Jul 28, 2010

debating a fool

The best part of the entire book of Proverbs, in this debate coach's opinion, comes in the 26th chapter.
4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you will be like him yourself.

5 Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.
This, in essence, is the perfect answer to the question, "Should you debate an intellectually dishonest opponent?"

Yes and no.

Yes, because you have the chance to demolish the fallacies and point reasonable listeners toward the truth. And if you don't, someone less qualified (or capable) will try--and if they fail, they'll only make things worse.

No, because you'll fail anyway, not only because your opponent will use every trick in the book to "win" the debate (and your audience may not be able to tell the difference between a "win" and a win), but their mere presence on the stage will feed their PR efforts.

Of course, if you refuse to debate them, they'll accuse you of intellectual cowardice. Or you may come across as a bully. (Although that's subjective; I think Barney Frank is entirely appropriate dressing down a disingenuous opponent, but perhaps it's because I admire curmudgeons.)

So we're back to the paradoxical advice. Or, to paraphrase Yoda: Do, or do not. There is no win.

Jul 26, 2010

sometimes a noun is just a noun

There's a neurological explanation for why people love to verb nouns.
When people were confronted with verbed nouns (in sentences such as ”I was not supposed to go there alone: You said you would companion me.”) EEGs measured their brains recognizing a syntactic anomaly, but not a semantic one. In other words, the subjects understood--in a time measured in milliseconds--that something cool and new was happening. And they immediately got what it meant.

Coming soon: a neurological explanation for why a bitter few really, really hate it when you verb a noun.

[via pourmecoffee]

half-formed thoughts on cyberbullying

A work in progress. Your comments and suggestions are appreciated.

Sticks and stones
May break my bones
But words will never hurt me.

I'm made of rubber,
You're made of glue.
Everything you say
Bounces off me
And sticks to you.

--children's sayings
Recently a reader sent this email:
I'm a long-time reader of your blog. I was hoping that you would blog about cyberbullying laws sometime since they have been a matter of controversy for a while now. Thanks!
I was somewhat stumped. As a teacher who uses the Internet all throughout the curriculum, and for someone who has established a persistent online presence for seven years, I'm ashamed to admit that my perspective on cyberbullying is, at best, half-formed and ad hoc.

Which it shouldn't be, as cyberbullying challenges traditional notions of education, juvenile law, and parenting.

My thoughts were expanded when another reader, Kevin, sent along one an otherwise unrelated email titled "German Civil Rights Fail." (Any insertions or edits are his.)
"Article Five: Freedom of Expression.

(1) Every person shall have the right freely to express and disseminate his opinions in speech, writing, and pictures and to inform himself without hindrance from generally accessible sources. Freedom of the press and freedom of repor...ting by means of broadcasts and films shall be guaranteed. **There shall be no censorship.** [Sweet! Censorship = un-Constitutional in Germany.]

(2) **These rights shall find their limits** [Wait a minute! You just promised us CONSTITUTIONALLY that censorship will not happen! What happened?] in the provisions of general laws, in provisions for the protection of young persons, and in the right to **personal honor** [What does this even mean?! It's a violation of civil rights to insult somebody?!]."


At first I didn't notice the connection, but there it is: the language of the German constitution provides a perfect framework for understanding the current controversy over cyberbullying. After all, it is a form of speech that threatens the mental and emotional wellbeing of young persons, and is an affront to their personal honor.

But should it be a crime? And, if so, what about free speech?

In one sense, the German constitution is superior to its U.S. counterpart; at least it explicitly notes the limitations on free speech, while in the U.S., we have to rely solely on decades of muddled juriprudence to determine where the boundaries of infringement lie. (Eugene Volokh, discussing a related issue, notes that even the word "infringement" isn't simple.  See also his critique of a new cyberbullying statute.  Legislators definitely run the risk of too broadly defining what constitutes cyberbullying.)

Here in the U.S., as the children's sayings imply, we certainly value personal honor and the sensibilities of the young. We don't want a nation of wimps.  A societally coordinated and aggressive approach to bullying, though, is a fairly recent invention. We leave personal honor to the person, creating a razor-thin line between encouraging mental toughness and blaming the victim--because sometimes words will hurt, and arguing otherwise is a form of denial. (If you disagree, imagine what a bully thinks when told that "words will never hurt.")

Throw this kind of thinking into a culture saturated with technology, which creates new dimensions for bullies.  What happens?

  • There are new means of public or private aggression.  Blogs. Forums.  YouTube videos. Text messages.
  • There seem to be no natural "times out," given the ubiquity of technology.
  • The audience is potentially global, multiplying any humiliations--especially when older folks get in on the act. (Children aren't the only ones who cyberbully, as the Jessi Slaughter incident makes obvious. And if you look up Slaughter's experience, be warned: it's disturbing on multiple levels.)
  • Anonymity and the removal from a personal context increase aggression.
  • Thanks to Google, cyberbullying's evidence can last a lifetime.  How do you heal when the sting never stops?
Humans live out narratives, selves couched in stories and words.  As we migrate further into the digital hemisphere, words take on more and more importance. Maybe the Germans are on to something.

For further reading: Emily Bazelon's excellent series on the subject over at Slate.

Jul 24, 2010

template tweaking

Different photo (taken at the Dungeness Spit) heads the blog, which, thanks to Blogger's new template tools, has a completely new look.

Jul 23, 2010

stray Victoria observations

1. Headed to Victoria, BC? Be prepared to spend big bucks. It's the world's classiest tourist trap.

2. There are three (three!) shelves of Scotch at the Bard and Banker, Robert Service's honorary pub, including a single malt that must have been distilled by angels, given its price. This led me, otherwise unprovoked, to utter this impromptu Service-esque poem:

Some lads they like to drink a lot
And some drink even more
But now and then a lad requires
A sixty dollar pour.

It is really, really easy to write in Service's lilting meter. You should try it.

3. Here's one for fusion: East African + East Indian = Spice Jammer. Which also equals deliciousness.

4. Also recommended: the mini breakfast and pastries at the Dutch Bakery and Coffee Shop. Just before we entered, a gray-haired matriarch in a periwinkle blue dress opened the door, held it for us, and said, "It's the best place in town." We must have been the only couple under 40 in the place, but if other young folks aren't hip to the pastry scene, fine by us.

5. Was quite happy to find a Nando's, even with the inflated Victoria prices. Peri peri chicken is ridiculously tasty. If someone wants to open a Seattle franchise, you have my blessing.

Jul 19, 2010

ten titles in search of an author

(Apologies to Pirandello, and thanks to my brother.)

The Compleat Blogger
Idiot Boxers: The Ever-Dumbening Discourse of Cable News
Don't Bet on Sports
A Theological History of the Coen Brothers
Ethics You Can Actually Live By
Finding Bromance
A Guide to Cheating at Solitaire
Twitter Told Me So
There Ought to be Crying in Baseball
The Social Contract in the Age of the End User License Agreement

Jul 17, 2010

things I learned in New Mexico

I spent the last five days in Montezuma, New Mexico, attending an IB conference at UWC-USA. In five days of classes, meals, road trips, and bull sessions, I learned a few things.

1. My students are even more competent than I imagine. When it comes to IB rubrics, I tend to be stingy with 5's, and now I know why: I expect a 5 to be like the writing of an accomplished graduate of a top-tier university English program. After eight sessions focusing on English assessment, I realize that a 5 isn't perfection.

2. Moderating my assessment doesn't mean I'm going to change how I teach. Big, big difference.

3. They call New Mexico "The Land of Enchantment" for a reason. The reason involves scorpions, brown bears, skunks, wildflowers, piny woods, sage, rock outcroppings, mosquitoes, and thunderstorms.

4. Teachers dance. I was not mentally (or spiritually?) prepared for that.

5. Every education workshop should start with a two hour bus ride and should be hosted in a building that necessitates having a roommate. Nothing better for socializing--more on this in a bit.

6. I am a natural introvert, although I've figured out how to overcome my extreme discomfort while mingling, or when scanning a cafeteria for an open seat. On the first day I resolved to sit at a new table each day, introduce myself, and then--and this is key, introverts--let the extroverts take over from there. They tend to draw you in to the conversation and draw you out of yourself.

7. People seem to appreciate it when you do the right thing without making a fuss.

8. I can't write an ode on command.

9. I felt most like a true student when learning the art of the cowboy hat in the Popular Dry Goods on Bridge Street in Las Vegas, New Mexico. (The one featured in No Country for Old Men, as the owner, a lifelong local who, sadly, wasn't featured in the film, was happy to share. Under his guidance, I stood where Josh Brolin stood. Not usually a fanboy, but come on, it's the Coen brothers.) The sales assistant, the owner's daughter, provided the lesson, patiently waiting as I dithered over styles and materials and colors. Hope you like the hat, Dad.

10. I didn't get to say this to everyone I met, but: thanks.

Jul 10, 2010

The Obama Victory: How Media, Money, and Message Shaped the 2008 Election

For those of us who survived the most expensive (and expansive) election in American history, and yet are still curious about its inner workings, comes The Obama Victory: How Media, Money, and Message Shaped the 2008 Election, by Kate Kenski, Bruce Hardy, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Pitched right between "interested layperson" and "studious academic," the book attempts to outline all the factors that led to the Illinois senator's triumph.

The book is well organized, first establishing the political and economic context, then tackling the campaign's overall themes, then showing the evolving discourse through five stages in the campaign (starting in June of '08), and analyzing the effects of early/absentee voting, microtargeting, and new media influences. There are charts and graphs aplenty, with attendant footnotes. The style is straightforward, peppered in places with folksy images that complement more analytical passages, and even including, at one point, an apology for employing terms of art like "explained variance." The book is at its most technical in the 12th chapter, which covers microtargeting (and features the work of co-author Chris Adasiewicz) and in the Appendix, which quantifies the nonstop nature of the campaign by calculating "delay effects" in media absorption.

Otherwise, when the amount of relevant information threatens to bog down the argument, the text is marked with an asterisk, which signals that the reader can visit the Annenberg Foundation's related blog for more information. (At this moment, it's unavailable; I presume more will be forthcoming when the book is officially released on July 15th.)

The book is evenhanded in its analysis, not shying away from discussing the missteps, deceptions, and evasions on both sides. It also puts to rest the myth that Obama's fundraising represented an unparalleled outpouring of support by individual donors.

While the authors present a compelling explanation for the outcome--within the understanding that, ultimately, the message-makers directly influence only a portion--more interesting to me are the little revelations along the way. How Obama's team used radio, of all things, to shift moderate women's belief about McCain's stance on abortion by 20 percentage points in four and a half months. How Sarah Palin, if the graphs don't lie, singlehandedly made it possible for a solid and stable majority of Republicans to believe that a woman was ready to be president. How the biggest "bounces" for candidates came after the most highly orchestrated moments: Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech on race, Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention. How "liberal" as an epithet has run its course, at least as a predictor of election outcomes.

Obama's defeat of Hillary Clinton (and the mythic Clinton machine) was more surprising, in my view, than his defeat of McCain--whose own campaign nearly flamed out in the primaries. Though mentioned obliquely or inferred at various points, the primaries' magnitude and key events are given short shrift; they deserve their own chapter in any subsequent edition. I'd also like to see a more thorough treatment of race in the election beyond the analysis of coded messages in campaign ads-- although that likely would've required an entirely different dataset, so I won't count that as a criticism.

It's to the authors' credit that the book spurs all sorts of questions:
  • Is there a better way to quantify the effects of factors like race and age?
  • How did rhetorical or speaking styles influence voters' perceptions of the candidates?
  • At what point does the nonstop campaign produce diminishing returns and trigger voter nausea or a sense of minimal personal impact? In other words, might the increasingly brutal election cycle somehow reduce democratic participation?
  • Is the media's sophistication in coverage growing beyond mere 3-D "situation room" wizardry?
  • How might the "Comedy Central bloc" swing future elections?
  • How can we more accurately assess the impact of social networks?
In the end, voters aren't perfectly rational. The trick, for electioneers, is managing, massaging, and channeling all that unreason into favorable votes.  In its comprehensive analysis, The Obama Victory draws up a template for electoral success in the era of the permanent election cycle.  Students of politics, take heed.

Sidebar: Readers further interested in the people behind the campaign should check out Kathleen Hall Jamieson's earlier companion piece, Electing the President, 2008: The Insiders' View.

Full disclosure: Oxford University Press sent me a free copy of the book for review. If you're interested in doing the same, just send me an email.

Jul 9, 2010

the King is dead; long live the Cavs

Dan Gilbert, in his open letter to Cleveland fans.

[via Slate's Twitter feed]

Jul 8, 2010

siphon high!

Have you ever wanted to see a geoduck in action?

Of course you have.

it's not you, it's us: constitutionalizing secession

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

One third of first marriages end in divorce within the first ten years, yet fewer than 10% of couples will sign a prenuptial agreement. It would seem that young couples are irrationally optimistic. Or are they smart? Perhaps the act of signing a prenup bursts the romance bubble, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy--a marriage more likely to fail. (Looked for, but couldn't find, a statistic to support or refute this.)

When it comes to another of the potential LD resolutions for the 2010-2011 season, you can see that the basic concern is quite similar.
Resolved: The constitutions of democratic governments ought to include procedures for secession.
Would a constitutional procedure for secession empower separatist groups? Would it make violent secessions or rebellions less likely?

Though it isn't often debated in this country--a bloody Civil War, for most, ended the discussion--secession, like a prenuptial agreement, is a great way to examine the nature and purpose of political marriage. It highlights a problem of particulars: certainly we can use the social contract to justify a government's legitimacy. But why this government, over these people, in this location?

A host of other questions surround this resolution, including, but not limited to...
  • What is the purpose of a constitution?
  • What makes a government legitimate?
  • What makes a nation a nation?
  • What is "self-determination?" Who gets it?
The SEP has a decent summary of debate regarding the question. Cass Sunstein is the political scientist most associated with opposition to constitutionalized secession, arguing that it undermines democracy as splinter groups use the threat of secession to increase their bargaining power.

Against Sunstein, Jason Sorens, in the introduction to Secession and Democracy, argues that
...governments that have explicitly ruled out military suppression
of democratic secession have suffered far less ethnic rebellion than governments that have declared their eternal indivisibility. On the basis of this evidence, I infer that a constitutional right of secession would substantially decrease ethnic violence around the world without significantly increasing the risks of actual state breakup in most countries. A constitutional right of secession would instead result in widespread devolution of power, allowing minorities to obtain rights of self-government in the areas most important to them.
Wikipedia's quality entry on secession is a nice starting point. Also of interest: its list of countries with limited recognition, and list of "micronations," many of which are tongue-in-cheek. The "Volokh Conspiracy" law blog had a flurry of posts on the topic a little while back; see here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

Jul 5, 2010

the Cars liveblog

"It's fun. Fun, fun, fun. It's triple fun." --Older sister, ostensibly referring to the Pixar film Cars.

On a sunny Monday evening, I'm being politely coerced to watch Cars, which, along with Monsters, Inc., I have not yet seen in its entirety.

Because the film is fresh to me, and because the experience of watching a film with family members is usually more entertaining than the film itself, I'm going to liveblog it. If you are still reading, remember: no one has politely coerced you.

6:48 p.m.
The downstairs den is meditatively quiet. Dad and I are the only ones in the den, waiting, with the DVD paused at the outset, waiting for the rest of the gang to tromp downstairs, presumably with Nanaimo bars and coffee.

Bro-in-law arrives with the Nanaimo bars. Womenfolk still upstairs.

"Here's your coffee cup, You Are Very Special To Me."

Why does Mom like the movie? "It's a clean cut movie and it's cute. There's nothing bad in it."

When I think anthropomorphic cars, I think Chevron. Is this because Chevron coopted the concept from this film, or vice versa?

Which one will take the Piston Cup? "It's like the LeBron James free agency."

"I love that his grill looks like a mustache."

Car-on-car violence is still violence.

Other NASCAR-themed films I haven't yet seen: Talladega Nights, Days of Thunder, and Oh my goodness, I think those cars just flashed Lightning.

Mom, these adult jokes aren't exactly subtle. Sorry to burst your bubble.

Rascal Flatts makes roadkill of "Life is a Highway."

Now I know why we're watching this: because stereotypes are funny when they have radiators.

"Luigi follow only the Ferraris." I rest my case.

John Donne meets the Tortoise and the Hare. That's the movie.

I will say this: the choice of Owen Wilson to play the Supreme Jerkface lead was... inspired. No one else is as easily loathed.

Sally Carrera, it is revealed, has a lower back tattoo. (I'd use the vernacular, but this is a family blog.)

"Who knew that cars had so much heart? We've got to name Mom and Dad's Grand Marquis. We could call it Marky Mark... or.... Keister."

"He won three Piston Cups!"
"He did what in his cup?"
"Mom must've been asleep last time she watched this."

Interstates are evil.

"He's drifting. Like Tokyo Drift!"

Cool Hand Luke, salad dressing, and this.

It took us an hour and 23 minutes, but we finally got it: a montage, a real live montage, to Chuck Berry's version of "Route 66."

The cynic in me wants to explain McQueen's love for Radiator Springs as a form of Stockholm Syndrome. And, to go meta, if I'm enjoying the film...

One lap left. I have a feeling we're going to learn a valuable lesson about reckless individualism.

"I have actual tears."

The credits roll. In the end, it's another Pixar win, which means I've sold my soul to the devil. Also, I promise--I really do--that I will never place my desires above the needs of the many.

Postscript. The sister: "I've seen this movie so many times... and I just got the 'Tow Mater.'" Awkward pause. "I shouldn't have said that out loud."

Jul 2, 2010

vectors and victors

Longtime readers of the blog know that every now and then I feature the latest speculation about Toxoplasma gondii and its potential influence on human behavior, and... the World Cup?
Rank the top 25 FIFA team countries by Toxo rate and you get, in order from the top: Brazil (67 percent), Argentina (52 percent), France (45 percent), Spain (44 percent), and Germany (43 percent). Collectively, these are the teams responsible for eight of the last 10 World Cup overall winners. Spain, the only one of the group never to have won a cup, is no subpar outlier—the Spaniards have the most World Cup victories of any perpetual runner-up.

What is going on here? Does Toxo really make people better at soccer?

The relationship is neither linear nor foolproof. Italy managed to win the World Cup in 2006, despite its relatively average infection rate of 33 percent. Certain African countries plagued with public health problems have astronomical Toxo rates. Yet the heavily infected players of Ghana, Gabon (71 percent), and the Ivory Coast (60 percent) have not yet managed to win a single cup. On the other end, England (6 percent), the U.S. (12 percent), and Japan (6 percent) are pretty OK at soccer yet have some of the lowest rates in the world.
Read the whole thing for the rest of the nuances and caveats.

Speculation is speculation, and this one, I'll say, kicks its hypothesis a little too far past the post.

Although something has to explain Bill Simmons' recent unabashed and unabated soccer love.