My dog is dead.

She was never really my dog, but I always thought of her that way. Her name was Gracie  – sometimes just Grace – and she was 9 years old when she died on the operating table this morning in Memphis.

She was a sweet little 45-pound pit bull, a rescue that my wife, H, had in college and who later came to live with her parents for the past five years or so at their idyllic country home outside Memphis. She was covered in scars from being used as bait in dogfights, and she was scared of lightning, guns, and loud noises. But Gracie could play hard, as she did over the last year with our boykin spaniel puppy, Kara, despite her creaky back legs and her natural inclination to take day-long naps.  She was injury-prone due to her love of jumping fences to run around in cow pastures, and had the scars (and the name, Grace) to prove it. She also enjoyed burgers, tacos, burritos, and pretty much anything that would fit into her mouth, including student papers. She is in the right of this picture, which was taken last April. Kara is the puppy. She is now Gracie’s size.

Grace and Kara by purplepaste.

Anyone that ever met her knows what a pure and good soul Gracie had. I mean pure as the driven snow, the Platonic form of good. I don’t even believe in souls and I think that. If you think all pit bulls are mean, vicious creatures, then you’re an ignorant idiot, plain and simple; choose what you think is a good dog and I’ll put Gracie up against them any day. That dog was so soft-hearted that she never even barked.

I loved that dog so hard that it is really hard for me to think her not being here anymore, and I am having to stop and think of something else for a few minutes so I can stop crying.

When I went back to Memphis over the holidays, I spent most of my time sitting next to her on the old loveseat that she used as a napping post. I would look down at Gracie peacefully snoring away and think that there ARE really good and true things in the world, that it’s not all crap and artifice and hardship and disappointment.

H once told me that she knew I was ok because Gracie liked me. In a funny way I knew I was ok, too, because Gracie liked me, like I’d gotten the blessing of someone higher up on the ethical chain. If this dog trusts me and likes me, I thought, then I could, indeed, possibly be a good person if I tried hard enough.

I’m an agnostic. I have searched and waited patiently for evidence of a God, or a heaven, or a hell, or an afterlife, or anything like that, to no result. I expect to die one day without ever finding any. The only thing that has ever given me pause and made me think that I have been too stubborn-headed about the nature of existence is that dog. Because if there is a Gracie, then maybe there is a God, and he/she/it is good. I don’t know. There are many horrible, evil things in this world. I do know Gracie was not one of those things, and if there is an afterlife that rewards virtue, then she is lounging on a sunny porch, taking a long nap, with an unlimited supply of Sonic burgers without cheese. I do know that the last thing she saw was my sister-in-law, Jessie, and that she was surrounded last night by people and animals that loved her just as hard or even harder than I do.

She hadn’t eaten for a few days, and my mother-in-law took her to the clinic yesterday, where they suspected cancer. Jessie, who just passed her boards as a vet (go Jessie!), immediately drove up from Mississippi, and she and Dr. Tower operated to save her, but her heart stopped before the operation was over and wouldn’t restart. And so she’s gone. There is nothing to be done about it – I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to try and save her, and I wouldn’t have wanted her to linger in pain.

So in a way this is good. But it doesn’t feel that great, not yet at least. H and I are just reeling – just stunned, almost struck numb – we haven’t figured out how to mourn properly, if there is such a thing as a proper way. It doesn’t feel real, I think, because we weren’t there. To me, in a way, she’s still alive, because the last time I saw her, she was, and she seemed ok, her usual sleepy, gentle self.

If you’ve never had a dog, or think of them as just animals, then all this probably seems pretty silly. It’s not silly to me at all. It’s life and death, and nothing is more important. H and I do not think that dogs are just dogs and pets are just pets. They are more like kindred spirits that accompany us and remind us of who we are, and as a result, I feel like a part of myself is gone.

I will probably dream about her, and I think those dreams will be pleasant echoes. Despite a rough start, she had a pretty good life. I wish it had been a little longer, but we have little control over such things.

I hate death right now.

The return of students, Spring 2010

Today (yesterday, really, it’s past midnight) was my first day of teaching this spring.

There seems to be a never-ending supply of new students each semester. I could very likely continue to show up for classes for 30-odd more years (actually, that’s the plan) and never see an end to them. I’d never thought of my job as a battle against entropy, but education is never going to end as long as humans continue to reproduce. I’ve picked a field that isn’t going to get stale, that’s for sure.

I’m only teaching three sections this semester due to my taking on, at the last second, of some administrative functions – namely, the reading of numerous capstones and theses. There are no new preps, though I have done some moderate reshuffling of the assignments in all of the courses in response to student comments. I have ambitious plans this semester for writing an article or two, but those won’t get started until next week, alas.

The kairotic moment for health care

Well, now that the Democrats are about to lose their supermajority in the Senate due to throwing away Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat over the past month, we are about to find out if the party has learned, finally, that the last chance in the foreseeable future for something resembling universal health care is rapidly disappearing. The House could simply sign the current  Senate bill (doubtful), or the Senate could start using the nuclear option and reconciliation (also doubtful). They were supposed to finish it before Xmas and failed. Now the do-nothing opposition has a rallying point. Obama was clever to leave the  health care bill to Congress so he could concentrate on other matters, but the problem is that our honorable legislative bodies really aren’t well suited for  epic  idea execution. Watching the Democrats debate their competing health care plans is like watching someone on fire try to drive a hard bargain on the price of a bucket of water. I suppose it’s better than the GOP strategy of sitting still in the hopes of the fire  going out at some undisclosed future point,  perhaps  dowsed by Adam Smith’s invisible hand.


I stumbled across an account of the development of The Crescent Hawk’s Revenge, one of my favorite all-time PC games, from 1991, by the game’s producer. Really interesting stuff, especially about how the two-part structure of the story came about.

I actually didn’t finish this game, which I bought nearly twenty years ago, until about four years back. I’d gotten stuck on one of the very last missions and given up, only to discover over a decade later that the reason all my airstrikes hadn’t been working was that my old 8088 had rendered the attacking fighters far slower than the troops they were trying to hit. DOSbox fixed that – I completed the mission on the first try.

Revenge is not only the first RTS-like game that I can remember playing (aside from The Ancient Art of War, to which Revenge clearly owes a debt), but it also did a really nice job of making each mission feel like it meant something (decisions made in previous missions affect future ones) and that it took place in the rich and detailed BattleTech universe. The decisions that the player makes during the incredibly long and tense sequence to rescue a certain character’s relative, for example, are not simple ones, and the best choice of action is not immediately apparent, even after the fact; and they are important decisions, too, not trivial ones.  Yes, I am being vague. It’s too great a game to ruin by discussing the plot, although I am sorely tempted.

These aren’t the shades of blue you’re looking for

Rereading Hume’s Enquiry has brought the so-called “missing shade of blue” problem to my attention again. I have never accepted that it is a problem, and while I was driving yesterday, I thought of a few ways to demonstrate this.

The problem is as follows. Hume’s theory of perception classifies all perceptions as either ideas or impressions. Impressions come from sense experience; ideas come from impressions. This theory holds as long as no ideas can be generated without the use of an impression. However, Hume lists an apparent exception: imagine a man who has lived his entire life having seen all the different shades of blue save one. If shown a palette of all the shades of blue that he is familiar with, placed in order, will he be able to detect the absence of a shade? The common-sense answer is yes – and yet Hume dismisses it as a minor if singular expection. Several camps exist on this issue – one holds it really is a exception, and another does not, but it’s not easy to reconcile either position with Hume’s line of argument.

I can think of several reasons that Hume was right to dismiss this objection, though he probably should not have been as mysteriously cavalier about the matter, especially given the rhetorical aims of the Enquiry.

Some of the following suppositions  match preexisting arguments.  I have placed them in order from weakest to strongest.

1.) The situation as given is impossible to replicate. Color is not made of separate shades, but rather a continuum. How can the man be sure he has not seen that shade before? Did a team of scientists keep him in a bubble for his entire life that was drained out that particular shade? They would have to make sure he had never seen a prism or a rainbow. It’s like saying the man has used numbers all his life without ever encountering 42. Could Hume’s man perceive a missing shade without the presentation of all the shades of blue? Probably not. The example is loaded – it assumes, in fact, that there is a missing shade, a problem I’ll address a bit later.

2.) If I accept the situation, the idea of the missing shade is still not independent of impression – it requires extensive knowledge of color, which is dependent on simple sense perception. One individual color on the entire spectrum does not constitute an idea independent of sense perception, especially if defined as a blend of two colors.  Furthermore, the mere notice of a gap in the sequence is built on a foundation of years of experience with color, and the concept of a gap itself is not necessary to mathematics that I know of. This argument is a little too ordinary-language philosophy for me, but it’s important nonetheless.

3.) The perception of a gap in a series, or in any pattern, does not require that gap to actually exist. This, I feel, was Hume’s plan all along – his coming evisceration of causality would render the blue-shade example moot.

Much of the argumentative strength of the blue-shade example comes from our knowledge that there IS a missing shade, but the man in the example does not have that certainty. He only suspects there is one – he cannot prove it, for he has no sensory experience of it. Rather, he can only suggest there is a very high probability there is a missing shade, much like I can only posit there is a very high probability that the Indian Ocean exists (I’ve never seen it) until I have seen it, and even then I may be misled, for our senses are rather untrustworthy.

In the 1985 film Goonies, the Mikey character finds the skeleton of a long-dead pirate called One-Eyed Willy, who is still wearing an eyepatch. Curious, Mikey pulls back the eyepatch… and there is no eye socket, only bone. The expectation was that the patch covered something absent, but Willy never had an eye to begin with. The anticipated missing eye is revealed as non-existent. This line of thinking leads rather quickly to  Schrodinger’s cat; it is not until the moment of sense perception that questions of existence or non-existence can be partially enlightened.

Imagine this scenario – Hume’s blue-deprived man perceives there is a missing shade, and goes looking for it… and never finds it. He experiments with dyes, travels the world, gives talks to breathless audiences, writes furious  monographs. He dies without ever seeing it or without any human being ever finding it. Some scholars, in fact, suggest his perceived “gap” in the color spectrum is actually a fundamental principle of the color spectrum, evidence of a limitation of the human eye, or a mere symptom of the man’s madness-tinged brilliance.

Hume’s notion of causality allows such a scenario, as it allows ALL scenarios. The mere notice of a possible missing shade demands nothing. Take John Couch Adams’s predictions of the existence of Neptune. What if they had come to nothing? Newton’s laws would have to be reexamined.  What if, rather, the measurements made by Bouvard had been incorrect, and there were no discrepancies in the data upon remeasurement? The perception of a gap or discrepancy in a pattern is a sense perception that requires absolutely nothing to follow it. This of course does not require that nothing does – only that deductive logic is useless for such questions.

But, you might, ask, can’t Hume’s colorist have an IDEA of a missing shade that is independent of sense perception without it having to exist? Well, no. I once worked in a eyeglass lab with a color-blind fellow, who oddly enough was very good at color dying lenses; he went solely by darkness of tint and the labels on the dye vats. He knew there was an entire world of color that he did not have access to, and I’m positive he thought about what it might be like on many occasions, but he had nothing save dark/light patterns – anyone who has experienced color knows it is far more than that – and word labels to go on. They could give him an ‘idea’ of what he could not experience, but he has no independent way of confirming if his ‘idea’ matches up, save the unreliable testimony of six billion people or so. His ‘idea’ cannot approach a color-sighted person’s ‘idea’ of that shade (which is itself imperfect in proportion to experience with that shade); it is at best an approximation made up of similar sensory perceptions that he does have access to.