Sunday, September 23, 2007

A stench in the Fresh Air

So I was listening to a recent Fresh Air podcast as is my custom during my constitutional in Danada on yet another peerless late summer Sunday (if this is global warming then bring it on). Terri Gros introduces each recording with a masterfully disinterested "thanks" to listeners; there must be a school where they train all these liberal intellectual NPR announcers to evince a world-weary cool detachment from all their subjects. But I digress. The subject on this occasion was largely about a person, one of nine siblings, who stayed behind in Poland while all the others left for America at the time of the Nazi ascendancy. Eventually the man and his family perished in the Holocaust and only a few letters remain. As usual, it is very harrowing stuff. There had been a similar sort of broadcast on the Welsh radio program All Things Considered (not to be confused with the NPR version) a few months ago.

The stories of bravery, resilience, courage and cruelty that emerge from Holocaust topics are always riveting. So I'm wondering what the average Holocaust denier would be thinking when confronted by tales such as these, because for these individuals the whole thing never happened. I am aware that one of those deniers is an Associate Professor at Northwestern University. His name is Arthur Butz . He has achieved a certain celebrity in the select circle of deniers by publishing a book on the subject. The university, rightfully so in my view, has taken a large amount of heat for permitting Butz to continue in his teaching role. Last year The Daily Northwestern was lambasted for publishing an article by Butz in defence of the denial on the basis of "fairness" and "balance." I can perhaps see the need for balance and fairness if the topic under debate actually had positions that were open to debate in the first place. The Holocaust does not fall into this category as far as the authenticity of its existence is concerned. Perhaps it is possible to debate its various details and subtleties, but the fact of its existence cannot be at question. It would be equivalent to publishing an article in defence of the mathematical relationship that 2 + 2 = 5.

The nauseating thing about Butz and his ilk is their attempt to legitimize their views by presenting them wrapped in veils of "scholarship" and academic pursuit. Butz has written extensively contesting the meanings of the words in various documents to suggest that the gas chambers were never such. It all comes down to very fussy arguments about the interpretations of individual words in documents. He passed himself off as a member of the "Journal of Historical Review" (the innocent sounding name promotes perversion while seemingly supporting legitimate scholarship).

The fairness and balance tactic has been similarly used by Creationists in an attempt to infiltrate the education system with alternatives to evolutionary theory. In days of yore the Creationists were quite happy to stick to the Bible. More recently the game has become a lot more cunning and the literal interpretations of the Bible (so completely unnecessary for true faith) have been propped up by all sorts of pseudo science and products from heavily supported "research" centers. Intelligent Design has been one such outworking of the savvy modern creationist. It has the trappings of science, though it lacks the actuality of it. So now we must incorporate this idea into the curriculum on the grounds of balance? Imagine if we had to allow any ideas at all on the grounds of balance. A man could maintain that atoms were made of tomatoes and have a soapbox on the grounds of balance.

Okay, Creationism is a far milder "crime" than Holocaust denial. Some of my best friends have been Creationists. I don't think any of them deny the Holocaust. I was wondering what it would be like to have such a one as Butz as a colleague. The pusillanimous administration of Northwestern have not moved against him citing "academic freedom" and the fact that his views are not introduced into the classroom. I cannot imagine though sharing a room in a discipline meeting with him. How would you feel if your neighbour espoused sexual intercourse with animals or young children for example? I mean, what is the difference? Maybe Butz is regarded as a good teacher. Frankly that is completely beside the point.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Foul or fair...

The papers have been swamped this week by a tsunami of stories about cheating covering all walks of life. There are few occasions where a connection can be found between my first love, F1, and education. My American audience will probably be familiar with the coach of the Patriots being nailed for furtively videotaping the opposing coach to steal the signals; the story was even on the front page. The fine of $500,000 to him may seem substantial, but it pales completely into insignificance when set beside the colossal $100 million assessed McLaren in F1 for having, and apparently using, confidential documents obtained from arch rival Ferrari via a disgruntled Ferrari employee. The Tribune's editorial page also had a strongly worded piece on the plagiarism seemingly committed by the SIU president Poshard - a story that has been floating around for a few weeks now - written by a bold SIU faculty member. He better check the locks on his office door Monday. Even in our lowly Courier, student rag at COD, there is a piece on plagiarism by students.

The discussion of these various incidents reveals how, to borrow a piece of NPR terminology, nuanced the business of plagiarism, cheating, whatever you want to call it, is. In the sports examples, which, by the way, are getting a lot more exposure than the academic one (surprise), defenders and apologists for the guilty parties say that getting an edge has always been part of the game (implication: there's nothing wrong with cheating). They add with a shrug that the actions didn't really make any difference; in other words what's all the fuss about? During the broadcasts over the weekend from Spa, the level of McLaren sympathy was simply astonishing. Perhaps not so surprising given the level of anti-Ferrari sentiment in the Anglo-philic racing world.

Of the Poshard business, his defenders say that it was all along time ago and is now irrelevant - it was just a thesis after all. A thesis, mind you, that was considered to be an essential piece of his qualifications for the job in the first place. Poshard himself says variously that he was busy at the time and that the format didn't require quotations. So I'm wondering how he would respond to a student using just those kinds of lame arguments to defend the copying of an assignment prior to punting said student out of the institution for violating the code of academic integrity. As we mere mortals labour to impress upon our charges the need for integrity in the process, is it any wonder, given the examples in the big world outside, that our labours are considerably in vain? Consider how the dreadful Mitch Albom has flourished despite blatantly faking a report on a basketball event. There was even talk of inviting him to the college for the lecture series. I would have opened a vein.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Mayor on a bicycle

Interesting juxtaposition of pieces in the paper yesterday: ludicrous photo of Mayor Daley (the words stick on my key pad) pratting around on a bicycle in Paris (on the tax payers' Euro) and a damning condemnation of the pathetic and useless CTA's approach to track safety.

Does anyone take this buffoon seriously? Can he believe that we do? Never listen to Daley while dining; it will result in instant regurgitation. He would be an almost entertaining comic figure were it not for the fact he is the puppet head of a massive organization of self-interest and corruption. It is an indication of the magnitude of the hubris of people like Daley that they cut figures on bicycles while the real transportation infrastructure crumbles while under the inept control of patronage cronies and henchmen. To think that the CTA is touted as an asset for the misguided Olympic bid - another Daley ego-trip. A comparison of the eight cities in the bid shows that the CTA boasts a far greater track length than the others; what the comparison doesn't show is that none of it works effectively.

Instead of poncing around on a bike His Honour should take a look at the Metro and come back and demand the CTA should copycat that. I would use it.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

In search of Higgs

Yet another lengthy article about high-energy physics in the paper this week. I suppose the proximity of Fermilab to Chicago does mean that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) nearing completion in France/Switzerland has greater significance for this area than many scientific endeavours; for once the LHC bursts into life, Fermilab will have lost its status as the leader in particle physics. A brief survey of the Fermilab website reveals the extent of its contributions to uncovering various quarks, charm, bosons, neutrinos and so on. The world of particles has moved on a bit since my education when we were pretty happy with protons, neutrons and electrons.

Even now the physics community is migrating to Europe where the seven times greater energy of the LHC will afford greater probability of identifying the illusive "Higgs Boson." What's that you may ask? According to Wikipedia; my first resort when seeking information, and it is by no means half as bad as purists want to make out; the Higgs is the only particle of the Standard Model of physics yet to be observed. It is the icing on the cake to borrow a hackneyed phrase. There is almost a sense that it is simply a matter of time and with the right equipment, so solid does the theory seem to be; after all, everything else has fallen into place. But the work still has to be done, and the thing still needs to be found in order to be certain; and I suppose in that there is the anticipation and tendency to wonder "what if it isn't?"

What indeed would be the upshot if the Higgs doesn't make its expected appearance? Uproar in the physics world, new theories no doubt; but for us, the simple folk, will there be any difference? Does the presence or absence of Higgs make any difference to our lives? The most probable answer, no, is probably why the Superconducting Super Collider, once sought after at Fermi but later moved to Texas, was eventually axed. So little gain for the pain.

Astonishing is the human effort dedicated in this: the article stated that 7,000 scientists will be working at the LHC. It is unclear as to whether this army is dedicated to the single cause or many causes, but it is an amazing figure, and one that is in stark contrast to the early tradition of science as being the work of individuals. Consider that almost all the great scientists of history were individuals; the theories and laws have almost always a single name attached. The personality traits of scientists often include introspection and isolation. Some of them were downright quirky, even shunning public exposure. It is fascinating to consider how this army can be organized coherently in the search for the Higgs; what egos must be soothed, personal ambitions managed and agendas manipulated to make it all happen.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Toilet Tapes

The lavatory has always figured strongly in the English humour; although I often wish to disown the heritage of Benny Hill, his comedy offers proof of this scatological obsession. My readers then must forgive the following temporary descent from the intellectual heights of the quantum theory as I mull over the revelations stemming from the Idaho senator's misadventures.

When I recently returned home from my gruelling evening class I flipped on the TV with a view to catch up on the latest Bravo reality show, only to find the instrument unaccountably tuned to some cable news channel. Dulcie again. By some synchronicity, I was just in time to listen to the tape made subsequent to the senator's arrest. Call me prurient, call me voyeuristic, but it was riveting stuff and I remained transfixed as the sordid details unfolded. It summoned up some long dormant memories of my youth on the London Underground and the legend that used to surround those dank subterranean caverns of public toilets in places like Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus. I must hasten to emphasize that, lest I be misunderstood, and there are perhaps those that will remain unconvinced, my interest was not piqued by the senator's particular peccadilloes, but by the fact that the stage upon which the action occurred was the humble public restroom: that unsung, overlooked but essential component of our daily existence.

Literature rarely intrudes into the personal hygiene of its characters; we all I suppose take it for granted that it happens. The needs of people trapped in elevators or mine shafts for days are never discussed in the aftermath. A great silence surrounds the whole business thus tending to create a sense of isolation. I for one; and surely I am not alone, and I know I am not after a startling revelation from a colleague at Amoco; approach the ritual of the institutional restroom with great seriousness; it is not something that can be taken lightly, as one might say take throwing out the rubbish (or marking papers). If a market existed for a guidebook to public lavatories I would gladly write it, because I always evaluate the restroom facilities when visiting somewhere.

A contributing factor to the activities described on the tape must surely be the open plan nature of the typical U.S. public facility. I was filled with misgiving when I first encountered the saloon door quality of the dividers and the spacious cracks between the panels, because I was used to the tomb-like privacy of the English privy. It can be very unnerving to look up and find the head of a seven footer gazing serenely above the stall's divider. Over the years I have come to terms with the utilitarian divider that dominates the U.S. public lavatorial landscape, where personal feelings and privacy are sacrificed to the altar of cost and efficiency. Now this.

Of course you can distinguish the English character from the French by their very different approaches to the public restroom. For nowhere in England would one find examples that liberally sprinkle the towns of southern France, where the restroom occupies pride and place in the main thoroughfare, and lower limbs and heads are plainly visible to all, and conversations are carried on as if it were over a cup of tea.

Memorable restrooms include those at the Royal Society and Wallace Collection both in London. The former is elegantly constructed from fine wood and provides an almost sound-proof tomb; the door closes with a confident thud, entirely separating the occupant from the rest of the world. Of course, someone dying within may not be discovered for several years. The latter takes a much more cosy approach, there is plentiful use of coloured tiles, a little chair nicely upholstered; it has more the character of a discrete reading room than a lav. Equally memorable, though a savage contrast in style, was the first ecological lav I encountered in New Hampshire. Beneath the seat lay a pit of untold depth, containing God only knows what, causing one to grip the car keys with more than the usual firmness; it was a terrifying sight. Nonetheless, one could derive pleasure from the fact that it was all in a good cause. Green-ness being a very modern thing these days, I sense a growth in interest in the Eco-crapper.

There, I have got it off my chest. We can move on to more cerebral things such as the price of butter...