Archive for December, 2008

Oh it’s just a kitty-petting festival going on here in Elsinore [and now I’m going to get some very disappointed random hits to this page, aren’t I?].  Leia now complains if you stop petting her.

This morning, she was sitting on the couch.  Malkin was atop the cat tree in the hallway, looking daggers at me.  I walked into the living room, and pet Leia for a few minutes.  Much purring.  I walked away eventually, and went to pet Malkin, so he wouldn’t feel too miffed about the attention his rival was getting [the entire Universe is, from his perspective, about HIM].

Leia hopped off the couch [normal], walked into the hallway and chimed. She walked toward me [odd]. I stepped to the side and she started climing the cat tree, still meowing. [Eh?]  She climbed into the top bin of the cat tree, rubbed herself against Malkin [His expression: WTF???], and then snuggled down and looked at me expectantly.  “Miaow!”

Apparently I wasn’t done petting her.

Malkin looked on in horror, although he let me pet him, too.

I’d love to know what finally rebooted the “I want human contact” circuits in this cat, but I’m willing to just marvel and be grateful….

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Unexpected progress

leiafirstphoto-adjust Leia didn’t run away when I walked into the room with the cup of kibble tonight.  I walked a little closer, and she still didn’t run.

So I took a chance and tried to move my hand closer [she was facing away from me, so I was about to touch her back].  That resulted in a typical Leia “chime”, but still no bolting away.

And most amazing of all, she started to purr when I pet her.   I really think she knows that some outside intervention is going to be necessary to get all those knots off her back and sides, and she actually let me run both my hands over her back, scritch the side of her face, stroke her tail.  I was utterly flabberghasted.

Then I stepped back and let her get something to eat.  I don’t know if I’ll get to pet her again anytime soon, but this and Word’s new project are the best Christmas presents of 2008.

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A man in New England thought he could use a blowtorch to clear away some of the snow and ice near his house.

While the report says he isn’t being charged with anything [other than the $30k it’s going to cost to do repairs], I really think he should have been charged as Stupid and Endangering Emergency Workers, which ought to involve some kind of public pennance.

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You see the following title for a news item in the NY Times:

Southern Miss WR DeAndre Brown Injured

And you spend several moments trying to figure out which beauty pageant has a “Miss WR”.

Thank you, I’m here all week… well, most of it…

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Alphaville is proclaiming themselves from the speakers on my lap — there’s an image, eh? How much farther from stadium Euro-rock could you get? But the distance shouldn’t be measured from concert venue to little laptop: the distance is really from being an undergraduate studying in a dorm lounge to being a professor grading assignments the night before the final exam.

Back in chilly suburban Philadelphia, I would have just come in from class, or in from the graveyard (where I would often chill for a bit after class). Orion would be twinkling over the parking lot, someone would be making hot chocolate in a hotpot, and I’d have Milton, or Turkle, or Piaget to review one more time… There would be some drama, some impossible thing to sort out before morning, there would be the uncomfortable memory of a less-than satisfying cafeteria meal, and sense that too many things needed to be done before the end of the week, oh God, and then I’d have to be back in Jersey remembering how to live at home again.

Here, in Elsinore, I slog through other people’s mangled thinking and my own spreadsheet formulae, while trying to postpone thoughts about social obligations [who will be where? when? for how long? how many presents need to be completed before X date, given who will be where, when, etc? were we getting a tree? were we going to try to bake anything? could I pretend to be Russian Orthodox and buy myself another week of time?]……

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This afternoon, I had a stark reminder of the choice I made 20+ years ago — to apply for a Rhetoric Ph.D., rather than one in Literary and Cultural Theory.  (The programs were at the same school, and I had the course background for either area.) The text I was reading discussed the work of Federman [not, not, NOT to be confused with Federer or Feynman], who coined the term “incest-tuality” to describe the activity of:pondfrog06

…leaping from quotation to quotation (known as The Leap-Frog Technique — see Take It or Leave It, by Raymond Federman) and often even by quoting itself (known as inter-textuality, but which I prefer to call incest-tuality), that the Postmodern text progressed without really going anywhere, thus delaying or even at times cancelling its own end — its own eventual death. [Before Postmodernism and After]

So Federman cites himself and considers this a radical act, or a promiscuous one, or something, anything, other than ‘repeating yourself’.  I understand the uses of ‘amplification’ in rhetoric, but this just strikes me as protesting a little too much. I can be intertextual, too… oooh. Invoke the Bard and then skitter away. [The music for this section could be anything from Sondheim or Lloyd-Webber, for reasons which should be obvious…]

Anyhow, back to my afternoon reading, wherein Federman is credited with describing The Postmodern as being filled with anxiety and doubt about the possibility of progress. That was what triggered the memory: there I am, back in Boyer Hall. It’s 1985, and Janice is discussing how the latest critical turn still fails to provide intellectual space for the New, for the Different.


do you first see the gate...

It's a perspective test: do you first see the gate...

Just between you, me, and the Internet….I think there a few new things under the sun since then.  We could argue that the iPhone is really a nexus of hegemonic activity, since it enables/requires people to carry more and more buzzing obligations around with them [calendars, to do lists, work projects], or that GPS devices are a natural extention of the Panopticon, with the diabolitcal twist that people _outside_ the jurisdiction of prison-systems voluntarily permit their motions and destinations to be tracked…. But the fact remains that iPhones are genuine new things that use real ideas and structures of meaning that didn’t exist in 1985.

Genuine new things exist.  People make them. People invent, speculate, try.  It seemed to me [in early 1986, when I was selecting my graduate school path] that I could either stand on the sidelines with the literary theorists who were grumbling about whether new things were possible, weaving elaborate theories to explain how we are caught by multiple webs of established meanings….

Or I could get on the damn field, learn how the game was being played right now, and start trying to score some points.

...or do you see the opportunity?

...or do you see the opportunity?

Rhetoric, to me, was all about saying something, anything, and seeing how that could affect the world. Identify opportunity. See a problem.  Question something, sure, but then thought needs to change into intent, into action, reaction, people actually doing something that might change some part of the world.

So.  Rhetoric it was.  It seemed more hopeful, although I recognize that Acting and Understanding the Forces That Complicate All Action are sides on the same die.

As for the document that got me thinking about all this, I don’t think its saving throw was successful.

Coincidentally, the last word of Federman’s essay is, in fact, “Rhetoric.”  But I think I could have just stuck with Kenneth Burke’s statement that “Rhetoric is concerned with Babel after the Fall.” [Note: much of Burke is impenetrable on first reading. Second readings can be assisted with bourbon.]

Literary/cultural theory has its usefulness.  But it does remind me on occasion, about how the concept of “wrong” manages to evade many theorists in the humanities.  Scientists have to deal with being wrong on a regular basis, and I think that builds character in a way that cultural critique cannot.  Making a fundamental error about the way light is used in a Faulkner novel or rigorously problematizing a persistent trope does not have the same consequences as missing a decimal place and trashing a major experiment, or, worse, giving waaaaaaay too much heparin to a baby.

I’ll grant that because the humanities have the luxury of playing with ideas much longer, sometimes genuinely splendid things result.  Maybe Freud hadn’t a clue about how the brain really worked, but look at how much film, drama, art was built using those ideas. On the dark side, how many people struggled with being told that the abuse or trauma they experienced was part of some fantasy ‘everybody’ is supposed to have had at some stage in their lives?  Or how many people can honestly say that state control of industries is the best way to ensure happiness for all [other than Henry Poulson, I mean…]?

Ah well.  Dinner appears to be ready.  Hurray!

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eyeforskyIn the NY Times recently, there was an article about a disturbing fact of human variability. Well, let me re-phrase that: it’s not all that disturbing in the abstract:  people differ.  The disturbing fact is that treatments have been based on an idea of “broken/not broken” or “normal/abnormal” that may not hold up in real world practice.

incidentalomaFor instance, it turns out that if you have a patient complaining of knee pain, and you look with an MRI, you might see cartilage damage, but you might not.  Worse, apparently thousands of people are traipsing around, doing their Activities of Daily Living [yes, that’s a technical term], while having torn cartilage in their knees, and have no problems at all.  Yet thousands of people have had surgery performed on their knees, to “fix” torn cartilage, and it’s taken years for existing research saying “Guys, that doesn’t seem to solve the problem” to filter through into standard practice.  Apparently, while there are some cases where cartilage damage leads to problems, it’s within the tolerance of the human structure to function with a certain amount of damage. That makes a lot of sense; if every time one thing went wrong, the whole structure came apart, we’d be about as reliable as an old operating system and who knows what the error message might have been [other than dropping dead, or ending up as someone else’s lunch].

Partly I’m musing about human variablility because I was lecturing on it yesterday in two classes. But what landed on my doorstep today brought the issue to the fore again:  a small box, 6″x6″x1″, say, was wedging open the front storm door this afternoon. Screen-printed ribbon, and a screen-printed tag announced that it was a gift for me, and that it was “Fit to be tried”.  Oh, really?

I look at the box, heft the weight, and wonder if someone has saddled me with another bizarre Christmas gift [last year, my sister-in-law thought it would be hysterical to send me a Hillary Clinton nutcracker.  And no, it’s not the type that crunches with its jaws…].  Or maybe it’s another of those unsolicited panty hose trial things [equally useless in my life]?  It was already a source of irritation that they didn’t make any sounds or shifts in weight that suggested Christmas cookies….

Hmm.  So what….?

Oh, good Gawd…..Lady Rhetorica

As other baffled women across this great land of ours can attest, the Kimberly-Clark corporation wants me to know that they, THEY, have devised the perfect tampon.  This one, they say, will be a perfect fit for me!  So perfect I’ve just got to give it a try.

You can imagine the expression of WTF?!! this evoked.

The contents come complete with instructions for use and warnings about toxic shock syndrome.  If they could have, I’m sure the marketing team would have provided helpful hints on menstruating, just to get me in the mood.

Do I believe their claim? Well, as Lady Rhetorica is my witness, I seriously doubt their data sources.  Trust me, I’ve never let anybody named Kimberly anywhere near that part of my anatomy.

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Not a happy bluebird. Possibly an angry tropical grackle...

Not a happy bluebird. Possibly an angry tropical grackle...

I haven’t got my final exams yet, where I expect the timed writing task will result in a few worthy gaffes, simply because of the amount of thinking I’m trying to squeeze out of those undergraduates. [And yes, actually, I will be digging around for some older exam examples, so it isn’t blazingly obvious what’s been recently committed.]

In the meantime, Educated and Poor has some winners.  Go look!

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xmasdoordecorGetting though the next two weeks is the big challenge…. But we did have snow, and there’s been a holiday concert, so I guess it’s really December now.

So I should be bracing myself for on-the-spot “thinking” like this as I ask students to apply what they’ve learned to new situations:

What interests people in their interest and what makes them feel so strongly about it?

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batikdflyI don’t know whether my undergrads all ‘get’ what I am trying to teach them about portable intellectual tools — I want them to see that reasoning about science is not that different from other kinds of reasoning: it’s the types of data, the range of acceptable warrants, and the strength of the claims that differ.  Of course, I also want them to understand that reasonable people can disagree.  Not everyone thinks that way, nor do they expect their teachers/classmates to act on that assumption!

Several of the undergrads who initially worried I would spout and evangelize for liberal politics seem pleasantly surprised; they could make arguments, and I would make sure that everyone could see the structure of what was being stated, and how perspectives on very similar data could vary widely, based on assumptions or values that had been set long before any given argument [and I mean that in the technical, not emotional sense] began. The ice broke with one such student when I explained that it was perfectly fine to use articles about police technology [Tasers, bullet-proof vests, etc.] as examples of technology news.  I gave him some links to police-oriented websites I knew about, and he felt comfortable explaining that one of his absences was going to be for interviews for a local police force.  He’s got prior military service, and is older and quieter than most of the other students in the classroom; I think he’d make a good officer and I wish him well.

“It’s interesting,” he told my yesterday, when I asked how the testing and interviews had gone. “They don’t want gung-ho people, or people who build their lives around the force.  They want it to be a job, not a lifestyle. Get in there, do your job, go home at night.”

That reminds me a little of how some hospitals are trying to change the ways medical residents get their training — you do an allocated # of hours, and then you time out and go home, as opposed to following one patient’s care however long that might take, or struggling to stay awake for 72 hours.solarmalkiesmall

Now, I’ve heard that making residency more ‘humane’ in this way can compromise continuity of care, and perhaps eliminate an essential tempering process for new doctors.  I don’t have sufficient data to assess that.  [I’m sure there’s a little of the “I went through hell, and so will you” going on in the resistance as well.  Humans can justify all manner of trama if they associate it with an outcome of which they approve].  What jumps out at me now, though, is that the changes in hours is similar to what was described for that police force:  It’s a job, not a lifestyle.  I sense a potential problem here — if it’s already been established that we’re understaffed in the medical professions, is saying it’s a job like other jobs a good recruiting tool?  If there’s no love for the field, for the work, what recommends it other than a paycheck, and what makes even that enough when times are hard and red tape is binding your wrists?

There is data suggesting that many physicians are eager to retire or otherwise get out of patient care. There’s data suggesting that doctors are not recommending the path to their children, and that areas of great genuine need, such as primary care, geriatrics, and nephrology are not attracting candidates the way dermatology and plastic surgery are.  Some of this, it seems to me, is a side effect of saying medicine is a job, and not a vocation. [Yes, I do know that the HMO industry is a huge part of what makes any sort of medical practice unattractive to the sane.]

Let me do something of a K-turn here:  Maybe we do want some high-pressure activities to be jobs that people do, then leave behind and return to a different world. Police, soldiers, fire-fighters….front-line people.  Knowing that the stress has a predetermined end might help some people hold themselves together better, or help long-term planners see that what gets accomplished during one shift or cycle is something that will have to be maintained by others, rather than deciding that Carthago will damn sure be delendo est on their shift.  So they don’t have tot go in, guns blazing, with the expectation that it’s you and no-one else, and it doesn’t matter what’s left in your wake because we’ll only have to go this way once. [Sort of a corollary to “Be kind to those you meet while climbing the ladder, because you may have to climb back down again someday”].

I am musing here, and I can easily see where if someone is having an MI, you want folks to go in blazing.  If someone is bleeding, or getting stabbed in the street, etc. We don’t have a good enough system for determining what % of enthusiasm + what % of expertise gets the best long-term outcomes.

Hmmn.  I suspect some of my students frequently confuse enthusiasm with emotional committment.  That would explain many a short-term undergraduate romance, and a fair amount of “drama” I’ve endured over the years.

Here’s a comment about arguments of “ease” and “enthusiasm” from, of all people you probably didn’t expect me to cite, the Secretary of Defense, Dr. Robert Gates. He’s talking about preparing US defenses for the long term:

“… no one should ever neglect the psychological, cultural, political, and human dimensions of warfare. War is inevitably tragic, inefficient, and uncertain, and it is important to be skeptical of systems analyses, computer models, game theories, or doctrines that suggest otherwise. We should look askance at idealistic, triumphalist, or ethnocentric notions of future conflict that aspire to transcend the immutable principles and ugly realities of war, that imagine it is possible to cow, shock, or awe an enemy into submission, instead of tracking enemies down hilltop by hilltop, house by house, block by bloody block. As General William Tecumseh Sherman said, “Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster.”

The whole essay is here.  No, I am not going to dwell upon how much of this he may have written; he’s a professor in his other life, and I’m actually more interested in knowing how much of this essay got written after the election, or if parts of it had been drafted, and were held back until he was re-selected for the job. Or maybe this is his application essay? 😉

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