Friday, April 30, 2004

More on Template Problems 

More on Template Problems
Fixing the template problems has not proved easy. I never figured out what went wrong. One moment everything was fine--and then all of a sudden all my links decided to jump out of the right column and to the area beneath my log entries. I've no idea why. I've managed to force the template to put them back in the right column, but I haven't really got rid of the problem. I can tell because my style sheet puts a dotted border on the right side of the log area, and that goes only down as far as the log does (whereas the links go down much further). That looks horrible, so, as a temporary measure I've deleted the dotted border in the style sheet (that's why you're not seeing it). At some point, I hope to get it back, but, in the mean time, if this continues to look all right, I'll go back to posting some more interesting and less techno-babbly entries.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

Template Problems 

I have been having problems with my template lately, and, along with my heavy workload, these problems have been preventing me from updated my weblog. I hope to have the problems sorted out soon.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Image Display Experiments 

Yesterday, in a geeky moment (as if having a web log isn’t geeky enough), I figured out how to prevent the proliferation on my web site of web pages devoted solely to displaying images. I created an Image Viewer. This is a web page, which can be linked to from anywhere in the web site, containing an image supplied by the page that links to it. In other words, my medieval literature students can click on the link to an image of Chaucer in the medieval literature web site, and my history of the English language students can click on the map of the Angevin Empire from the web site for that course, and each will go to the Image Viewer web page which loads the image specified in the link. Then a simple “back” link returns the user to the page they started from.

The problem is how to tell the Image Viewer page which image to load. The solution is to place a “query string” at the end of the link on the original page. This is a question mark followed by a variable name such as “image” an equals sign and the value (in this case the address of the image). The URL ends up looking like http://www.randomsite.edu/?image=images/chaucer.gif. That’s easy enough to do. The Image Viewer page is a bit more complicated. It needs a script to parse the query string into a variable name (“image”) and a value (the address). There are lots of scripts like this available on the internet. I experimented with several and found one that is flexible enough to parse multiple variables. That way I can stick one in for the title of the image as well. After pasting in the parsing script, I just needed to write a script to write HTML which prints the title and loads the image. In the end, the solution was so elegant that it’s worth improving. I want to modify the parsing script to handle variables for height and weight. That way I can display images in the image viewer pretty much any way I want by supplying this information when I create the link.

This will save me the trouble of creating new display pages for each image I add to the site in the future. Once I get it perfected, I may well make the Image Viewer scripts available to the public.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Hnæf the Terrorist 

Last week I suggested that terrorist acts derive from blood feud-like impulses, which Richard Kaepur says are characteristic of mostly stateless societies. Here are a few more thoughts:

In Beowulf we are told the story of Finn, King of Frisia, who marries the Danish princess Hildeburh, presumably to keep the peace between the two peoples. When her brother Hnæf comes to visit, he and is men are attacked at night, and the resulting battle brings about the death of both Hnæf and the son of Finn and Hildeburh. Both armies are so depleted that a truce is called. The Danes, under the leadership of Hengest, will remain with Finn, receiving honourable treatment, on the condition that no one should speak of the events that led to the conflict. The agreement does not last the winter, as the Danes cannot forget how they have been wronged. They attack the Frisians, kill Finn, burn his home, and carry Hildeburh back to Denmark.

The entire episode is narrated by a minstrel of King Hrothgar of the Danes and is used ironically in the poem as a harbinger of the fall of Hrothgar’s son and successor Hrethric in similar circumstances. There are family sagas in these accounts of historical feuds which creates dynamics unlike those that I am suggesting parallel modern-day terrorist impulses. But the basic idea that a consciousness of past wrongs cannot be let go (that you cannot “heng vp þyn ax, þat hatz innogh hewen,” as King Arthur says in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) out of ideological notions such as honour is relevant. The feud, like the curse, is a form of self-help, when there is no state-backed remedy for the consciousness of being wronged. To me, this suggests that US policy regarding terrorism is highly misguided. The US needs to throw its considerable weight behind the United Nations, boosting its authority to offer alternatives to the self-help feud as a remedy for perceived wrongs.

Friday, April 09, 2004

Radar clocks Mini at Mach 3 speed 

Further speculation about terrorism and blood feud will have to wait because I couldn't resist inserting this article on the latest in transport technology, courtesy of the BBC News web site. Here are some excerpts. Click the title to go to the full article.

Radar clocks Mini at Mach 3 speed

A Belgium motorist was left stunned after authorities sent him a speeding ticket for travelling in his Mini at three times the speed of sound.

The ticket claimed the man had been caught driving at 3380 kph (2,100 mph) - or Mach 3 speed - in a Brussels suburb, a Belgian newspaper reported.

However, police later admitted that a faulty radar had been responsible for the Mini's incredible feat.


"We called the local police to find out what height the plane caught speeding along the Boulevard Lambermont was flying at," a member of the Brussels public prosecutor's office joked to Belgium's La Derniere Heure newspaper.

Police also said they had made a mistake in still sending out the ticket, given that it was impossible - even for a doughty little Mini - for a car to have travelled so fast.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Terrorists and the Blood Feud 

The recent testimony of Condoleezza Rice to the commission investigating the attacks on September 11 has reminded me of a phrase I saw in Richard Kaeuper’s War, Justice, and Public Order: England and France in the later Middle Ages: something to the effect of the blood feud being characteristic of mostly stateless societies. It occurs to me that terrorists are placing themselves within that paradigm by existing in the fringes of the state or in countries where the state is a very weak institution. They couch their justifications for terrorist attacks in the language of Islam, but let’s think a bit about what this means. Muslim friends tell me that one of the attractive features of Islam is the way it possesses prescriptions for how to behave in almost every situation in daily life (rather like the state in some ways—but that’s an aside). The terrorists, in seeing the drive to attack those who have wronged them in the codes of Islam, are in a sense using Islam as the “institutional” basis for their blood feud. Many Muslims would no doubt say that they are perverting Islam, but that is not a debate I want to get into here. I’m interested in the intellectual issues raised by the blood feud. The Anglo-Saxons had something to say about this, notably in Beowulf. It’s too late now to write any more (and Camille is dragging me off the computer), but I may write further about this tomorrow.

Monday, April 05, 2004

The Da Vinci Code 

At some point I’ll be adding to the sidebar a list of the latest books I am reading/have read, following the practice of many other web loggers. In the mean time, I have just finished Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Brown is a master plotter who knows how to combine conspiracy theories, short chapters, attractive locations, and quick action to keep you hooked. His writing style is pretty bad, but perhaps appropriate to his quick-read thriller medium. I’d reserve my criticism for his research, or at least his use thereof. Here he seems to rely more on the ignorance of his reader than his reader’s suspension of disbelief.

Brown likes to make his plots revolve around word games, and one example should suffice to illustrate my point. In The Da Vinci Code, the main characters are sent on a sort of treasure hunt for the Holy Grail, the clues for which are embedded in various works by Leonardo da Vinci, such as the Mona Lisa. One clue Brown constructs is an anagram of the Mona Lisa--AMON L’ISA—supposedly representing “the male god Amon” and “the female god, Isis, whose ancient pictogram was once called L’ISA.” Leaving aside da Vinci’s potential knowledge of Egyptian gods, the interpretation of “L’ISA” looks a bit suspicious to me. Regardless, the anagram of Mona as Amon is preposterous. Although Brown acknowledges that the French call the Mona Lisa La Joconde, he does not similarly tell us that the Italians call it La Gioconda. Further the name “Mona Lisa” was coined by Giorgio Vasari thirty-one years after da Vinci’s death. Furthermore, in Italian, it is “Monna Lisa”, from “Madonna Lisa Giocondo”, the wife of a wealthy Florentine, whom Vasari thought was the subject of the painting. Dan Brown weaves his conspiracy theory by taking such liberties with language and history.

His other technique reveals how he exploits ignorance. As with his earlier novel, Angels and Demons, Brown constructs his plot around the activities of secret societies who oppose the cultural hegemony of the Catholic Church. At the beginning of each novel he inserts a statement of factuality about the accuracy of his descriptions as well as of the existence of the secret society (the Priory of Sion in the case of The Da Vinci Code). Needless to say, he fails to acknowledge that the organisation is not represented factually in his novel; but the unwary reader may think it is. The history of the Priory of Sion hoax is well documented. I could provide other examples of Brown’s historical inaccuracies, but I think I have made my point sufficiently. At some later point, I may address his treatment of the history of the Holy Grail since, as a medievalist, I should have some input on that issue.

For now, I am content to ask a few questions about literary technique? Is historical inaccuracy for the sake of entertainment justified? If so, to what extent? More interestingly perhaps, what does Brown’s technique say about the nature of literary belief? I am tempted to see the technique as sleight of hand, or what Tolkien terms “magic”: the manipulation of language in order to influence someone’s belief about their own reality. Clearly, the spell (in both the older and newer senses of the word) is broken by a knowledge of language, history, and art, but, if the reader has no such knowledge, can a cheap thriller be induced to believe its alternate reality is their own?

As a side note, I am intrigued by the fact that The Da Vinci Code pits the Priory of Sion against Opus Dei, a conservative wing of the Catholic Church which (according to Brown) engages in “corporal mortification”. For further information, here’s a recent article on Opus Dei from the Catholic Weekly America magazine. The article includes some interesting discussion of Opus Dei’s refusal to make its constitutions available in any language but Latin, for which see my discussion of Harrius Potter. Along with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, the presence of Opus Dei in The Da Vinci Code may represent the growing importance of conservative Catholicism in America. This development is also documented in an article entitled “The New Catholic Orthodoxy” in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education. The article is subscription only (so no direct link), but here are some snippets:

“After a quarter century in which no new Catholic colleges were established, most of those being founded now are led by traditionalists who feel the majority of America's 230 Catholic colleges have strayed from the truth of the Catholic faith….

Dissatisfied with existing Catholic higher education, the new colleges aspire to train graduates who will raise a strong and orthodox Catholic intellectual voice in the debates over stem-cell research, gay marriage, and other social issues. They strive to maintain a conservative campus life, where students and faculty members attend Mass frequently, premarital sex is strictly forbidden, and gay support groups have no place.”

The significance of Catholicism in American society may well be changing in the coming years.

Saturday, April 03, 2004

Mysterious Hand Injury 

I'm keeping things short today as a result of mysterious injury to my left hand. I have pain from my thumb to my wrist, and even the most miniscule of tasks--like opening a door knob--is extremely uncomfortable. I don't know what I did, or how I did it, but I reckon that avoid too much typing is a good way to give my hand a chance to heal.

Mysterious Hand Injury 

I'm keeping things short today as a result of mysterious injury to my left hand. I have pain from my thumb to my wrist, and even the most miniscule of tasks--like opening a door knob--is extremely uncomfortable. I don't know what I did, or how I did it, but I reckon that avoid too much typing is a good way to give my hand a chance to heal.

Friday, April 02, 2004

CEO Sabbaticals 

Matthew Lynn of Bloomberg.com (quoted in The Week) notes that many high-powered corporate CEOs have “borrowed from the more sedate world of academia, awarding themselves a sabbatical.” Lynn points out that these CEOs may be using the term sabbatical in its original, biblical sense, connected with the Sabbath. He quotes Leviticus 25:2-3: "Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof; But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the Lord: Thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard. If the agricultural practicality can be applied metaphorically, the implication is that the seventh year is one of rest and recovery. Lynn suggests that CEOs are increasingly seeking this rest to refresh their minds:

Running a company used to be about doing things. Now, it is as much about thinking about things.
Maybe that explains why businessmen are stealing a lesson from universities -- professors know all about the importance of thinking rather than doing.

To see issues clearly, a mind needs to be rested. A sabbatical helps professors do that. Who knows? Maybe it will help corporate leaders as well.

Executive sabbaticals are, however, a far cry from academic sabbaticals. For one thing, few professors have the luxury of year-long breaks, let alone of "awarding themselves sabbaticals". For another, the purpose of the academic sabbatical may have changed over the years. Originally the purpose of the sabbatical was to give university professors time for the purposes of study and travel (I'm quoting from the Oxford English Dictionary here), presumably because such enrichment would enhance their abilities to perform their duties when they returned. But, as the OED notes, the meaning has been transferred to imply "rest or absence from other occupations, professions, or activities". In other words, the sense of activity has been lost.

But this is surely not the case in academia. Sabbaticals are technically not awarded unless requested for the purpose of an active scholarly agenda, and many of us look forward to them not as a period of rest and recovery but as an opportunity for intensive work on scholarly activity for which we do not have time whilst performing our normal teaching and service duties.

I wonder if corporate CEOs really are taking their cue from academia. Or perhaps academia should now start taking a cue from corporate CEOs?

Faculty Workload at CSU 

Today I discovered a document entitled Findings and Recommendations of the Advisory Committee for the CSU and Comparable Faculty Workload Studies January 2003. The findings listed in this document are rather damning:

  1. CSU faculty work hard. They put in more hours of work for the university and more hours outside the university than their counterparts across the nation.

  2. CSU faculty not only work harder, their workload has changed. Faculty now are doing different things than they were ten years ago: to be effective they must respond to different learning styles and to different levels of student preparation, embrace service learning, manage complex academic programs, use new academic technologies to enhance student learning, and find time to maintain an active agenda of scholarly and creative work. It is noteworthy that with all these demands, faculty managed to maintain an active agenda of scholarly and creative activity and to increase the time spent on scholarship and creativity.

  3. Lecturers (non-tenure track faculty) make substantial contributions to the high quality of learning environments across the system. They compare favorably to tenured and tenure-track faculty in terms of their commitment to students and to scholarly and creative activities.

  4. Most faculty in the CSU want more time for creative and scholarly work.

  5. Tenured and probationary faculty in the CSU teach, on average, one more course per academic year5 than their counterparts at other universities. On a weekly basis, CSU faculty spend, on average, about 4.4 more hours per week on teaching activities than their counterparts.

  6. While new probationary faculty in the CSU are productive scholars and have the same career aspirations as faculty across the country, they are less likely to reach the same levels of scholarly and creative achievement, e.g., publications in refereed journals.

  7. CSU tenured and probationary faculty are less positive than their counterparts about their working conditions and relationships at their institution.

  8. One-third of tenured and probationary CSU faculty believe that effective teaching is not rewarded at their institution, suggesting a misalignment of rewards and expectations for CSU faculty.

  9. CSU faculty are deeply committed to the success of their students and are more likely than their counterparts to engage in the kinds of educational practices that enhance student learning.

The last point (and point 3) demonstrates that, despite the fact that the odds are stacked against us, we continue to work hard to serve the needs of students. But the other points paint a damning picture of the conditions under which we work: longer hours, more varied tasks, and less time for scholarly achievement. We need to start working towards some institutional changes to change these conditions; otherwise we’ll go the way of the California secondary school system (i.e. from one best to one of the worst). And by we, I mean the (already overworked) faculty, because the taxpayers and their elected representatives do not have a clear enough vision of what the university must be to compete with other US institutions. Furthermore, I think the students are too easily satisfied with what they are getting. If they only knew what we could achieve--achieve for them--if we had better working conditions...

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Bloody Referrer Scripts 

I had to remove my referrer script because it was registering the web pages for which I have links to this web log, including the online service I use to post. Not really what I want crowding my list of referrers. So now I have no idea who (besides me is accessing this blog). I'm not really sure what to do at this point. I could modify the script to solve this problem, but, since it is housed on another server, I don't have access. I could house a referrer script on my server, but that involves all sorts of complications -- I haven't had too much luck with server-side scripts from the CSUN server, and getting into a dialogue with mBlog about what cgi access they provide seems a lot of bother. I'll have to give this some more thought.

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