Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Primitive Languages

Short post tonight, as I am tired.

Those of you in my Language Myths and Realities class will recognize this topic. Can a language be more or less primitive than another? It's a trickier question than you might think. It calls into question what we mean by "primitiveness", and what characteristics of language make it well suited to expression. One of the most fundamental commonalities of language, thought to be universal, is recursion: i.e., what makes it possible to create infinite utterances out of a finite set of acceptable combinations. This is basically a function of embedding. "I saw the cat." "He said I saw the cat." "She implied that he said I saw the cat." Et cetera. Now, what do we do with a language that doesn't have recursion? Piraha, a unique South American language with at most 200 speakers, doesn't appear to allow recursion. In fact, some researchers have suggested that the cultural environment of the Piraha people does not allow for discussion of subjects outside their own direct or 'second-generation' experience. Does this make it any less of a language?

I find this topic really, really interesting, so I'll elaborate further on it when I am less about to fall asleep on the keyboard.

Re: Mass Murder

Elizabeth makes some very good points.

The whole thing is an infernally complex issue. And from a practical standpoint, she's right - as things stand, there's very little more that we can do beyond drilling safety measures. It still feels to me like treating the symptom rather than the problem, though. In a positive sense, we do have to base policy on a certain amount of mistrust. But in a normative sense, to what degree should that be the case? And how much leeway do we even have to change things, to make them more closely align with what they 'should' be? Should we even spend time considering the ideal construction? To me, it seems as though we just end up patchworking policies together, and they wind up being more restrictive than helpful - and when the time comes, as Elizabeth says, the defensive strategies work far better than the preventative ones ever will. But this seems to indicate that we need a rewrite... I'm just not sure at all what it would be.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Antibiotic Resistance

Today's topic is an old one with me: whining about antibiotic resistance. It's becoming a huge problem in the United States, with superbugs starting to run rampant.

From what I hear, although I can't find much information on the subject, England is really cracking down on the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics. In the United States, antibiotics are frequently included in the feed for food animals, making them breeding grounds for superbugs. The food animal industry and the pharmaceutical companies both wield a fair bit of clout on matters of FDA approval, it seems, and have been blocking antibiotic restrictions at every turn. The Wikipedia article that I linked has a fair bit of information on the subject.

The reason that I bring it up, though, is because on Monday, while hanging out in my boss' office, the executive director of the department walked in. She reported that we were getting complaints from students about the state of the keyboards in the computer labs - that they were dirty or unsanitary. So she had ordered a large quantity of antibacterial "stuff", and wanted a request put in to Facilities that the keyboards be cleaned with it every night. Now, as soon as she walked out of the room, my boss and I looked at each other in horror. This is exactly the kind of thing that is causing resistance problems. I'm kind of surprised that our executive director was unfamiliar with the issue - it seems like it's been fairly high on the list of concerns in educated circles. So yes - watch your use of antibiotics and antibacterials. The more people know about how these things actually work, the better chance we have of triumphing over the tiny little terrorists.

On a side note, I can hear Arabic chanting outside my window. Weird.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Mass Murder

For those of you that have kept up with my doings in the past, this is going to be something new. My plan here is to post a topic a day - to talk about a current event, something I learned... something in a larger scope than just my life. I'll also post writing, pictures, links, and other things, but my main goal is to provide you, my illustrious Reader, with something to think on (and then informing you what I think about it.)

Also - if you were curious - the title is a reference to Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias":

And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Right, so... self-deprecation is one of my favorite pastimes. :-)

Today's topic, courtesy of John (and my morbid curiosity), is mass murder. Here's the article that set me off on it:

Off to a running start, eh? Honestly, I don't know what these teachers were thinking, but I'm sure that's what everyone is saying. Who thinks it would be a good idea to scare a bunch of eleven-year-olds to death? I can understand the desire to impress upon the kids that it's a serious situation and should be addressed as such. Still, in my experience, if you talk to kids repeatedly, they listen. They may goof off during a drill, they may make jokes... but when the real situation comes up, if you've given them the tools to deal with it, they will know how to respond. They'll be safe. With the tactic that these teachers employed, you condition kids to doubt you in dangerous circumstances, and that helps nobody.

On the subject of doubt - mass murders really force us to examine just how trusting we are of other people. We have laws and rules, but when you come down to it, society really is contingent on everybody being reasonable. Our default, even in dangerous or frightening situations, is to give people the benefit of the doubt. After reading the BBC article above, I decided to look up a bit more information on the Virginia Tech shootings - the largest mass murder in American university history - which then led me to what had previously been the largest, the UT tower sniper shootings. It's really rather impressive what we will let a person get away with... Two students, a couple that had been out on the observation deck of the Tower, came back into the reception area to find Charles Whitman standing next to a bright red pool, a rifle in each hand. Just previously, he had knocked the receptionist unconscious and hidden her body; she later died. The students had a brief conversation with Charles, and then left unharmed. They later stated that they thought the red pool was varnish. There was no record of them calling the police.

Now, I'm not saying that we should be paranoid. On the contrary, I take an absurd sort of gratification in the fact that people, as a rule, trust each other to this sort of extent. But it's interesting to think that fifteen (sixteen, if you count the unborn child) people's lives could have been spared, hinging on this one tiny action. What-ifs are never productive, but this sort of thinking serves as a reminder for just how dependent we are on people behaving as they ought. When one person decides to exploit the holes in the system, the results end up being pretty shocking. What's more, we know that people are capable of this kind of thing, and yet we still can't process that someone would so blatantly flout the accepted rules of conduct and instead engage in massive deceit and wanton violence. I think it's this feeling that inspires people to cry "What if, what if" and insist that stricter policies could have prevented these outrages. It's this sort of observation that prompts people to direct their attention to entirely the wrong things - lockdown strategies being the best example, in my mind. Human beings just don't seem to be well-wired for this kind of detection.

Rather, the focus should be on treating the problem at its source. Or sources - because there seem to be a lot of them. Tighter gun control, whether or not it's made completely illegal, is a good place to start. Psych evaluations for people purchasing guns is not a bad idea, although finding a way to do it efficiently would be quite a feat. Better diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders is also key - the VT shooter was known to have psychiatric problems, and the UT sniper had a tumor in his hypothalamus, potentially pressing on his amygdala. This is pretty much my opinion in general; laws won't do much unless they're regulating people who are already willing to do what you say. If they're not, they'll find a way around.