Reading in the NYT

This op-ed makes the obvious and generally correct point that reading is not a skill, but is determined largely through prior knowledge of content. I am somewhat disappointed, however, to note that the article does not address the other side of reading; namely, what a reader does when they read a passage with unfamiliar content. The ‘baseball’ test that the article cites avoids the obvious; if both ‘low-skilled’ readers and ‘high-skilled’ readers are given passages with unfamiliar content, the latter group will do far better, because they have, and use, the flexible strategies needed to process new content.  In other words, the reading tests are flawed, yes, but a more effective strategy than making all the reading passages tied directly to the curriculum would be to make half of them deliberately unfamiliar to the curriculum in question; then both sides of the reading equation are measured.

Battlestar ends; Lost continues

Well, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica ended last night after four seasons, and it closed well, more or less. I am somewhat sad to see it go – it was one of the few shows that both H and I can watch together (30 Rock has stepped into the breech, fortunately) – but I am glad that it ended on its own terms, instead of being canceled before its time (Deadwood), stretched into the land of plot ridiculousness (Heroes), or drawn and quartered for a network’s pleasure (Babylon 5).

As Dexter and Burn Notice are betwixt seasons, there’s not much serial drama for me to watch right now besides Lost, which is in the middle of probably its best season yet. H found the first season unpalatable, so it is my guilty pleasure alone, and I reserve a certain small satisfaction that my viewing loyalty has paid off with increasing quality. The snatches of time travel that appeared in previous seasons now dominate the storytelling, and I enjoy the resulting mind-bending.

For example, earlier in this season there was a scene where the character Locke, who has been jumping randomly through time for reasons too complicated to explain here, is handed a old compass by another character, Richard, in 2004.  Richard gives Locke the compass with the instruction that Locke should give it to the Richard of 1954 to gain his trust. When Locke jumps to 1954, he does just that. The 1954-Richard is impressed and listens to what Locke has to say.

But this is a seeming paradox, as the compass has no origin; it is trapped in an endless loop where it should get 50 years older every time 1954-Richard hangs onto it, gives it to Locke in 2004, who travels back in time to give it to 1954-Richard, who hangs onto it… it has no beginning and no end. The show hasn’t explained this fully yet (though in general it is very good at placing restrictions and setting rules on time travel).

There are solutions, though, that allow the compass to have an origin and an end. Let’s say 1954-Richard acquired a compass in 1904. It’s 50 years old. Call it Compass-A. In 1954 Locke appears and gives Richard another compass, Compass-B, which looks just like Compass-A, only about 50 years older.  Richard immediately loses Compass-B, perhaps even before he manages to compare it to Compass-A; he is left only with one compass, the original Compass-A. In 2004, he gives Compass-A (now 50 years older) to Locke, who brings it back to 1954-Richard, who sees it as a 50-year-older version of his other compass (Compass-B). He promptly loses it. It might have even vanished when Locke jumped in time, just to make this process simpler. In other words,  Compass-A and Compass-B are the same compass, but this gives it a origin (1904) as well as an end (1954-Richard loses it).

The Chair

I’m sorry, but this is really, really funny, especially the third page.

There is one thing that these men have right about the chair; it is iconic, an ideograph of sorts that stands for several concepts and ideas, though the articles doesn’t present them as necessarily having a great grasp of what is represented. A possible exception would be the dad who ‘lays down the law’ to his kids from it; authority is there, also paternal, with the imagery back-dependent on the 1960s living room and the accompanying TV.

On that note, I’ve always found it funny that Spock had to peer into a tiny window of a microscope-like interface to read incredibly important technical data, but Kirk has a 100’  widescreen that provides little to no useful information. By TNG, the bridge crew finally has halfway-decent visual interfaces, but the captain’s screen is now a 2-story wall; the cozy living room atmosphere is replaced by an airy home movie theater.


The PC that I built for H has been ailing for some time, and today, I took a long look at it. The fact that I am writing this post at its keyboard is a good sign.

First off, it’s been powering off randomly. When I first started testing, it would not stay on for more than 30 seconds. The brief time that I could look at the BIOS screen told me overheating was not the problem. Its power supply is relatively new – and if it was dead, there would be no power at all – so I suspected an iffy power switch, especially since there was a distinct click every time the power went off.

Sure enough, substituting the reset switch for the power switch eliminated the problem entirely. I don’t have a spare power switch, but the reset switch is basically the same thing, just on the opposite side of the front panel, so functionally it’s good to go.

Second, Firefox has been crashing randomly and frequently. Updating Firefox did nothing; if anything, the problem got worse. As soon as I hit any other site than the Google front page, Firefox would lock up. Sometimes I would be able to scroll a little, then it would hang hard and require a restart.

Firefox is a pretty stable and well-supported program, so it had to be something unique to this install of Firefox. So I looked at the addons. First, I turned them all off and restarted. Bingo, Firefox didn’t crash. Then I turned them on one at a time until I found the one that triggered the crashes. There is no update for it, but it’s a reasonable tradeoff for a working Firefox.

CCCC 2009 report

I just got back from San Francisco and CCCC 2009. I’m exhausted but relatively happy.

I don’t have any detailed panel breakdowns to share yet, though there were a few that I found very notable – one on reading instruction in particular. More on that later. My presentation and the panel it was in, I36, on Friday, was well attended with at least 40 people packed into a rather small room. I think the panel was a general success, as was an equally well attended panel on style theory later that day.

On that note, earlier, on Thursday (or was it Wednesday, I can’t recall) I stopped by the Bedford St. Martin’s booth to see if Paul Butler’s sourcebook on style was out. It was, and I was lucky to snatch up 2 copies – they gave out 500 all told, and they were long gone by Saturday. For the unaware, this is probably the only book in creation that will ever have a chapter that begins with a selection by Aristotle and ends with an article by Mike Duncan. I also ran into Paul then, and several times after that (he was so ubiquitous I was wondering if there was two or three of him); he seemed a bit worried about its reception, but from the way it was disappearing off the shelves, I wasn’t.

I went to several parties, 2 more than my average of 0 in previous years. Much food was had. I rode countless cable cars. I also managed to make it back to the Pampanito on the wharf not once, but twice, spending several hours there, and I found the gift shop open on the second try. And as H would say, I was bad once within.

In other news, I thought that I had accidentally blown out my main computer’s power supply just before I left for Frisco, but while on the plane, I realized that I might have just loosened the power button connector. I am happy to report that upon returning and making an inspection, this was the case, and she powered right back up.


I haven’t managed to get to a theater to see Watchmen yet. I am prepared to be disappointed, though. I reread the graphic novel last week on a whim, and it was far better than I had remembered. Then again, I’ve become a better reader since I last read it. Even with a nearly 3-hour running time, the film will have a hard time matching its sheer complexity. This review at the A.V. Club seems to confirm my fears; it’s not quite a Lord of the Rings hack job, but close. Ozymandias in particular seems wholly ruined, and the violence has been fetishized rather than complicated.

Ehrman, II

I never quite got around to reviewing Bart Ehrman’s talk at Rhodes from two weeks ago – so here it is.

I was a little disappointed in it because I was familiar with everything he talked about – namely, forgery in the NT (though I had forgotten the manner of the discovery of the Gospel of Peter). But as Rhodes is an undergraduate college, I can understand why it wasn’t a ‘this is what I’ve been working on lately” kind of presentation that I erroneously expected. He’s a very reasonable presenter, with a spare and lean PP that he’s probably used countless times, and a voice that rises and becomes louder, excited, and filled with gravel if he goes beyond a paragraph without breathing. So I’d call his presenting style “breathless,” almost racing at times.

The questions afterward were far more interesting than the presentation, I thought. Someone two seats ahead of me queried him on the mythicist position, and he shot it down quickly with a bandwagon argument (I know of hundreds of NT scholars who don’t think that!) and an appeal to Paul’s fixation on a historical crucifixion. This would have been more compelling to me if he hadn’t reversed the bandwagon, shall we say, twice before during the presentation by poo-pahing a scholarly consensus. Then again, I’ve done the same thing on occasion.

Debates, the Earth’s shape, etc

This entry has been stuck in draft mode for weeks, so I think I’ll just post it as is.

Recently, I read Carrier’s account of a team debate on the existence of God that he did in 2004, and it started me wondering just how one gets through such an ordeal. I can’t imagine agreeing to such a context without an assuredly impartial moderator willing to adhere to strict rules about ad hominem. As in, “Whoever uses ad hominem attacks the least automatically wins the debate,” or “Repeated use of ad hominem will surrender the remaining speaking time to the opponent” (And when I say ad hominem, I mean attacks on character that are not conceivably relevant to the line of argument, as it is possible to use that particular rhetorical maneuver in a justifible fashion). Then again, where does one find the virtue of impartiality in America? The Supreme Court, supposedly filled with the best judges we have available, only has one, Kennedy, that regularly defies partisanship. In short, while I feel religion should be a frequent matter of public debate, sometimes I think American culture – even on a college campus – doesn’t have the civility to be up to the task.

There’s this stubborn Western concept that you’re supposed to be able to defend your ideas, and successful defense means that your ideas are strengthened. This has always struck me as a bit silly. An idea is no “better” after a written or oral defense than it was before. There are more available reasons to attach to the idea in question, of course – some kind of persuasion has taken place, and it is now colored by additional claims that put it in a favorable light – but the idea remains unchanged. As I have heard Michael Leff say (heavily, heavily paraphrased) truth still matters in rhetoric. An impassioned argument against the spherical shape of the Earth may persuade someone to believe the Earth is flat, but that does not make the Earth flat. Furthermore – and just as important a point – a good argument for the Earth being round does not make the Earth round. The Earth’s roundness (or non-roundness) is stubbornly independent of pro and con argumentation.

This has been a longwinded attempt to say that we argue about what reality we choose to believe, not what reality is.