Saturday, August 13, 2011


I realize it's been over a year since the last post here. Dear readers, I apologize to you both.

I hope to add posts on a more regular basis, now that we've got internet at home. Technology is like Pringles: once you pop it, you can't stop it. You're whipped on the things you can do with being wired, and the idea of doing without isn't just uncomfortable - it's downright cataclysmic.

You're like this, I'm like this. Now let's get on with our precarious lives.

But first...the truth about cat videos:

Friday, August 27, 2010

Earworm My Eye

I met up with an old high-school buddy a couple weeks ago; it was great catching up with him, meeting his partner, and generally shooting the breeze. When it came time to go home, they offered me a ride - sounds good. We hopped into the Mercedes and room-a-zoom-zoom we were off.

The radio was tuned to some '80s station. There was Faith No More, Men Without Hats (no joke)...

...and then it happened:

And so, for the next two weeks, the damn thing kept playing in my head.

It. Would. Not. Leave. I have classes to prep for, syllabi to write. It's there, too-rye-aying right between my ears. That's bad enough. But it gets worse, much worse. I go to work at some warehouse or print shop, doomed to another full day of repetitive tasks - grab bundle, put on pallet, grab bundle, put on pallet, lather rinse repeat - which means there's nothing to think about. Except for that song.

It's 3:30am. The cats are braying for their breakfast. And Dexy's Midnight Runners are too-rye-aying for the umpteen-fuckin'-zillionth time. It really was driving me crazy, almost as bad as the cats themselves.

My wife told me about a kid in her high school who, whenever you said there was a song stuck in your head, would immediately burst into "That's What Friends Are For" - fighting fire with fire.

It didn't work.

You've got to understand, this thing was taking up way too much mental space - and there's not that much to begin with. It was my arch-nemesis, the Khan to my Kirk.

Maybe you feel my pain. Or maybe you don't. And that makes me feel sad, because when you hurt, there's nothing quite like the satisfaction of spreading the pain around to everyone imaginable. You've got to understand, I want to share with you.

There, y'feelin' it now? Do you feel my pain?

I can't hear you!Louder!!!

Sing it with me!

All together now!

Now don't you feel better?

That's what I had to bear for two weeks straight - morning, noon, and night.

Well, it finally happened. I got it out of my head. You know what's there now?

Monday, July 05, 2010

How Not to Kill a Fucking Rat

I realize I've been away for a while, but this was something I had to post.

My wife and I are lying in bed the other evening, just switched out the light, when we hear something: a faint, intermittent watery-type sound from the bathroom. Did we leave the sink on? (One of our cats likes to drink from the faucet, and we like to humor him.) No, it sounds more like a little kid playing in the bathtub. What the heck?

I get up and turn on the bathroom light - nothing unusual to see. But the sound's coming from the toilet - a leak? Doesn't sound like any leak I've heard before. Better see what's going on in the bowl. I'll have to raise the seat and take a lo--


at's right, a fucking rat is doing the breaststroke. In our toilet.

What do you do? Flush. Unfortunately it doesn't work. I try again - nothing. Damn.
My wife doesn't want me messing with rats. Rats are filthy critters, and they can bite. I don't want to mess with it either, frankly. So what then? She calls a friend who's worked with lab rats - great, except this person lives in Baltimore, and it's 1:30am there. Naturally there's no answer.
I could sic our fearless cats on it - just let them into the bathroom, lift the toilet lid, and run out of there. But no, my wife will have nothing of it. If I could get bitten, so could the cats, and any medical bill is simply out of our tax bracket right now.
Now what? We decide to call the landlady; it's late, but better than trying to sleep with a fucking rat in the toilet. Pick up the phone, dial the number - she picks up!

Me: Hi, sorry for bothering at this hour, but you'll never guess what happened...
Landlady: What?
Me: Well, um, there's a fucking rat in the toilet.
Landlady: You're kidding!
Me: Nope. Swam up the pipe, and now it's stuck...What do we do? [As if this happened all the time!]
Landlady: Well, you could get something like a bowl and a cover for it, and catch it. That way you can take it outside and let it go...

Pause here for a second. Understand, I like my landlady. She's a decent person, not strictly business and piss off if it's not business; no, she's friendly, caring. She'll buy organic cleaning products, she'll sort her trash, she won't fuss about the rent. But here methinks the landlady careth too much.
Me: Um, I don't think that's an option.
Landlady: Or I could just come over.
OK, pop quiz - what's the most appropriate response to this offer? That's right, "See you in two minutes! I'll make coffee." But do I say this? Nooooooo...
Me: Well, we'll see what we can do. If we need you, we'll call you.
Landlady: OK, sounds fine.
Now my wife has heard the conversation, or most of it. What she did hear was the fucking rat-catching business; what she didn't hear was the offer that followed. Whereas I assumed she'd heard the whole thing, so I say nothing about this offer. And my mind kicks into full fight-or-flight mode.
The funny thing about the fight-or-flight mechanism is how it hijacks your organism while leaving you with the bill; it doesn't matter what the reality of the situation is, but how you interpret it. And when the adrenaline's rushing through you, you simply don't ask questions because this is not the time to be dithering - there's something threatening out there, dammit! So options that would normally be visible to a sane human being get closed off. But - and here's the catch - you're still responsible.
Another thing: the tunnel-vision effect. When in the throes of fight-or-flight passion, implications are slow in the formation. What you see doesn't make sense for a while, you only care if you achieved your goal. It's only when the adrenaline wears off that all the ramifications flood into your mind.
My wife is naturally not keen on me catching any rats, and I've already taken on the duty of handling this situation. There's only one option left to my throbbing brain: kill the fucker. But how?
I look around the apartment for something that looks like it could deliver a lethal blow to a toilet-swimming fucking rat. A broom? - Too long. The toilet brush? - Too light, it'd just bounce off 'im. Plunger? - Oh yeah, we don't have one.
I do have these poles about 3' long that I've been saving. We bought some baker's racks, but some of the support poles weren't machined properly; this meant replacing all of them. I can't swing them in the bathroom, but I can thrust it into the toilet, St. George-style, and mash the fucking rat. It's got a rubber tip, originally for padding on floors, now for cushioning the blow slightly. It won't scratch the toilet if I miss.

My trusty weapon in hand. No fucking rat is safe.

So I take the pole into the bathroom and formulate a plan. Then I steel myself. OK, ready: One, two, three. I flush the toilet to immobilize the fucking rat, then quick-open the lid and *BAM* deliver the lethal blow. The fucking rat doesn't know what hit him until it's too late. It doesn't move.
The toilet is empty of water now: I'd flushed. So where's this water coming from, and why's it going all over the bathroom floor? I don't understand.
Then I see, and I understand. There's a hole in the bottom of the toilet, right under the fucking rat. I see the one by the other just long enough for the fucking rat carcass to hang on the edge, like that final putt at the end of Caddyshack, and then fall in. There is now a fucking rat carcass on the floor of our bathroom, surrounded on all sides by porcelain. And there's water all over the floor.
I have just slain a fucking rat and a fucking toilet. Great. Just fucking great.

The aftermath. Note that the toilet is not in our bathroom when this picture was taken, but in the driveway. We do not go to the bathroom in the driveway.

I mop up, clean off, and go to bed. But I don't sleep very well.
The cats wake me up at 5 am for breakfast, and I have to pee. This is not happening. I put some clothes on and go out for a walk in the rain. Nope, the corner Starbucks isn't open. I keep walking toward the park. On my way back home I see Starbucks has opened, but by then it's already too late.
We arrange to have a plumber come in and replace the toilet in the afternoon. The guy comes, he's a good fellow. One hour and $417 later, we can pee in our own home again.

What I Learned From My Experience

Now I'm a teacher by profession. There are at least three things to learn from all this:
Lesson #1: Toilets are not indestructible. You know this only from the movies, not usually from real life. The worst we hit a toilet with is pee and poo, which even apes know are relatively soft. But toilets - they are heavy and solid, so it's natural to think they're tough. Right? Wrong.
Let's calculate the force of that lethal blow. Now the steel bar weighs about 2 pounds, and it's 7/8 of an inch thick. I'd guess it took all of 0.1 second to ram that fucker into the toilet, and it might have traveled about 12 inches.
Now acceleration = (vf - vi)/t, so the pole accelerated at a rate of 2 feet per second^2. If F = ma, then
(2 lb of steel x 10 ft per second^2) = 200 foot-pounds per second^2
At the moment of impact, which probably lasted about 1/100 of a second, all that force was transferred to the toilet bowl - that makes 2000 foot-pounds. Convert that to inches for the next step, so 24000 inch-pounds.
Since it was delivered entirely through the end of the pole, whose area is 1.373"in^2, the amount of force would be 24000 inch-pounds per in^2 / 0.73 inch= almost 17500 PSI.
Between the steel pole and the vitreous china, it's clear which one would break. The tensile strength of steel is 40000 PSI, whereas that of of vitreous china is only 4000-800 kgf/cm^2, or 5600-11200 PSI, far lower than the steel bar - even when cushioned by the rubber tip and the fucking rat carcass.
Let me reiterate that:
(2 lb of steel x 10 ft per second^2) x 0.01 sec
= 200 foot-pounds of force

Now, just for hypothetical purposes, let's replace the steel bar with the equivalent of poo:

(2 lb of poo x 10 ft per second^2) x 0.01 sec
= 200 foot-pounds of *splat*

Enough said. I don't know the tensile strength of poo, but I expect this would be the result. Which leads us to...

Lesson #2: Toilets make lousy fucking rat traps. There are several reasons why they are unfeasible options for destroying the fucking rat problem:
1. Fucking rats very rarely come up the pipe.

2. Toilet fucking rat traps rely on someone doing guard duty. And who wants to stand around waiting for a fucking rat to come up the pipe?
3. They are not idiot-proof.
4. They break rather easily, as shown above.
5. They're expensive to buy and install.
But perhaps this is too abstract for you. Let's take a concrete example, like New York City. Even at a conservative estimate, we'd have to use up 44 million toilets to rid the city of its fucking rats. This adds up to a cost of 44 million man-hours (not including travel time and loading) and $18.3 billion. Even the Pentagon would pass on that offer - and we haven't even considered the baby fucking rats that get left behind and grow up.
This leads us to...

Lesson #3: If you find a fucking rat in your toilet, call the landlady. Don't wait for her to invite herself over, just get her to come by. And don't forget to make coffee.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Death by Asteroid. Really.

A panel of 41 scientists has concluded that the dinosaurs were killed off by a giant asteroid, Deep-Impact style. This is apparently "the only plausible explanation", even though it contradicts Gary Larson's hypothesis that the real cause may be attributed to cigarettes. No doubt the verdict will be appealed.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Transferable Skills Are Made, Not Born

This is for all you job-hunting philosophy students out there. I know you're out there, I can hear you breathing. Hey you! Yeah, you - the one by the white sedan! Let me give some unsolicited advice, to you and to myself: make a conscious effort to extend the range of your abilities. You can, though it might take work.

In the course of my groundless floating (i.e. surfing the Internet), I ran across an interesting bit which prompted this post. It's not even remotely original, but in a volatile job market that practically demands career changes, the lesson is worth reiterating.

When job hunting, you may have to consider positions you haven't been trained for. If you've been trained in (ahem) philosophy, you've educated yourself into a corner (now really, besides universities, how many places hire professional philosophers?) unless you make the effort to apply all those skills you learned in new situations.

This transferability doesn't come automatically. That the skills of philosophical training must be listed is evidence that those very same skills are neither obvious nor obviously transferable.

In fact, I'm tempted to say that every skill requires effort to extend. Case in point: in an FBI study on attackers of police officers it was found, among other things, that a number of incidents could have been avoided by those officers. Many assailants carry concealed weapons which ought to have been detected but weren't.

An that officers who are assigned to look for concealed weapons, while working off-duty security at night clubs for instance, are often highly proficient at detecting them. "But then when they go back to the street without that specific assignment, they seem to 'turn off' that skill," and thus are startled--sometimes fatally--when a suspect suddenly produces a weapon and attacks.

In other words, cops who get good at spotting hidden arms while moonlighting don't necessarily carry that skill over to their day job. It's the exact same action, only the context is different, namely the role of a police officer. Understand that I am neither blaming nor excusing the victims for their injury, only pointing up a fact. We're all prone to similar oversights.

But should we acquiesce to the facts? Shall we throw up our arms and leave our status quo of abilities be? No: what we should do is beware of our tendency to let habits ossify - and determine where we can put Skill X to good use. This transfer of skills is precisely what's needed in order to get a job when you have to switch gears.

Now the more specialized you get, the more deliberate the transfer must be. Otherwise how can you explain the stupid things philosophers sometimes do? Some plagiarize, others cheat on their spouses, still others set themselves up as experts on 9/11. Philosophers aren't the only idiots; I am simply saying that their abilities, which can apply to many situations, do not do so of their own accord.

I may well be revealing more about myself than about philosophers in general, but it seems to me we've got our blind spots like anyone else. I think our blind spot tends to be an undue pride in our intellectual abilities: we think we're hot shit, that we can do anything simply because we've studied this abstract, complicated thing. C.S. Peirce voiced this criticism over a century ago, and it remains true today; it doesn't seem profound, but that's only because we don't appreciate how needful it was to say it.

We must make an effort to apply our skills appropriately. This means observing the field - where we'll be doing our critical thinking, for example. It means not only analyzing that field and case studies, but also imagining ourselves in various situations: how, O Great Spinozist, how do you teach English to a dozen kids in your class when they've already sat through a full day of school? what book do you find that advice in - and how do you know you'll do it right (assuming it's good advice)? You might have a leg up on, say, a ditch-digger or an air-traffic controller, but it's not always evident.

So. How can we help ourselves make that shift of skills? I'd like to whip up some ways to do that. But, my friends, that's another post.

(Image thoughtfully pilfered from here on Student Work in Photography, Drawing, and Graphic Design)

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Volitionist Argument for the Assurance of Salvation

Agent Intellect has a very interesting post comparing the idea of salvation as manifested in Islam and Christianity. He argues that since Allah is irreducibly capricious, Muslims can only hope that they will be found worthy in His eyes; a righteous man therefore could be damned if Allah decided it should be so. Christianity's promise, on the other hand, assures that God can, does, and must allow any righteous follower. This is a heavy claim, even without the comparison.

What has always puzzled me is the idea that we can know any limitations to God's nature. After all, if God is all-knowing and all-powerful, why couldn't He perform the impossible? Why couldn't He create a rock that He could not lift? By extension, why couldn't God go back on His word? This is a well-known argument against Christianity: any limitations to God lead to self-contradictory conclusions, and so Christianity is absurd. If that is the case, then Islam presents the only logical conception of God - a Supreme Being who can change His mind in an instant, even deceive us whimsically.

I believe St. Paul supplies a response to this charge. My contention is that the impossibility of a lying God exists and is perfectly logical, but that it still rests on His will. Far from being a limitation, this evidences God's love for us. First we have to trace the nature of this impossibility, and then we can draw out the implications.

Understand that I am not arguing that God exists here. In the following argument

If the Bible is true, God is real and He spoke to Abraham.
If God had this conversation with Abraham, He could not lie.
Therefore if the Bible is true, God did not lie to Abraham.
this post addresses only Premiss #2. Nor am I arguing for theological voluntarism necessarily (!), though this could be regarded as supportive of that position. For the moment I'm simply unpacking this question and offering an account.

Agent Intellect cites several verses supporting the thesis that God cannot lie, but the only one which says it is impossible for God to lie is Heb. 6.18. What's interesting is that He does so purely out of volition, which is confirmed by verses 13-15. God made the promise to Abraham, which really was not necessary; nobody forced Him to make the promise. The force of necessity comes in thanks to (1) the nature of promises and (2) the absolute nature of God, not in His willing to make the promise. Because a promise involves swearing by something higher than oneself, God was compelled to appeal to a higher authority. But since God is the highest authority around, He could only swear by Himself. That's what makes the Law what it is. In other words, in the act of promising, God transmuted His word from actuality to necessity; it became binding because He willed it.

Thus prior to the Covenant there was no necessity behind God's word; it was merely actually so. We can then say He did not lie, though He very well could have. Therefore the necessity mentioned in Hebrews 6.18 rests ultimately on God's decision to make the promise to Abraham. In other words, God created His own necessity.

Does that mean we're supposed to take God's word for it? He cannot lie because He said so...? That's like the ultimate used-car salesman: "Trust me." Let's compare the two cases. The used-car salesman wants to be trusted, but we know there are greater sources of truth than his snake-oil testimony. We can have the car tested and see whether there's any truth in the claim. In the case of God, however, we have no higher authority to appeal to. Assuming that God is real, He is the final arbiter on all matters and therefore the ultimate assurance for a promise - even His own.

The consistency of God's nature manifests itself in His love for us. This is evidenced by the fact that He makes himself trustworthy, as the Covenant demonstrates. Out of the very nature which created the world, God literally creates necessity by binding His word with Himself. He could deceive us, but He doesn't; instead he holds Himself to his word, which is by definition superlative in power and authority.

This rendition comes with an interesting twist: since God's word ought to be binding because it is so, it appears to fall prey to the Naturalistic Fallacy - and yet does not. The reason for this is that the Naturalistic Fallacy depends on immanent conceptions of modality. The domain of philosophy is the world around us, and we try to explain things in terms that anybody could examine. In other words, we cannot explain how necessity of any kind may be derived from actuality in terms of the everyday world. This is true. But God by definition transcends the universe, and therefore its laws do not necessarily apply. In this case alone can we derive an ought from an is. This argument therefore provides a valid speculative link between the immanent and transcendent.

This conception of God seems most consistent with His nature. See Genesis 1.3 or John 1.1: things happen on the basis of God's speaking, and they occur as commanded. I am not arguing from the authority of these verses, I am citing them as evidence of sacred consistency. (My argument for the basis of Christian assurance rests on Scripture, but only to the extent that it asserts the reality of God. Even if we leave the question mark of God standing, the argument remains valid.) The world came into being: none of this had to be, it simply was the case. The complexity of the universe is certainly fascinating, but so what? That doesn't make me go "Wow!" It could be more complex. Big deal. No, it is the world's very contingency which makes it so astonishing - that it exists at all.

So it seems that Paul sheds light on the loving nature of God by explaining why He cannot lie: the will to be true to His word, which only makes sense because of care. God cannot lie because He cares enough for us to make a promise. Hopefully I've got it right, but I could well be wrong.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Musique du Jour

Grouper, "Hold the Way."

Maya Deren dances with David Lynch.