On where the hell is Ares

My sister-in-law is in town, and H and I took her to see Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief tonight (well, last night, it’s almost 2 in the morning).  We are general fans of the Olympians series, and while we did not have high hopes, we thought it might be fun. I suspected the entire story, or most of it, would be ripped to shreds and thoroughly Potterized until everything that made the books appealing and clever would be thoroughly stamped into the dust.

In general, that is what occurred. As a result, it was a traumatic, painful, and depressing experience. I will be adding a fresh rant to the Rants page shortly with details, but I’ll summarize for now: WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO ARES?

Sigh. Mike’s First Rule of Screenplay Book Adaptation chalks up another victim: never, ever add new material, for any reason. Successful transfers from book to screen only happen when new material is studiously avoided. You can subtract, but never, ever add anything.

Well, at least Lost is cooking with Crisco in its last season.

On trying to check out some books at Rice and getting spooked

Here’s a somewhat amusing story.

Last week I took the train from UHD to Rice University to see if I could locate a few relatively hard to find books. UHD’s library has excellent online journal access, but a relatively slim collection of physical books. I was unable to find what I was looking for in the UH-Central library – a clutch of books on Paul and argumentation – but Rice’s online search located everything I was looking for, and it’s only a few miles away.

When I got off the train at the RU stop,  though, I immediately started getting… anxious.

Perhaps anxious is not the right word, though. Alienated is closer. It was a nice day, the sun was out, and I was about to embark on a pleasant afternoon of library-perusal. Why was I feeling so strange?

Well, when I walked onto the Rice campus proper, I started looking for signs to orientate myself – names on buildings, that sort of thing. But there weren’t any.

It was if I had wandered into a unfinished game level, all textures and no content. I felt like Rod Serling was going to step out in front of me, cigarette in hand, and start narrating: “A bookish English professor, lost on campus…. little does he know that his library card only grants him access to… the Twilight Zone.”

The lack of labels was so disturbing, in fact, that I felt compelled to stop before I got to the library to orientate myself inside one of the buildings. Surely, there would be maps and names and other such comforting symbols. I don’t know, though, because the doors were locked. It appeared to be a student cafeteria from the windows, but I couldn’t enter. There was a card reader that I assumed would open the door, but I’m not a Rice student.

I found this odd, so I tried another building nearby that looked like it might contain classrooms, and seemed to have people in it. It, too, was locked. I induced at this point that the campus was extremely security-conscious. Locked exterior doors at noon on a Wednesday?

Wandering further, I found a third building that was unlocked. Of course, there was nothing resembling a campus map or navigational information in the foyer or interior hall, although the ceiling and staircases were opulent enough that I felt like a rat in an art museum, so I beat a hasty retreat.

Eventually I spotted an impressive quad and hastened to the center of it. Surely I could locate the library from here. But again, none of the buildings had names on them save one. I knew the name of the library – Ronden – and that it was off the quad, but I ended up having to ask a passersby where the library was. He pointed to a nondescript building, which I entered.

Ronden is the first academic library I’ve encountered that requested a photo ID. I was ok with this, but it did not help my growing sense of alienation. The interior was new and spacious, but again I felt disturbed, possibly because there were sculptures on most of the walls made out of dozens of old books, which I felt was borderline sacrilegious.

I am very comfortable navigating in stacks – it is the most enjoyable part of doing any research – and I found what I was looking for quickly, enough that I had time to help a seminary student looking for books on 17th-century German theology. I took five books and headed downstairs. I figured off-campus faculty would be able to check out 3-5 books, and I only absolutely needed one of them. So that’s the setup – a 10-15 minute period of sudden alienation, followed by pleasant and productive book-searching.

What happened next I can only describe as odd. I approached the circulation desk, explained that I was a UHD faculty member and that I’d like to inquire how I could check out a few books. I was referred to a pleasant librarian that informed me that the library did not have a sharing agreement with UH-Downtown, only UH-Central. If I wanted to check out books, I would have to become a ‘friend of the library’, requiring a donation of $100; otherwise, the books could not leave the building.

I told her I understood, I’d think about the donation, and I retained the one book I needed, saying I’d read it in the library. I sat down to read the book, but after about a minute, I put it down on a table and walked out of the library.

I should explain a few things here. I have very idealistic notions about libraries and the distribution of knowledge that don’t always mesh with reality. It had become clear to me on my brief visit that the campus was not set up to be particularly visitor-friendly, but I had figured, naively, that there was no way a library would let me down. It struck me suddenly, sitting there, reading this book that I really, really needed to be reading, that I didn’t like being treated like a potential book thief.

I had assumed there was some sort of scholarly courtesy that would be extended, the same kind that I’ve experienced in many other academic libraries as a lowly graduate student, allowing a few books and a few weeks of borrowing. My schedule is heavy enough that I have to carefully schedule reading, which means I need the flexibility of portable books. I think if I hadn’t felt so alienated walking to the library that I might have stayed and read the book.

Now it’s not like RU’s library owes me a book loan. I could  get that book elsewhere, though with a loss of time. In fact, after consulting with the UHD library, I discovered that I COULD check out 4 books from Rice if I had a certain mysterious, miscellaneous card. I acquired this card and then returned to Fonden a day or two later. The resulting visit was much more pleasant. I didn’t need names or navigational markers this time, and the library was familiar and comfortable rather than the apex of my growing otherness of a few days before.

That sensation of being alien on a campus is new for me, and I’ve been thinking about it for a week now. UHD’s campus is incredibly friendly and open; I feel comfortable here. I also went to a fair number of unfamiliar campuses during my job search last spring, and I never felt that level of anxiety, even while under the level of stress that job-talk visits typically generate. I’ve also spend some time at UH-Central and HCC in Spring, and not felt uncomfortable in the slightest. So I must conclude that the architectural features of Rice’s campus actually managed to otherize me for a brief interval.

Ethics talk

There is a three-panel conference here at UHD on Tuesday, March 2, entitled “Creating a Culture of Ethics,” and running from 9:30-2:00 pm in room N1099 in One Main. I’m the first speaker in the first panel. I’ll be discussing the ethics of university mission statements – in particular, UHD’s mission statement (there are currently two of them, actually). There will be a Q&A session after each panel and refreshments throughout.

On the argument from silence

I have finally finished reading C.L. Hamblin’s Fallacies, after putting it down and taking it up on at least eight different occasions over three weeks. I was already familiar with it as a seminal text in argumentation and informal logic, having had the late Michael Leff summarize its findings in depth in a class two years ago, but I have special occasion for digging into it in detail now. I’ve been turning over an idea concerning fallacies for a few months, and having followed with interest a recent running debate of sorts between Vridar and Exploring Our Matrix on the question of the existence of a historical Jesus, I think I’m onto something.

So I’ve started working on a piece, set within a certain debate in biblical studies over Paul’s epistles, that analyzes the bad reputation of the oft-charged ‘argument from silence’ fallacy (also known informally as the AOS, or more formally as the argumentum ad ignorantiam or argumentum ex silentio) and argues that it isn’t a logical fallacy at all; rather, it is only a dialectical rule or guideline (as are most of the “logical” fallacies). Thus, the vast majority of the time someone cries ‘AOS fallacy!’ they are invoking not logic, but a violation of arbitrary argumentative protocol that itself depends on who holds the burden of proof (itself a matter of popularity). This would be of no surprise to those familiar with informal logic (a field that seems to have more or less been brought into being by Hamblin, Perelman, and Toulmin), but it might open an eye or two in biblical studies, which contains competing epistemologies that often invoke the AOS for different purposes.

A hypothetical example showing the various ways the AOS is often used (or decried) may help unpack a little of what I’m thinking about lately. I’ll avoid the actual debate on Paul that I want to explore, to show these kind of argumentative maneuvers are universal.

Let’s say a rhetor (Bob) and another rhetor (Sue) engage in a discussion (or dialectical exchange) about the existence of UFOs.

Bob begins by claiming that UFOs probably (remember this key adverb) don’t exist, because there is no positive scientific evidence for their existence: no wrecked ships, no unambiguous photographs or telemetry, alien bodies, productive chats with little green men on the White House lawn, etc, etc.

Sue counter-claims by charging Bob with AOS (argument from silence) usage. While she freely admits no positive evidence exists, she points out that no negative evidence exists either; the lack of UFO evidence does not logically rule out their possible existence. Furthermore, she adds, thousands and thousands of people have claimed UFO sightings; even if the vast majority of them were mistakes or hoaxes, it only takes one positive case (remember this, too) to establish UFO existence.

Bob counter-claims by charging that Sue, not him, is using an AOS. If he accepts her terms, it would be impossible for him to ever prove that UFOs don’t exist; he would have to ‘prove a negative,’ which is impossible. It is upon Sue, he states, or any other person who wants to show the probable (again, remember this word!) existence of UFOs, to bring scientific evidence forward. The sheer number of false positives is strongly indicative of all future claims to also be false positives. Therefore, it is reasonable to hold that UFOs probably don’t exist, and even to say that it is highly probable or even effectively certain that they do not.

Sue, nonplussed, states that Bob’s point about probability is well taken… but notes that if Bob is going to uses probability as his standard, then he should keep in mind that any number of false positives among sightings guarantees nothing about the state of future sightings; this is the same fallacy that led to the Challenger disaster (all the previous shuttle launches had succeeded, but the chance of failure did not decrease from launch to launch). She also notes that as humans have launched spacecraft before – and even if we were still on the cusp of doing so – there is no theoretical barrier to another intelligent form of life doing the same. Sue further notes that discounting the possibility from debate artificially lessens the chance that any evidence favorable toward UFO existence will ever be interpreted in that light, or freely discussed; Bob’s stance eliminates a real possibility before it can be safely dismissed.

Bob is getting a little frustrated by this point with Sue’s tenacity. He notes that Sue’s reasoning could be applied to virtually any idea or concept, including the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and the Greek pantheon. Maybe it is “possible” for the Greek gods to be real (as they are in the Percy Jackson movie about to come out) but the possibility of positive evidence for such appearing is very low – so low, in fact, that seriously considering the idea is a waste of time. Sue, he charges, has a poor grasp of the possible, so much so that she has likely confused it with probability.

Sue’s counter is quick. She notes that the question of UFO existence is very different from his three extreme examples. For one, UFOs are (or should be) physical objects with no special mythical or magical properties, obeying known physical laws; they need no special exceptions to exist. Bob’s position, on the other hand, requires that no intelligent life in the galaxy exists – or if it did exist, that it has not developed space travel or at least interstellar space travel – and if that is granted, then Earth has never been visited. With not a small amount of glee, Sue notes that this is a huge, chained example of an AOS – so extended, in fact, that it is Bob, not her, that seems confused as to what is possible.

I could go on, but I will stop here, and note that neither Bob nor Sue has used much formal logic to make their respective cases. Syllogisms are next to non-existent in even scholarly arguments, anyway. Rather, this is the kind of arguing that results, quite normally, from any question that has no clear, definitive answer, given a starting point of insufficient present evidence, evidence in open conflict, and/or strongly held assumptions. In other words, the question has stumbled into the realm of rhetoric, which I’ll define as the art of convincing others to make decisions when certainty is not available due to a lack of evidence, conflicting evidence, or strongly held, resistant assumptions (I’ll note that I have not gotten into the question of whether or not Bob or Sue is biased, in that they may have a personal stake in the UFO question – this is extremely relevant in terms of being convincing, but has very little to do with formal logic or having the better theory).

Entering the realm of rhetoric tends to make scholars concerned with certainty very uncomfortable, perhaps as they can sense that certainty is being manufactured rather than established. This leads to the creation of rigorous criteria that supposedly establish objectivity and banish subjectivity. But that’s the irony, because all certainty, certain or not quite certain, is manufactured. The rhetoricians looking into the rhetoric of science have pretty much nailed the epistemic nature of scientific discourse to the wall – though, of course, I won’t say they’ve done so certainly, or that I have.

Analyzing the above pseudo-debate, Bob is very much concerned with what is probable, and feels comfortable excluding certain hypotheses or possibilities from the table; he knows certainty is impossible, but he would like to be right, and his current hypothesis, in his view, increases his chances of being right dramatically. Sue, on the other hand, is more concerned with possibility, and has a dimmer view of the reliability of human judgments of probability; she, too, would like to be right, but excluding possibilities to her seems reckless, even closed-minded.

What we have here is not a logical impasse full of corresponding fallacies, then; what we have here is a fundamental disagreement about the best way to advance knowledge and understand the world. One forms high-probability hypotheses and concentrates on developing them at the expense of low-probability hypotheses; the second, distrusting the consensus of what is probable as well as the possibility of accurate measurement, concentrates on presenting a full range of possibilities. If you hold to Sue’s epistemology, it’s very acceptable, even ethical, to not discount low-probability possibilities if they are theoretically possible. If you hold to Bob’s epistemology, though, it’s a waste of his time.

As Bob’s way of thinking is generally predominant in the scholarship of many fields, due to its efficiency, the AOS has a bad reputation, even though his epistemology, as Sue charges, requires its usage from time to time. When there is an absence or rarity of evidence for some questions, the AOS creeps in on the most “rigorous,” as there are a surprising number of cases where it can be used very reasonably (which I’ll leave to a later post).

Now you may have guessed that I am somewhat sympathetic to Sue’s position here, but not entirely. I think, rather, that these two epistemologies are not necessarily in conflict.

Bob’s epistemology is great for summarizing the current views of the field on a given question, for teaching, and in general, for deciding between competing theories. Its conservative nature, however, makes it slower to embrace difficult or unpopular answers to questions, and harder to spot fresh possibilities in well-explored topics, as all theories must survive merciless gauntlets of criterion designed to exclude low-probability theories.

Sue’s approach, however, is better for making paradigm-changing discoveries (insert obligatory Kuhn reference; perhaps I should have done this earlier when talking about criterion, actually). She will be far more likely to refuse to pronounce a topic or question dead; she will not shy away the AOS, but use it as a tool like other criterion to uncover unconsidered or prematurely dismissed possibilities; she will be less intimidated by consensus; she will more cheerfully attack established criteria. The danger, of course, is that she will find it far, far harder to get her ideas considered, even though she has broken no logical rules and practices rigorous consistency. It is much, much harder, in more than one way, to be a quality Sue than a quality Bob.

The best scholars I’ve encountered seem to mix a good working sense of the probable with a tacit acknowledgment of the possible, understanding that entertaining all possibilities on a question is not the most profitable use of their time, but also keeping a lookout for the overlooked, misinterpreted, or ignored possibility. Central to this balance, I think, is some flexibility in regards to questions that lead into the AOS. More later.

Mass Effect 2

Here’s something neither intensely depressing nor work-related for a change – a quick review of Mass Effect 2 for the PC.

Mass Effect is a borderline guilty pleasure for me. I consider things like being a Doctor Who fan to be more of a badge of honor (though not a mathematics badge – I’m looking at YOU, Adric), but epic space opera is kind of like eating Miracle Whip straight from the jar with a knife, which I certainly have never, ever done. The idea that a ragtag (they are never orderly, even in Star Trek) band of heroes (really anti-heroes) can zoom around (ignoring relativistic problems) the galaxy (always flat 2d)  in a ship (with middle-class accouterments) with no supply chain (unless there is a plot shortage) and ultimately save the known galaxy (albeit temporarily) through incredibly violent means (including sound in space) whilst clinging firmly to a nonviolent ethic (Commander Shepard isn’t exactly what MLK had in mind)  is terribly, terribly appealing and lends absolutely no support to the idea that I may have some depth of character,  intellect, or chance at reproducing.

ME2 is built around an ensemble cast, which means while it has a main character (you, with what horrible face you choose to give to poor Shepard), its story is almost entirely dependent on how Shepard acquires and interacts with his crew. Where the first ME focused more on the main plot, the second game treats it almost as a side concern; the real game is collecting your ragtag band from whatever hellhole they are currently living in (only a handful can be acquired without a prolonged firefight with some party), figuring out what their biggest problem in life is (usually, again, something that can be solved with the judicious use of high explosive), and solving that minor issue so they can concentrate on the real  problem in their lives, which is backing you up on the  suicide mission (it is literally called ‘SUICIDE MISSION’ on the map at a certain plot point) that ends the game (though it isn’t, really, because I managed to keep everyone alive). That’s not a spoiler, really. Trust me in all things.

I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the formula. It is a pleasant milkshake that I’ve had several times before, and I look forward to the next one with no remorse or shame. I just wish it was a tad less predictable. Mass Effect and KOTOR (Knights of the Old Republic) have mastered this particular storytelling structure – whether it is ‘explore two planets, cutscene, explore two planets, cutscene, then endgame’  as KOTOR works, or ‘collect X companions, advance through X plot sections, collect X companions as needed, endgame’ as ME2 rolls.

I think the latter of those two structures is better, as there is some sandbox play allowed, but there is still a lack of the kind of freedom allowed in, say, Fallout 3. In that game, if I decide I do NOT want to descend further into the ruins of Washington D.C. today, I can turn around and go in any direction in the wasteland at any time. In ME2, once I land on a planet and start shooting up the locals as Shepard tends to do, I can’t do a tactical retreat, even though I have a shuttlecraft no enemy is smart enough to blow up, let alone shoot at, or a spaceship that literally cannot be detected by anybody save millennia-old godlike entities and people looking out of windows. In short, I can sense I’m on rails for most of the game, and I would like for Bioware to shore up the flimsy walls in this particular corner of the Matrix – perhaps they could make the steak to Cypher’s standard of juicy and delicious,  so I don’t occasionally that notice the only direction I can go is forward. Then again, once those walls are broken, they are very, very hard to put back up again.

Reverting back to praise, I really liked the way that the past game was constantly invoked and referenced. Part of this was due to the very clever ability to import your old ME1 saved game, complete with all the major plot decisions that you made in the first game. People who died are dead; people who did big things still did big things. Furthermore, Shepard’s old crew makes decisions consistent with their established arcs – some return, some do not, and some find third options.

In short, highly recommended.

Michael Leff

I just learned that Michael Leff, the president of RSA  and chair of the communication department at the University of Memphis, died this morning. I knew he had been recently hospitalized, but it’s still a shock.

I first met Dr. Leff when I took his graduate seminar in classical Greek rhetoric. I think it was 2006. I didn’t really know at first what I was getting into; I knew the Communication Department had an unusual relationship with the English Department in that all the rhetoric courses were cross-listed, but it took me awhile to realize what a fantastic opportunity I had stumbled upon, where I could get a firm grip on both the rhetcomp side of rhetoric and the communication studies side.

He refused to give grades to graduate students, and didn’t even assign a seminar paper – and I learned so much in that first class that I felt like my brain has been stuffed with theoretical gunpowder. I took rhetorical criticism from him next, which opened another door, and I managed to audit one more from him on argumentation theory, which kicked open another. He was, quite probably, the best teacher I’ve ever seen. I found it almost impossible to stump him – he had read everything worth reading on rhetoric and written a fair amount of the same.

In 2007 he invited me to teach the composition course  in a four-class learning community focused on the civil rights movement in Memphis, with him teaching the freshman seminar, and that was an absolutely fantastic experience.  He also ultimately agreed to be on my dissertation committee in 2008, proceeded to ask all the tough questions that I figured he would, and adroitly pointed out a key problem in my second chapter. His positive judgment of the resulting manuscript went a long, long way toward my self-image as a scholar.

The last time I saw him was late last spring before I moved to Houston; I dropped by his office to ask his advice on a new article I was writing, and as usual, he knew precisely where I needed to go. I figured I would talk with him again by May’s RSA in Minneapolis, but that won’t happen now. I imagine there will be a fitting tribute to him at the conference. He was a great teacher, scholar, and human being.

On a slightly brighter note

The last post was a bit of a downer. I think H and I are getting along better now about this.

I had a dream about Gracie a few nights ago. I was hunting (which I don’t in real life) in the woods, trying to kill something that needed flushing from trees, and Gracie was there, doing just that (even though she was never a gun dog in the slightest), in a carefree manner whilst sniffing around randomly as dogs like to do. After awhile I realized she shouldn’t be there because she was dead, and I decided to pick her up and take her to H’s parents’ house to prove that I had seen her. I picked her up and she turned into Sam, H’s parents’ 14-year-old boykin spaniel, a friendly, brown, barrel-shaped dog going white. Sam felt like picking up a cardboard box of uncomfortably arranged sharp rocks, so I put him back down and we looked at each other for awhile, him with his sleepy sure-a-nap-sounds-mighty-fine eyes. I said, “Sam, you aren’t going to prove a damn thing.” Then I woke up.

Anyway. We have a lot of visitors coming this spring. My father and stepmother in a week or so, sister-in-law Dr. J and her wonderful menagerie immediately afterward, then my mother and stepfather. Throw in the 4C’s conference in March and the RSA conference in May and we’ve got a full spring. We still need to buy one more piece of furniture to make the house palatable to guests – a task that should be completed, with luck, by this weekend.

On a side note, as a personal project just before the semester began, I built a workbench for the garage, following these plans. It came out level, square, and very sturdy despite the fact that I don’t have a circular saw or miter saw as the author of the article did (although I really want a miter saw now – it would have saved a lot of time). I have next to no practical woodworking skills, so I learned quite a bit, or, rather, expanded my ignorance. I intended for it to be just a general fix-things bench, something I could sit computers on at a reasonable level while tinkering, but I had some fun figuring it out; I may try a small bookcase with some actual joinery for a second project, and if that goes well, a desk to replace the horrible device in my study.