Showing posts from 2015

“Derivatives”:  When Wall Street Went Postmodern!

Ever since Michael Moore’s 2009 film,  Capitalism, a Love Story , in which Moore stood outside office buildings on Wall Street asking “Can you explain to me what a derivative is?”  the question has stuck in the back of my mind.  What is a derivative? The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was the end of Communism; 2008 with the biggest financial institutions in the world on the verge of collapse was the end of Capitalism.  In 2008, the world’s leading capitalists—bankers, executives, CEOs, stock-market gurus—became nouveau socialists accepting hundreds of billions of dollars in government bailouts.  (Welfare is so much easier to accept when it isn’t being wasted on poor people like homeless vets and single mothers in need of daycare.)  But what caused the immanent financial collapse?  Subprime mortgages (poor people again, screwing up the system buying houses they can’t afford) and “derivatives.”  That question again, sounding like a bad joke:  what’s a derivative?  Since they

“Be Yourself”? Part II

Much as I have enjoyed badmouthing postmodernism in revenge for the years of tedium it inflicted upon me, I have to admit, as I mentioned at the end of Postmodern Shibboleths , I have found discussions of “the subject” to be useful, relevant and meaningful.   Postmodernists will tend to identify challenges to the unity and stability of the ego with Lacan, and the ephemeral nature of the individual self with Derrida’s claim that “the subject is never equivalent to itself”--which is sort of an update of Heraclitus' observation that "you can't step into the same river twice." It seems pretty obvious that the self, the individual, the person you think of as you is constantly changing.  Every time a new thought enters your head, every time you think a thought about yourself, or you have a new experience, in fact, with every breath you take you are not quite the same person you were an instant ago.   From a purely physical (and physics) point of view every single

“Objects in Mirror Are Closer than They Appear!” Really?

It's a mirror!? “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”  Just to be absolutely clear for the Alice-in-Wonderlanders, there are no objects in your mirror. Duhh, it’s a mirror! Gamers know Video-gamers familiar with the expression “All your base are belong to us” will immediately recognize “Objects in mirror . . .” as a Japanese translation into English.  This particular example should alert us to the easy, random and illogical fashion in which the English language gets transformed.   Correct syntax I can’t perceive any advantage in the erroneous “objects in mirror” claim over the correct if telegraphic English of “Objects are closer than they appear in mirror.”  Yet, we would have to assume that any youngster riding shotgun and looking at an automobile’s side mirror will grow up thinking “objects in mirror” is correct English and, in contrast, the appropriate syntax sounds a little strange. Cut your teacher some slack! This is a plea to all students

Police Brutality or Classroom Management?

When I heard the story of a white South Carolina police officer “brutalizing,” “man handling” and “flipping” a black teenage girl and “throwing her across the room,”  I thought, “here we go again.”   The list of similar white police or vigilante abuses of African-Americans has gotten so long it is tedious to enumerate.  From Rodney King beaten in LA to Michael Brown shot in Ferguson, Missouri to Eric Garner choked to death in New York and, in my mind the most egregious case of all which has gotten the least attention, Sandra Bland arrested in Texas and thrown into a jail cell (where she eventually committed suicide) for “failing to signal a lane change.”  (Have you driven in the USA recently?  Does anyone there signal a lane change?) These and a dozen more episodes in the unfortunate history of law enforcement in the USA share the pattern of white authorities and black victims, but each one is different in its own way.  We are and shoul

Are Canadian Elections Democratic?

Are Canadian elections democratic?  The short answer to the question is “no!”  Our electoral system is based on the British system which if you listen to CGP Grey's Why the UK Election Results Are the Worst in History you will quickly understand is far from democratic. To be fully upfront, I did not vote for the Liberal Party in the election of October 19, 2015 but I am relatively content with the results.  However, in light of the disparity between the popular vote and the number of seats won in Canada's most recent election, CGP Grey will have to retitle his post as "Why the UK Election Results Are the  Second Worst in History." Here are the number of seats and the percentage of the vote won by each of the major political parties in the Canadian election: LIB CON NDP BQ GRN 184 seats 99 seats 44 seats 10  seats 1 seat 39.5% of vote 31.9% of vote 19.7% of vote 4.7% of vote 3.5% of vote In case the disparity and level of misrepresentatio

The Truth about English Grammar

The “joke” below about the distinction between “can” and “may” crossed my Facebook feed a couple of times this week.  The last time I heard this joke I was around 10 years old, meaning more than 50 years ago, so I am a little bit more than surprised that anyone today would comment on the distinction between “can” and “may” in making polite requests, or even think that such a distinction exists.  Nonetheless the post has received tens of thousands of likes and shares. After nearly 40 years of teaching English Language and Literature, I think I can say, based on my own authority and that of most grammar books published in the last three or four decades, that if there ever was a polite-request distinction between “can” and “may” it disappeared at least 40 years ago.  I have a strong suspicion that the reason this kind of false distinction persists is that if you press a less-than-fully competent teacher of English or uninformed speaker of the language to explain the differenc

Will the Government Use C-51, Anti-Terrorism Legislation, to Track Canadian University Students with Outstanding Loans?

Ottawa has instructed the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA) to be more aggressive in collecting outstanding student loans.   According to the Globe and Mail : The Government annually has to write off some of the $16 billion owing in student loans for a number of reasons:  a debtor may file for bankruptcy, the debt passes a six-year legal limit on collection, or the debtor can’t be found.  (B2, 31 Aug 2015) For more detail on how the government has disallowed University graduates from declaring bankruptcy and extended the 6-year limit to 15 years, see my earlier post   When Should You Repay Your Student Loan? How about . . . Never!    However, the real cause (“90% of cases”) of non-payment is that CRA has lost track of student borrowers because “the CRA wasn’t allowed to ask other departments for help because of privacy laws” (B2, 31 Aug 2015). What the Globe article doesn’t mention is the possibility of using C-51, anti-terrorism legislation, to solve the problem.  In case yo

“Be Yourself!” Is This Really Good Advice?

I’m not sure telling people to be themselves is good advice, but my saying so never seemed to have much purchase with undergraduates in my Intro to Lit course.   The sadist, the homicidal maniac, the pedophile--aren’t they “being themselves” when they commit their crimes?  Shouldn’t we tell people, and ourselves, to “be better”? The context of the discussion was H.G. Well’s short story, “The Country of the Blind.”   Nunez, a mountain climber in the Andes, tumbles in an avalanche into the Country of the Blind--a society cut off from the world for over 14 generations which has adapted to the fact that everyone living there is blind.  The concept and all memory of sight have disappeared.  Nunez struggles and fails to explain to the people that he is a superior being because he can see.  They perceive him as inferior, unformed, a missing link in the evolutionary chain stricken with occasional delusions and bouts of violent madness. Nonetheless this world is prepared to offer him an i

Postmodern Shibboleths

The word “shibboleth” was the original shibboleth.  According to the Hebrew Bible after the people of Gilead had conquered Ephraim, the Gileadites began to exterminate the Ephramite survivors.  In order to determine who was an Ephramite, the soldiers of Gilead would demand that refugees pronounce the word “ shibbólet ” (part of a plant).  An Ephramite would be unable to pronounce the word the same way a Gileadite would because the Ephramite dialect lacked the necessary phoneme.   (Imagine asking a Francophone to pronounce an English word with a “th” in it, or an Anglophone to pronounce a French word with a “gn” in it, and you’ll get the idea.) In contemporary usage a “shibboleth” is a word or style or behaviour or custom which identifies you as being part of an in-group--or not.  Postmodern shibboleths are numerous.  If you encounter people who consistently say “discourse” when they mean “theme,”   “the signified” when they mean “the meaning,”  or “deconstruct” when they mean “ana

Binary Thinking Versus the Other Kind

I still remember from my first-year-undergraduate “Philosophy of Mind” course that the human brain is incapable of thinking, imagining or understanding one thing in isolation without bringing in another, a background, a difference, an opposite.   You  can test yourself by trying to think of just one thing.  The notion of a dialectic is based on the binary functioning of the mind; every concept contains its opposite:  the notion “long” requires “short,” “big” invokes “small.”  In an even more rudimentary fashion, in order to know a “thing,” you must be able to say what is “not that thing.” If you have ever found yourself in a debate with a postmodernist, chances are the postmodernist turned on you at some point to announce dismissively, “oh, that’s binary thinking!”  The postmodernist’s gambit is based on the assumption of binary thinking.  The bluff works because you find yourself thinking “Gee, there was must be a superior, more advanced form of thinking that isn’t binary.”  Is t

Falling in Love is Unprofessional

In the wake of Nobel laureate Professor Tim Hunt’ s ironic comments on women in science, a draft article entitled “Falling in love and crying in the academic workplace: ‘Professionalism’, gender and emotion” has been circulating in social media.   The challenge that this type of article faces, that this one doesn’t quite overcome, is that it/they end up reinforcing the gender stereotypes they ostensibly set out to oppose.   I used to challenge students to imagine a world where the words (and concepts) “man” and “woman” didn’t exist, and we were all just people: some of us with brown eyes, some with blue, some of us left handed, some of us right, some with vulvas, others with penises, some capable of bearing children, some better at lifting heavy objects--no absolute, mutually exclusive binary categories necessary.  Intellectually speaking we don’t “need” the categories “men” and “women.”  The intent of this “thought experiment” was to show the intellectual ease with which