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Saturday, January 27, 2007 -- 8:59 am

Some of us just don't have the time to wait on hold all day for the next available customer representative. It would be quite nice for shortstaffed companies to credit callers for prior wait time, and move people to the front of the line based on the total amount of time previously kept on hold. This shouldn't be technically difficult in the age of automatic caller ID.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007 -- 10:30 pm

Following a thread of comments on a science-related blog, I'm struck by the zeal of the arguers on both sides (all sides?) of the theism/ atheism divide. Some atheists seem to suggest that theists can't be good scientists, etc. It seems to me that a lot of people (on all sides) have become much more interested in winning the argument than in studying the truth of the matter. Certainly religion and the existence of God are questions that get many bright people excited. But for my part, as fascinating as I find the subject, I'm far less offended by any of the particular viewpoints than I am by the tone of the debate and the aggressive evangelism of the partisans. Why can't self-described free spirits and enlightened thinkers discuss their points of view calmly and without resorting to contempt and name-calling?

It would be tempting to turn this into a sly ad hominem attack by deconstructing the free spirit's excitement on a topic where you'd expect them to be coolly rational -- a sort of hybrid Marxist/Freudian "My theory predicted your disagreement, which only proves I'm right" sort of argument. It would probably go something like this. You get so angry with my beliefs, calling them irrational, unsupported by evidence, and delusional. By contrast, you treasure your own beliefs, take them very seriously, and have invested a lot of time, thought, and energy into testing them and satisfying yourself of their validity. You feel so strongly, in fact, that you believe it's incumbent upon you, and in my long-term best interest, for you to proseltyze me and try to convince me of the error of my ways. Why is this so important to you? It's not because I'm a menace to society; I am law-abiding, make efforts to better my community, and am quite harmless. It's not because I'm suffering from some sort of impediment that keeps me from being successful -- in fact I'm fairly successful as I am, both in personal and professional spheres. Nor do I seem -- apart from these inconvenient beliefs of mine -- to be particularly impaired when it comes to my private studies and intellectual pursuits. (Nor does my expression of my beliefs appear to impair my social standing in any way.) My beliefs, in fact, do not appear to have any effect whatsoever on my productivity or quality of life, except that you seem to cringe whenever the discussion broaches on a certain topic. So you aren't doing this for my benefit, really, and I won't be so crass as to suggest that you're urging your beliefs on me for selfish reasons. You're doing it because you think it's the right thing to do, and in doing so you're relying on a sense of moral universals, rather than relativism.

Why is this conduct inconsistent with moral relativism? Moral relativism is a complicated topic that I'll have to explore in more detail at another time. But it seems that for someone to argue "there is no moral truth; I am in a position of authority; I will force your habits to conform to my habits because it is good for you and therefore the right thing to do" presupposes an objective moral framework in a way that "because it is convenient for me" does not. And I should hasten to point out that "objective moral framework" does not mean that one presumes to know the answers to all moral questions, or believes that moral and immoral conduct necessarily have causally-related consequences. But it does appeal to a sense of intangible order in the world that is not supported by sensory evidence. And so your justification for your own conduct seems to rely, as it happens, on exactly the same metaphysical assumptions that you're criticizing me for embracing.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007 -- 10:50 pm

It's fascinating to watch the psychology of cross-examination. I believe that Nietzsche observed (and if he didn't, I'll take the liberty) that anger tempts people to lie. Although I've seen this happen many times, this is not intuitive. We would all prefer that when witnesses testified, they formulated their answers based on what they remember of the truth -- they listen to the question, they think about what it means, they call up memories of what they saw, heard, and did on the occasion, compare the question with their memory, and answer accordingly. But this is not what people seem to do in the stress of the courtroom. They get distracted -- by the act of public speaking, by what's at stake in the litigation, by the insulting question or tone of the question, by their hostility toward an adversary, by their genuine desire to be helpful, by their desire to vindicate the party on whose side they appear, by their fear of embarrassment, and so on. Invariably, a moment comes when the witness crosses over from answering based on what they know, and, tempted by whatever motive, decides to answer not on the basis of their personal knowledge, but on the basis of what they'd like to be true, believe to be true, fear is true, find probable, consider reasonable, find convenient, and so on -- things they don't know to have actually happened, but which wouldn't surprise them. No one seems to notice that in doing so, they've crossed the line from competent testimony to rampant speculation. I've heard this happen probably a hundred times, even from the lips of the most intelligent and well-intentioned witnesses. I suppose that this is further evidence that we are primarily social animals, rather than rational animals -- otherwise it seems unlikely that truth would so often turn out to be an unnoticed casualty.

Monday, January 22, 2007 -- 10:46 pm

I read in Malinowski that some of the Melanesians he studied believed that in the old days, they had older, more powerful forms of magic which have since been lost, such as spells that could make your canoe fly through the air. Considering that this is something I've spotted in mythology and folklore in a lot of traditions (I'm thinking especially of the Icelanders' renunciation of sorcery when they converted to Christianity), I wonder whether there's a general conclusion that can be drawn in anthropology about a tendency to define oneself, in part, by positing knowledge that's been lost or renounced. I would naturally find such a trend irritating, but it's not altogether foreign. The ill-informed occasionally comment on the wisdom of the Egyptians, or the Greek's accrued knowledge lost in the burning of Alexandria. Claude Levi-Strauss once commented (I believe in The Raw and the Cooked) that people often try to define themselves and their experiences by referring to the fragmenting of a continuum, or describing themselves as the sole survivors of some ancient catastrophe -- the descendants of Noah, for example. Can any parallels be drawn between references to descent from a lost and ancient race, and ancestors' possession of wisdom or power that's now lost?

Sunday, January 21, 2007 -- 9:59 am

One item I'm noticing right out of the gate with Nama grammar (the correct name is apparently now Khoekhoegowab, so I'll observe this convention) is its treatment of gender. Unlike, for example, /Xam, Khoekhoegowab has two grammatical genders (masculine/feminine) as well as what Hagman characterizes as Indefinite and Common genders -- common gender apparently being used only for plurals of mixed genders (in contrast to French ils, which lumps the women together with the men), and indefinite gender being used to refer to objects whose existence is hypothetical, unknown, or non-specific. Hagman translates the latter as "some __ or other".

The other item that's interesting is the the Khoekhoegowab concept of gender displacement. Any item may be cast in the other grammatical gender (or in indefinite/common genders) for expressive purposes, which are often but not exclusively pejorative. This seems similar to the Swahili practice of casting nouns into different classes for expressive purposes, for example mwiko, spoon, v. kijiko, teaspoon.