Water, water everywhere

I knew that there was a large problem as soon as I pulled my car out of the driveway. There was entirely too much traffic running through my normally quiet suburban neighborhood -- we're kind of buried back in the middle of a tangle of winding streets, so we don't usually get many people driving through on their way to someplace. But there were a lot of cars out, driving in a slow line that bore all the characteristics of the blind leading the blind: drivers' heads frantically turning from side to side, trying to figure out where they were supposed to go, and following the car in front of them in the vain hope that perhaps that person knew where they were going. For some reason, traffic was being diverted into the neighborhood, instead of zipping along on the larger roads that border it.

Now, I knew that it had rained pretty hard -- I had been out there for quite some time the previous night bailing water out of a window-well after the sump pump shorted out, and the rain was really coming down in buckets and boatloads. After a couple of hours of barely staying ahead of the water level, my wife and I decided to move things out of the basement as quickly as possible and just let the basement flood, since there was no way that I could keep bailing all night long and the window-well was filling up in about five minutes. So we let the flood come, and the next morning I was on my way to the hardware store to buy a new sump pump when i noticed all of the unusual traffic. Maybe the rain had been worse than I thought -- maybe roads were closed? I hadn't checked the local traffic report before I left the house, but a quick phone call later confirmed that the rain had closed many roads. And the situation didn't show any signs of getting better any time soon.

I navigated the hordes of aimless drivers, and made it to the store just in time to buy the last automatic sump pump on the shelf -- and the stand in line with dozens of people buying pumps, wet-dry shop vacuums, and other paraphernalia that screamed "my house is flooded." Come to find out, much of Coruscant Washington and the surrounding area was flooded by a "rare tropical deluge" that was generating massive havoc.

Talk about a disaster. Talk about a socially constructed disaster.

While endlessly bailing water I was thinking -- because, honestly, there's not much else to think about while trying desperately to keep water out of one's basement -- about the conceptual oddity of calling something, anything, a "natural disaster." This strikes me as a curious locution indeed, as though "nature" were causally to blame for some set of observed outcomes. And that's just weird, since "nature" isn't a conscious being as far as I know, and isn't really even a discrete entity at all; blaming "nature" is kind of like blaming "reality" or "existence." Very odd, if you stop to think about it.

To the contrary, I'd say that a situation like the one we're presently experiencing here in D.C. is socially constructed in at least two and possibly three ways. Blaming "nature," and thus refusing to place social practices and phenomena squarely at the center of the issue, is just a more or less convenient way out of the problem -- an especially convenient one if you happen to be or represent an insurance company (for example). It's also empirically untenable.

The first and most obvious way that the current flooding in D.C. is socially constructed is causally. By this I do not mean that human beings somehow brought about the rains (although it's possible that the stalled front and tropical storm activity that are, according to meteorologists, generating the present thunderstorms might be linked to human-induced global climate change . . .). Rather, I mean something simpler: if there were no houses standing where they are standing, if there were no capital city here, then the rainfall wouldn't be a disaster. What is "disastrous" about these storms is that they are depositing a lot of water in places that are inconvenient for us, and if we were not interacting with the rainfall with our present set of expectations and arrangements then this wouldn't be a "disaster" at all.

To put this slightly differently: human social practices are an indispensable, and relatively central, part of the complex of factors producing this disaster. In particular, those "infrastructural" practices that encode our expectations about rainfall and water flow are quite complicit in the present situation; if we expected this kind of rain, or if we were prepared to deal with it, the rainfall might not be anything particularly noteworthy. I am initially surprised when 2-3 inches of snowfall closes the city down; where I used to live in new Hampshire, 2-3 inches is a "dusting" and no one even really comments on it. But New Hampshire towns and cities have the proper infrastructure, both in the form of adequate snowplows and sanding truck and in the form of driver training and experience that includes the proper techniques for driving on snow-covered roads, to handle such a snowfall. What is "disastrous" about this rainfall is that no one is prepared for it, and hence the disaster can't be causally explained without taking into account human social practices. Hence it's socially constructed. QED.

A second way that this flooding is socially constructed is at the level of meaning. Lots of water in the basement might be a disaster; it might also be an opportunity for some long-overdue cleaning and disposal of various bags and boxes that are now drenched and falling apart. it might be an occasion to curse and complain; it might also be an opportunity to set other work aside and focus on other things for a while. This need not be just an individual-level practice (although the rather Pollyanna-ish narrative that would make lemonade out of the extremely sour lemons involved in a flooded basement is not bloody likely to be widely shared, I don't think); social groups construct and sustain narratives that imprint meaning on events all the time. Indeed, the classification "disaster" itself is obviously the product of a set of meaning-making practices that lend a particular significance to a series of occurrences, since the act of labeling something a "disaster" is a highly charged political one with financial and legal consequences -- and whether something is formally labeled a "disaster" or not has less to do with the events themselves and more with the social procedures through which those events are invested with meaning. Sometimes floods are a disaster; sometimes they aren't; and what makes the difference isn't the characteristics of the flood, but the way that we make the flood meaningful. Hence it's socially constructed. QED.

Now, I think that there's a third way that the current flooding in D.C. is socially constructed, but I suspect that I am about to lose many of those readers who have agreed with the (pretty banal) argument thus far. [Indeed, I'd be very surprised to find anyone who really didn't agree with the argument thus far; it seems pretty cut-and-dried to me.] The reason is because I am about to jump right down the slippery slope that Alejandro over at "Reality Conditions" derides as a kind of anti-scientific relativism. But bear with me, because right after that I'm going to argue that this kind of strictly metaphysical dispute makes no difference, at least not in any practical sense.

As far as I am concerned, the current flooding in D.C. is socially constructed metaphysically. By this I meant that the fact that we refer to these events in this way, and that we experience them in the way that we experience them, is wholly contingent -- and contingent not on some kind of dispositional essence of dihydrogen monoxide (that is to say, water), but contingent on the various social resources that we use in making the world that we inhabit. This goes beyond the causal kind of social construction, and beyond the meaning kind of social construction; I am instead claiming that there is no essence to the current flooding beyond our construction of the event. It could be a different event (not just the same event with a different meaning) if we were different and if we had different cultural resources to deploy. The social fact that it is a"flooding" and not something else tells us, in the end, a lot about ourselves and nothing whatsoever about "the essence of the world as it really is in itself." There's no outside to get to, no place from which to view the world that isn't already implicated in a process of constructing it, and hence nothing like a final account of the world that would somehow really, really, capture its fundamental ontological character.

Now, you will notice (you sharp-eyed reader you) that I did not end that paragraph with a "QED." That's because the sentiment that I expressed there is a strictly metaphysical claim: it is not amenable, even in principle, to empirical verification or falsification. There's no way to "prove" or "disprove" it, any more than there is a way to prove or disprove a claim like "there is flooding because God willed it to be so" or "there is flooding because of a series of unlikely natural occurrences, occurrences that would have unfolded in precisely the same way even if there were no humans around to notice them." None of these can be proved or disproved, because they aren't statements about things in the world. They are instead statements about the value or status of our claims about the world as a whole, and therefore (and pretty much by definition) can't be empirically verified or falsified. They are, rather, "world-disclosing," inasmuch as the world governed by the principle that things happen because they are God's will is a very different world than the world governed by the principle of natural occurrences with defined probabilities within a certain range of error. And when I say that the world is different, I mean that the world as a whole is different, not that anything in particular within that world is different; whether God willed it or events happen because of concatenations of cultural resources, there's still water in my basement.

I'll go further: strictly metaphysical claims, which is the terrain on which the most intense battles about "relativism" and "truth" seem to be fought, do not matter to the analysis of empirical events, although they do matter intensely to the practical-moral procedures that we have for dealing with them. There's no defensible answer to strictly metaphysical claims, which is why a responsible science (social or otherwise) should steer clear of them.

To see that metaphysical claims are irrelevant, consider the following three conversations:

Q: why are there floods in D.C. at the moment?
A: God willed it.
Q: okay, sure He/She did, but how was God's will exercised?
A: well, there was this stalled front, and tropical moisture . . .

Q: why are there floods in D.C. at the moment?
A: the inherent properties of water came together with a combination of factors involving temperature and pressure.
Q: okay, but what combination?
A: well, there was this stalled front, and tropical moisture . . .

Q: why are there floods in D.C. at the moment?
A: because of the way that we experience events in our contemporary society.
Q: okay, and how do we experience these events?
A: well, there was this stalled front, and tropical moisture . . .

Once we get off of the insoluble "how many angels dance on the head of a pin" territory and return to something empirical, the dispute vanishes and we all end up talking about the same things. Of course, a scientific realist will interpret this as evidence that the really real dispositional character of the world is inducing us to talk about the same things in the same ways, while I interpret it as further testimony to the power of cultural resources . . . but that's back into metaphysical territory again. And science can't tell us anything about metaphysics, so let's not pretend that it can.

Now, the fact that metaphysical speculations are insoluble and irrelevant analytically doesn't mean that they aren't important practically. Holding that events happen because of God's will leads us to invest events with a particular kind of meaning, while holding that they happen because of combinations of natural occurrences leads to different sets of meanings (with different legal and financial consequences). And considering "nature" as a set of inert resources that we can exploit as we wish leads to things like the Grand Coulee Dam, while considering the planet as something that we are enjoined to cultivate under the eye of a watchful Creator might generate different courses of action -- courses of action that might well have different causal consequences. So the metaphysical disputes that I have argued are irrelevant to a scientific analysis turn out to be vital to the other two varieties of social construction -- even though, and perhaps precisely because, there is no way to definitively settle them.

In any event, I find all of this argumentation infinitely more satisfying than continuing to clean up my flooded basement.

[cross-posted at Duck of Minerva]


Star Wars meets Monty Python

From wired.com.

Yes, I have better things to do with my time.


Technical terms

At a meeting I attended recently, someone joking referred to a multimedia presentation that someone else had made to show to undergraduate students as "information delivery for the ADD generation." There were chuckles all around.

I, on the other hand, did not chuckle; I tried to intervene but the conversation moved on and I didn't feel like being obnoxious and forcibly returning us to the issue. Plus, I like and respect the speaker; I am pretty sure that my colleague was simply making a joke, and didn't mean anything malicious by the comment. But the comment was worrisome to me in two respects:

1) the casual use of technical terms out of context always bothers me. "ADD" (and "ADHD") are medical diagnoses, and come complete with therapeutic regimens that sometimes include medication. Using the terms casually sounds, to my ears, like a bit of armchair quarterbacking, as though anyone (and not just trained medical professionals following reasonably clear and precise protocols) could look at someone and declare them "ADD." And this is silly at best and disastrous at worst: silly because it usurps the entire contemporary practice of medicine in favor of a lay opinion, and disastrous when it comes (as such lay diagnoses often do) with a set of idiosyncratic and bizarre "home remedies." As if just sitting an ADD child down in a chair for several hours a day, or removing the television, or forcing them to read aloud, or whatever, will somehow affect their ability to concentrate.

To my mind, one should reserve technical vocabulary for its precise usage, and one should be sure that the term used is both accurate and comes complete with its associated therapies and interventions and the rest of the conceptual and technical apparatus that professionals are supposedly trained to recognize and deploy. Otherwise one is not really saying anything, not in the correct sense.

I think I'm rather sensitive to this because of my autistic son. When my son runs around the room endlessly singing "Life Is A Highway" and reciting the opening sequence of his new favorite movie Cars, it's not because we're not disciplining him enough or because he wants to be annoying; it's because of his neurology and his own individual way of dealing with sensory inputs. As parents of an autistic child, my wife and I have learned to speak the technical vocabulary, and can offer informed lay diagnoses, but we'd never dream of trying to actually formally diagnose someone. We certainly have a bag of tricks that might be of use when dealing with someone who is autistic (or who has autism spectrum-like traits -- autism is a hard case here, because it's a spectrum of traits and issues; the NIMH website has a pretty decent breakdown, as does Autism Speaks), but that's a far cry from claiming to be a medical professional.

Calling someone or something "autistic" without knowing what the hell you are talking about -- or calling them "clinically depressed," or "bipolar," or "ADD" -- is just ridiculous. Either use the apparatus correctly, or leave it aside.

2) referring to a whole generation as "ADD," even casually or off-handedly, is a not-too-subtle form of dismissing them and their learning styles as somehow deficient or in need of therapeutic intervention. That's deeply offensive. "You just aren't learning right" is a tremendously reactionary way to confront any educational situation, I think; besides the fact that it puts the blame on the audience rather than on the communicator, it echoes the traditional complaint every older generation has about those who come after it: they aren't like us, they don't do things like we do, they have it so easy, they don't know about hard work. And there's the biggest problem, I think. The current media-savvy, media-saturated generation of undergraduate students (to say nothing of their younger siblings still in elementary school at the moment) experiences the world differently, and inhabits a different world than, their predecessors; this is not a unique claim, because every generation experiences and inhabits a different world than their parents and grandparents did. And this generation is used to jump cuts, multi-sensory inputs, and computers that are more like furniture than pieces of technology in that they are simply taken for granted.

This is what these students are used to; this is where they live. It is up to us, the educational professionals, to meet them where they live and help to facilitate genuine learning -- which is to say, genuine exploration of options and identities by the students themselves, and the production of learning communities in which that kind of educational work can take place. It is not up to us to make them suffer as we suffered, or experience as we experienced. We are not supposed to be cloning ourselves here -- we are supposed to be helping them learn. Offhandedly diagnosing them as in need of medical intervention (intervention that will in theory make them more like us) strikes me as something of an evasion of our responsibility as educators.

Yes, I suppose I may be overreacting to an off-hand comment, a joke. But the issues that the comment implies seem to me to be very serious indeed, and to cut right to the heart of the teaching vocation.


Two bad pitches

This is going to be an "inside baseball" discussion. Apologies in advance.

The Yankees were in town this weekend, playing the Nationals in the verdammt interleague portion of the regular-season schedule. I can't stand interleague play, myself, although it pales as a travesty next to the other two great blights on contemporary regular-season Major League baseball: the wild card playoff system, and the general imbalance to schedules created by having thirty teams divided into six divisions. I dislike all three of these "innovations" because they increase the random factor in the game, and detract from the ability of a grueling regular season to separate the best teams from the rest of the teams. The wild card increases the likelihood that a team that couldn't even win its own division might win the World Series (although this does not appear to be statistically likely, given the data from eleven years of playoffs with a wild card participant; see the analytical details here and here; the point is that before the wild card was created it was impossible to get to the World Series without winning your division); imbalanced schedules mean that it is no longer the case that everyone plays everyone else in their league the same number of times, and the same number of times at home and away, so some teams (randomly) end up with easier schedules than others; and interleague play means both that pitchers and hitters are facing unfamiliar opponents without the ability to adjust and improve over the course of the season and that teams designed for a particular strategic situation (with and without a designated hitter) are being placed in unfamiliar territory.

All of this conspires to make baseball more like football, where any team can win on any given day. And to my mind there's not as much fun in that; why not just bet on random coin flips and save yourself a lot of money and hassle? Regular-season baseball is a machine that is supposed to filter out randomness. It still does this better than any other professional sport that I can think of, blemishes and absurdities aside.

But enough of that rant. I actually wanted to make a very different observation here, which is that although the win-loss record for this weekend shows simply that the Yankees won one game and lost two, the actual story is quite different. And it's a story of contingency -- the kind of controlled happenstance that baseball at its best produces. Things broke against the Yankees this weekend, but they could have just as easily broken the other way.

First, the Saturday game, that I was fortunate enough to see in person. After the first half of the fifth inning, when the Yankees were leading 9-2, it kind of looked like the game was just going to be a slaughter; Chacon was shaky pitching for the Yankees, but at least he wasn't giving up grand slams to Johnny Damon the way that Ramon Ortiz was. But the Nationals chipped away and the Yankee bullpen was ineffective, until the score was 9-8 in the bottom of the eighth inning. Scott Proctor walks Alfonso Soriano, but then gets Vidro to fly out. Action in the Yankees bullpen, and all of a sudden there's Mariano Rivera walking out to the mound, and all of the Yankees fans in the stadium (and there were a lot of them!) start going crazy. Here comes Mo, game over. And statistically, this is the definitely the case; in his career he has 392 saves against only 39 losses -- and even better, a career WHIP of 1.05, 8.04 K/9, and an ERA of 2.33. But he does blow saves sometimes, and this was one of those times -- and it was a narrow thing indeed.

Daryle Ward at the plate. Left-handed batter, never faced Mo. Soriano obviously running; he steals second fair and square. The count gets to (I believe) 2-1, and Soriano takes off for third on the pitch. It's a ball, Posada's throw is wide, and it goes past A-Rod into the outfield; Soriano scores on the error (and because the official scorer works for the Nationals, Soriano got credited with a second stolen base -- but I was there, and I think that if Posada's throw had been better then Soriano would have been out at third, and in my book that's not a stolen base but an E-2). Mo, obviously a bit annoyed, tosses the next pitch high, and walks Ward. That's the bad pitch. After that, Guillen triples and Ward -- Daryle Ward, who lumbers rather than runs around the bases -- scores pretty easily. Zimmerman gets a single, Guillen scores, and then Mo induces a double-play ball and the inning ends.

The 3-1 pitch to Ward is the bad pitch in the inning, especially coming on the heels of Posada's bad throw as it did. If Posada throws Soriano out at third, and then Mo works with the bases empty and gets Ward to do what lefties usually do against Mo -- break their bats hitting weak grounders to the right side of the infield -- then the Yankees are out of the inning with the lead intact. Even if Posada doesn't throw out Soriano, and Guillen still gets his hit to tie the score, there are two outs and the Yankees can play Zimmerman differently, maybe getting a force at second or something, and escape the inning with a tie score. But walking Ward did the damage. Clearly it wouldn't have been as damaging if the Yankee bullpen had done their job and kept the Nationals off the board for the previous three innings, but there you go: a single moment of contingency, and the whole character of the game changed.

Sunday was even more obviously a case of a single bad pitch, although like Saturday, the conditions for that single bad pitch were produced earlier on in the contest. With a tired bullpen, the Yankees needed Wang to pitch for a while, and he did -- but he was shaky in the eighth, and I expected Torre to pull him for the ninth or at last to have someone warming up in case Wang allowed anyone to reach base. Wang did, Torre didn't, and Zimmerman got a sinkerball that didn't sink which rapidly turned into a game-winning walk-off home run. Yankees lose again. But it was close, very close -- another bad pitch, another contingency that just didn't break the Yankees' way.

My point here is not that what happens in baseball is random; clearly it isn't completely random, despite the best efforts of the Powers That Be to introduce more randomness into the game through scheduling mishaps. But individual baseball games are about contingent events concatenating to produce outcomes, and that's what happened the last two days. It proves nothing about "which team is better" or anything of the sort, obnoxious and uneducated Nationals fans jeering on the way out of the stadium to the contrary; it was just two rolls of the dice that went poorly for the Yankees. From my comfortable second-guessing desk chair I can say that Torre shouldn't have left Wang go back out for the ninth yesterday, but I understand his reasoning. And given Mo's track record, I wouldn't rather have had anyone else on the mound in that situation on Saturday, because over the long term Mo shuts the opposition down in precisely those situations. But the long term -- which as a concept only makes sense in a relatively closed system like the regular season of Major League baseball -- doesn't translate into individual instances very comfortably.

But losing still stinks.


Half a brain

Imagine waking up one morning and discovering that you only had one of your legs, or one of your ears. You'd remember that you used to have other capacities, other abilities, other things that you could do -- but for some reason you suddenly can't do them. You'd look for the missing limb or missing piece of sensory input, but be unable to locate it.

Oh, and to that, add the fact that you wake up thinking it's a month ago, and having absolutely no memory of what transpired during the month that has apparently elapsed since your last memory was recorded.

I'm very glad that my Little Digital Companion -- my trusty PowerBook "Akasha" -- isn't a sentient being (as far as I know), because I suspect that it would be terrified and frustrated at the moment. Tuesday evening my hard drive developed symptoms of an immanent total failure: clicking sounds and v-e-r-y slow access times. I took immediate steps: connected an external drive and grabbed the most important files. In order: this semester's folder (containing grades, lectures, papers, etc.); next semester's folder (with provisional syllabi and the like); locally archived e-mail; recently purchased music. The copy got about a third of the way through the e-mail before the drive totally conked out, and I mean "totally" -- it couldn't be mounted when the machine was booted from the system disc, and when I took it to the hospital, er, the Apple Store, even they couldn't get access to it with the Serious Deep Mojo known as "Open Firmware." Basically, it's a dead duck.

The machine is under warranty so they are replacing the hard drive free of charge, but no one is optimistic about being able to recover my data. Fortunately I had a bootable backup, which is what I am presently using to run the emergency machine (a three-year-old G4 tower) that I was able to secure from the university's stock of old computers. Unfortunately, that backup is about four weeks old, which creates a little bit of dislocation -- I remember doing things, moving stuff around on the hard drive, and all of a sudden none of it has been done. And, of course, a bunch of stuff is missing, particularly e-mail correspondence. I'm just glad that I didn't write anything new in the past few weeks, because that would be irrecoverably gone as well.

It's not as bad as it could have been; all of my e-mail passes through an online server and I can get back most messages. But for the moment I am running on an old backup, trying to piece the last four weeks of my working life back together.

Oh, and the computer I am running on has no 'Net access. I am borrowing my wife's machine in order to post this, and will probably borrow it again in order to check e-mail and the like on and off for the next week. It's extremely odd working on a machine in my office the contents of which look very familiar -- but the capacities of which are sharply limited. I can't click over to check baseball scores, or follow a reference online, or even read e-mail; doing all of these things now requires a lot of additional effort, and another myiscla machine entirely.

Yes, it could have been worse. But it's not fun in any event.