Jun 25, 2010

animal rights for people, too

NOTE: This topic was chosen for Sept. / Oct. 2011. Current comments and thoughts are posted here.

First in a series of previews of potential 2010-2011 LD topics.

An alien spaceship descends on your hometown, bug-eyed spindly-legged creatures emerging from its bowels. "Great," you think. "This is gonna be great." You've always wondered whether there was intelligent life elsewhere in the universe--and here it is, practically knocking down your door.

Actually, it is knocking down your door, and vaporizing your furniture, and corralling you and your family into cages, until you're whisked off to some distant galaxy, ostensibly to serve as entertainment for Emperor Garthron of Planet X.

You try to reason with your captors. Their eyes are blank with apathy, however; they cannot hear, nor can they understand your rudimentary bleating. They ignore your gestures and are unfazed by your scribblings. Your actions are meaningless to them, beyond the detached interest of idle alien curiosity.

How would you convince one of these aliens that their behavior is unjust, and that they've violated your rights?

Or would you even bother to try?

Clearly, your rights exist regardless of your ability to articulate them to an outsider. But what if the situation were reversed, a la District 9? Would intelligent aliens have rights?

Or, more to the point, what if animals find themselves in the same position regarding their human neighbors?

These, and other challenging moral questions, are raised by one of the potential LD topics for the 2010-11 season.
Resolved: Justice requires the recognition of animal rights.
How wide is the circuit of our moral concern? Should it include organisms of different species?

Why do we care about animals?
Suppose you feel anger or sadness about recent reports about whales' susceptibility to industrial toxins. Your sentiments could arise from many sources: appreciation of the whales' beauty and power and intelligence; pity for their helplessness; respect for their unique place in nature, or for divine mandates for environmental stewardship. You could also take a different tack, highlighting their instrumental value--for instance, their essential role in the oceanic ecosystem, or their utility as a food source.

The last makes the problem particularly acute. It's tough to concede rights to something you might grill on the barbecue. Here the culturally arbitrary nature of our attachments becomes evident: some folks dress up their dogs in funny clothes, while other folks eat them. (And if dogs have a right not to suffer, why not whales?)

How do we define "animal?"
Dictionary.com (based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary) gives us at least three workable definitions.
1.any member of the kingdom Animalia, comprising multicellular organisms that have a well-defined shape and usually limited growth, can move voluntarily, actively acquire food and digest it internally, and have sensory and nervous systems that allow them to respond rapidly to stimuli: some classification schemes also include protozoa and certain other single-celled eukaryotes that have motility and animallike nutritional modes.
This scientific definition would set up an interesting affirmative:
All humans have rights.
All humans are animals.
Therefore, some animals have rights.
Thus, we affirm the resolution.
The second and third definition are much narrower:
2. any such living thing other than a human being.
3. a mammal, as opposed to a fish, bird, etc.
The former sets up a distinction between human rights and animal rights, which is the traditional manner of thinking about such things. The latter is even more restrictive, making it so the affirmative would have to defend rights for whales and grizzlies and gibbons, but not for lobsters, snakes, or chickens. (Serious efforts to grant rights to apes and to cetaceans already exist.)

Which animals would have rights?
The definition chosen points to a potential answer; other arguments might revolve around distinctions based on sentience or intelligence.

Which rights would these animals have?
Hard to say. In Spain, for instance, non-human apes have rights of life and freedom from suffering.

Where do rights come from?
If they come from God, we may have to turn to some kind of scripture to answer the question.
If they're inherent, we have to figure out whether they're inherent in animals.
If they're social constructions, we have to decide whether our society admits nonhumans.
If they're contractual, we have to wonder whether non-signatories are covered by the contract.
If they're legal constructs, we have to determine whether the law assigning rights to animals is wise.
If they're a matter of utility, we need to know whether a life with animal rights increases utility.

Recommended Reading
The SEP's entry on the moral status of animals.
Lawrence Hinman's list of relevant links and resources.

the ones that got away

Jeff Sullivan tackles the myth that ex-Mariners inevitably thrive upon exiting Seattle. A sample:
Cha Seung Baek: Traded to San Diego. Made 20 standard Cha Baek starts, got hurt, disappeared. Still has no reason to smile. Not better.

Wladimir Balentien: Traded to Cincinnati. Was okay, then lost his job. Demoted to AAA, where his OPS is under .700. Not better.

Miguel Batista: Signed with Washington, where he has more walks than strikeouts in relief. That the Nationals are rebuilding makes this doubly hilarious. Not better.

Adrian Beltre: Dominating in Boston with 33 extra-base hits and his usual defense, albeit with a few errors thrown in. Becoming popular for hating when Victor Martinez touches his head. Predictably better.
It's a nice reminder that confirmation bias is the enemy of rational fandom--if there is such a thing.

Also, don't bet on sports.

Jun 24, 2010

summer LD preview

The NFL has published its list of potential topics for 2010-2011, which I'll repeat below, in order of my personal preferences, favorite first.
Resolved: Justice requires the recognition of animal rights.

Resolved: The constitutions of democratic governments ought to include procedures for secession.

Resolved: When forced to choose, a just government ought to prioritize universal human rights over its national interest. Update: This was chosen as the 2011 national tournament topic.

Resolved: In the United States, juveniles charged with violent felonies ought to be treated as adults in the criminal justice system.

Resolved: the abuse of illegal drugs ought to be treated as a matter of public health, not of criminal justice.

Resolved: The United States is justified in using private military firms abroad to pursue its military objectives.

Resolved: Secular ethics ought to be prioritized over religious ethics in the legislative process.

Resolved: In political campaigns within the United States, corporations ought to be afforded the same First Amendment free speech protections as individuals.

Resolved: Progressive income taxes are just.

Resolved: On balance, Internet neutrality is desirable.
Over the coming days, I'll post some initial thoughts on the various choices, and turn this into a list of links to those posts.

Jun 18, 2010

National Forensic League debate finals

Saw the LD and Public Forum finals at the Expo Center today. They were decent rounds, for different reasons.

I thought the LD round was full of missed opportunities. The Aff misconstrued the Neg's anti-discrimination argument, while the Neg missed the chance to point out that the Aff had by definition narrowed the debate to criminal justice concerns, forgetting the breadth of the "any" in the resolution. (What if government has a compelling medical interest in, say, mandating DNA be kept in a database for vaccination purposes?)

The debate showed several interesting contrasts. The Aff was deliberate and generally focused, while the Neg was speedy and line-by-line. The Aff was as moderate and reasonable in tone as the Neg was impassioned. The Aff offered a deontological argument to counter the Neg's utilitarian approach--and the two hinged on a disagreement over the definition of respecting "rights for all individuals," which the Aff viewed aggregately (each individual as an individual) and the Neg viewed conglomerately (each individual as a part of the group).

All in all, an interesting debate, and, in my view, a narrow win for the Aff.

Public Forum was a little chippy at times--artful interruption wasn't either team's strong suit--but at least it wasn't dull. The Pro's case boiled down to partisanship, lobbying, and media bias; nothing terribly original, but well-evidenced. The Con went with the fairly common "technology makes us smarter and more likely to participate," as well as an argument I hadn't heard in elimination rounds: that increasing use of initiatives has given the people more direct control of their lives, through a Brandeis-ian "laboratories of democracy" approach.

In the end, the Con dropped the polarization argument, which was probably enough for many to vote Pro, especially with the strongest Con offense--the initiative contention--only halfheartedly defended in the Final Focus.

Which brings me to my next point: fixing Public Forum. One minute wasn't enough, so the NFL provided two, which is too much. My perfect solution: make it a minute point five, and take the extra minute saved (both FF discounts combined) and add it on to the Grand Crossfire, which always seems too short.

Let's do this, NFL.

If you saw either round, feel free to comment and disagree. I have to be brief because I'm poaching airport wireless, and my battery is about to die. An outlet, an outlet, my kingdom for an outlet.

Jun 14, 2010

greetings from NFL Nationals

We're "Jazzin' it up in KC" at the NFL National Tournament, waiting for the second flight of the first round of Public Forum to commence. How'd we get here? By surviving...

* Construction-based traffic delay in Lakewood, WA that nearly made us miss our flight out of SeaTac. Luckily, at 11:15 p.m., you can breeze through security in five minutes.

* Thunderstorms. Like last year's trek to Birmingham, we were greeted with flash flood-bearing fireworks shows. We missed the ones that delayed a few flights on Sunday morning, and then tried, and failed, to sleep through the one that lit up and drowned the city last night. But no floods in our neighborhood, this time, at least.

* Free hotel breakfast. It is, in fact, possible to screw up cranberry juice.

* Google Maps' directions. Exit on the left? Exit on the left!

Flight B starts in 13 minutes. It's gonna be great.

Jun 11, 2010

the beard is dead, long live the beard

From To Beard, or not to Beard

It was fun while it lasted--fun for everyone else, at least. Thanks to everyone who gave, and kept giving, and helped the CHS Debate team raise $520. I can promise you, it'll be $520 well spent.

As you can see, shaving off a full beard is a miraculous instant weight loss and age-defying formula. I'm afraid the incredibly coarse hair may have destroyed my clippers, which mowed it down to less than an eighth of an inch before tiring and tagging out. The Gilette Mach 3 Turbo finished the match.

At last, I have my face back.

Jun 10, 2010

all hail Jackie Chan

In advance of the opening of another why-are-they-remaking-it, two Jackie Chan appreciations. The first, a compilation of the 10 best Chan films.
Time to load up the Netflix queue.

The next, a defense of the genius of Jackie Chan, an artist on par with Keaton or Lloyd. (If you don't know their first names, it's time you learned.)

Jun 7, 2010

Luke... I might not actually be your father.

Imagine receiving the results of a genetic test that suggests that your son is not your son. Was there a mix-up in the maternity ward?

Fortunately, in this case it was a slip-up in the genetics lab contracted by personal genomics company 23andMe to process its customers' samples. But the news that the Californian firm has supplied 96 people with someone else's results will add to the pressure for more regulation of this emerging industry.
When privacy advocates argue that non-felons' DNA should be kept out of government databases, this is one of the crucial reasons why. You can't simply regulate away errors, human or silicon.

Jun 6, 2010

making the tacit explicit

When assessing a student's learning, a teacher has to overcome at least two epistemic barriers.

The first is obvious: as teacher, I have to find out what my students have learned. So I assess their knowledge. This is, of course, fraught with pitfalls. Am I asking the right questions? In the right words? Have I provided enough context? Too much?

But then there's the second barrier: students who don't know what they've learned--or haven't learned. Or, even if they know they know it, they can't articulate it.

Though it's what I'm always thinking about, the problem became acute this week in a couple of my reading classes. As a way to provide some context for this article on skills students should "really" have upon graduating high school--which, I will say, led to some fascinating discussions about the value we place on various aspects of education--I asked my students, mostly 9th and 10th graders, what they had learned this year. (In a similar exercise earlier in the year, I asked them to list 100 things they already know. Those were some interesting lists.)

By far, the initial response was an overwhelming "I haven't learned anything."

Several reasons.

The first: general resistance to doing work. This was overcome fairly quickly with a couple leading questions. "What did you learn in this class? In your math class? From your friends? About yourself? Start by making categories on your paper...."

The second: genuine non-learning from students who are uninvolved in the classroom, whether through their own choices, uncontrollable circumstances, poor teaching, or any combination of the above. (I leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine which is most salient.)

The third: genuine inability to articulate what they've learned.

How to overcome this? Metacognition, reflectiveness, self-awareness--whatever you want to call it--can be taught. The key is (at least) twofold. First, making your tacit objectives explicit. Sharing goals and objectives at the start of every lesson. Teaching explicit strategies for comprehension, discussion, cooperation, and more, rather than presuming that students already know the best way.

Second, having students make their tacit knowledge explicit. Asking them to articulate the purpose for today's activities before you even start, to jot down something they've learned at the end of the lesson, to critique the lesson's structure and effectiveness.

Even after eight years of teaching, it's amazing to me how many times I have to revisit this, to dredge up my own tacit knowledge and drag it to the surface.

You know a lot more than you think you know. (And, of course, you also know a lot less.)