Meet the new boss

I have been following the events in Egypt with great interest, much like the rest of the civilized world. Israel’s generals are freaking out, the White House is trying to play it cool, and the rest of the Middle East, especially the parts governed by autocratic regimes, is getting nervous.

My guess is that Mubarak will have to flee the country sometime in February, sooner rather than later. What’s far more important is what will replace him. As the internet is down through much of the country, news reports are more vague than I would prefer; so far, the media narrative is a power balance between the government/police, the army, and the masses, with the army serving as the fulcrum and tending to favor the masses.

Egypt has had a militarized government for most of its recent, as well as older, history. So I would expect its considerable army to play a large role in any new government. The Egyptian army is large enough to prevent anarchy if it wants, so I don’t expect that; rather, it seems we will get what happened in Iraq, minus an American invasion, a trial and execution, the disbandment of the military, and a civil war/extended guerrilla action.

That was sarcastic. Mostly, it’ll just be the weird factional politics that result from the power vacuum left when a dictator departs. Iraq hasn’t figured out that equation yet.

Back to the media narrative – there is a lot of mention of the Muslim Brotherhood, who have played a certain role in Egypt, similar to that of al-Sadr’s Shi’a movement/party in Iraq, for many years. The two extreme governmental alternatives are a secular democratic government and a Sharia-based theocracy, but we’ll probably get a bland two-party secular government with MB exerting considerable influence (a lot like Israel’s politics, actually, with Shas), and the army allowing it to happen rather than backing Mubarak or replacing him with a general. The U.S. and Israel are more interested in preserving the Israel/Egypt peace treaty than the exact political outcome, of course.

The people have to keep the pressure on if they want the army to make the right move.


I feel as though I should start craving brains at any given moment now. H won out, and I have an iphone. I’m writing this post with it, even.

It is the first Apple product I have ever owned, oddly enough. I thought it would be hard to write on, but my typing speed is only about 25% slower thus far. I anticipate most of that difference will fade as I become more accustomed to the device.

Already, it’s made me more efficient at work. I skipped the whole Blackberry experience, so this is a lot like going from a 28k dialup to a T1.

I still don’t have a tricorder. But this will do nicely in the meantime.

I hope to offer more lucid thoughts before my transformation into one of the ravenous Apple undead is complete. Already, I feel the change coming over me. Must download more apps. Yes. Apps..

I give Facebook five years

Actually, five may be generous.

The companies that survived the dotcom bust all provided quality services that were bankable and better than anyone else trying the same thing. eBay. Paypal. Google. Amazon. Newegg. Facebook has yet to deliver something unique that I can’t see being replaced by a competitor. All it has is a large market share – for the moment. Its inability to crack overseas markets, like Japan, is a fatal flaw that all these eager investors should be running from like the plague. The next cool thing is always coming for you. Apple understands that better than any tech company out there. If I was running FB, I’d be looking to cash out ASAP.


I’ve been wanting to write something on merit for awhile. I think this has a lot to do with it, PR for her book aside. I don’t accept that parenting has only two extreme sides. Much of her claim comes from a ridiculously small sample size – well, her children excelled after her brand of parenting, so ALL children will, and all children who don’t have this kind of parenting will in turn not excel at anything. Or, rather, this is what is implied by the excerpt.

I have problems with the whole idea of a meritocracy, though I’ve not gotten to the point that I can articulate them quite yet. It has something to do with self-worth and external validation, citizens vs. non-citizens, percentage of the population with “talent” or “competence” at specific activities, the reliability of education, knowing something vs. using that knowledge, celebrities as role models, and the American ideal of everyone going to college. Something seems deeply wrong to me. It’s not an issue of the world being “fair,” because, frankly, it is not. The perpetuation of the American dream is a civilization-level lie, but again, that’s not quite what I’m disturbed by.

Perhaps it is that some people accept America as flawed, but hold that it is the best system available. This passive judgment sacrifices a half-ton of ideals. Flaws are rendered permanent. There is no need to look for better systems or progress. There is only the struggle between parties, between who is right and who is wrong. The rules don’t change.

This line of thinking reminds me of one of my favorite movies, Dirty Harry. When it came out, one of the main criticisms was that it was a fascist vigilante fantasy, which has always struck me as a classic example of a bad reading. The film isn’t about how Harry is some kind of ideal vigilante wantonly pissing on the law as he executes criminals without due process. It’s about frustration.

I’m hard pressed to think of a film where the protagonist is more frustrated. Harry hates his superiors for being ineffectual and cowardly. He hates mundane bank robbers who won’t let him finish his hot dog. He hates suicidal idiots that waste his time. He hates rapists. He hates serial killers. He hates getting a confession thrown out because he tortured a man to make him reveal the location of a woman who was buried alive, and didn’t have a warrant to search his lodgings. He hates that his wife was senselessly killed by a drunk driver. He hates that his partners regularly get shot and then drop out of the game. He hates society for being cheap and tawdry, and for letting innocents be terrorized and killed. And he really, really hates having to do something about it, because it corrupts him and turns what would be meritorious – a strong desire for justice – into a disgrace. He has the same line-crossing problem that Batman has, though Harry has a far easier solution due to his willingness to shoot people dead. Magnum Force explores the same idea, but not nearly as well, though the talk between Harry and Briggs at the end is interesting because it clarifies how he has compromised with what he calls “the system.”

I don’t like the system that much either. Human life is valued semi-randomly. It’s not universally cheap (the middle class is still quite large), but neither is it uniformly expensive (no shortage of homeless people). Class matters, race matters, gender matters, money matters, fame matters, beauty matters, ambition matters, intelligence matters, and education matters. Of these, only the last three are viewed as completely neutral and dependent on individual free will. The rest you are either born into, or acquire through luck, misadventure, and/or application of the last three.

Times are changing. We are not.

I saw the subject line of this post on a billboard north of Houston some time ago, advertising a local church, and I’ve continued to think about it since, in terms of the differences between the labels “conservative” and “liberal.” These terms are incredibly loaded, of course. But I want to discuss them first before remarking on the sign further.

I tend to think of “conservative” as a philosophy that rejects change for change’s sake, a sort of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” variant. Certain ideals, government structures, cultural values, etc. are seen as needing preservation in their present state. This philosophy is not opposed to ANY change – just change seen as unnecessary, destructive, or rushed. Change is recognized as inevitable, but in need of careful management and review. This philosophy naturally leads to a brand of individualism that ironically undercuts itself; you are free to be an individual as long as you toe the value line.

Likewise, I tend to think of “liberal” as a philosophy that sees certain kinds of change as being artificially slowed by conservative stances when they need to be sped up, even in the face of majority rule that disagrees. It’s not a ‘change for change’s sake’ philosophy, either, but change is viewed as less of a threat and more of an opportunity. This philosophy naturally leads to egalitarianism, which favors the whole over the individual.

I should note that neither of these philosophies is inherently democratic (and both are vulnerable to charges of utilitarianism.) Democracy is yet another philosophy that insists issues should be resolved through some kind of majority vote that is determined through representatives of the people, whether by election, lot, or some other method. Democracy, in other words, is built to subsume conservatism and liberalism.

Back to the sign – “Times are changing. We are not.” This is beyond conservatism, which recognizes that change is ok if controlled, and into the realm of fundamentalism. As Karen Armstrong and others have noted, fundamentalism is an inherently modern philosophy; it does not try to preserve the past as much as demand a return to a past that may or may not have actually existed. As such fundamentalism requires the presence or perception of liberal-style change or it has no casus belli. Fundamentalism sees itself as an island preserve trying to hold the line against a jungle of chaos. It professes, even, a special, timeless, immunity to change. Change may even be characterized as cyclical and passing, something to be weathered until a future time.

The reason I like the sign so much is that it’s so vague and yet simultaneously quite specific. It’s a church advertisement, complete with a black and white photo of a white-haired man I assume is a leader in the church; therefore, the change referenced is almost certainly religious/theological in nature, even though it is not identified. As such, it is ALL religious/theological change of any kind. Furthermore, the verb in the second sentence, ‘are not,’ is also curious. It is not ‘will not’ or ‘can not’ or ‘have not’ or even ‘are not changing’ or ‘are not going to’ – it is the non-specific present ‘are not’. The verb in the first sentence is progressive, describing a process still occurring; if ‘changing’ is simply reduced from the second sentence, the sentence has the irony of having a progressive verb describe the absence of change.

Someone decided – a minister, a group of deacons, a church support organization, etc – to put up this sign and pay for it. Its message is therefore not trivial to them. And yet it is independent of history. Assuming it’s a Protestant organization of some sort, by definition the congregation’s values stem from the Reformation, which certainly qualifies as a pretty big religious change. So the sign’s claims must be more historically short-term, namely “Times are changing. We are currently advocating a religious worldview dating to year X that holds Y and has no current plans to deviate from its beliefs, unlike everyone else.” The colorful history of Christianity does not allow the sign’s claim; churches can seem to be bastions of non-change, but the plethora of versions of the religion that have exploded in the last few hundred years undercuts this claim. Religion is not immune to changes, whether temporary waystations want it to change or not.

However, the appeal of the sign remains to those who want to believe change can and should be held off, which is where fundamentalism and conservatism start to blend together. I could critique liberalism in the same way, as it can be pushed into a ‘change for change’s sake’ mode that is equally illogical.

The Science of Fear

I picked up Daniel Gardner’s The Science of Fear the other day and read it. It’s a pretty good popular-audience summary of a certain body of psychology research dealing with risk perception, organized by typical fear foci (terrorism, disease, accidents, crime, etc). As usual, I read it as a rhetorician and found much that was interesting. The misleading nature of statistics, sourced or unsourced, is not surprising, and likewise the numerous kinds of appeals to fear and other emotions; I was unfamiliar, however, with much of the research on the nature of gut instinct, save a few concepts like confirmation bias, gambler’s fallacy, etc.

Rhetorical studies tend to focus more on technique, context, and effect, and much less on the psychological/physiological mechanisms that enable them. Ergo, my interest in these things.

(addendum) I should note that the chapter on violence falls flat occasionally. Gardner insists that we live in the most peaceful period of human history. The veterans and survivors of WWI (over 35 million dead) and WWII (over 50 million dead), as well as the Civil War and the Crimean war among other 19th century conflicts, would disagree. Anyone who lived in the 50s through the 80s, I should also mention, lived under the perpetual, and quite real, threat of nuclear war. In the 19th century and before, no country had the power to potentially destroy all of human civilization in a manner of hours. That threat has lessened since the fall of the USSR, but it still remains. It’s easy to forget that the scale of violence has changed even as peace and stability is more widespread.

Also, he is way off base in his critique of television violence. He is hostile to Dexter, for example, in a way that suggests he’s never seen it and is unfamiliar with how it repeatedly treats the ethical consequences of killing someone. There’s a obvious reason for the widespread presence of violence on TV that he never mentions; it sells, just like sex. Humanity’s appetite for dramatic violence, and in particular for simulated vendetta, is near limitless. And I vastly prefer it to the real thing. Does it desensitize? Sure. But we live in the most peaceful society in history, apparently… you can’t have it both ways.

Wise Men Still Seek Him

Saw this on a church sign this morning; it’s yet another ambiguous entry due to compression. Does it mean:

a) Contemporary wise men through history, like the ‘wise men’ of Matthew 2:1 (in Greek, the ‘majoi,’ some sort of magicians or astrologers from the east, perhaps Zoroastrians), seek Jesus just like the magi did, though in a more spiritual than physical sense;
b) Similar as a), but physically – wise men are literally hunting in modern-day Israel and the West Bank for Jesus like the magi did;
c) Similar to a) or b), but only contemporary wise men, not throughout history;
d) A criticism of contemporary ‘wise men’ – they’re STILL seeking him? Give up already, dudes;
e) ‘Him’ lacks an antecedent and may be anyone, perhaps even a concept like a masculine Wisdom.
f) Only ‘wise’ men still seek him; the rest, apparently of mere average or lower intelligence, do not;
g) Wise women don’t or can’t seek him, unlike men.

The ambiguity of signage

I spent a lot of time when driving (and I have done a lot of driving in the last two weeks) looking at signs. A great deal of them momentarily confuse me as they can be interpreted several different ways.

For example, on a fast food restaurant, “FOUR MEALS FOR UNDER 4.” Does this mean:

a) They have four meals, each priced under $4?
b) Four meals are available together for a price less than $4?
c) They have four meals for those under 4 years of age?

The answer is almost certainly a), but how do I know that? Genre. I know fast food restaurants group foods together in meals for a flat rate, and $4 seems rather low for four meals, unless they consisted of frozen bean burritos. However, it does seem possible that they might be launching new meals aimed at children, but 4 years old seems an odd cutoff date, and there is no ‘those’ or ‘children’ after ‘for’, giving the preposition a easily discernible object. Likewise, ‘FOUR MEALS, EACH PRICED UNDER $4’ or ‘FOUR MEALS TOGETHER FOR UNDER $4’ would help.

Even simpler signs are also potentially ambiguous. ‘SPEED LIMIT 35’ might seem straightforward with its implied ‘THE SPEED LIMIT IS 35 MILE PER HOUR’. But what if the verb is not a dropped IS, but SPEED, an imperative? Then there appears to be a limit to how many vehicles can speed, which is 35, or, perhaps, that you are required to speed, but can go not faster than 35. Some speed limit signs helpfully post both a minimum and a maximum speed – ‘SPEED LIMIT 55 MINIMUM 45’ or delineate by type of vehicle, as in ‘SPEED LIMIT 65 TRUCKS 55,’ but either way, there is a lot of verb reduction. ‘THE SPEED LIMIT IS 55 MILES PER HOUR AND THE MINIMUM SPEED IS 45 MILES PER HOUR’ requires a rather large sign to be readable at speed, but the compression leads to ambiguity. Note I’ve assumed MPH rather than KPH.

What about the ultimate compression in road signage, STOP? Is this an imperative that means ‘STOP IMMEDIATELY’ (the adverb makes it clear STOP is a verb) or an noun that simply exists (‘A STOP IS HERE’)? There are such stops, and there noun-ness is confirmed by adjective use (BUS STOP), although BUS can be a noun itself, making STOP again an imperative. Since buses do stop at bus stops, the sign can handle either interpretation.

Not the method, but the presence

What bothers me about this piece on exam cheating is not the method used by Caveon; it’s the presence of the company as a private for-profit doing the job of teachers. The article doesn’t discuss the ethics of this situation at all, though it sometimes  implies such a critique is forthcoming.

American educators have had to play games with academic book publishers for well over a century; if you accept a book for your course, it eases the teaching task greatly but also restructures it in ways that are not easily controllable, even if you use a ‘teach against the book’ pedagogy, which is great for graduate students but doesn’t always work well with undergraduates. As such, the publishers and their authors can very easily end up ‘teaching’ courses. If it’s a good, well-organized book that matches your teaching style, great; sometimes, though, the selection is limited.

In general, l am suspicious of any for-profit intrusions into academia and the secondary school system that may replace functions usually performed by teachers; this is one of the reasons I refuse to use services such as Turnitin. If a student manages to plagarize their way through my course without me detecting it, shame on me; it’s my job to be able to discern differences in student writing ability and style over the course of a semester. If I couldn’t do that, I wouldn’t be able to teach writing, let alone estimate the effects of my efforts.

The exam genre is a bit different, though. I’m not sure what I would do if I worked in a field that always measured student success by exam. Probably it would involve individualizing each exam, perhaps by rearranging questions, introducing subtle changes in calculations, and keeping enough complexity to make a text message answer difficult. That’s a lot of work, though, both on the grading end (unles I wrote a program to sort out the differences between each exam to streamline grading) and on the explanatory end if I wanted to go over the exam with the students afterward (something I do regularly in my grammar class that partially measures students by exam, but I can’t recall ever having a professor do so in any subject when I was a undergrad).