Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Pippy ruminating on a murdered bicyclist

Pippy responds thoughtfully to a story about a man who was murdered on the west side of Chicago while riding his bike to visit his elderly mother
I don't have a solution for street violence but I do feel that fear is not it- for me it begins with creating a society where violence in any form is simply not socially acceptable- this is not how our culture treats it.
The whole thing is here, after some updates on her knitting

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Don't use Hulu

...until the writers strike is settled.

I signed up for Hulu after reading this positive review by Farhad Manjoo on October 29. When I finally got my ticket on Dec 6, I rushed over to check it out, without thinking about the fact that I was *crossing a picket line*. In my defense, at least I didn't watch any programming.

The one time I surfed the site, I thought "damn, this is really cool. It is definitely the future of TV," which is exactly why you shouldn't go there. The writers don't get any money from that site. If the writers don't get a new contract, the day will come when almost all TV is watched on sites like Hulu, and the writers will have effectively taken a massive pay cut and been stripped of their intellectual property rights. A change in medium shouldn't be an opportunity to slash worker's pay.

Ok, I'm sorry I went to Hulu after the strike began. Consider this post a way to make it up.

Hat tip to Molly, who alerted me to this problem by sending me this link.

Monday, December 17, 2007

On posting quotes from student papers

Matthew, in the comments, asks a good question:
I was thinking about this lat night, and I guess my question is whether it is ethical to post quotations from student work online and anonymously. I see why it is done by yourself and others, but what of the legal implications? On the one hand, sharing student work with a name and with criticism could be considered harassment by some, but then again doing so without attribution could be considered copyright infringement (and not under fair use).

That is, of course, if you didn't receive permission to reprint the quotation. If you did, then my question is moot.
I was worried about this, too, because when I posted the students comments, I was stretching an existing policy. I believe teachers need to be able to share student work with each other to improve teaching quality. For that reason, I include the following notice in all my syllabi:
My Rights Regarding Your Written Work
For the sake of improving my teaching and the teaching of others, I reserve the right to save copies of your written work to use as examples for other classes or examples in scholarly articles about teaching philosophy. When your work is used as an example of student work, it will be printed anonymously. If your work contributes to the substance of something I write, I will cite your work following the usual academic conventions. I’ll also probably spend time thanking you and saying you are brilliant. If you do not wish me to keep copies of your work, you must give me a written and signed statement to that effect.
I'm not sure how many students read this note, or how many care. When I use examples of student work in class to teach students, I always use work from an entirely different institution, which avoids the main reason students would object to this sort of thing--that they would be embarrassed in front of their peers.

Well, use in a classroom or scholarly article is not quite the same as a lamenting post on a blog, and although I do use this forum to talk about teaching issues, I can see why a student might object. If anyone objects, I will certainly take it down. I kinda got drawn into this without thinking about it. My first remark was just in a comment thread at another blog, then I moved it here because I thought others might be interested, then I posted a clarification No one actually asked for the clarification, but I felt an instinctive need to represent what had happened accurately.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Clarification on the Iraq and 9/11 comments

Since I've been linked to by Andrew Sullivan, Crooked Timber and the Washington Monthly, I should be precise in describing what my students wrote. Two students clearly said the attacks of 9/11 were the work of Iraq. The third merely said that we should forgive Iraq for "all the terrorism that has happened." I asked the third student to clarify for his final draft what terrorism he thought Iraq was behind, but the student left that paragraph as it was originally written.

Here is a quote from one of the two students who did say Iraq was behind 9/11.
The writing is not entirely clear. I don't know what is up with "[redacted]." But it is clear that she believes we are at war in retaliation for 9/11.

The remaining student was writing a dialogue on the problem of evil. I've returned that paper and don't have an electronic copy of it, so I'm not going to get her phrasing right. Basically, though, one character puts forward the Leibnizian argument that all is for the best. Another character then says "even the attacks on the twin towers" and the first character, in a peculiar mix of relativism and panglossianism says that the attacks were good from the perspective of "the Iraq's"

"If only we had forgiven Iraq for 9/11"

I have now received three (3) student papers that discuss Iraq's attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11. All three papers mention it as an aside to another point. I've had two papers on the virtue of forgiveness that argue that if we had just forgiven Iraq for the 9/11 attacks, we wouldn't be at war right now. I just read a paper on the problem of evil which asked why God allowed "the Iraq's" to attack us on 9/11.

The thing that upsets me most here is that the the students don't just believe that that Iraq was behind 9/11. This is a big fact in their minds, that leaps out at them, whenever they think about the state of the world.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

To buy accessory of kit now! To buy it going you quick!

Has anyone else noticed that Rob's blog gets really boring during exam week?

I'm afraid you'll probably have to wait another six days (when grades are due) to catch up on the antics of your favorite philosopher. In the meantime, go read this.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Spying on myself

I installed Rescue Time to see just how much time I week I waste at the office on blogs and newspapers. I recommend the software: it keeps track of what applications are open and active on your desktop. The advantage is that it does it automatically, so you don't need to keep time logs or anything like that. It should be especially useful for people who bill their time, like lawyers or freelance editors. There are privacy concerns, because your data is stored at their website. But the way I figure it, I'm at my office computer, and this sort of information is available to the administrators anyway. I'm already not surfing porn at work.

My one complaint is that the software seems to underestimate the amount of time any application is in use. I got off of a 50 minute conference call with some of my on-line students to find that the software had logged 10 minutes of time using the skype application. The software can't be underestimating all applications by a factor of five, though, because it logged a total of 20 computers hours for me last week, and I only spend 40-50 hours a week at the office.

So how much time to I waste at the office? If Rescue time is correct, about one hour a week on blogs (Unfogged) and forty five minutes a week at news sites (NYT and Salon). That's not bad, really. I don't do any goofing around at work that isn't on line, so the 20 hours that the software didn't register could easily be all work.

Top Apps for the week of November 25, 2007

MS Word (5 hrs 59 mins)

MS Excel (2 hrs 54 mins)

MS Outlook (1 hr 13 mins) (1 hr 3 mins) (1 hr 1 min)

Windows Explorer (52 mins 9 secs) (33 mins 43 secs) (30 mins 56 secs) (19 mins 59 secs) (16 mins 38 secs)

Update: The software is now far more accurate.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

If you find yourself in a pit of despair.

If, like me, you periodically find yourself wallowing in a pit of despair and hopelessness, convinced that there is no place for you in a cruel and godless world, you should read this, which is really funny.

via unfogged

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A qucik and dirty cost benefit analysis of climate change

The guy in the video talks this up as a knock down argument for acting to mitigate and prevent climate change. It is far from that, but it is one of the strongest arguments you can pack into five minutes (plus four minutes of hype). I'm interested in it because it is exactly the kind of simplified cost benefit analysis I teach when I teach scientific reasoning with the Giere textbook. So I need to note it for the future when I figure out how to create a course that uses the Giere textbook at LCCC.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

job advice

I would like to emphasize again that if someone says to you "Oh, yes, teaching on line is easy. I use this that and the other totally high tech method, and I get great responses from my students!" they are not offering you teaching advice. They are showing off. Under no circumstances should you try to do what they do.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Stupid Filter

These guys are designing a filter, based on Beyesian spam filters, to weed out stupid comments. As they emphasize in their FAQ, they are only looking at comments that are formally stupid, "The idea is that the most egregiously stupid comments will also be the easiest to detect while remaining ignorant of context; comments with too much or too little capitalization, too many text-message abbreviations, excessive use of "LOL," exclamation points, and so on."

Do you think they will have an Angel plug-in? I could use it, not as a simple insult to students, but a "teachable moment."

This blogs readability level

cash advance

Unfogged clocks in at elementary school. I don't know which is better.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Behold the awesome power of my critical thinking rubric

critical thinking rubric
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

A proposal was sent around for ways to evaluate students critical thinking across the college. It included items like evaluating student's ability to repeat information accurately.

This is my counter proposal, based on the analysis of critical thinking from Alec Fisher and Michael Scriven Critical Thinking: Its Definition and Assessment

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Laozi Lesson Plan

"I did not grade your papers or make a lesson plan, because the sage, by doing nothing leaves nothing undone. In doing this, am I properly following the advice of the Daodejing?"

Added: Emerson has some nice looking publications on the Daodejing on-line. Hopefully I'll get a chance the check these out in the next week or so.

Friday, November 02, 2007

A list of Band T Shirts I Have Seen on Campus

Fall Out Boy (f)
Grateful Dead (m) x3
ACDC (f) x2
ACDC (m) x3
Blue Oyster Cult(m)
Wolfmother (m)
Velvet Revolver (m)
Bob Marley (f)
Misfits (m)
Corruption of Blood (m)
Nine Inch Nails (m) x2
Iron Maiden (m)
Skavenger (m)
Deftones (m)
Nirvana (f) x3
Nirvana (m) x4
Crime Scene (m)
Doors (m)
Doors (f)
Metallica (m)
Chimaira (m)
Ratt (m)
stones (f) x3 (1 tote bag)
Korn (m)
Flaming lips (m)
Tool (m)
The Darkness (m)
Linkin Park (m)
Ozzfest (m)
Dave Matthews (m)
Jimmy Buffet (m)
Tooth and Nail (m) (A record label?)
Zeppelin (m)
Skynyrd (m)
Lamb of God (m)
Megadeath (m)
Alice Cooper (f)
Miles Davis (f)
Under Oath (m) [With a gun for the r. Doesn't seem to be the Christian metal band)
Queen (m)
Insane Clown Posse (f)
Saves the day (f)
Motorcycle (f)
System of a Down (m)
Pantera (m)
Blink 182 (f)
Ben Kweller (f)
Cradle of Filth (m)
John Lennon (m)

Monday, October 29, 2007


I just got out of an hour and a half long meeting which included the phrase “a timeline with monthly benchmarks for generating a set of rubrics for assessing infused curriculum outcomes.”

As near as I can tell, this timeline is a third order assessment: it is a method for assessing our progress in developing a method for assessing the methods of assessment used in classes.

Friday, October 26, 2007

anthropomorphism checklist

anthropomorphism checklist
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

This is an exercise I do during my classes on Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. I think it is fun.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Joey and I switch to opera on youtube

Joey: What going *on*
Me: The girl just...and the boy...I don't know.
Joey: That princess.
Me: Yes, that's a princess.
Joey: That bears.
Me: Those are bears
Joey: Have teeth.
Me: They have teeth.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Herbie Hancock on Sesame Street

Herbie Hancock demonstrates the Fairlight Synthesizer to Maria and the children of Sesame Street

Right now Joey is engrossed in a video of Hancock live in 1971. I wonder how long I can keep him interested in this fusion stuff.

Added: I think it's safe to say that Rockit has not just been rehabilitated. It is now canon.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The fusillade of developmental facts argument against abortion

Every time I teach abortion I get three or four papers that attempt to argue the pro-life position by appealing to every single fact about human development the author can look up. They generally go like this

Paragraph 1: State the thesis that full moral status is present at conception, thus making all abortion wrong.

Paragraph 2: State some facts about early embryonic development, along with several things that aren't facts. Say that this shows that all abortion is wrong.

Paragraph 3: Emphasize that the heart starts beating very early on. As a matter of fact, blood circulation can be present as early as 4-5 weeks, however students will place the date even earlier. I just read a paper that asserted the heart was beating at 18 days. Whenever the heart is asserted to start beating, this fact is then used to claim that all abortion is wrong.

Paragraph 4: Finish up the developmental cycle. Repeat thesis.

Paragraph 5: Conclusion.

This argument simply doesn't work. You cannot both assert that every stage of fetal development is morally significant and that full moral significance is present at conception. If you really felt that the presence of a beating heart marked the onset of personhood, than you would allow abortion before that event.

Now perhaps what the people who write this paper are thinking is that the *potential* for a beating heart is what brings moral status. But if that is the case, why focus on the potential for these minor events in development, and just talk about being a potential sapient adult?

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Abortion Papers are Starting to Come in

I had forgotten the pains of reading student papers on abortion. The repetition of bad arguments and misinformation *hurts.* When I was at Auburn I started to create a tool that would let me drop in standardized responses to standard mistakes, sort of a FAQ I could use in paper grading. I never got as far with it as I should, because I got all caught up in researching particular scientific issues, like the so called "Post Abortion Syndrome"

With my current teaching load, I really do need to creating this FAQ quickly, without getting caught up in academic journal-level research. With that it mind, I am moving some (anonymized) comments from a student's rough draft here so I can begin to create the file.

Third Paragraph

“There are many forms of contraceptives out there for women to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies like birth control, condoms, the shot, and absincence.”

If this is so important to the pro-life argument, why does every major pro-life group also oppose all forms of birth control? This is a major anomaly in the public debate, and if you are going to raise the contraception argument, you really need to explain it. For example, A Woman’s Concern, the pro-life pregnancy counseling group views all birth control as demeaning.

Christina Page, quoted here reports that "there is not one pro-life group in the United States that supports the use of birth control."

“Abortion is an easy way out for people who do not want to take the responsibility of taking care of a baby.”

To make this argument, do you need to assume the conclusion of the first argument, that is, assume that the fetus has moral status? Notice, you could say that birth control is a way of avoiding the responsibility of having a baby, but presumably you do not because you do not think sperm or eggs on their own have moral status.

“Overall, if women are going to have sexual relations than they should be ready to take on all the responsibilities that come along with sex.”

Is this just an argument against sex for purposes other than reproduction? You seem close to saying that a couple who wants to strengthen their relationship and have fun should not have sex unless they also want to have a baby.

Also, you misspelled “abstinence.”

Fourth Paragraph

“There are also a number of risks and dangers that could happen to the mother during the abortion procedure.”

Are these moral arguments? That is, do these dangers, if they are real, make abortion *immoral* or just risky.

“Statistics show that abortion is more dangerous than childbirth.”

What statistics? Who collected them? How where they collected?

First trimester abortions---88% of all abortions—are *much* safer than childbirth. You can sometimes make abortion look more dangerous by focusing on later term abortions, which often have complications because the pregnancy is already going badly—that is what motivated the abortion to begin with. See here

“Women who have an abortion are four times more likely to die the following year than women who carry their pregnancy to full term.”

Again, where did this statistic come from? How was it collected?

“Abortion is a risk factor for breast cancer.”

To be blunt, this is not true. The connection has been alleged for some time by pro-life groups. At first the idea had some scientific plausibility, but a study published in the 1997 New England Journal of Medicine discredited the link. Pro life groups have ignored this and subsequent studies. The Bush administration even had information about the nonlink between abortion and breast cancer removed from government web sites.

My information on the abortion breast cancer non link came from Chapter 13 of this book but I forgot to mention that to my student. I also should have noted that she didn't want to say "There are many forms of contraceptives out there like...birth control."

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Another Thing Joey and I Found

I love the woman in the yellow dress at the bottom of the stairs.

Three useful god terms

While checking out the Wikipedia definitions for some terms used in my Eastern Phiosophy class, I came across two new words

Ignosticism is the refusal to decide on the existence of God until someone comes up with a coherent definition of what God is.

Henotheism is the belief that many gods exist, but that only one is deserving of your worship. As near as I can tell, most of the Hebrew bible was written by henotheists, not monotheists.

Meanwhile, my colleague Ben Cordry has coined the term "Deflationary Theism" to describe the viewpoint suggested in Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, that the difference between theism and atheism is merely verbal.

Caroline asked me again why we don't say grace. I told her that grace was a part of a religion I don't believe in. She did not, thankfully, ask the follow up question "what is religion?" This is a question I ask my students regularly, and I ask it because I don't have a very good answer.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Kids' art update

As the co-proprietor of the North Country Academy for the Excruciatingly Fine Arts (which has not changed its name, nor will it, for the same reason that the East Village Inky did not change its name: You can take the excruciatingly fine artist out of the North Country, but you cannot take the North Country out of the excruciatingly fine artist) I was interested to read that a movie had been made about Marla Olmstead, the child artist whose paintings sell for thousands of dollars. NYT reviewer A.O Scott rightly points out some troubling aspects of this story. The fame Marla garnered was probably not good for her, and her parents were probably not thinking about her best interest. However, Scott clearly knows nothing about the nature and value of art. He describes children's art this way:
The value of these artifacts is personal and sentimental, but they can also have an aesthetic power that goes beyond parental pride. The untaught sense of color and composition that children seem naturally to possess sometimes yields extraordinary results, and the combination of instinct and accident that governs their creative activity can produce astonishing works of art.

Except that these magical finger-paint daubings and crayon scribblings aren’t really works of art in any coherent sense of the term, but rather the vital byproducts of play, part of the cognitive and sensory awakening that is the grand, universal vocation of childhood. The urge to commodify and display them is, primarily, an adult expression of appreciation and nostalgia.
Surely being by products of play does not disqualify something from being art. In many cases, it is an asset.* If a work of art by an adult was a part of a story of their cognitive and sensory awakening, it would contribute to calling the work a masterpiece.

I have no doubt that Marla Olmstead's work is art in the highest sense of the term, if perhaps, a little overpriced. I would display her work prominently, if I owned any, and wasn't already quite busy displaying the work of artists known more personally to me.
* In general I buy the expression theory of art, rather than the currently popular institutional theory . However I will not try to relate my claims about children's art to any broader theory here.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

For My Intro Class

We will be getting to the AI/philosophy of mind portion of my intro class very soon, so I need to start stockpiling material to use in class. Here are some fun clips of robots

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Joey and I have made a new discovery

Again we were watching videos on Youtube. The goal of this game is to find something that holds both his interest and mine. The Ramones do an admirable job of this, and they lead us to a new show on NickJr, *Yo Gabba Gabba*
As you can see, the show follows the formula established by Pee Wee's Playhouse of appealing to kids with bright colors and standard kids themes and appealing to adults by featuring hip music and being skull-crushingly weird

Note: I originally linked to this version of the intro, which is obviously youtube user contributed extreme weirdness, but is also cool.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Eastern Philosophy Timeline

Eastern Philosophy Timeline
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

I am convinced that good visuals vastly improve the experience for some students. I am convinced that they take a lot of time and I am not very good at them.

This timeline provides a map for everything we will be covering in my eastern philosophy course. (3000 years of the history of two major civilizations in 10 weeks.)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Generational Politics in Academe

For the record, I did not make this remark about the "smokers" at the eastern division APA, and what they are like for job candidates:
During the heydey of the post World War II great academic job market, these smokers were quite different. For one thing, people actually smoked. For another thing, the Baby Boomers actually smoked pot at the smoker. Unless you are a Generation X job candidate who has been stuck at a table with a drunk Baby Boomer during one of these things, and he (it's always a he!) is telling you how great it was "back in the day" when everybody had over ten interviews and there was a "dance circle" of pot smokers in the middle of the room. . . unless you've had this experience added to the penury and hopelessness of the average job candidate, you maybe don't even know the meaning of the word "rage." [To give you a basis of comparison, I found such experiences vastly more rage inducing than the time four drunk Ohio farm kids on a public street called me a "long haired faggot" and then used me as a punching bag. This may just be because I could understand most of what the farm kids were saying, unlike with the atrocious A.P.A.-smoker-room acoustics added to the slurred speech of Doctor Peace Bear and his equally drunk and self-satisfied Boomer colleague Professor Hippypants.]

224007814_4def8bd557 I speculate that this is one of the main reasons Generation X academics are often so unrelentingly hostile (when talking with one another) about Baby Boomer academics. Note, I don't endorse this. But any fellow Gen Xer not suffering from the kind of Stockholm Syndrome induced by relentlessly acting like a "promising young man," (i.e. a Boomer's idea of a young person instead of an actual young person) knows what I'm talking about. Baby Boomer academics had a much easier time getting jobs and tenure. Somehow on their watch we not only got Reagan, the two Bushes, and abandonment of cool plans to colonize space, but also a university system where now less than half the positions are tenure or tenure-track. And Gen Xers should be forgiven for concluding that they don't care. You go to a faculty senate meeting and all the talk is about: (1) diversity (any comment by me on how this actually works in most universities would take us too far afield), (2) fighting the administration's efforts to make it easier to sack dead-wood Baby Boomers with tenure, or (3) instituting some awful management school thing like "strategic planning" that only results in academics (usually the junior ones) writing useless reports to justify some Baby Boomer vice provost's six figure salary.
I didn't say this. Any ill consequences for bad mouthing the tenured generation should not be directed at me. I am merely further publicizing these remarks for educational purposes.

Friday, September 21, 2007

On freeing your mind

All day I've been singing "emancipate yourself from mental slavery/none but ourselves can free our minds," and while singing I've reached the conclusion that, while the line works well as an exhortation to people to do what they can to free their minds, it is strictly speaking, not even close to being true.

Start by remembering what a free mind is. A mind is free if it is not bound by an inherited set of ideas, but is able to consider the widest range of possibilities. Most importantly, a free mind is not trapped by beliefs that justify existing unjust power structures, and can conceive of better alternatives. A free mind has imagination and skepticism.

Honestly, you can't just will yourself to have imagination and skepticism. The main source of imagination and skepticism isn't in you at all. It is in the way you were raised. And while it is possible to develop imagination and skepticism later in life, this too will be largely a product of your experience. The main internal cause for increased imagination and skepticism would be a kind of second order disposition. If imagination and skepticism are themselves dispositions to think a certain way, we can also talk about a disposition to cultivate those dispositions. But once you are in a position to have such a disposition, you pretty much have all you need to be imaginative and skeptical.

Once you have the will to free your mind, your mind is already free.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Redemption Song

Joey and I watch videos on youtube after everyone else is asleep. We explored all the versions of "Shrek song" together.

Just now we've been looking at videos of Redemption Song. I'm fond of this one, which seems to be by some random guy. I had been looking forward to hearing the Joe Strummer/Johnny Cash version for some time, but when I heard this user-made slideshow using it, I was let down. Cash seemed to me to have aged much better than Strummer. Hearing Joey S doing the song on his own made me revise my opinion. Really the voices were just mismatched. The Strummer video also features some first rate testifying at the beginning, and is just a nice video (is that Jim Jarmush?)

Then there is the man himself:
(He looks like he is doing all the strumming with his thumbnail, and just moving his thumb, barely flexing the wrist at all. And he can hit double time that way. Is that possible?)

And check out this version:

Well, the important thing is to have no fear for atomic energy. None of them can stop the times.

Upsetting demodulation against dictatorship

Falling shiite during security!

The monochrome librarian cries under the imbalance.

A danger patches a bread. A violate war advocates the local socket. Why does Caroline rage beside the enclosed risk? Caroline achieves Joey near an additional ribbon. Caroline rolls with Joey.


Thursday, September 13, 2007

More Leonard Cohen Blogging

The problem isn't that Cohen shouldn't be allowed to *sing* his own songs. He has a great baritone croon. The problem is that he shouldn't be allowed any input into how they are orchestrated. The version I linked to does feature addition verses, which hit harder on the sacred/profane/prayer/sex theme than the verses in the popular covers.

The Jeff Buckley version is one of the most popular. It has some fucking incredible guitar work, which makes for a better arrangement than the piano arpeggios that seem to be standards for covers Hallelujah. This is actually my first experience listening to Buckley, despite reading about him constantly.

Buckley has a verse not in Shrek: "Remember when I moved in you/and the holy ghost was moving too/ and with every breath we drew was hallelujah" I swear Cohen has a way of making his own horndogginess into something transcendent. I wish my horndogginess were so transcendent.

The standard arpeggio covers are here (Rufus Wainwright) and here (Alison Crowe, which I only clicked on because I thought it said Alison Krause)

Its a close contest between Buckley and Cale.

An alternative solution to the polygamists' dilemma

Estrogen mimicking chemicals! They are the most likely culprit behind the massive gender imbalance in babies born in Inuit communities across the arctic. According to the Guardian article. "In the communities of Greenland and eastern Russia monitored so far, the ratio was found to be two girls to one boy. In one village in Greenland only girls have been born." Women in these villages were found to have extremely high levels of estrogen mimicking chemicals in their blood, and since it is known that enough of these chemicals can alter the sex of a fetus, the case against estrogen mimickers is pretty strong. The Inuit are victims of a combination of wind and water patterns and bioaccumulation. A lot of estrogen mimickers are carried to the arctic by air and water, and accumulate as they go up the food chain, meaning that the largely meat eating Inuit are subjected to huge doses.

The article does not mention it, but I infer that a substantial number of the girls being born are chromosomally male. They have the manly Y chromosome, but its action in development has been completely undone by the estrogen mimickers. I wonder if this means there will be some cases of girls growing penises at puberty.


John Cale Singing Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah

Since the kids watch Shrek on a daily basis, I've been hearing this song a lot. I didn't realize it was a Leonard Cohen tune. Amazing stuff. The nice thing about being old and square is that music you like turns up in mainstream places, like hearing Marvin Gaye in the supermarket.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The problem with one of the sides in the GMO debate

Once upon a time, I researched genetic technology, and found myself very frustrated with the way nearly everyone discussed the issue. This, neatly captures what is wrong with the pro-biotech side. The blog post is a critique of an issue of an academic journal dedicated to a perennial complaint of the genetic engineers: "Why can't the public see the light of reason, and recognize that we are acting in the best interest." I was particularly struck by this paragraph:
Time and again, the authors in Biotechnology Journal divide the world into a drama with just two actors: Science and The Public. (One even makes an even more derisory distinction, suggesting that the debate is between "modernists" who believe in progress, and postmodernists who don't even believe in truth.) But there's a third player: Capital.
Of course, for every person who sees biotech policy (and technology policy in general) as a conflict between modernists and antimodernists, there is someone who views it as a conflict between evil capital and good nature. But the Salon piece does a good job with one reductionism.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Doing Polygamy Badly

Reading this article on the sad fate of boys cast out from the big Fundamentalist Mormon enclave in Colorado and Utah to maintain the gender ratio at a level that allows all the men to have at least three wives, I realized that these guys simply don't know how to run a polygamous society. For most of human history, the species has been both polygamous and patriarchal, but has never had a problem with surplus boys. Most societies avoid this problem by limiting real polygamy to the very high status males and having women marry young and men wait until they are older. If I were leading a crazed religious sect and were motivated primarily by the desire to possess and dominate large numbers of women, I would be quick to impose both of those policies on my flock, just to insure that the operation is sustainable. I think this guy Warren Jeffs simply doesn't know how to be an effective cult leader.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Dipping into the backlog of articles on the environment in China

The New York Times on air pollution in China, from August 26. Here are some interesting clips
President Hu Jintao's most ambitious attempt to change the culture of fast-growth collapsed this year. The project, known as ''Green G.D.P.,'' was an effort to create an environmental yardstick for evaluating the performance of every official in China. It recalculated gross domestic product, or G.D.P., to reflect the cost of pollution.

But the early results were so sobering -- in some provinces the pollution-adjusted growth rates were reduced almost to zero -- that the project was banished to China's ivory tower this spring and stripped of official influence.


This spring, a World Bank study done with SEPA, the national environmental agency, concluded that outdoor air pollution was already causing 350,000 to 400,000 premature deaths a year. Indoor pollution contributed to the deaths of an additional 300,000 people, while 60,000 died from diarrhea, bladder and stomach cancer and other diseases that can be caused by water-borne pollution.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Meat is the leading cause of global warming

That is the slogan-ized version of the conclusion of two recent studies on the affect of animal agriculture on global climate. This report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization shows that "The livestock sector [is] responsible for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, measured in CO2 equivalent," which is more than all forms of transportation combined. And this conclusion is only one of several the UNFAO group draws showing the environmental damage of livestock. This study from geophysicists at the University of Chicago, and published in a journal called Earth Interactions, shows that "the greenhouse gas emissions of various diets vary by as much as the difference between owning an average sedan versus a sport-utility vehicle under typical driving conditions." That is, you could trade your Hummer for a Toyota, but it wouldn't do as much good as going vegetarian.

These studies are driving a campaign by major animal rights groups to link meat eating with global warming, highlighted in this NYT article (from Molly, via email.) I hope the campaign takes off. Past efforts to highlight this link generally get bogged down in jokes about cow farts. People have this immediate sense that if you are worried about cow farts, you must be some sort of moral busybody who wants to regulate everything. Cows are going to fart, how can you stop that? It helps to remember that the number of cows on the planet is not some pre-ordained fact. It is something we are responsible for. And hence, we are responsible for their mess.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

My new summer project

Ben Wolfson causally made a joke about writing a book called Wittgenstein on Successful Management. The idea is too great. If he hasn't started it by this summer, I'm writing it.

Update: A hypertext version of the TLP has been online since 1996 and I didn't know about it? It makes it easy to do what I've always thought you should do--read all the level 1 propositions first, then the level 2, etc.!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Completely Unlikely Solution Y

Note to self: Sometimes, you have a conversation that goes like this:

You: Hey, Person in My Line of Work, how do you deal with Classic Workplace Problem X?
Person in Your Line of Work: Why I just use Completely Unlikely Solution Y, and it solves everything for me, no problem.

Please remember that most people who talk like this are full of shit. They haven't solved the problem effortlessly; they just want to make you think that they can solve this problem, and all sorts of problems like this, effortlessly. If they have actually implemented Completely Unlikely Solution Y, it has given them an incredible headache they are not telling you about. Under no circumstances, should you try to implement Completely Unlikely Solution Y.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Victory over space and time using niceness

I sat down in the college center next to a man carrying several grocery bags full of random stuff, wearing a paper breathing filter mask on his forehead and talking on a cell phone. "I can redo the discharge papers, but they won't give me any more pain meds. What's the fucking point of redoing the paperwork if they won't give me more pain meds. Anyway, I'm going to catch the number 3 bus and go home." We were waiting for the same bus. This was my first experience with the Lorain County Transit system, and I was relieved to know I was waiting in the right place.

The LCT is not very functional. Apparently they are caught in a cycle of declining funding and ridership. The bus we caught was a little shuttle bus with only one other person on it. Later a woman got on who addressed the bus driver by name and said "just drop me off at my house." On the ride, Mr. Filter-Mask complained that none of the voices on the dispatch radio made any sense to him. "People don't say anything anymore. They're just blah blah blah. Driver, do those people make any sense to you?" The driver's reply was patient and polite.

The bus let me off at Transfer Point, a broken-pavement parking lot abutting a pile of broken bricks and a field of weeds. All the buses in the LCT system gather there periodically for people to make their transfers. The bus I was looking for (the 70) wasn't there, and soon the convocation of little shuttle buses broke up and the only people left in the lot were me and a man pushing a shopping cart full of video tapes. I had seen him get off his bus: the driver had let him use the wheelchair lift to get his shopping cart off the bus. One LCT van idled at the far end of the lot. I waited for about fifteen minutes for my bus in the skull baking heat while the man with shopping cart got his videotapes in order and began examining a pile of abandoned shopping carts. (I had to remind myself that I am in no position to look down on people who hoard videotapes.) Eventually I went over to the idling van to reconfirm that it wasn't my bus, and in general see what was up. The driver kindly radioed the 70, who told her he had made his last stop and was going out of service. (That's not what the schedule said he was supposed to do!) The driver then volunteered her cell phone so I could call for a ride, and even gave directions to the transfer point from the highway.

It was all very nice, but I still was defeated in my effort to get home. This morning, on the other hand, I was victorious. I have now successfully traveled between home and office using the bus system and my bicycle! I rode my bike to the Westlake Park and Ride, where the 70 actually arrived when the schedule said it did, took my bike on the bus and went took it to the transfer point. I wanted to get on the 3, but the bus was full, and no one wanted me to take the bike on board. The driver of the 3 said the 51 will get me to LCCC, it will just take longer, plus it has a rack on the front for my bike. I went over to the 51, noting that the buses actually sit in numerical order for their little meet up, and stared at the bike rack at the front. How does this thing work? A man with a large unkempt beard and a plastic bag full of clothing saw my perplexity and showed me how to unfold the rack and lock my bike in.

The 51 gave me an extended tour of the strip malls, residential neighborhoods and one small downtown area of the city of Elyria in Lorain County, and eventually deposited me at my workplace. It took two hours, but victory was mine! I am now at work.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Sentence Length

A short sentence can easily capture the tenor of my life two months ago. To adequately express how things are going now, with the confusion of adapting to a new location (Why does this bus schedule only show the times for the eastbound buses? Do the buses not return? Is a mass of municipal buses building up in east Cleveland like a blood clot, or perhaps an infestation of feral cats, with old ladies giving saucers of milk to the cute, but totally untamed alley buses?) and a new job (my tenure seems to depend on five annual documents [the Course Assessment Record, the Individualized Work Plan, the Continuous Improvement Goals Form, the Annual Professional Activities Summary and the Peer and Self Evaluation Form; the last of these at one point asks "The faculty member is an effective teacher: disagree, agree, or strongly agree", while the second of these asserts "generally, in addition to his or her primary teaching, library or counseling responsibilities, a faculty member will engage in two activities listed under (I) a combination of one activity listed under (I) and two activities listed under (II) or four activities listed under (II)" {as per the Faculty Load and Reassignment Guidelines 4.A}] and it is not clear to me whether I need to actually change anything I do in order to satisfy the requirements of these forms, or whether I simply need to document my current work habits using the appropriate jargon [Is blogging a level II activity? If I blog long enough, can I become a Fourth Level Magic User?]) compounding stress of coping with the ordinary crises of teaching (A student says the audio files for my online lecture are just static, the bookstore can't find the book I ordered, even though it is published by OUP, another textbook went into a new edition while I wasn't looking, so now all my assignments are wonky) and childcare (when we dropped Caroline off at her new classroom, we thought it didn't look very Montessori-ish, and then later we get a call asking if we had signed her up for the Montessori program or the regular program)--given that in good personal writing the structure of the sentence expresses the lifeworld of the speaker (so that, for instance, a life where attending to one task always seems to require attending to another [for instance, bringing vegetarian food to the children's schools requires a note from a pediatrician which in turn requires actually finding a new pediatrician] so that the ordinary day consists of a series of sidetrackings would be best expressed by a sentence with frequent and iterated parentheticals) would require a longer sentence.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Hi, I'm Back

When I last posted, I was in Honolulu at an NEH Institute on Chinese history and philosophy. Since that time I have flown to Syracuse, driven to Cleveland, driven back to Canton, New York, then driven to Bethany Delaware, then back to Canton, and then I drove in a big moving truck full of all of my possessions to Bay Village, Ohio, where I now reside in a house which is far to large for our current needs, but which may seem less oversized once Joey and Caroline are teenagers, but which is nevertheless a mere 200 square feet away from being considered an environmentally unfriendly house by the standards of the legislation recently proposed by Rep John Dingell (D-MI) which would revoke the mortgage deduction on McMansions, defined as any house of 3,000 sq. ft. or more--now you might think that this clearly means that I have joined the ruling class of bloated, myopic plutocrats who are so blinded by their own luxury that they are unaware that the world is falling down around them, but let me assure you that occupying this house actually reminds me that the world is falling down around me because the house itself is falling down, with a leak appearing in our first night of occupancy, dangerous levels of radon in the basement (which right now we are mitigating solely by staying out of the basement, although we plan to do something more sophisticated down the line [although I actually can't find anything on the EPA site which indicates that radon accumulates mostly in the basement, or that staying out of the basement does any good or that we aren't all four of us {five counting Edie} smoking the equivalent of several packs a day and not even reaping the benefits of looking cool and getting a little buzz]) electrical outlets that are not up to code because ungrounded circuits still have three pronged outlets--an environmental insult made the worse because I so far have been driving to work at my new school, Lorain County Community College, which is a fine institution, even though it does not subscribe to jstor and I was specifically told that they had a jstor subscription when I toured the campus as a part of my job interview and this assurance helped me to think that by working at a community college I was not dropping out of the world of higher education (the librarian just now told me that jstor was too expensive and only contained advanced materials which were outside of the educational mission of the college, even though I wanted to access jstor specifically to get a journal article which I was going to assign to their students); all of this as you can imagine has kept me more than a little busy, which is why blogging has fallen by the wayside, kept alive only by the tiny ghost embodied as list of articles about Chinese environmental issues which I have been planning to blog, and the admission by a few people I know in the real world that they actually keep up with me via this blog (hi mom), and the general sense that I will know my life has finally settled down once I have enough time to blog, a sense which gave me something to hope for, a heartening image which helped me when in the times when Caroline gets an impetigo infection which grows to a sore three inches in diameter under her left arm and we need to see a doctor the day before we are supposed to move, which is three days after I told my new employer and several other people in the Cleveland area that we would be in town, an image that is finally realized now, after my first day teaching at the new school, which turns out to be a lot like teaching at all the other schools I have taught at, except more students seem to bring their kids to campus, which actually makes me feel quite nice, since I frequently brought my kids to the SLU campus and they just seemed to stand out, although I did see Karl Shoenberg bring his kids to school once; and now that I actually have had time to blog, I feel quite nice, although most of my possessions are still in boxes, my syllabi have an alarming number of days marked TBA, and filling those TBA's will be more difficult now that I don't have access to jstor and the school policies don't allow me to simply hand books to the support staff and have them scan large sections which I can put on my classes' Angel page, and I am teaching five sections with four preps this semester; again, despite all that, I feel quite nice, perhaps because a bit of the traveling around I have done in the last month did involve a trip to the beach, where I got to see pippy, hali, james, ingvild, sequoia, picabia, mom, dad, peyton, erin, katelynne, quinn, flo and cody, and perhaps because the new house really is a lot of fun, and since I am now tenure track, we can make serious improvements to the house, including making it more environmentally friendly, or at least not poisonous and I know that unless I displease the Gods somehow, I will never ever have to move again.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The guy who stood in front of a line of tanks

Right now, the first two hits for a google image search on "tiananmen" give you photos of this:
People seem to prefer to decontextualize this image. Dropping the context makes sense: you know immediately what the picture means anyway.

Nevertheless, the decontexutalization bothers me. My difficulty isn't just that no one knows who this guy was or what happened to him. I know that the anonymity contributes to the symbolisism and can live with that. The thing that bothers me is that you rarely even see the end of the video. Some people hustle this man away. First there is a guy on a bike, then a man in a blue shirt, and then a man in a black shirt with his hands in the air. Finally two guys in white shirts come out, but they don't even need to run all the way to Tank Man because the others are pushing him off.

As far as I can tell, no one has posted this video unedited to the web. You can watch it on Frontline, interspersed with commentary. There are plenty of versions of it on Youtube with the end missing, generally overdubbed with protest music. The video should just be put out there to speak for itself, though.

Tank man did not fight against the people who dragged him off. Why?

In a better world, Chang'an avenue would be blocked off for keeps, and they'd put up a statue of a man with a couple shopping bags standing in front of a column of tanks.

In the Frontline video, a professor at Pepperdine comments that Tank Man did not bring down the CCP, but he did help down the Soviet Union. Before the Berlin wall fell, activists in eastern Europe said, "if that kid in China stood in front of those tanks, we can do what we're doing."

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Feminism, Gays, and Porn

Every day at this institute I find myself saying “Wow, that’s interesting. I’d like to blog it,” but of course, I never have time to blog anything. So tonight I’m going to pick the one thing most blogworthy I’ve seen so far: porn. There’s an idea that has been floating around since the 90s arrival of third wave, sex positive feminism that eras in history that are good for women are also good for gays and porn. The history of China seems to bear this out. So far I’ve heard about two eras in Chinese history in which women enjoyed more rights, and in both cases, there was also more acceptance of gays and better porn.

The two examples I've heard about of times that were good for women, gays and porn, are the six dynasties period and the late Ming/early Qing. The latter, being more recent is better documented. It saw a flowering of writing by women and the novel The Golden Lotus, which is listed with Journey to the West and Dream of the Western Chamber as one of the great novels of late imperial China, and is also full of weird sex. Not all of it seems to be happy sex. Apparently towards the end [SPOILER]the main character is fucked to death by one of his concubines. I can't find a free version of the whole thing on line, but here's a sample of a scene where the lead character is trying to ingratiate himself with one of his wives, Yüeh-niang, whom he has been fighting with:
"Whether you go there or not is no concern of mine," said Yüeh-niang. "I wouldn't presume to tell such a simpleton what to do. But as long as you're shelling out the hard cash to maintain her as your mistress, if you don't even bother to visit her, you can be sure she'll manage to take on someone else. Where people in that profession are concerned:
You can tie up their bodies, but
You can't tie up their hearts.
Do you really think you can put your seal on her and make it stick?" "What you say is true enough," said Hsi-men Ch'ing.

Thereupon, he started to undress, sent the maids out of the room, and proposed to go to bed with Yüeh-niang and seek his pleasure with her.
"If I let you into the kitchen,
You'll only make a pig of yourself,"
said Yüeh-niang. "It's concession enough if I allow you into my bed tonight. If you've got anything else in mind, forget it."

Hsi-men Ch'ing responded by exposing his organ to Yüeh-niang.

"It's all your doing," he joked. "You've made him so angry he's having a dumbstruck fit."

"What do you mean 'he's having a dumbstruck fit'?" demanded Yüeh-niang.
"If he's not having a dumbstruck fit," said Hsi-men Ch'ing, "how come his eye is bulging so wide, but he can't get a word out?"

"You must be delirious," responded Yüeh-niang. "What makes you think I've got even half an eye for the likes of you?" At this point Hsi-men Ch'ing:

Without permitting any further explanation,
lifted Yüeh-niang's two fresh white legs onto his shoulders, inserted his organ into her vagina,13 and gave free rein to:
The oriole's abandon and the butterfly's pursuit.
Entranced by the clouds and intoxicated by the rain,
They are not yet willing to call a halt.14
The subsequent sex scene seems consensual, but the emotional tension is serious. The whole thing seems like a nice combination of eroticism, humor and emotional tension.

Also reported to be good: The Prayer Mat of Flesh, which features a monk getting a tool transplant from some animal (I don't remember which). John Berthrong said the book begins with a warning to the reader "A real monk who reads this will not be aroused" and ends with a similar reminder "If you are a true monk, you will not have been aroused by this." I can't find any content from it online, though.

The benefits accorded to women, homos, and porn during periods like these all come from a loosening of traditional sex roles. It is not clear, though, that a general loosening actually counts as being good for women. By the late Qing, footbinding became a serious problem. The woman who has written the most about the flowering of women's writing in the early Qing is also, weirdly, an apologist for late Qing footbinding. As far as gays go, I have nothing but the assurance of the institute leaders to go on that this was a better time. This is something I'd like to read more on.

More Y3

This is a better video for the same song.


Update: oops, I meant this

The Y3website says this from an EP coming out July 24. You know, I never really listened to Show Your Bones. Maybe I should.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


You know, at the same time I was saying to myself "I haven't felt the Kantian sublime in the face of nature since I was a teenager," I was also saying "I haven't heard music that ripped my face off since the last S-K album came off. (Actually, that isn't true, Living With War has not only ripped my face off, but reduced me to tears repeatedly. But at the time I was thinking about the paucity of aesthetic experience in my life, I was thinking back to S-K's The Woods [Also, I'm not sure I hear Living With War with the requisite detachment to count as aesthetic experience.])

In any case, this ripped my face off.

Monday, July 09, 2007

More whingeing than blegging.

AAAGGHHGG. I hit some unfortunate sequence of keystrokes, and now my laptop (A Lenovo Thinkpad T60) is displaying everything sideways. I gather switching to "portrait mode" is useful for tablet PC, but this ain't one of them. I've spent an hour and a half, and I can't figure out how to switch it back to landscape.

I swear I know just enough about computers to get myself in trouble. Molly never has these problems. [Update: Molly says she is not shielded by some special ignorance, but merely the fact that she is willing to ask for help.]

Fuckity fuckity fuck fuck fuck.

Update: Fixed. Sorta, I think. After three hours. I downloaded a bunch of updates from Lenovo, which made the "display mode" menu behave differently. There still was no function that said "switch to landscape mode." But when I switched to projector mode, instead of saying "this function is incompatible with portrait mode." It just gave me a new screen that faces the right way. I think it is also now thinks there is a projector attached to the computer. Ok, whatever.

Now if only I can fix this crick in my neck.

Friday, July 06, 2007

"Oh yes, the area right by my house has fires all summer long"

So the ridge right above my dorm is still burning, and when the wind blows the right way ash falls from the sky, yet no one seems to think this is a big deal. Last night I had put my meds and my computer and my notebook in a bag in case I had to leave in a big hurry, and everyone else was just like, "the damn helicopters kept me up all night." Roger assured me that brush fires happen here all the time, and that it really is no big deal, but I'm having trouble getting my head around this.

A story on the fire

is here.

turn around

I go back outside and the fire is all but extinguished. I can see a few glowing dots on the ridge line. All the people who were standing in the drizzle staring at the fire are gone. I can now see what must be very high powered flashlights bobbing and sweeping through the forest silhouette on the ridge line. I can still hear the helicopter, but it is no longer directly overhead. And now I notice the half moon has risen and is now comfortably over the ridge.

liveblogging a conflagration

The ridge right above my dorm at the East West Center is on fire. I can't find any news on line about it, or I'd link to something. But shit, the ridge is on fire. I asked a campus security guy if there were plans to evacuate and he gave me a very reassuring "oh no, not now." I've been watching it for an hour and a half now. I'm no good at estimating sizes, especially at this distance, but the fire takes up about a quarter of the part of the ridge that is visible from in front of the dorm. And I mean, fuck, it is a fire. A helicopter has been circling for a couple hours now. Periodically it lands in the street or the parking lot by the Korean Studies building and people get on or off. There is a fire truck here on campus. I assume there are people up on the ridge fighting the fire, but I can't see them. I've been taking pictures, but they don't look like much, and I don't have the right cable to get them on the computer.Ok, I'm going up to the 12th floor to see if I can see anything else.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Compulsive Hoarding in My Family.

Via Thomas in email comes this nice series of posts by the life hack guy at 43 Folders on decluttering. The first thing I like about it is that he takes this issue seriously. Its less Hints from Heloise, and more Therapy for People with Hoarding Spectrum Disorders. Today's post even links to support groups for full blown hoarders. I'm quite sensitive to this, actually, because for the last third of his life my Grandfather was quite a hoarder. Cleaning out his basement, I found day planners going back to 1970, thirty years worth receipts filed chronologically in a fireproof file cabinet, including things like bar tabs, as well as assorted household goods and other bric-brac that were just as old. Tellingly my first response to seeing all this was "cool!" I imagined Grandfather as Sam Pepys, and I wondered if I could reconstruct a month of his life from all of this mess. I began to scan the day planners into the computer, but didn't get very far before I realized that I was being weird. Here is the cover of March 1971.g-father march 1971_Page_01

Here is the day my brother was born. g-father march 1971_Page_04
Peyton James Loftis, 6 LB, 13 oz. It looks like he never got to "9 Ck 7/11 final plans" that day.

I took that day planner with me, and I'm sure I still have it. I think it is in the clutter of my office somewhere. I asked mom not to throw out any of the day planners, but I'm pretty sure all the receipts have gone away.

By the way, this is what Sam Pepys was up to this day in 1664
(Lord’s day). Up and ready, and all the morning in my chamber looking over and settling some Brampton businesses. At noon to dinner, where the remains of yesterday’s venison and a couple of brave green geese, which we are fain to eat alone, because they will not keepe, which troubled us. After dinner I close to my business, and before the evening did end it with great content, and my mind eased by it. Then up and spent the evening walking with my wife talking, and it thundering and lightning all the evening, and this yeare have had the most of thunder and lightning they say of any in man’s memory, and so it is, it seems, in France and everywhere else. So to prayers and to bed.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Advice from the past

From the House Judiciary Committee in 1974, after Watergate.
In the [Constitutional] convention George Mason argued that the President might use his pardoning power to "pardon crimes which were advised by himself" or, before indictment or conviction, "to stop inquiry and prevent detection." James Madison responded:

[I]f the President be connected, in any suspicious manner, with any person, and there be grounds [to] believe he will shelter him, the House of Representatives can impeach him; they can remove him if found guilty...
via, via, via,

Bush Commutes Libby's Sentence

Story here. There is only one appropriate response.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

New China Labor Law

China enacts new labor law to quell unrest. Here's the basics of the law
The law, enacted by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress over the objections of foreign investors, requires employers to provide written contracts to their workers, restricts the use of temporary laborers and helps give more employees long-term job security.

The law, which is to take effect in 2008, also enhances the role of the Communist Party’s monopoly union and allows collective bargaining for wages and benefits.
Notice who is fighting against workers rights in china? Is it the evil gerontocracy, the old party bureaucrats behind the Tiananmen massacre? Nope, its the big multinationals, including no doubt, the people who make all your cheap plastic crap. Their motivation is the same as it always is, and the threat they lorded over the CCP is the same.
Companies argued that the rules would substantially increase labor costs and reduce flexibility, and some foreign businesses warned that they would have little choice but to move their operations out of China if the provisions were enacted.
I really hate the term "flexible labor force." Fortunately, the NYT gives us a sense of what this term really means.
Passage of the measure came shortly after officials and the state news media unearthed the widespread use of slave labor in as many as 8,000 brick kilns and small coal mines in Shanxi and Henan Provinces. It was one of the most glaring labor scandals since China began adopting market-style economic policies a quarter century ago.

The police have freed nearly 600 workers, many of them teenagers, held against their will in factories owned or operated by well-connected businesspeople and local officials.
As the article points out, the new law won't do any good unless it is enforced. China has lots of good laws on the books about the environment and labor, but no one pays any attention to them. Also, none of this is a substitute for the ability to form independent unions. Right now the only union allowed in China is run by the communist party, and it refuses to engage in any collective bargaining, doesn't allow strikes, and doesn't help individual workers with grievances.

Friday, June 29, 2007

two infinite games

Falling sand game


Living with war

I'm living with war in my heart every day

I was thinking about the Clash song "Something about England" as I walked to the grocery store today. The short version of the song: Mick asks about the persistent xenophobia of the English. Joe, in the persona of an old homeless man, responds by giving a history of the 20th century from the point of view of class, ending like this.
But how could we know when I was young
All the changes that were to come?
All the photos in the wallets on the battlefield
And now the terror of the scientific sun
There was masters an' servants an' servants an' dogs
They taught you how to touch your cap
But through strikes an' famine an' war an' peace
England never closed this gap
The thing that strikes me the most about the song was that if you lived in England in those times, history happened to you. The US is at war, but history is not happening to a lot of us. History is not happening to me. But it is happening to a lot of other people.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Choosing a school

Periodic commenter Bridgett points us to the Ruffing School, a Montessori school one town over from where we are moving. Caroline has been going to a Montessori school for 3-6 year olds, and we've liked it a lot. But is Montessori education good for the bigger kids? One of Maria Montessori's slogans was "follow the child." As Molly put it, "does that work for algebra? You can't wait for the child to express an interest in algebra." So here are some notes on Montessori education for bigger kids.

The middle school at Ruffing has two levels, one for sixth graders and one for seventh and eighth graders. (The latter I guess follows Montessori's philosophy of multi-age classrooms.) Wikipedia says Montessori schools generally don't assign homework, but this school clearly does. Heck, Caroline has even been given some homework. They also have separate teachers for Spanish, band and gym, which is a good sign. The school has been around since 1957 and teaching middle school since 1977, which is also a good sign. Looking for a certain amount of longevity in your alternative educational institution rules out the freakier places. Ruffing doesn't have much else on line, and this is not so good. "Montessori" isn't governed by copyright, trademark, and there seems to be a lot of variation in the movement. In particular, I can't find any information about the training of the teachers who work there.

As I understand it, the centerpiece of Montessori education is giving children a large block of time to explore at their own direction a prepared environment filled with activities that allow the children to learn concepts or skills. This explains the conversations I had with Caroline picking her up from school. Generally, when I asked her what she did at school that day, she would say "activities."

"Well what activities"

"Oh, just activities."

Later I was able to figure out that "activities" included something called "nuts and bolts" and something called "braiding." At the end of this year, Caroline came back with a "name tracing" book, in which she had traced her name a couple dozen times. We were told this is quite an accomplishment. This page emphasizes that the materials for the activities are self correcting. The child can perceive the problem without being corrected by the teacher, and thus is drawn into solving it on her own.

So will this work with a 12 year old learning algebra? Well, there was this fascinating study in Science which took advantage of a nice experiment in nature. A school district in Milwaukee servicing mostly poor and minority students had some Montessori schools and some regular schools. Since more people wanted to go to the Montessori schools than they could handle, students were admitted by lottery. So we have effectively a randomized trail. Students who applied to the Montessori schools but didn't get in are the control group; the students who did get in are the experimental group. Notice that both groups have already been selected to have parents that take an active interest in the kids education.

Results: the Montessori schools did better. They did better on academic skills, and a lot better on interpersonal skills. At age 5, children were told stories about kids behaving badly and were far more likely (43% versus 18%) to discuss these using concepts of justice and fairness. More fundamentally, the Montessori kids did better at tests of their concept of other minds. Eighty percent of the kids passed a test where they had to recognize that another person had a false belief. The kids from the other schools performed at chance level (50%).

But what about the older kids? Well for the 12 year olds studied, the academic advantage disappears. Kids in both groups performed similarly on basic skills. The Montessori kids, though still performed better on community and social skills, and also, interestingly, used more sophisticated sentence structures and creative stories.

The charts for the science article are below. Note, though the strong and somewhat misleading graphic rhetoric of the charts. They converted all the test scores to a single measure (z) where 0 is the statistical mean for each test, and then represented the scores using thick bars to represent deviation from the mean. Thus even if the Montessori kids are only scoring slightly better than the regular kids, they are still represented by a bright line going up rather than down.

Also note that the chart for the 12 year olds simply omits the data where the two groups were comparable.

The first graph has 16 data points, and the second has 8. Tufte would claim that you shouldn't even use a graph here, just a chart.

I'm going to have to return to this later. Here is a collection of links to empirical research.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Popular Confucianism in China

The Economist (masthead slogan: "Oooh, look at me, I read The Economist") has a short article about the rise in popularity in China things like of books and T.V. shows that explain Confucianism. Yu Dan, for instance, seems to be a combination of Oprah Winfrey and Mencius, with more emphasis on the Oprah part. Yu Dan is presenting the public with a kinder, gentler Confucius, which I imagine is a lot like the Confucius I have been getting from the New Confucians coming to the institute at the East West Center.

The second article I linked, from Danwi, to is kind to Yu Dan. The Economist, that bastion of Western liberalism, is more careful to bring up the drawbacks to Confucianism, especially for the CCP, which has been attempting to use Confucian loyalty to shore up power.
But Stephen Angle, a Fulbright scholar at Peking University and a philosophy professor at Wesleyan University in America, argues that Confucianism may not be as useful to the party as it thinks. For a start it has little to say about one of the party's biggest worries, the tension in urban-rural relations. More important, a gap in Confucian political theory should alarm a government seeking to hold on to power in a fast-changing environment. “One big problem with Confucianism”, says Mr Angle, “is that it offers no good model for political transition, except revolution.”
Confucianism offers essentially three checks on the power of rulers. First there is the moral suasion of the texts themselves. Second, if the ru, the scholar-officials, sense that the Emperor is taking the wrong path they are obligated to remonstrate with him. After that there is not much you can do until the Emperor gets so bad, so heinous, that he no longer counts as the emperor, and a "rectification of names" can take place, where the title of emperor is violently removed from an impostor and put on a worthy. One of my co-participants in the seminar, a Chinese immigrant, summarized the problem with the propagandists for the kinder, gentler Confucius quite nicely: "The thing is, in the end, we know this system simply didn't work."

new moving map

Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

ok, this is my new moving map, with the bikability of some roads marked and the correct location of the schools and bus stops.

Monday, June 25, 2007

moving map

moving map
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

So this is a map of the area we are moving to. The milk jug and apple is a Trader Joe's that has a regular farmer's market out front. The purple thumbtack is a Montessori school. The dollar sign is my workplace, and the houses are places for sale we are considering.

Molly, do I have all the locations right? When you said there was a bus every hour, did you mean a bus along Detroit Rd?

[This post is really just aimed at my immediate family.]

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Battlestar Paper Part III

Here is the third and final part of the rough draft of my Battlestar Paper. Part 1 is here, part 2, here. This is all fairly light in terms of what is possible with philosophy and popular culture. I'll have a review out soon of this book, which will get deeper.

“Are You Alive?”: The Half-life of the Unjust as Seen in Boethius and BSG

The first line spoken in the reenvisioned BSG is “Are you alive?” The question is unsettling: it is asked by a robot (a Six) to a human being (a Colonial officer sent to meet with the Cylons at the remote Armistice Station.) Clearly if anyone is not alive here, it is the robot, right? Yet the Six is asking this question of a human, and when he, tremblingly, says, “Yes,” she says “Prove it,” and gives him a long open-mouth kiss, as two centurions look on stoically, their eyes going “wrrrrom wrrrrom,” before the whole station is annihilated in a Cylon attack. This opening scene is mirrored in the episode “You Can’t Go Home Again,” when Starbuck, marooned on a planet without oxygen, finds a Cylon raider that has crashed. Opening a hatch, she finds living tissue underneath. Realizing that the spacecraft has no pilot, but is itself a robot, Starbuck whispers with wonder, “Are you alive?”

The Cylons and the humans have difficulty recognizing each other as alive. They don’t fail to recognize each other as organisms of some kind. They each see that the other can bleed. But they don’t recognize the other as a living person. This brings out another important theme in Western philosophy, the question of what it means to be a person. This issue touches both on ethics, which as we’ve seen is the study of right and wrong, and metaphysics. Metaphysics is the study of existence, what existence is, and what sort of things can be properly said to exist. When humans and Cylons fail to recognize each other as persons, they are making an ethical decision, because they are saying they don’t have ethical duties to the other side. It is also a metaphysical decision, because they are putting limits around a category of reality. Reality contains persons, but it also contains some other things like look like persons but aren’t really, because they’re robots. (Or, if you are a Cylon, because they are not robots.)

One philosopher who took seriously the connection between ethics and metaphysics in understanding the idea of a person was the Roman philosopher and theologian Boethius. Boethius was a senator, and proud of his Greco-Roman heritage. But he was also a Christian, a monotheist who believed the world was a product of an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing God. A major project for him was reconciling the wisdom of Greek philosophers like Plato with Christian teachings. Boethius also was in a position to think seriously about the nature of a tyrant. The Roman Empire had essentially collapsed and broken in half. The western half, where he lived, was ruled by a barbarian, the Ostrogoth Theodoric. Theodoric persecuted Boethius, believing him to be a traitor. At the time Boethius wrote his greatest book, The Consolations of Philosophy(3), he was under house arrest, waiting to be executed. The opening problem for that work is “how could a just God allow this to happen? Why do I suffer while a tyrant like Theodoric prospers?” Boethius’s answer looks to his Greek heritage, to Plato and his treatment of the tyrant. Boethius accepts Plato’s psychological vision, and raises it to a metaphysical level. The evil person, for Boethius, is not only enslaved, he isn’t even really human. In fact, he hardly exists at all. Thus an explanation of God’s ways to man: the tyrant does not really prosper. In fact, at the moment that Theodoric’s thugs break into Boethius’s house and club him to death, Boethius is better off than Theodoric.

Boethius begins this remarkable argument by agreeing with Plato that a villain like Baltar or Theodoric has no real power, even with they hold an office like President of the Twelve Colonies or King of the Goths and Italy. Boethius’s focus is on happiness. He argues, like Aristotle (384–322 BCE) that the goal of life for all people is to be happy. Why does Baltar sleep with every woman he can? Because he thinks it will make him happy. But happiness is also identical with goodness. Things that seem to bring you happiness, like wealth, power, fame, or pleasure, will only hurt you in the end without goodness, for all of the reasons we saw with Plato’s tyrant. Baltar’s lusts only bring him misery, because he pursues them so dishonestly. True pleasure, and thus true happiness, can only be obtained in honest relationships, the sort of friendships Plato shows the tyrant can never have. But now wait, power is the ability to get what you want. People want to be happy, and men like Baltar are simply not happy. Therefore they have no real power. Thus Boethius writes, “They fail in their quest for the supreme crown of reality, for the wretched creatures do not succeed in attaining the outcome for which alone they struggle day and night” (75).

This much is in Plato, but Boethius goes farther. The evil person isn’t even really human. The Colonial officer Armistice Station may be right to say he is alive. The Cylon raider may be alive in the way a smart horse or dog is alive. But Baltar isn’t really alive, not in the sense of being a living person and not as long as he continues his path of deception. How could this be? Human nature, according to Boethius, is to be good. We were all meant to be reunited with God. But evil men fail to realize this nature. “What follows from this,” Boethius says “is that you cannot regard as a man one who is disfigured by vices” (78).

Now here’s the weird part. Evil people in fact cease to exist altogether. Something ceases to exist if it looses its nature. Think about a Viper that gets blown apart by a Cylon missile. After the explosion, something still exists. Wreckage is flying everywhere. But the Viper doesn’t exist anymore, because no one can use it to do what a Viper does, fly around and shoot things. The Viper, in being blown apart, has lost its nature. But a person who has fallen into injustice has also lost her nature. She is no longer achieving the ends of a person, just as the wreckage of the Viper no longer serves the purpose of the viper. Thus evil people cease to exist. As Boethius says, “You could say a corpse is a dead man, but you would not call it a man pure and simple; in the same way, I grant that corrupt men are wicked, but I refuse to admit that they exist in an absolute sense” (76). And thus we have a lovely justification of God’s ways to man. In fact, God did not create a world where the unjust tyrants rule while good men suffer. Quite the opposite. He created a world where the unjust fade away while the just achieve their true nature.

I think it is pretty clear that Plato’s conception of the tyrant is present in the characterization of Baltar on BSG, but can we go farther, and say that Boethius’s radical claims are also present in the show? Well, I doubt that any of the writers have read Boethius (although they may have read Plato) or were thinking at this level of abstraction. But whatever the writers’ intent, the show winds up displaying Boethian themes. Evil in the world of BSG is not a simple dark force opposed to the noble warriors of goodness. Evil men like Baltar are clearly weak and pitiable and the nature of humanity itself is questioned. Who is alive, the humans or the Cylons? A lot of questions remain unanswered in the series, but I think we will find in the fourth and final season that humans and Cylons prove they are alive by acting justly. Remember how Six asked the Colonial officer to prove he was alive: she kissed him. If Boethius is right, it is though love that we show that we are alive. The gods lift up those who lift each other up.


(3) In this essay I will use the Oxford World Classics edition of this text. P.G. Walsh, trans. 1999. Boethius: The Consolations of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Numbers in parentheses after quotations refer to page numbers in this edition.

Update: advice and edits are no longer needed. I've gone through it all with the editors.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

My Battlestar Paper, Part 2

Here is the second part of my paper "What a strange little man": Baltar and the Image of the Tyrant, for a volume meant to introduce total novices to philosophy through the show Battlestar Galactica. Part 1 is here.

“I Don't Have to Listen. I'm the President”: The Weakness of the Tyrant as seen in Plato and Baltar

Plato’s most famous description of the life of the tyrant comes in his book The Republic,(1) a sprawling masterpiece that is meant to answer the question “why be just?” but on the way develops sophisticated theories about the nature of knowledge, art, and existence itself. The crux of Plato’s answer to the question “Why be just” is that the soul of the unjust person is out of balance. His soul is ruled by its crudest desires, and stifles any part of itself that is capable of perceiving what is best in the world. The culmination of this argument is Plato’s description of the tyrannical man, a person whose soul is like a city governed by mad dictator. The picture he paints winds up looking a lot like Gaius Baltar. The interesting thing is that right now Plato is only talking about a man whose soul, internally, is like a tyrannized city. Plato further imagines the disaster that would ensue if a person with a tyrannized soul actually became the tyrant of a city, externalizing the injustice in his breast. The resulting picture approaches Baltar’s presidency.

If you asked an average fan why Baltar is the bad guy, they would probably say because he betrayed his people to genocidal robots (a practice most ethicists frown on.) Plato would have you look at his soul. He begins by asking us to think of the part of ourselves that comes out when we sleep, the part that makes you have dreams of doing things that appall you when you wake up and remember them. This part of us, Plato says, “doesn’t shrink from trying to have sex with a mother, as it supposes, or with anyone else at all, whether man, god or beast. It will commit any foul murder, and there is no food it refuses to eat. In short it omits no act of folly or shamelessness” (571d). When you are asleep, this part of your mind gets its way, with horrifying results. Now imagine someone who lets this part of their mind rule their waking life. (Perhaps you don’t have to imagine too hard.) When you first meet this person, you might think they are a free spirit, because they do what they want when they want, but really they are enslaved, because every other aspect of their self has been subordinated to the task of satisfying whatever desire has bubbled to the surface currently.

When Plato needs to give a name to the part of the soul that rules in the tyrannical man, he calls it lust. This is a strange move. The soul is full of desires that can get us in trouble, desires for money, fame, power, drugs, even food. Like lust, these are not bad in themselves, but are ruinous if you let them run your life. Plato probably picks on lust merely because he is not a fan of the body and its biological functions, and lust is very much a bodily sin, unlike the desire for fame, and makes a better candidate for the ruin of tyrants than the other cardinal sin of the body, gluttony.

Odd though it is, Plato’s choice of lust to be the tyrant of the soul of the tyrannical man fits Baltar to a T. Baltar’s sexual exploits are the root of most of his problems, beginning with selling out the human race to the sultry Cylon Caprica Six. For the rest of the series, he is played like a fiddle by a mysterious image of Six which only he can see. She wears preposterously revealing outfits, leans on his shoulder, whispers in his ear, and gets him to advance the Cylon agenda, chiefly though his candidacy for president. But it is not just the Sixes who keep Baltar under their spell. We know he was sleeping with at least one other woman during his first affair with Caprica Six, because in the opening miniseries we see Caprica catch them together. (Baltar does a spectacularly poor job of talking his way out of it.)

According to Plato, once the soul of the tyrannical man comes to be dominated by lust, all sorts of other vices follow, and low and behold we see these in Baltar as well. Lust is not alone in his soul: it rules over a swarm of other desires, all of which must be sated, at great cost. Thus, the man with the tyrannized soul becomes a liar and a thief to satisfy all these wants. Baltar, to appease his inner Six, lies and says that he needs a nuclear weapon to make a Cylon detection device. Later after he falls under the spell of another Six he has rescued from torture, he has the nuclear weapon smuggled to her, which she promptly uses to destroy a colonial ship, the Cloud Nine, signaling the human’s location to the Cylons. But again, it is not only lust for Six that drives Baltar to lie. He also refuses to reveal that Boomer is a Cylon, out of simple fear of what she will do if he does.
But most importantly, Plato says the man with the tyrannized soul will become a traitor. If he is an ordinary man with no one else to betray, he will betray his parents. “he’d sacrifice his long loved and irreplaceable mother for a recently acquired girlfriend he can do without…for the sake of a replaceable boyfriend in the bloom of youth, he’d strike his aged and irreplaceable father, his oldest friend” (574b). If the man with the tyrannized soul has more power, he will betray his city: “he’ll now chastise his fatherland, if he can, by bringing in new friends and making the fatherland, and his dear old motherland (as the Cretans call it) their slaves” (575d). And, we can add, if he is a scientist in charge of the interplanetary defense mainframe, he will let space robots annihilate his species.

The man with a tyrannized soul is also a coward: “what about fear? Aren’t the tyrannical city and man full of it?” (178a). Baltar lies to Boomer about the results of her Cylon test because he simply can’t face her. More importantly, every lie Baltar tells gives him a new reason for fear. He has a standing fear that Roslin will discover that he has betrayed the human race. As soon as he is president, he has to order Adama to stop the investigation into the destruction of Cloud Nine, because he knows it will lead back to him. Strikingly, Baltar’s cowardice is very much driven by his self centeredness. In the miniseries, when he realizes he has let the Cylons infiltrate the Colonial defense mainframe, his first response is to be afraid for himself: what if people find out I was involved with this? Once it is clear that the whole planet is under attack, his only thought is a trembling “How can I get out of this? How can I save my own personal hide?”

One of the saddest facts about a person with a tyrannized soul is that he never has any friends, only allies or enemies. “If he happens to need anything from other people, isn’t he willing to fawn on them and make every gesture of friendship, as if he were dealing with his own family? But once he gets what he wants, don’t they become strangers again?...someone with a tyrannical nature lives his whole life without being friends with anyone, always master to one man or a slave to another.” Baltar certainly lives this way. The only person he has a relationship with is his internal image of Six, and even she is using him, his master, really. Once president, he takes with a pair of statuesque women, but they never even speak on camera, appearing to the viewer more as concubines than partners. Felix Gaeta works as his assistant, but only because he has to. Baltar clearly has a lonely existence.
Simply put, Baltar is not empowered by his perfidy. We think that life would be easier if we could just lie to people, rather than tell them the ugly truth that they are a murderous robot, but really each lie makes our own lives worse. (Baltar should have followed the wisdom attributed to Mark Twain: “Always tell the truth, that way you don't have to remember anything.”) Baltar isn’t made happy for pursuing his desires, either. He simply spends his energy and is left wanting more. Thus Plato says “The tyrant soul also must of necessity always be poor and unsatisfiable” (578a).

But there are worse things that can happen to a man than for him simply to act badly. He can act badly and get away with it. “I do not think we have reached the extreme of wretchedness,” Plato says after describing the man with the tyrannized soul. More wretched still is “the one who is tyrannical, but doesn’t live a private life, because some misfortune provides him with the opportunity to become an actual tyrant” (578c). If the man with the tyrannized soul succeeds in remaking the world after his own inner darkness, there is nothing to hold back his misery. If there is no social order, the tyrant will be so afraid of being killed by his own slaves that he will pander to them constantly. He lives “like a woman, confined to his own house” (759c). The tyrant may have thought he was acquiring power by ascending to the top of the social heap, but once there, he finds his only option in life is to work to stay there.

Similarly, Baltar thinks he gets power when he becomes president. In “Lay Down Your Burdens, part II,” when Adama tells him he isn’t listening to the evidence of an internal threat that led to the destruction of Cloud 9, he replies “I don't have to listen. I'm the President.” And as I already mentioned, as soon as he gets into office, he surrounds himself with beautiful female advisors who don’t seem to be chosen for their political acumen. But by the next season, we find that Baltar has to listen to everyone. He must pander constantly to the Cylons and if he didn’t fear an assassination attempt from his assistant Gaeta, he should have, because Gaeta tried. And like Plato’s tyrant, Baltar can’t go out in public like a normal person, for instance to the graduation ceremonies for the New Caprica Police, for fear of being attacked. Baltar’s success is entirely illusory. Thus, as Plato says, “the real tyrant is really a slave, compelled to engage in the worst kind of fawning, slavery and pandering to the worst kind of people” (579e).

There is one aspect of Baltar that does not fit Plato’s image of the tyrant, and that his is durability, a trait noted on a couple occasions by the people in a position to know him best. The first thing Baltar’s inner Six says to him, when she initially appears to him in the Miniseries is, “You know what I love about you Gaius? You’re a survivor.” The fact that they are on a raptor shuttle fleeing the genocide is testament to the truth of her statement. In the season three episode “Torn,” Gaeta explained his take-home lesson from working as an underling for the most hated surviving human: “If there was o¬ne thing I learned about Baltar, it was his extraordinary capacity for self-preservation.” Again, events in the show back the evaluation of Baltar: Gaeta was predicting that Baltar had been plotting a path to Earth to save his own hide, and low and behold, he was.

Plato doesn’t mention the idea of the tyrant as survivor, but I think this is a point where the BSG characterization is richer than Plato’s. The philosopher Julia Annas complained in her book An Introduction to Plato’s Republic(2) that the tyrant Plato portrays in The Republic is not particularly realistic, because there is no way such a madman could stay in power very long. The fact is, though, that such people do manage to seize and hold power, Baltar’s namesake Gaius “Calligula” Caesar is a classic example. Some reports out of North Korea make Kim Jung Il fit this model. The portrayal of Baltar in BSG at least gives us some hints about how this is possible. Baltar’s fearful and self-obsessed nature means he always has an escape plan.

1 Plato. c350 BCE/1997. The Republic. In Plato: The Complete Works, edited by J. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson. Indianappolis: Hackett. Following academic convention, I will refer to all passages from The Republic by their “Stephanus number”, an odd looking combination of numbers and letters which actually refers to the original position of the passage in a complete edition of Plato published way back in 1578 by the Renaissance humanist Henri “Stephanus” Estienne.

2 Julia Annas. 1981. An Introduction to Plato’s Republic Oxford: Oxford University Press