Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for June, 2008

And this is why we need to teach ethical theory in schools

Posted by metaphorical on 22 June 2008


One day, a poor boy who was selling goods from door to door to pay his way through school, found he had only one thin dime left, and he was hungry.

He decided he would ask for a meal at the next house. However, he lost his nerve when a lovely young woman opened the door.

Instead of a meal he asked for a drink of water! She thought he looked hungry so brought him a large glass of milk. He drank it so slowly, and then asked, ‘How much do I owe you?’

‘You don’t owe me anything,’ she replied. ‘Mother has taught us never to accept pay for a kindness.’

He said, ‘Then I thank you from my heart.’

As Howard Kelly left that house, he not only felt stronger physically, but his faith in God and man was strong also. He had been ready to give up and quit.

Many years later, that same young woman became critically ill. The local doctors were baffled. They finally sent her to the big city, where they called in specialists to study her rare disease.

Dr. Howard Kelly was called in for the consultation. When he heard the name of the town she came from, a strange light filled his eyes.

Immediately he rose and went down the hall of the hospital to her room.

Dressed in his doctor’s gow n he went in to see her. He recognized her at once.

He went back to the consultation room determined to do his best to save her life. From that day he gave special attention to her case.

After a long struggle, the battle was won.

Dr. Kelly requested the business office to pass the final bill to him for approval. He looked at it, then wrote something on the edge and the bill was sent to her room. She feared to open it, for she was sure it would take the rest of her life to pay for it all. Finally she looked, and something caught her att ention on the side of the bill. She read these words ..

‘Paid in full with one glass of milk’

(Signed) Dr. Howard Kelly.

Tears of joy flooded her eyes as her happy heart prayed: ‘Thank You, God, that Your love has spread broad through human hearts and hands.’

There’s a saying which goes something like this: Bread cast on the waters comes back to you. The good deed you do today may benefit you or someone you love at the least expected time. If you never see the deed again at least you will have made the world a better place – And, after all, isn’t that what life is all about?

Now you have two choices.
1. You can send this page on and spread a positive message.

2. Or ignore it and pretend it never touched your heart.

If you don’t get “inspirational” spam like this at least once in a while, you lead a truly blessed life. Meanwhile, I’m sick, not so much of the spam, as the stupidity, bordering on turpitude, of the specific message.

Are we being exhorted to emulate the young milkmaiden’s example because it is virtuous and right, or because we will be repaid just when we need it the most? Is there moral reasoning that goes beyond the pragmatism of simple self-interest?

Christians labor under a similar confusion — Christ’s own messages give mixed signals at best. Should do good things for their own sake, or in order to ascend to Heaven? The argument for our very belief in God’s existence wallows in the same mudbath of unclear thinking. Leaving aside its circularity, we’re told to believe in God else we suffer the eternal fires of damnation. Pragmatism, nothing more.

Dr. Howard Kelly, as far as we can tell, had no inclination to alter his patient’s bill except for her being the person who was generous to him when he was in need. Indeed, that’s essential to the story, because if he routinely wrote down large bills, then the actions of this story become unremarkable, or at least, the story would be entirely about Kelly’s saintly nature, and not the unnamed patient.

How much better a story it would be if Kelly didn’t recognize the name of the town, and had written a hundred times in the past on bills, “Paid in full with one glass of milk,” and this one time — unbeknownst to him — it was read by the woman who gave him the milk.

As it stands, either the story has no point, or Kelly’s actions don’t provide an example we ought to emulate, or—and this seems to be the real message—we ought to take a slightly longer-term view of our own selfish best interests.

Somehow, I don’t think that’s the lesson my erstwhile spammer meant to teach. But his blatant moral confusion shows that he needs a lesson of a different sort anyway—day 1 of Ethics 100, wherein we learn the difference between things that are inherently good and those which are merely good as a means.

Posted in education, language, Orwell, religion | Tagged: , , | 53 Comments »

The inconvenient truth about the war on terrorism

Posted by metaphorical on 19 June 2008

We’re living in a time of inconvenience
Compassion fails me with this
meanness in the air
Our city streets are filled with violence
So we close our doors to the city
And pretend that it’s not there
Here I go again
Back out on these mean streets
The evil seems to cling to the soles of my feet
Cuz’ I’m living in a time of inconvenience
At an inconvenient time

— “Time of Inconvenience,” by Nanci Griffith

How many times must the NY Times be rebuked for misstating the facts about 9/11 and adopting the administration’s lies and misrepresentations? Well, how long are they going to keep doing it? If, after the Times’s endorsement of the war on Iraq, the equation of Iraq and Al Qaeda, the Judith Miller affair, aluminum tubes and all, if the reporters at the NY Times are going to rewrite history yet again, say, last Sunday in a news article about a Supreme Court decision, then they’re going to have to be taken to task yet again.

So it is extraordinary that during the Bush administration’s seven years, nearly all of them a time of war that began on Sept. 11, 2001, the court has been prompted to push back four times. Last week’s decision in Boumediene v. Bush, in which the court ruled that prisoners at Guantánamo Bay have a right to challenge their detentions in the federal courts, marks only the most recent rebuke.


Um, no. The war did not begin on September 11. The war didn’t begin on September 12th. Nor did it last anything like seven years.

The war on Afghanistan began on Oct. 7, 2001 with aerial bombardments. By December 17th, the U.S. had declared victory at Tora Bora and the Afghan war was considered over.

On March 19, 2003, Bush declared war on Iraq. By May 1st, he announced that major combat operations in Iraq had ended.

The war on terrorism, on the other hand, is a war without beginning and without end. It is a war that can justify everything and therefore, as the Supreme Court seems bent on pointing out, nothing.

Certainly, the war on civil liberties has lasted for virtually the entire length of Bush’s rule, a war so cynical in intent and bleak in its view of human nature that even the most conservative court in living memory has rebuked the Administration four times, most recently last week. The Times finds it remarkable that the court keeps standing up to the President in a time of war, and surely it is remarkable. But perhaps one factor is that we’re not exactly at war.

We’re living in the age of communication
Where the only voices heard
have money in their hands
Where greed has become a sophistication
And if you ain’t got money
You ain’t got nothin’ in this land
An’ here I am one lonely woman
On these mean streets
Where the right to life man has become my enemy
Cuz’ I’m living in his time of inconvenience
At an inconvenient time

Posted in journalism, language, Orwell, politics, Times-watch | Tagged: , , | 7 Comments »

Pigeons prefer Chagall to Van Gogh

Posted by metaphorical on 18 June 2008

Okay, there’s no evidence (yet) that pigeons prefer Chagall to Van Gogh or vice versa. But they can tell them apart. How much evidence of sentience is enough, before we start to rethink the way we treat our fellow sentient creatures?

Self-recognition is found in large primates such as chimpanzees, and recent findings show that dolphins and elephants also have such intelligence. Proving that pigeons also have this ability show that such high intelligence as self-recognition can be seen in various animals, and are not limited to primates and dolphins that have large brains.

UPI has the story on the wires (thank you, Claire, for the heads-up), but more details can be found at Science Daily.

Pigeons Show Superior Self-recognition Abilities To Three Year Old Humans

ScienceDaily (Jun. 14, 2008) — Keio University scientists have shown that pigeons are able to discriminate video images of themselves even with a 5-7 second delay, thus having self-cognitive abilities higher than 3-year-old children who have difficulty recognizing their self-image with only a 2 second delay.

Prof. Shigeru Watanabe of the Graduate School of Human Relations of Keio University and Tsukuba University graduate student Kohji Toda trained pigeons to discriminate real-time self-image using mirrors as well as videotaped self-image, and proved that pigeons can recognize video images that reflect their movements as self-image.

We can argue over the details of how to prove self-cognition, but the article has a detailed discussion of the methods and functional definitions that studies like this one have been using for almost 40 years now.

The wire and other reports of this study make much of the fact that, using these functional definitions, pigeons do better at self-recognition than 3-year-old humans. Personally, I find at least as interesting a fact in the UPI story not even mentioned in Science Daily, that the pigeons can distinguish Chagall paintings from those of Van Gogh.

People with cats and dogs routinely ascribe to them motives, beliefs, preferences, fears, desires, and other complex mental states. People on farms, who spend as much time with cows and pigs and horses as we do with dogs and cats, talk about them in the same way.

Leaving aside the question of eating them for food, how can we confine them, keep them perpetually pregnant, separate them from their young at birth, feed them cement kiln dust, testosterone, progesterone, anabolic steroids, and chicken manure…. how can we hang a 1500-lb animal upside down by its ankle when it’s still conscious?

How can we treat an animal with cognitive abilities that can, at least in some ways, be favorably compared to a 3-year-old with wanton disregard for its obvious suffering?

Posted in animal-rights, language, politics, pop culture | Tagged: , , | 12 Comments »

Crane companies, have you no shame? NY Times: why should they?

Posted by metaphorical on 12 June 2008

I hate to agree with the Bill O’Reillys of the world, but sometimes the NY Times is out of its liberal mind. An article Sunday bordered on the Onionesque. Be patient, dear reader, because it takes a few paragraphs to set the entire context. Fortunately, the story is as interesting as a train wreck, except this one fell 10 stories out of the sky.

Crane Turntable’s 2nd Life Is an Issue in Collapse

In the spring of 2007, a bolt of lightning struck a crane at 46th Street and Eighth Avenue, damaging a crucial part – the turntable at the top. Over the weeks that followed, the turntable’s bearings began to grind, and the stress apparently caused a crack in the surrounding steel that grew so wide that a worker noticed daylight glinting through it, according to an engineering report for the crane’s owner.

The aftermath of a crane collapse May 30 in Manhattan that killed two and displaced hundreds of residents.

The discovery set off alarm bells in the city’s Buildings Department, where officials feared that the operator’s cab sitting atop the turntable might fall onto the street in the theater district, people familiar with the episode say. Bethany Klein, the head of the department’s crane division at the time, climbed the 18-story tower to examine the damage. On the weekend of May 19 last year, the cracked turntable was removed with the help of two other cranes.

Accident averted, city officials believed.

Or was it?

Investigators now believe that the rebuilt turntable wound up in a tower crane involved in a fatal accident at 91st Street and First Avenue on May 30, according to NationsBuilders Insurance Services, the insurer for the crane owner. In that accident, a weld in the rebuilt turntable apparently failed, causing the top of the crane to break away and fall on a 23-story building across 91st Street, killing two workers. It was the kind of disaster that city officials had feared might happen on 46th Street last year.

City investigators and prosecutors are asking whether Buildings Department officials properly monitored the journey of that turntable after it was damaged by lightning. Did the department tell the crane’s owner, New York Crane and Equipment, to scrap or repair the turntable, or did it give the company other instructions? And did the city inspect the repaired equipment and its welds before it was returned to service on 91st Street?

The article goes on to detail the high turnover at the Cranes and Derricks Unit of the Buildings Department; Friday’s arrest of James Delayo, the acting chief inspector for the unit, “charged with taking bribes to approve cranes under his review”; and the March 19th arrest of a crane inspector who was “charged with faking a report that he had visited a construction crane at that site on March 4.”

Does the Times really believe that the party primarily responsible for a crane’s safety is the city?

Perhaps the Times would like a refresher course on Ethics 101, followed up by Civics 102. And this time, maybe let’s don’t let the newspaper of record put them on pass/fail.

Ethics 101 would tell the Times that a construction company has an absolute moral responsibility to not kill passers-by and its own employees with faulty equipment.

How do you operate a crane and not check it every day for cracks that might not yet be large enough for sunlight to shine through? How do you write a front-page feature article for a leading metopolitan daily and skip right past that question?

Civics 102 would tell the Times that that responsibility is not mitigated by incompetent, negligent, or corrupt city agencies.

City laws, agencies, and bureaucrats can only provide a second layer of defense against the risks inherent in operating a multi-ton piece of machinery dozens of meters over the heads of dozens of people. But the city is to the construction company what a copyeditor is to a writer. When someone thinks a story is libelous, it’s not the copyeditor they go after.

And here’s where I start to sound a little like a right-wing radio commentator.

Maybe the city ought to get out of the business of inspecting buildings and construction sites and cranes in the first place. How much knowledge and expertise does a Cranes and Derricks Unit inspector have anyway? At the salaries they must make, how much expertise can be buying? There’s a reason these guys are being charged with taking bribes. Meanwhile, there are plenty of engineers in this town who can be certified to do these inspections, engineers with decades of knowledge and experience.

My late father was civil and mechanical engineer who worked on one kind of project (in his case power plants) for 30 years. He was a licensed P.E. in the State of New York. He has plenty of counterparts in apartment building construction, bridge repair, highway upgrades, you name it. Why don’t we limit the city’s involvement to certifying these people, and then requiring construction sites to pay for inspections that the city schedules.

The problem with government doing much more than that is that businesses jump on the government involvement as a way of getting off some or all of the moral hook. When a few hundred thousand pounds of bad chopped meat enters the fast-food distribution channels, everyone along the supply chain turns around and says, “we followed all the relevant federal guidelines, and our meat was examined and certified to be okay by the USDA.”

Maybe we should just get the federal government out of the meat inspection business, or the crane inspection business, if it means we can start charging business executives with murder when their negligence, corruption, and incompetence starts killing people.

Posted in language | 1 Comment »

If the horse already left the barn, and it’s 1908, maybe just get a car

Posted by metaphorical on 10 June 2008

If you ever wonder how the carriage trade let their near-monopoly on personalized transportation slip through their fingers, consider this:

Think Ad Revenue Is All Going Online? Think Again.

While there is no denying the digital revolution, a new study by Publishing Executive, called the “2008 Publishing Advertising Trends Study,” shows that online revenue is not exceeding print revenue for most publishers … and the majority of publishers don’t expect it to-that’s right, ever.

For the study, Publishing Executive worked with independent research company Readex Research to survey Publishing Executives from a variety of industry segments including business-to-business (b-to-b), consumer, association and professional publishing. More than 250 publishers participated.

What did the study’s findings reveal? For starters, 89 percent of respondents said their organization’s current online revenue does not exceed its print revenue. (In this case, online revenue included Web sites, e-newsletters and webinars/webcasts.) Nine percent of respondents said that their current online revenue already exceeds their print revenue.

While that may not come as a big shock (though the 9 percent whose online revenue already exceeds print may be higher than some of us would expect), this next finding might: More than two-thirds (68 percent) of respondents reported that they do not anticipate their organizations’ online revenue will exceed their print revenue in the future. Twenty-eight percent said they anticipate their online revenue will surpass their print revenue.

Back in 1908, Buggywhip Executive, a trade magazine for the carriage and cart industry, predicted that car sales would never exceed horse-drawn carriages, based on the surveyed predictions of buggy-whip makers who by their own admission would never have correctly guessed how many cars there already were on the road. That seems so silly that it shouldn’t possibly be what’s going on in magazine publishing, but Publishing Executive is happily reporting it is.

Buggy whips are still sold, of course, in tiny numbers, mainly, one imagines, to a certain segment of the sex paraphernalia trade. Two of my favorite magazines, Climbing, and Rock + Ice, are bigger than ever — literally. They’ve increased their format to something like 10″ x 13″, to accommodate their fabulous photography, the one thing a climbing magazine provides in print that can’t be matched by ‘zines, blogs, and web discussion forums. Readers jokingly call the stunning full-page photographs “climbing porn.” Meanwhile, subscribership and ad revenue are surely decreasing.

Did the buggywhip manufacturers really have as sanguine a view of their future as the magazine execs surveyed by Publishing Executive magazine? One would have supposed otherwise; that even in 1908, the eventual ascendance of the automobile must have seemed inevitable even to those desperate for things to be otherwise. One would have supposed otherwise, that is, except for the example of those who don’t see the eventual ascendance of the Internet as the deliverer of all media, even though it seems as inevitable as the car over the carriage.

Posted in language | Leave a Comment »