Sunday, February 28, 2010

Guns and roses and so on

Sigh. There's a new movement about called "open carry," which means that a person who owns a firearm can carry it openly. I've made it clear in other posts that I am in favor of being allowed to carry a concealed weapon, if a person has taken a rigorous course in gun safety, knows the law, is able to actually shoot the damned thing (you'd be surprised how hard it is to hit anything with a handgun), and has the sense to realize that using a gun is a last last last resort sort of thing.
Hence my concern with open carry. If I am carrying a concealed weapon, I might just as well be nice Mr. Everyone. A responsible concealed carry person doesn't show the weapon, doesn't mention the weapon, backs away from confrontation, and uses it only in situations described and prescribed by law.
But an open carry weapon is a confrontation itself. It sorta says, "Here I am, a macho dude and the direct descendant of all those folks who fought duels and made the west safe for democracy and schoolmarms. Don't mess with me."
It makes persons around uncomfortable. When I see a cop carrying a firearm, I know that he or she (supposedly) has spent hundreds of hours on the firing range, and knows that drawing said firearm is a last resort. If I see Slim in cowboy boots, a tall hat, and a six shooter, I don't have that same assurance.
Guns scare me. They scare me especially on someone who uses the presence of a gun to establish masculinity or to intimidate people. Y'all know what Freudians think of firearms, and in this case, I'm inclined to believe them. Never thought I'd say that.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Let's Hope

I was accused of being a cynic this morning. See, we had a meeting in my department at the university, and a plan was floated whereby we would have town meetings and discuss proposals for making our college better and better. These proposals would be winnowed out in a fair and open fashion and a number of proposals given to the new dean that we are in the process of hiring.
I ventured to opine that a new dean coming into an unknown situation might balk at having a bunch of untried proposals thrust upon him/her. Hence the "cynic" label.
It would be wonderful, wouldn't it, if the rank and file could indeed gather together, come up with ideas, and have those ideas taken seriously? It's never happened in the past, though. We're asked for ideas, we give them, and they are never heard from again.
For inspiration, I always go to poets, and strangely enough, I generally choose from those who are thought to be cynical. And I was rewarded by my search today (The poems follow). What I get from them is this: A) You can't lose all hope for good things to happen, and 2) even if it's futile, keep on trucking.

The Oxen
Thomas Hardy

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel"

In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

The Last Word
Matthew Arnold

Creep into thy narrow bed,
Creep, and let no more be said!
Vain thy onset! all stands fast.
Thou thyself must break at last.

Let the long contention cease!
Geese are swans, and swans are geese.
Let them have it how they will!
Thou art tired: best be still.

They out-talked thee, hissed thee, tore thee?
Better men fared thus before thee;
Fired their ringing shot and passed,
Hotly charged - and sank at last.

Charge once more, then, and be dumb!
Let the victors, when they come,
When the forts of folly fall,
Find thy body by the wall!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Sixth Sense

No, I don't see dead people. In fact, often I don't see live people. And sometimes I can't tell the difference.
What I'm going to be talking about is the way we sense things and don't quite know why. We tend to like to put labels on things, as if that explains them. So, for instance, we label something an instinct, as if that takes care of the problem. But it doesn't, 'cause for it to really explain, we have to have a mechanism in place that connects you and the experience. Labels are just labels.
So, let's take a look at the sixth sense. Say you're driving along the highway, daydreaming a little, and suddenly, you come alert, sensing danger. Without thinking, you swap lanes and a giant, huge, 72-wheeler, double-clutching semi runaway goes roaring by in the precise place where you were a second ago.
Saved by your sixth sense, or angels, or the influence of the second star to the left of Antares.
Can you tell I don't buy this? "Well, smart ***," you say, "what did save me?"
Enter James Gibson, whose book The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, gives us a mechanism. Mr. Gibson will tell you more than you probably want to know about how we humans (and other animals) interact (or don't --consider a jellyfish) with gravity. It's astonishing how much we use gravity as a way of interacting with the world around us.
Back to the highway and the big truck. It turns out that we are extremely sensitive to changes in ambient light (that's the kind of surrounding light that makes it so we can see things). If I'm in my car and there is a change in the ambient light caused by a huuuuge truck coming up on my rear, then I'll react to that, without (and this is the key), actually knowing what I'm reacting to.
Now, you can believe in the sixth sense if you want to, or in angels, or in astrally projected beings from another dimension (expressed as mice (that's for you Hitchhiker's Guide fans)), but I'll stick with Gibson. I think humans are more attuned to their environment than we really know. And I don't think we need posit anything outside ourselves to account for the fact that we've survived as a species lo these many years.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


I note in my local paper that one of Utah's legislators has suggested doing away with the 12th grade in school. His reasoning is suspect, but certainly we ought to look at ways of improving our school system.
Our schools, I feel, should have two responsibilities (besides keeping the kids out of sight and circulation). The first is to teach them about the world -- its history, construction, their place in it, all that jazz. The second is to teach to operate in that world. That's where we fall down.
Before I discuss my system, though, two thoughts: 1) We no longer live in a society where kids are necessary to the family during the summers. They don't need to slop the hogs and pull the plows, to pull that barge and tote that bale. Therefore, school should be year-round. 2) There is more information outside the school than inside. Therefore, schools should concentrate on things that a student needs a classroom setting to get.
My system, the Shook Universal Education Theorem (Or SUET), consists of two parts, each part taking one-half the school day (which should be eight hours long, not including lunch breaks). Part one is theory: history, writing, reading, geography, math, geology, all those things that impart information. Anything but the knowledge basics would be extra-curricular (and here I include band, choir, art, drama, literary studies, sports).
The second half of each day would be spent learning to work, either by studying a craft, practicing a trade, or being an apprentice, all done in a work setting (with pay) when possible.
It'll never happen, though, will it.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Epigenetics Anyone?

The newest wrinkle in the evolution wars is epigenetics. What epigenetics proposes is that we have mechanisms which decide how strongly a genetic trait is expressed. How strongly the trait is expressed is a result of, among other things, the experiences of the parent. So, a trait which an offspring inherits can, in one generation, be dramatically changed. This in contrast to the traditional Darwinian concept that change is more or less random.
If this is so (and information is sparse but persuasive), then evolution is not necessarily the slow, plodding, blind process that we have all thought it to be. It can operate much more swiftly than we could have imagined.
Some have written that this view supersedes Darwin. Au contraire, my friends. It adds to it, but the basics of Darwinian evolution, survival of the fittest, still rule. Nor can we say that the evolutionary theories of Lamarck have been vindicated. Lamarck, it will be remembered, thought that acquired characteristics could be passed on. If that were true, theorists say, Jewish males would long since have been born without foreskins.
Epigenetic theory proposes that the basic DNA doesn't change. What changes is the way it shows up in the finished product. This is exciting news indeed.