever got myself 'into the weeds' with one of my own systems, James would often be able to help me out of the bind. He was also very talented at keeping the diverse range of machines that we have, some of which are none too new or fast, running. He was the kind of guy who would do deals. For example, there was some software I needed to be running on our main systems. He agreed to install it and maintain it, provided I agreed to handle the technical support for other users. As this was software I have wrestled with for years, this was an excellent practical solution for all concerned. This kind of flexibility and vision is a rare commodity in this day and age.

There is now a very interesting question of what will happen next. James' second in command is out of the town at the moment, but has been logging in remotely to lend a hand. Everyone in the computer building is doing their level best, but it is quite a shock to everyone's system. Probably nobody knew the ins and outs and quirks of all the systems the way that James did. We just have to hope that nothing major breaks in the near future.

In the meantime, everyone is sad. Arrangements have yet to be made. I feel a tremendous sense of loss. For this was the man who taught me more about Unix/Linux systems than probably anyone else. Now, I will no longer have a guru for arcane, but useful tricks. I will also no longer have that laconic voice on the phone, with whom to discuss technical matters and swap war stories. I am not alone in this, I know for sure. Everyone has lost an important friend.

The CP

Monday, June 04, 2007

Around And About

The business of no Internet at home has finally got to me. I have given up on the old set up, which had become intractably complex. I have now decided to use another provider. To my amazement, with incentives to sign up and all that, the new system will end up costing me less, for better service. Thus, this is a good outcome.

I had something of a busy weekend. On Friday, by chance a well known international artist paid us a visit. He has friends locally. Thus after his performance, he and his band ended up at someones house for a jam. It was excellent! A good time was had by all.

Saturday, was made more exciting by a strange visitor in my house. This very large and odd insect showed up in my office. I looked like some kind of alien. I managed to get a picture of it, although not a very good one.

It was a little over three inches long and did not seem to do a great deal. I tried to catch it, so that I could let it out, but I could not find a way of doing so, without running the risk of hurting the little critter. It was fascinating to watch though. I did a little bit of research and discovered that it is a beast known as a 'Walkingstick', or a 'Stick Insect'. When I worked this out, I realised that I had seen one before, although many years ago. The previous ones I had seen were much greener than my visitor. I guess not seeing the animal in it's natural environment was what threw me off. Eventually, I was able to put it into the garden.

Yesterday was an interesting day too. I was invited by my now graduated ex-graduate student to have lunch with his family. They were a wonderful and funny crew. The food was excellent too. What made the trip especially interesting was that it involved a run to a part of Louisiana I had never been to before, Pointe Coupee Parish.

It is an interesting and pretty place. We took a side trip to visit a graveyard, where many of my student's relatives were buried. Perhaps I am a little odd, but I find graveyards fascinating places. This one did not disappoint. There were quite a few Civil War graves. Several of the grave markers were written all in French. There was even one grave that went back to 1798!

Thus, this was a busy and interesting weekend. Hopefully, later in the week, when the Internet problem is finally resolved, I will be able to get back to my usual posting schedule. In the meantime, I want to thank all the faithful readers of this blog who still seem to be dropping by.

The CP

Friday, June 01, 2007

It Begins...

Today is the first day of the official 2007 Hurricane season. For those of us who live in Louisiana, this is the time when we begin to keep a close eye on what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico. Although this is always something of a preoccupation in this neck of the woods, since the 2005, this vigil has taken on a whole new seriousness.

Of course, the fact that the Hurricane season starts on the first of June is really somewhat arbitrary. The season is supposed to end on the first of December. However, it seems that in 2005 someone forgot to tell the storm systems this fact. There was tropical activity all the way through December that year. In fact, there were so many storms, that they ran out of names for them!

The beginning of the Hurricane season is usually quite quiet. This is because storms draw their energy from the heated water in the seas and so early in the season, water temperatures are not yet that high. However, this year as the season starts, there is already an area of disturbed weather in the Gulf of Mexico and a Tropical storm off the West coast of Mexico.

The forecast for this Hurricane season is not too good. They are predicting lots of storms. Of course, they predicted the same for last year and we were fortunately spared. This was a merciful release after the twin horrors of Katrina and the often overlooked Rita in 2005. Who knows if we will get lucky this year.

In many ways, the Gulf coast, especially Louisiana is still very much dealing with the effects of the events of 2005. Thousands of people are still displaced. There are still many areas where little, or no reconstruction has taken place, while the State and the Federal Governments continue to argue over funds and responsibilities. Nobody really is certain about the state of the protective coastal wetlands, or the shape that the levees are in. The one noticeable effect has been the influx of property speculators, like so much Carrion, who are putting up cheaply constructed properties, in order to take advantage of various Federal programs. Regular people though have not got much help. The one universal effect has been the massive hike in insurance rates, even thought the insurance companies continue to make massive profits.

Now, the all too familiar yearly ritual begins again -- buying in water, batteries, canned goods and candles. Let us hope that the Weather Gods are kind to us this year. We still need a break. In the meantime, we will be keeping a weather eye on what is happening in the Gulf and the Atlantic.

The CP

Update: What I previously described as 'an area of disturbed weather in the Gulf of Mexico' is now Tropical Storm Barry. It looks quite mild and will be hitting the elbow of Florida, if the forecasts are correct. This is the very first day of the season. If this continues, God help us!

The CP
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