Tuesday 22 December 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 just about caused the apocalypse in 2008, you’d think that by now we would all know exactly what they are.

I had heard that Wall Street financial companies had hired small armies of science geeks and they in turn created derivatives which were super complicated mathematical formulas, logarithms, which no-one understood (other than, I assume, the wizards who created them), but were sold all over the place and created enormous profits for the lucky few who could afford to buy them.  From these tidbits of information I imagined derivatives to be something like a chemical formula which could reduce the effects of ageing, or maybe a computer code which produced the coolest video game ever.

However, reading Tony Crilly’s Mathematics (love this book; it’s sort of a history of mathematics for dummies like me), I discovered that “derivatives” are part of that form of mathematics called “the Calculus.”  The Calculus was developed simultaneously and independently of one another by Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton.  Newton used his newly invented mathematics to explain (quite accurately as we now know) the planets oblong orbit around the sun.  (Crilly is insistent  that it’s always referred to as “the Calculus.”  I actually studied “the Calculus” in high school.  The only thing I remember about it is that we called it “calculus.”)

“Derivatives,” as Crilly explains, are part of that branch of the Calculus called “Differential Calculus.”
“The central purpose of Differential Calculus is to measure the rate of change—how fast or slow change occurs, and this is known as the ‘derivative’” (Crilly 77).  
Crilly eventually gives the example of Black and Scholes who used Differential Calculus “to try to predict stock prices” (Crilly 84).

In short, “derivatives” are mathematical calculations which attempt to predict how prices are going to move on the stock market.  So now we know—or do we?  Even with a scientific definition in hand, I found it hard to imagine that this is what the financial leaders on Wall Street were doing—trading tips with each other like old-fashion bookies and gamblers.  “Hey Bud, I got a hot tip for the seventh race at the Belmont this afternoon!”  Were these guys really paying each other millions and even billions of dollars for the equivalent of a tip that Son of Samantha was going to win the seventh race at Belmont this afternoon based on a calculation using Differential Calculus?

Then I found out what “derivatives” really are.  This week in fact.  What I should have realized is that Wall Street  shysters were doing exactly the same thing as postmodern academics, using a scientific term which connotes something complex, highly technical, and esoteric but which also has an ordinary, accessible meaning in common language.  The gambit is to endlessly obfuscate, never letting slip in what sense the word is being used, creating the illusion that what is being done is far beyond the comprehension of the average human brain and impossible, therefore unnecessary, to explain in straightforward, accessible, transparent language. (For further discussion of this phenomenon see The Postmodern Hoax and How We Train University Students to Write Poorly.)

A derivative is simply something that comes from something else:  orange juice is derived from oranges, maple syrup is derived from the sap of the maple tree, saying “bless you” when someone sneezes is derived from the medieval belief that the devil can enter your body when your orifices are open, and the word “derive” derives from the Latin derivus (meaning down stream). Ironically “derivative” as the term is used in financial markets carries some of the same meaning as it does in literary studies.  Describing a literary or artistic work as “derivative” is generally an insult, meaning that it is an imitation of someone else's style lacking the substance, aura and originality of the source. 

In the financial markets derivatives come in many forms and they have names like “options,” “swaps,” “futures,” “forwards,” warrants,” “LEAPS,”  “baskets” and “swaptions.”  What all these “financial instruments” (as they are called) have in common is that the profit or loss they produce is “derived” from the stock market.  Or, in the literary sense of the term, if your derivative imitates what happens on the stock market you make money, if it doesn’t you lose.  The horse race analogy turns out to be pretty apt.  If your choice of Son of Samantha in the seventh “imitates” what actually happens in the race you will “derive” a profit from the result.  When you purchase a derivative, you are not actually buying a stock or investing in a company, you are not buying or investing in anything, just as when you bet on a horse race you are not buying a horse or a piece of a horse or anything else.  Ultimately the derivative is the equivalent of putting you money on red at the roulette table.  Your profit or lose will be derived from whether or not your choice imitates what the little ball spinning around the roulette wheel does.

Are you still there?  Perfectly justifiable that you started to get a bit bored about two paragraphs back.  You’ve already gotten the idea:  Wall Street billionaires and their middle-management millionaires aren’t investing, or building or growing anything; they are just betting on what’s going to happen on the stock market, the same way you and I might bet on a horse race or football game or buy a lottery ticket.  So what.  Before apathy sets in, consider this:  they are doing it with your money!

If you have a bank account, a pension fund , a loan payment of any kind, your money is invested in derivatives. If you are affected by currency rates, interest rates, the price of food or gas or clothing; then you are affected by the derivatives market.  The problem isn’t that financial institutions are gambling.  In fact, it’s not really gambling for them, because they are using your money. Yes, they are betting your money on Son of Samantha at the track and Number 23 on the roulette wheel, but the financiers on Wall Street and global investment bankers are not that worried about the outcomes . . . because it’s your money and they get paid for betting it no matter what the outcomes.  In addition to any profit they might make themselves, they can charge fees, commissions, and administrative expenses, skimming from any pot of money they touch while accepting salaries, bonuses, and tax exemptions, deferrals and rebates.  In short, yes they are gambling, but they also own the race track and the casino.  

However, unlike race tracks and casinos, the derivatives market is unregulated.  It has been seven years since derivatives nearly collapsed global financial markets.  People lost houses and jobs and pensions, but no-one has ever been charged with a crime.  You can’t be accused of breaking the law when there are no laws.  

How much money are we talking about?  This is when we move beyond any notion of reality and into the realm of fantasy and the fantastic.  No-one knows exactly how much money there is in derivatives right now because . . .  (wait for it)  . . . . derivative markets are unregulated.  The current estimates run between 710 trillion and 1.2 quadrillion US dollars.  

How much is 1.2 quadrillion USD?  Think "a lot" then add some more zeros.  To get a handle on how much money we are talking about, let’s use the conservative estimate of 710 trillion.  Now consider:  the GDP (Gross Domestic Product, the value of all goods and services in one year) of the USA last year was 17 trillion dollars.  In other words the derivatives market is estimated to be more than 40 times larger than the US economy.   The total US debt is around 18 trillion dollars.  The total amount of US currency in circulation 1.39 trillion.  

Does anyone else find it funny that the US owes about 15 times as much of its own currency as actually exists?  Or that there are 700 times more American dollars in the derivatives market than actually exist in the world.  This returns us to the question of “what is money” discussed in “When Should You Repay Your Student Loan?”  Liquidity has become so rapid and massive that printed money can’t keep up.  Postmodern money is at least twice removed from reality—beyond paper and material value.  Detached from reality, economy has become little more than the big boys moving big numbers about, but in this context what does “we can’t afford it” mean?

Jessica Mauboy heard it through the grapevine.

Wednesday 25 November 2015

“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 molecule of your body is replaced in the space of seven years.  The guy who’s been in jail for eight years is, physically, a completely different person from the criminal convicted of his crime. 

We might roll our eyes at the medieval King Alfred who had a dying subject locked in a lead box so that he could see his subject’s soul rising from his body, but without the fiction of something like a soul or immortal spirit or some individual essence making us each the same person from birth to death our religions, our cultural, social, political and legal systems, our epistemology, all our ways of thinking, knowing and understanding the world could not survive. 

The playwright Pirandello argued that the characters of fiction are more “real” than the people we think of as real because they are more enduring.  Characters remain the same forever but people are constantly changing. 

Tuesday 17 November 2015

“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 to cut your English teachers a little slack.  If you have found real-life examples that contradict what your teachers have told you, it’s not because your teachers don’t know their business.  The way language is used doesn’t always make sense and, over time, language usage becomes the language period. Whatever rule or definition you have learned, there's a pretty good chance that eventually someone who has unwitting power over English language usage (advertiser, spin doctor, celebrity, rapper, computer guru, etc.) will break the rule or contradict the definition turning the mistake into the latest version of correct English.  

Mistakes and oversights

I am still irked when I hear the vainglorious announcement of a politician being named to head an “oversight committee.”  Doesn’t anyone remember the definition of an “oversight”?  It is “the failure to notice or do something.”  It is synonymous with “a mistake.”  Congratulations Mr. Big Britches, you have just been put in charge of the “mistakes committee.”

Less and fewer

I’m pretty sure, these days, that most TV commentators couldn’t construct a complete sentence using the word “fewer” if their lives depended on it. The distinction between “fewer” and “less” is the same as between “many” and “much,” “”few” and “little,” “number of” and “amount of.”  In other words, the distinction runs throughout the English language.  If it continues to disappear, “The amount of panhandlers has decreased because less people have much coins in their pockets” will eventually become correct English.  Unless, of course, this sentence already sounds okay to you.

Language gets simpler over time.  Does it?

The theoretical argument in linguistics is that the language gets simpler over time.  English used to have “you” and “thou” (like the “vous” and “tu” in French), but now we only use "you." English has a distinction between “there is” and “there are” (French has only “il y a” for both), but “There’s 50 people waiting outside” has become a fairly common form of English usage.  You might have heard the slogan for Labatt 50 beer:  “There’s 50 good reasons to have a 50.” The distinction in English between "there is" and "there are" is on the verge of extinction, if it hasn't already disappeared.

Learning and pattern recognition

You might think that English not having any solid rules will make it easier to learn; in fact, exactly the opposite is the case.  All learning is a matter of pattern recognition.  If the patterns of the language are constantly being broken and reconfigured, the language becomes that much more difficult, if not impossible, to master.

Language learning and the double standard

You might think that if English is a language whose rules are constantly being broken, the second-language learner can relax, knowing that just about anything goes.  Welcome to the double standard!  The typical native speaker of English assumes that whatever feels right is right. If a native speaker detects that you are a second-language learner, there is an immediate assumption that s/he knows more than you do.  The truth is that if you learned some of your English in a classroom, you know more about English grammar than the average native speaker.


Unfortunately, your knowledge of English grammar will probably cause you to make mistakes.  The most typical mistake that language learners make is to over-apply the rules that they have learned.  (Add "ed" to form the past tense, therefore the past of "eat" must be "eated" right?)  Native speakers are constantly breaking the rules and it's alright because they are . . . native speakers. Agreed, life isn't fair.

However, if you have ever been made to feel foolish, inadequate, even stupid because you made a mistake in English; take heart, the language itself is pretty stupid.

Tina Turner heard it through the grapevine.

Former student just posted this on Facebook.  Thanks Max.  Thought this would be a good spot to add it:

Saturday 31 October 2015

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 should be outraged by the whole, but we owe it to ourselves and to all the actors involved to take note of how each is different from the others.  The truth, like the devil, is in the details.

When I watched the video of Deputy Ben Fields arresting a 16-year-old South Carolina student in her classroom, I was expecting to have my festering anger sharpened.  I watched the video, then I watched it again.  What came to mind was a psychology experiment I heard about decades ago.  A room full of test subjects watched a film showing African children at play and carrying on their daily lives in their homes and in their community.  The children were all healthy, happy, living in a comfortable environment.  At the same time a voice-over narrative described poverty, starvation and hardship in the lives of African children.  The experiment subjects were then asked to answer questions about what they had seen.  The test demonstrated that it is typical for people to believe what they have been told, to believe what they have been told they are seeing rather than what they have actually seen.

As I watched the South Carolina video sequence for the third time, resisting what I had heard and read, I became increasingly convinced that I had not seen a police officer brutalize, flip or wrestle a young girl or throw her across the room.  Anyone who has ever played around even a little with video recoding realizes how video distorts distance.  A dancer jumping three inches in the air appears to leap a foot and a half on video.  In the South Carolina video I didn’t see anyone being thrown across a room.  I saw a police officer pull a young woman out of a chair and then push her a bit further to get her clear of other desks and chairs.  

Now a personal confession that will make me either callused or an authority on the case at hand depending on your perspective.  I attended an all-boys Catholic high school run by Oblate fathers from the mid to late 60s.  In my first and second years of high school hardly a week went by without my witnessing a student being slapped, punched, choked or roughed up, one way or another, by a teacher.  My past experience has not induced me to consider corporal punishment as a desirable element of education.  In fact, Mr. Knoble, homeroom and history teacher in grade 10B who never laid a hand on a student, remained the model I tried to emulate throughout my teaching career.  He went so far as to joke with us that when he started at the school he was told by an old hand “If you want to survive here, as soon as you walk into the classroom, hit someone.”  Then looking at his class list, the old hand told him who to hit.  

Of the various beatings I witnessed, one stands out as particularly comparable to the 
South Carolina episode.  Mr. Q, the math teacher and football coach, grabbed Peter, the guy sitting behind me, by the hair and throat and dragged him out of his chair and across another row of chairs.  No gender or racial divide in this case, but the chairs with a desk attached were the same—and the type of chair does matter.  Imagine your job is to get someone out of one of those chairs using physical force.  How would you do it?

When Deputy Fields is dealing with the South Carolina student, despite descriptions of him “slamming her to the ground,” I see him tipping her desk back and then holding her so that she would not be slammed to the ground.  Deputy Fields did an effective job of getting the student out of the desk and into a clear space without bumping or banging the student against anything that might cause serious injury.  He dragged and pushed her then rolled her over, put her in handcuffs and took her away.  He did not lift her in the air and throw her across the room.

The student’s personal injury lawyer has already announced a list of her injuries.  I didn’t see the officer do anything that would cause a serious injury; in fact, I came away from the video thinking it is not easy to do what he did without causing significant injuries, and he had done a pretty good job of making sure the student was not seriously injured.  Nonetheless, in South Carolina, Sheriff’s are elected, so Deputy Fields's boss didn’t waste any time in announcing that Fields was fired. 

There is a serious problem in American schools if classroom management requires police presence, but I don’t see how we can lay the blame on the officer called upon to do his ugly duty.  The teacher had tried to deal with the young woman and failed; the principle tried to deal with her and failed.  When Deputy Fields was called, what was the expectation?  Was he called because of his expertise as a negotiator?  Was he called because of his background in pedagogy and classroom management?  His education in child psychology?  Everyone in authority and, I would surmise, the young woman herself had decided that the situation could only be dealt with through physical intervention and that is what the Deputy did.

It may seem trite in this context to discuss classroom management, but if education is going to take place in schools, then classroom management is step one.  Even at a university level it is clear that some students are unprepared for the baseline requirements of being orderly, attentive and quiet for extended periods of time.  I have been shocked a number of times to pass a university classroom and hear a university teacher attempting to lecture by speaking louder than everyone else in the room who is talking.  It is foolhardy to imagine that individuals can learn in an ambience of constant chaos and noise.  As much as everyone pays lip service to the value of education, it seems clear to me that as soon as front-line issues arise and self-interest or “covering your ass” are in play, the importance of education disappears.

The moment Deputy Fields was called to solve a problem of classroom management, the teacher, administrator and the system were announcing their own failure.  To make the police officer and/or race the issue is to guarantee that the real problem will never be addressed, will go un-solved and eventually escalate.  One recalcitrant student may very well be a victim, but making the aspirations of a roomful of students hoping to get an education collateral damage to the problems of one student and an inept system is no solution.

Monday 26 October 2015

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:

10 seats1
of vote
of vote
of vote
of vote
of vote

In case the disparity and level of misrepresentation doesn't immediately jump out at you from these numbers; in round numbers:  the Liberals got less than 40% of the votes but over 54% of the seats,  the Conservatives got 32% of the votes but 29% of the seats, the NDP got 20% of the votes and 13% of the seats, the Block got 5% of the votes and 3% of the seats, the Greens got almost 4% of the votes but far less than 1%  (in fact .29%) of the seats.  Or, viewed the other way around, based on the popular vote, the Green Party should have around 3 seats, the Block around 18 or 19, the NDP around 80, the Conservatives 100 and the Liberals 134.  In short Canadians voted for a coalition government, but they didn't get one. 

Much as I hate to be fatalistic, the situation is not likely to change, in the first place because the problem only shows up every four years or so, and afterwards people are likely to say "oh well, the election is over now."  Secondly, and more importantly, the system favours the winning party and they consequently have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are.  The smaller the party the more unfairly the system treats it--another reason the system is unlikely to change.

One glimmer of hope is that one of the first-announced planks in the Liberal Party's campaign was a promise to reform the electoral process.  Here's what the Liberals announced in their campaign literature.  

We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system. As part of a national engagement process, we will ensure that electoral reform measures – such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting – are fully and fairly studied and considered. This will be carried out by a special all-party parliamentary committee, which will bring recommendations to Parliament on the way forward, to allow for action before the succeeding federal election. Within 18 months of forming government, we will bring forward legislation to enact electoral reform. 
It would be very interesting to see this list of measures being implemented, but take note that the promise is only that these measures will be "fully and fairly studied and considered."  (Why do I find myself finishing the sentence with "before they are rejected"?)  A year and a half from now the Liberals will be bringing forward legislation.  Unfortunately, when you promise to "bring forward legislation," you are leaving the door open so you can later claim that "I tried to bring forward legislation but my dog ate it."

Despite my instinctive cynicism on this issue, it is going to be interesting and challenging for a government in power to even begin discussion of these issues.  A typical European format is for each party to present a list of candidates and the number of candidates who become members of parliament (or its equivalent)  is determined by the percentage of the popular vote which the party wins.  I suspect that Canadians will be reluctant to give up the idea of voting for their local riding representative, but the European system ensures that the party has the representatives in government that it considers it's best people.  

Although I must confess that if this system were in place in past elections my favourite two candidates would not have been high enough on the NDP list to get elected:  Pierre Luc Dusseault first elected in 2011 at the age of 19, the youngest ever member of parliament, and re-elected in 2015, and Ruth Ellen Brousseau, the candidate everyone thought was a joke in 2011 when she was elected in a largely French riding despite media claims that she couldn't speak French and the fact that she went on a pre-paid vacation in the middle of the election campaign.  Ms. Brousseau turned out to be a dream MP for her riding and won an easy victory in 2015.

In conclusion:  the system we will be looking for is one that, in the first place, is democratic, so that how people actually voted is reflected in the make-up of parliament, respects regional and even local representation and distribution, and still leaves open the possibility of wild-card outliers being elected.  A lot to ask for, maybe, but in the end we will get the system we deserve--meaning the system we are willing to ask for, to work for, and maybe even to fight for.  Don't let 19 May 2017 slip by without your serious consideration of our "new" electoral process.

Saturday 5 September 2015

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 difference between say “going to” and “will” or between “have seen” and “saw” or between “a few” and “a number of” they will retreat into pure nonsense claims that one is more “polite and formal” than the other.  Euphemisms and dysphemisms notwithstanding (see the Sour Glossary for definitions), the distinction between polite and less polite grammar disappeared from English usage in the 16th century with the abandonment of the distinction between “you” and “thee”  (the equivalents of the French “vous” and “tu”).  “Thee,” “thou” and “thine” persisted in prayers, bible translations and poetry, specifically because these words had disappeared from common usage and being rarefied seemed special and more poetic.  Ironically, "thee," "thou," and "thine" are the less polite, less formal and deferential forms but the most typical way that Christians address God.

Register is an important concept in linguistics.  The concept reminds us that different words and expressions fit better in particular contexts.  The language you use with your grandparents will likely be different from the language you use with your friends. If the context is legal or scientific or formal we expect to hear words and expressions that fit that particular context, but the idea that certain common grammatical expressions, particularly modal auxiliaries like “can,” “should,” “may,” might,” “will” and so on, can be distinguished from one another on the basis of politeness is simply wrong.

This being said, the truth about “correct” English grammar is that it is simply a collection of the most recently accepted errors.  Just about anything that is now considered “good English” was a mistake at some point in history.  You know all those words in English that end in “e” (like “bite,” “kite,” “courage,” “wide”):  we were supposed to pronounce those final “e”s, but since most people in the 16th century were mistakenly leaving them silent, the silent final “e” became the correct thing to do.  It’s an idea worth keeping in mind if you have ever had your self-esteem battered by a know-it-all grammar mavin, and based on the vitriolic responses to the above post, it seems like a lot of people have. 

Based on these comments, you might think I am opposed to grammar.  On the contrary, I think the posting above proves that we need to re-introduce grammar instruction into the school system.  The problem with the above posting (beyond satirizing a problem that hasn't existed for 40 years) is that it mistakenly describes "Can I borrow . . ." as a "colloquial" irregularity.  It isn't.  Grammar is constantly changing and at this point in time, "Can I borrow a pencil?" is correct standard English.

Tuesday 1 September 2015

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 you have forgotten, the official title of the legislation is the “Security of Canada Information Sharing Act” and the purpose of the Act is 


You might not think of a Canadian University grad with a student loan as a terrorist, but that’s because you have forgotten how the Conservative Government has used C-51 to re-define terrorism.  Here, unabridged, is how C-51, which is now law, defines terrorism:

The following definitions apply in this Act.Definitions“activity that undermines the security of Canada” means any activity, including any of the following activities, if it undermines the sovereignty, security or territorial integrity of Canada or the lives or the security of the people of Canada:interference with the capability of the Government of Canada in relation to intelligence, defence, border operations, public safety, the administration of justice, diplomatic or consular relations, or the economic or financial stability of Canada;
With students currently owing $16 billion in loans, and a good chunk of them refusing to pay up (28% in 2004, 13% in 2014), guess what!  They are potentially interfering with “the economic or financial stability of Canada” and therefore qualify as terrorists under C-51.

Both the Conservative and Liberal Parties are in favour of C-51, only the NDP has promised to repeal this legislation.

Sunday 2 August 2015

“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 idyllic life, peace, sustenance, acceptance, the requited love of a beautiful woman, but in exchange Nunez must agree to surrender his eyes (which doctors have concluded are tumors causing his madness). 

The story is an allegory of cultural blindness; my challenge to students was always to recognize the various perspectives from which the allegory might be applied.  In general, students were a bit too quick to condemn the people of the Country of the Blind for their refusal to “see” beyond their own culture.  Some students remained adamant in their refusal to abandon this position, insisting that the story should be viewed from only one perspective, that of Nunez looking down on the inferiority of the Country of the Blind. 

In the face of this conviction, I pointed out some of the merit of this position.  The Nunez story was typical in our time:  an immigrant arrives in a new culture bringing with her the baggage of her own culture and a host of superior skills associated with that culture.  We, the receiving, settler culture, having been in place for generations, are the people of the Country of the Blind.  

For some students this is a tough pill to swallow, but I invite them to consider how we would react as individuals and as a society if someone ragged, ill-kempt, poorly spoken and perceptibly alien aggressively insisted that he was superior, explaining this superiority with words that had no meaning to us.  Our prisons, asylums, homeless shelters and streets are filled with such people. 

It was fairly easy to win a few adherents to this perspective.  For students who have lived the immigrant experience the allegory was beyond obvious.  For others I invited them to generalize the experience imagining that they brought skills, talents and abilities to a new social group, and think about how quickly and easily any social group (club, team, neighbourhood, school, peer group, etc) would be to accept a new member expecting to be ”king.”  (Nunez’s mantra in the story is “In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king”).  Above  all we expect immigrants and newbies to be humble in fact and manner.

And so the discussion progressed, with students slowly, tentatively approaching the realization that we are all culturally blind.  We all view our own culture not only as what is best but what is normal, real, and paradoxically “natural.”  The one culture that we can never see clearly is our own.  Trying to understand your own culture is like a fish trying to understand water.

As we reached the end of the story, I would hit a wall.  In the final line of the story it appears that Nunez commits suicide rather than surrender his sight.  (In fact, a coherent and typical reading of the story is that Nunez does not survive the avalanche at the opening of the story, and the entire narrative is his imaginings in the moments before death.  This is an interpretation that I never presented or pursued for the simple reason that it would preempt much of the productive exchange that the story provokes.)

When I criticized and even mocked Nunez’s apparent suicide, the backlash response from students was tidal:  “he was being true to himself,” “true to who he was,”  “true to his beliefs and principles,” “true to what he loved and found beautiful--seeing,” “he was refusing to give up who he was,”  “he was being himself!”  Yeah, maybe!

In the first place I wasn’t going to surrender to a romantic advocation of suicide (see Do No Harm).  In passing I would mention that the child psychologist Piaget defined intelligence as the ability to adapt.  Then I would underline the illogic of Nunez’s apparent decision to choose “seeing” over “living”--a decision that was neither intelligent nor admirable.  Finally, I would point out that advocating Nunez’s decision was an example of cultural blindness--that we live in a visual culture, one that emphasizes and exaggerates the importance of seeing (see Ong, Havelock, McLuhan and Falling in Love is Unprofessional) and like Nunez we fail to “see” beyond the visual culture that we have come to accept as no less than life itself.

To further the point, I would typically bookend the course with Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Who Am I this Time?” collected in the anthology Welcome to the Monkey House

The satiric short story was adapted into the made-for-TV romantic comedy on PBS, also called  ”Who Am I this Time?”  The story focusses on a young couple who defy “being themselves” by finding happiness in acting and playing roles with one another.  

Monday 13 July 2015

Postmodern Shibboleths

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 “analyze,” you can be sure you are dealing with postmodernists.  

In the not too distant past the ultimate identifier of a postmodernist was the frequency with which s/he used the word “postmodern”--although this might be taken more as the team cheer rather than a shibboleth.  Upon encountering anything that was kitch, ironic, self referential, or lacking unity, coherence and conclusion, the postmodernist would loudly declare, in the hope someone might overhear, that it was postmodern.

The irony of postmodernism is that its only redeeming social value has been the promotion of tolerance, yet the postmodern catchphrase “political correctness”--a hallmark of intolerance--promises to outlive postmodernism itself.  A postmodernist is someone who can tell you, with conviction, to shut up, while arguing in favour of the right to free speech.

One of the postmodern concepts which I have found to be occasionally useful is “the subject.”  In postmodern speak “the subject” stands in for a variety of possibilities:  the self, the individual, the person, the ego, the “I,” and is a strong counterpoint to the soul, the personality, character and spirit.  In attempting to use “the subject” in my writing, I discovered the other side of employing postmodern shibboleths.  Once you have used an established postmodern catchphrase, you are pretty well locked in, by reader expectation, to following with a typical, well-worn postmodern argument about how the victims of power suffer and the terrible things we already thought about power are even worse than we imagined--which is why most postmodern essays turn out to be convoluted on the surface, obvious underneath, disingenuous overall, and incredibly tedious to read.

Sunday 5 July 2015

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 there?

No, there isn’t, but the trickle-down effect of postmodern intellectualizing results in something like this claim from the online “Postmodern Literature Dictionary”:

“If you use ‘binary thinking,’ you are a person who sees no gray, no fuzziness between your categories. Everything is black or white.”

In postmodern speak “binary thinking” has become a synonym for the already well-known and understood idea of “simplistic thinking,” again with the implication that those “non-binary” thinkers must be smarter than the rest of us. How did we arrive at this “two legs bad” juncture?  

The cause is rooted in “poststructuralism,” the theoretical backbone of postmodernism.  In order to understand “poststructuralism” (literally “after structuralism,” therefore a continuation and improvement of) it is necessary to have some grasp of structuralism.  Structuralism is closely aligned with “semiotics,” a term coined by the linguist Saussure meaning the science of signs.  John Fiske offers a clear, accessible and succinct description of semiotics/structuralism in his Introduction to Communications Studies.

Semiotics is a form of structuralism, for it argues that we cannot know the world on its own terms, but only through the conceptual and linguistic structures of our culture. [. . . .] While structuralism does not deny the existence of an external, universal reality, it does deny the possibility of human beings having access to this reality in an objective, universal, non-culturally-determined manner. Structuralism’s enterprise is to discover how people make sense of the world, not what the world is.  (Fiske, 115)

Fiske’s description anticipates the core dispute in the the feud which will eventually take place between postmodernists and empirical scientists like Sokal as I have described in my post The Postmodern Hoax.  Current repudiations of “binary thinking” find their origin in a paper delivered by Jacques Derrida at a structuralism conference at Johns Hopkins University in 1966 entitled  “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”.  (The French-language original, "La structure, le signe et le jeu dans le discours des sciences humaines" is slightly more readable than the English translation.)

In this essay, Derrida dismantles (Derrida uses the term "deconstructs") the work of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, in particular Lévi-Strauss's The Raw and the Cooked.  Although Derrida never explicitly refers to "binary thinking" or "binary opposition" in his essay, it is understood that the structure Lévi-Strauss uses, derived from the linguists Saussure and Jacobson and all of structuralism, is the binary functioning of human thought, and is the target of Derrida's critical inquiry into the "structurality of structure" (“Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”).

The Longman anthology Contemporary Literary Criticism, in addiction to a translation of Derrida's paper, offers in addendum a transcription/translation of the discussion which took place between Derrida and the leading lights of structuralism immediately after his presentation.  It's interesting to see some of the finest minds in structuralism struggling to understand what the hell Derrida was talking about and, at the same time, to see Derrida cornered into giving a straightforward definition of "deconstruction."   Okay, "straightforward" is never a word that can be applied to Derrida, but with my ellipses eliminating all the asides and parentheses this is what he said:  "déconstruction [. . .] is simply a question [. . .] of being alert [ . . .] to the historical sedimentation of the language which we use [. . .]" (497). This is the definition of "deconstruction" that I typically gave students and, at the same time, I pointed out that even though "deconstruction" was suppose to be something innovative, radical and distinctly postmodern, the Oxford English Dictionary has been"deconstructing" the English language for literally hundreds of years--meaning that the OED gives you the multiple meanings of a word and the year ("the historical sedimentation') in which a particular meaning/definition can be proven to have come into usage.

 Back to structuralist anthropology. As Fiske explains:
The construction of binary oppositions is, according to Lévi-Strauss, the fundamental, universal sense-making process. It is universal because it is a product of the physical structure of the human brain and is therefore specific to the species and not to any one culture or society. (116)
Contrary to popular understandings of "binary thinking,"  the whole point of structuralist anthropology (the binary approach) is to understand how societies, through their mythologies for example, deal with the failures of and exceptions to binary opposition.  Fiske applies the Lévi-Strauss approach to a Western and concomitantly demonstrates how the approach teases out subtextual themes at play in the movie, and how this particular interpretation of the film might stretch credibility.  Even today, 50 years later, it is difficult to fathom exactly what new, radical, distinctly postmodern objection Derrida is raising.  

Certainly it makes sense to challenge how binary thinking is applied in a particular case.  The objection isn't to binary thinking but to a particular application.  If you are going to launch a campaign against food on the grounds that it causes obesity, you should at the same time be ready to present an alternative to eating food, something that goes beyond the absurd claim that "eating food is bad."

Friday 26 June 2015

Falling in Love is Unprofessional

"Falling in Love and Crying in the Academic Workplace"

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.  

Do We Need Gender?

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 gender difference could be erased and to demonstrate how, in the abstract, gender is a fragile and superficial concept.  

However, the fact that students never show much interest in the project of gender erasure shows how culturally attached we are to this dichotomy.  If I pushed the discussion, eventually a fastidious female would vociferously declare: “There is no way I want to share a bathroom with a bunch of smelly guys!”  End of discussion.

Stereotypes and Prejudices

The problem isn’t that gender differences and stereotypes exist, the problem, as Judith Butler would point out, is that these differences and stereotypes are policed and enforced.  There is a difference between a stereotype and a prejudice.  A stereotype is an extreme or rigid form of assigning type (“stereo” means “hard” or “firm”), but it usually has some basis in fact when applied in general to a large group of people. A prejudice is assuming and insisting that a stereotype applies to any and all individuals of a type or category.  It is a gender stereotype that men are physically stronger than women.  It is a scientifically verifiable correlation that, on average, people with penises enjoy more muscle mass than do those endowed with vulvas. 

Enforcing Stereotypes

The problem begins when this generalization is enforced on an individual and we tell John that he is failing as a man because he is not stronger than the average woman, and suspect Mary of not being a real woman because she is stronger than the average man and, of course, John and Mary cannot be a couple because she is stronger than he is; nonetheless John could get a construction job, but Mary can’t, etc, etc.  As a society, we extrapolate, police and enforce these stereotypes.

Solving Prejudice

How do we get beyond stereotypes and prevent them from devolving into prejudices?  it is too easy to say that stereotypes and prejudices are products of ignorance.  We are all ignorant and prejudiced in varying degrees.  In a world of Twitter, instant messaging and an up-to-the-minute news cycle we are constantly being called upon to “pre-judge,” our sympathies and outrage being called upon long before anything approaching a comprehensive knowledge of the facts is possible.  The only solution is to question and to withhold judgment until a sufficient number of facts have come our way; to rigorously apply our reading skills and logic to the facts available, and then to cut the world some slack without slipping into apathy.

The other solution when facing stereotypical differences is to consider other possible paradigms, other axes of comparison.  I admired that  in “Falling in Love and Crying in the Academic Workplace,” the author, Rachel Moss, at least temporarily shifted the discussion to “professionalism.”  Falling in love is unprofessional, mostly because the root of the word “amateur” is “amour,” “to love.”  Even in the study of theatre and drama, I have found ample reason to prefer amateur productions and performances over the professional, though the value system runs in the other direction.  It is not without reason that we describe prostitution as a profession.   It has its rules, and one of them is not falling in love.   

How to Talk about Cultural Differences

In my research I have tried to talk about some of the same differences that Rachel Moss discusses in her article.  I tried to talk about them as the differences between oral and visual cultures (following from Havelock, Ong and McLuhan), and when that didn’t quite work I turned to what John Vernon called “garden” and “map” culture.   Ultimately we have to admit that what we are talking about is “human” culture versus “machine” culture and our society shows an ever-increasing admiration for humans who behave like machines.

"You Fall in Love with Them, They Fall in Love with You"

On that note, a concluding word about Tim Hunt.  Apparently, he has two daughters who love his cooking, but I’ll bet he’s seen the girls cry when he criticized them.   His wife, Professor Mary Collins, was once his student.  So when he said the trouble with girls in the lab is that “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you” could he have been thinking about himself and his wife?  What an amateur!

Why Is the Vagina Masculine? And What’s the Alternative?

“Vagina” is masculine  I first came across this factoid thirty years ago in Daphne Marlatt’s novel Ana Historic .   It came up again more r...