Thursday, September 29, 2005

Back to New Jersey

I'm heading back to New Jersey tomorrow, so another posting hiatus is likely.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Spam Spam Spam Spam Spam...

I'm feeling just the slightest bit flattered that I've been getting a new burst of comment spam in the last couple of postings. And this is the real computer-driven spambot stuff, not the drivel that I used to get from She Who Must Not Be Named. If a blog is getting spam, that is at the very least circumstantial evidence that it has a readership, right? Now that I think about it, it makes me a little apprehensive to think that that the machines view me as a convenient way of infiltrating human social networks. Someday in the near future, computer-driven spam might consist of a Terminator robot holding a gun to your head while you type out happy-sounding propaganda for SkyNet.

The spam dumped on this site will ultimately be deleted whenever I discover it; I'm sure that anyone reading this site has too much of their own spam to need some of mine.

The first female president of the United States. News at 11.

Last night was the premier of "Commander-in-Chief", a new television series about the fictional first female president of the United States. Before yesterday, the only information that I had about this show was a column in Time which described the show as:
What will the first female president of the U.S. be like? Very tall. Thus predicts ABC, which cast six-footer Geena Davis as Mackenzie Allen, a Vice President who comes to power when the President dies of a stroke, in the drama Commander in Chief, debuting Sept. 27. That's fair enough. Given the prejudice she would face, the nation might feel safer with a female leader possessed of great height, athleticism (Davis nearly represented the U.S. in Olympic archery) and robust, bee-stung lips. I look forward avidly to the Jolie Administration.

But Allen is a first in another way: she's the first President of the U.S. whose party status is independent -- a university chancellor recruited to give media attention to a G.O.P. ticket. Well, that's convenient, right? TV is a numbers game: Why alienate half the audience? But Commander in Chief doesn't seem to be worried about neutrality. Its bad guys are all Republicans, from the vile Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland) to the White House staff members who urge Allen to resign, saying the world is not ready for a painted fingernail on the nuclear button. (Clever move: daring you to prove you're not a sexist by watching the show.)
Imagine my surprise upon finding out, despite an attention-grabbing gimmick, a ridiculously elaborate set-up, and easily identifiable stereotyped villians, that this wasn't a sitcom.

For someone who pays attention to politics as much as I do, the real surprise isn't that a female president could be elected president of the United States. The perpetual "Hillary!" and "Condi" draft campaigns attest to that. Instead, the real surprise is that the modern Republican party would succumb to Tyler-Fillmore disease in a desperate bid for media attention during a presidential election year. And let's face it, is there any woman out there, much less any woman university chancellor, who would actually consent to participating in a presidential campaign that needed to recruit an empty suit to drum up votes?

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Cultural Literacy and the Bible

Adam Nicholson addresses the topic at the OpinionJournal (hat tip: Professor Bainbridge).

From a purely critical point of view, it's hard to disagree with his point. If the author of a work clearly intended that part of its meaning be derived from the Bible, clearly one has no choice but to examine the Bible to recover that meaning. On the other hand, Nicholson's reference to a newly published textbook intended to "provide a way for students to read the Bible in public schools without trampling on the rights of religious or secular families" gives the game away for the politically-minded.

The really interesting problem that is prompted by the article is determining why this divide between biblical literacy and cultural literacy has occured. One possible cause is that biblical literacy simply is no longer required by Western societies. Simply put, nobody is getting burnt at the stake or tortured for being unable to regurgitate enough biblical knowledge to the ecclesiastical authorities. Another possible cause is equally simple. Since Western societies no longer consider literature that is explicitly non-Christian to be diabolical, the importance of the Bible as a source work will naturally decline over time as the body of literature that does not reference the Bible expands over time.

Another possible cause for the contemporary decline in biblical literacy is that the Bible, taken as a work of literature, suffers from its own "intelligent design" problem. One way of interpreting the Bible is that it is the end product of some 2,000 years of religious, political, literary, linguistic, and bureaucratic evolution, and thus an amazingly complex guide for understanding the history of southwest Asia. Another way of interpreting the Bible is that it is God's infallible, divinely inspired Word, and that any idosyncracies, contradictions, or mysteries in the text are simply included on purpose as part of God's inspired design. This first form of biblical interpretation, which is presumably what Mr. Nicholson is seeking to promote in his article, is itself an objectional form of thought to proponents of this second form of interpreting the Bible. Do these proponents really want public school children reading biblical passages without a religous authority present to make sure that the right conclusions are being reached?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Ancient History

Here is my result for a new blogging game that I stumbled across at Feministe. You simply dive into your archives, locate the fifth sentence in your twenty-third posting, and put that sentence in a new post along with these instructions. For my blog, my twenty-third post was on April 4, 2004 and the fifth sentence was
"Has political propaganda replaced professional analysis in the Kerry campaign?"

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Washing out of engineering? I feel your pain.

The Confessions of an Engineering Washout makes a pretty good case for one cause of America's difficulty in recruiting and training its citizens to be engineers.

I'm an undergrad engineering physics washout who ended up moving into the "arts and sciences" division of my alma matta by switching into pure physics. My big break with the engineering world came with the final project of an electrical enginneering class. This was a Radio Shack kit for an AC-to-DC converter that everyone in class received, the final project being to assemble the kit into working order. After commencing assembly of the device, I eventually discovered that the one, critical screw required to keep the whole thing from going up in a cloud of smoke was missing from the kit. Also, even if I had the one critical screw, my engineering department had overlooked the necessity of installing a drill press in my dorm room to allow the one critical screw to be bolted to thing it needed to be bolted too that made it so critical in the first place. In other words, this kit was essentially a death trap for my final grade which my final grade promptly stumbled into and perished in.

On the last day of class, I handed in an AC-to-DC converter that was as assembled as possible. My teaching assistant took a few other kits from other students and quickly spirited them away, mercifully not putting them anywheres near a source of AC voltage for risk of catastrophic pyrotechnics. That's when I noticed that half of the students in this class had a variety of sophisticated metal or plastic AC-to-DC converters that were not kits, and hadn't been bought at Radio Shack.

Apparently, the unwritten expectation that the professor had of the real engineers is that they would dump their pre-fabricated kit in the trash on day one and construct their own converters with extra credit given for greater power handling and better noise rejection.

That class was the final straw, although there were plenty of other reasons why I left engineering. The maddeningly obtrust engineering textbooks seemed to have been cooked up by the same author who gave us the Necronomicon. Most of the software teaching tools that accompanied my engineering classes were either completely unbugged or didn't come with instructions. I'd meet junior-year aeronautical engineers who still think everything in the space shuttle falls towards the earth when it goes into orbit instead of experiencing weightlessness. Being in a class with one of my engineering professors was a lot like being in a class with an engineer from ancient Egypt: the professor's writing could, in principle, be deciphered by comparing it to a translation in a known language, but this gives one no clue as to what his spoken syllables were supposed to mean.

Monday, September 19, 2005

The classic straw man argument

If you are teaching a class that involves the use of logic in its subject matter, you might want to clip out this article on foreign rulings applied to the law of the United States for its prime example of the classic "straw man" fallacy. Here's the argument as presented in the article:

Perhaps we prefer the more restricted judge, closed up in chambers lined with American texts, denying himself the indulgence of literary allusions and citing only the binding precedents, lest it appear that he gave too much weight to something he found merely interesting. John Roberts offers to be that man, to take his overflowing intellectual gifts and submit to the rigorous practices of that cloistered life.

I deeply respect Judge Roberts and the conception of judging that he will bring to the court. But I also think that he will need to interact with other judges who do things differently, who open their minds to the opinions of the world and bring some fresh thinking back to constitutional interpretation. There is, I suspect, no ideal judge, but there is an ideal court: one composed of a variety of judges, compelled to talk to each other.

Promising scrupulous attention to the scriptorium in addition to interacting with his peers in a search for fresh thinking is certainly the recipe for the ideal medieval monk; apparently the author confused Judge Roberts' nomination to the Supreme Court with his potential promotion to abbot of the local monastery.

The straw man argument here, in the context of the role that foreign laws should play in the judgement of cases made by domestic judges, is that any judge who isn't considering foreign laws in his or her deliberations is deliberately removing himself or herself from the judicial mainstream by exclusion. The fallacy is the exclusion of the possibility that a judge who is in touch with the wide range of contemporary legal thought may still object to citing foreign laws in his or her decisions as a matter of principle. The author's case that such citations of foreign laws would be essentialy decorative -- akin to the illustration of initial letters in medieval manuscripts -- simply makes no effort to address Roberts' countering position seriously.

The King of Chutzpah

It's amazing how ex-President Bill Clinton has launched a new critique of the Bush Administration that, for the most part, echoes the conservative critique of the Clinton Administration. Take for example his statements against the decision to go to war as reported by
"The administration ... decided to launch this invasion virtually alone and before the U.N. inspections were completed - with no real urgency, no evidence that there were any weapons of mass destruction there," he complained to ABC's "This Week."
Left unsaid is the fact that Clinton spent most of the '90s launching intermittent attacks on Iraq under the same conditions -- unfinished inspections, no real urgency, no evidence of WMDs -- that were in place in 2003. He also stated that:
"I thought that diverted our attention from [Afghanistan] and al Qaida and undermined the support that we might have had," he said. "But what's done is done."
Given that it usually takes a female intern in thong underwear to distract our president's attention away from Afghanistan and al Qaida, we ought to be congratulating President Bush for his exceptional focus on al Qaida and Afghanistan.

For a more concrete example of hypocrisy, take the common liberal criticism that Vice-President Cheney promised that American troops would be greeted as liberators by the grateful people of Iraq. Obviously the popular response to the downfall of Saddham was less than universal praise, but the Bush Administration is at least attempting to defeat the terrorist insurgency that arose. Contrast this with our humanitarian intervention in Somalia during the Clinton Administration, which should theoretically have produced nothing but smiles and flowers as we distributed vital aid to a uniformly grateful population. Unfortunately, our President at the time had the option of bravely running away from the situation when al Qaida dispelled the illusions of the people in charge.

In hindsight, the Clinton Administration approach to using military force looks as if the Daschle Principle was the guiding philosophy: if even one person dies because force was used without exhausting every conceivable diplomatic alternative, then the use of force was a failure. Presumably the object of this principle is to demoralize an opponent into surrender with symbolic attacks that preclude retaliation. In the case of Slobodan Milošević, the Daschle Principle was implemented as our "video game" style of air warfare and turned out to be successful. In the case of al Qaida, the Daschle Principle was seized upon by Osama bin Laden as proof positive that the United States was too decadent to resist an Islamic terror campaign. Given that al Qaida's terror attacks against the United States generally involved minimal terrorist casualties and symbolic targets (the World Trade Center buildings come to mind) with the goal of mass demoralization of the American people (the financial catastrophe that Osama bin Laden expected after 9/11, for example), one is tempted to assert that the Daschle Principle is essentially a projection of the Clinton Administration's view of America's weaknesses onto our enemies.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Say goodbye to Kyoto

Tech Central Station has an article today discussing Prime Minister Tony Blair's comments about the Kyoto Treaty during his speech at the Clinton Global Initiative. As reported in the article:
Blair, a longtime supporter of the Kyoto treaty, further prefaced his remarks by noting, "My thinking has changed in the past three or four years." So what does he think now? "No country," he declared, "is going to cut its growth." That is, no country is going to allow the Kyoto treaty, or any other such global-warming treaty, to crimp -- some say cripple -- its economy.
It's always nice to see a politician acknowledge reality when he or she sees it, because the Kyoto Treaty really has been a failure. If you guessed that the major failure of the Kyoto Treaty has nothing to do with Earth's climate or global warming, you win a gold star. The real purpose of the Kyoto Treaty was never to produce any type of comprehensive solution of the problem of global warming, but to make it easier for the much more restrictive treaties needed to address global warming to be ratified in the future. As the article makes clear, Prime Minister Blair now apparently believes that all such future treaties are guarenteed to fail.

There is another inference that one can draw from this article. From a practical point of view, ratification of the Kyoto Treaty by the United States will depend upon the strength of its proponents over the next several years. Many conservatives can certainly be pleased that Prime Minister Blair thinks that pro-Kyoto politicians will not have the abilitity to force ratification by the Kyoto Treaty's 2012 expiration data. On the other hand, I'm sure that this won't be pleasant news for a certain "national greatness conservative" who is President Bush's intraparty rival.